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Published February 8, 2019

It’s no secret that we live in an age where more video games are developed than ever. With more and more games coming out each year, how can smaller indie developers hope to compete?

Well…there’s all sorts of ways, as you might expect. Today we’ll be looking at the Unwinnable Fight, a simple but effective story hook. If done properly, you can pull new players in and make them care more about your game.

What is the Unwinnable Fight?

The Unwinnable Fight (or Hopeless Boss Fight) is a fight that is basically exactly as advertised. It is a fight that the player cannot win (short of cheating, game breaking bugs, etc.). If designed correctly, the Unwinnable Fight can catalyze your player into wanting to play your game. It can drive the player to take revenge against the foe that did them in. If done poorly…well, it will likely just frustrate your player base.

Instances of the Unwinnable Fight in games

Mega Man X

An example of the Unwinnable Fight is the first boss fight in Mega Man X. After completing the level, you face Vile, the stage boss. There’s no life bar for Vile, so the game doesn’t clue you in that this is a hopeless boss fight. Not to mention, when you shoot Vile’s Ride Armor, it looks to be taking damage, giving the player the feeling that they are making progress. After Vile eventually defeats the player, Zero rushes in, destroying one of Vile’s armor’s arms and chasing him off. This sets up distinct levels of strength: Zero is the strongest, followed by Vile, and lastly X. Since X, the player, starts the game weak, this encourages the player to play the game and gather strength to crush Vile later on.

The first boss fight in Mega Man X, Vile in his ride armor, is an instance of the Hopeless Boss Fight. Throughout the stage, you can defeat the enemies with relative ease, so coming up to a wall at the end of the level is to show with gameplay how weak X starts at the beginning of the game. This helps motivate the player to collect powerups for the rematch later.

Final Fantasy II

A second instance of the Unwinnable Fight is the start of Final Fantasy II. When the player begins the game, their party of four is immediately attacks by a patrol of dark knights on horseback. After the player takes their turn, the dark knights repeatedly wipe out the party members one by one until they are defeated. This establishes immediately the power that the dark knights have, and also the strength of the Empire they serve. This an example of gameplay informing narrative, where the player can feel the utter helplessness of the game’s protagonists. This is in contrast to a cutscene that would show the enemies defeating the heroes. By using gameplay, you can help strengthen the player’s bond with the heroes. It also prompts the player to fight enemies throughout the game to power up their party and return later to defeat the dark knights.

The first fight in Final Fantasy II. Four Dark Knights immediately assault you as you begin the game, even before you learn anything about the story or gameplay. This intro gives the player the feeling of helplessness before the might of the empire.

How does it work as a Story Hook?

A lot of video games are designed to be power fantasies. They take you out of the real world and immerse you into some new fantastic scenario. They are designed so you feel like you can accomplish new things or explore new ideas. For example, RPG’s such as Skyrim, Fallout, and others let you play as any sort of character that you desire. Maybe you’re an adept thief trying to make it in a harsh environment. Someone else might play a powerful wizard who can reduce their foes to ash with mystical magic.

The Unwinnable Fight basically turns the power fantasy idea on its head. Instead of being in control of your destiny, the game turns the tables and puts a wall in your way. This works as a story hook because it takes the player out of their comfort zone, making the game more memorable. However, this is a dangerous narrative tool that can easily backfire. If done improperly, you’ll irritate your audience, turning them off from wanting to play more of your game in anger.

How to avoid angering your game’s players

Here are some tips to help design the Unwinnable Fight to motivate your players to keep playing rather than quit your game:

Placement

  • Put the unwinnable fight near the start of the game. At the start of the game, the player won’t have as much investment in the game. In an RPG, for example, the player shouldn’t have many battle items that they can consume, such as potions. The worst choice in my opinion is to place an unwinnable fight later on in the game. The issue becomes that the player might use a bunch of items, not realizing that they cannot win the fight.
  • If you really want to place it later, make sure the game properly telegraphs that the player can’t win. For instance, put some npc’s in your game saying “The Lord of Darkness is invulnerable to conventional weapons. Only the Sword of Light can penetrate his armor.” That way, you are informing the player that if they try to fight the Lord of Darkness before they get the Sword of Light, that they won’t make it far. If you wish, you can put a cutscene into the game where the Lord of Darkness instantly defeats the player. I personally like to use gameplay to inform the narrative, so I would design the fight where all other weapons do 0 damage. Both choices work well enough though.

Purpose

  • There should be a reason for the existence of the unwinnable fight in your game. Don’t simply put some unstoppable enemy in your game to laugh at your players; you’ll alienate people this way. Instead, tie the fight to either the overarching narrative or use it to keep your players from going somewhere early. If you want to wall some game content off until later, you can be upfront about this by putting some super strong enemy guarding an area that only has one weakness that you exploit. Otherwise, if you want it to be related to the story, it should be a boss the player can beat later. Maybe the final boss gets the drop on the player early on and defeats them effortlessly, leaving the player to die until someone rescues them.
  • The unwinnable fight can also be used to highlight the strength of another character. If the player starts out weak, some other character can rush in and save them at the last second, showing how powerful some other character is by neutralizing the boss the player couldn’t beat. At this point, you have a choice to either have the cavalry defeat the boss, or let the boss escape. If you want the boss to come back later, which is a stronger narrative in my opinion, use option two, since this will motivate the player to beat the boss later. If you only want to show how strong the secondary character is, you can opt for the first choice. Beware of this option though, because the player may feel robbed of the opportunity to beat the boss on their own later.

Conclusion

To summarize, when telling a story in your game, consider the Unwinnable Fight as a tool in your belt. With careful application and insight, you can get players up to speed quickly on a story and ensure they’ll want to come back for more 🙂