When I think about the Batman villain Mr. Freeze nowadays, I’m thankful to say that my mind doesn’t immediately go to a frosted-faced Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, I now think of that amazing fight in Batman: Arkham City. That fight stands out as one of the best boss fights I’ve ever encountered in a video game for two simple reasons: pacing and Mr. Freeze’s adaptive AI. There’s a lot I learned about how to design a boss fight just from this five minute battle.
The pacing is incredibly slow in this fight, but that works to its advantage. At the core of the Batman master narrative is a hard-boiled detective story that just got wrapped up in some fancy black cloth and a pointy-eared mask. And what do hard-boiled detective stories revolve around? Gritty clue-finding followed up by swift and violent action. This boss fight epitomizes that.
Mr. Freeze walks around the shut-off room with a painful slowness, obviously hindered by his suit. If you try to hit him off the bat, he’ll clobber you, just like the majority of other enemies in the game. Instead, as he lumbers around, awkwardly looking for you, you use your agility and stealth to stay out of his line of sight. This is a perfect system for analyzing your surroundings while still feeling like you’re “acting,” a crucial mechanic in the Arkham series.
To control the pacing even more, Mr. Freeze doesn’t allow you to attack him the same way twice. If you sneak up behind him once, he/his suit compensates and doesn’t allow that attack to happen again, something you learn right away. Even if you haven’t played the game, you know what to do now: find other ways to attack him.
Why this is brilliant isn’t immediately apparent, I’ll give you that. For a little background, I think it’s worth looking at this insanely old Slashdot post about adaptive A.I.. In it, users talk about “shandyometers” that make games easier or harder based on the ability of the player. The player’s ability is measured by a number of things, depending on the game. For example, the enemies might all of a sudden do half-damage because the game registered that you died twelve times in the same spot.
One user says that the reason for adaptive AI is that it prevents disinterest in a game:
“What’s the main reason players get disinterested in a game? Because they come across a level that they can’t beat.”
Some players took advantage of shandyometers by manipulating their assets:
“My old housemate used to send men who were very poor and irritating out, let them get slaughtered, then send in his main team and the game would have made it easier.”
With that in mind, look at how Mr. Freeze teaches you about adaptive AI. He is hammering you over the head with a lesson in good game design: DON’T LET THE PLAYER BEAT THE GAME WITH ONE MOVE. Remember playing old Virtua Fighter games against your little cousins and getting whooped because they mashed high kick while you were trying to string together combos? Don’t let that happen. Don’t design games where that can happen
At the same time, if your system is too simple, like the second quote describes, your game loses the tension it needs to be exciting. For example, in that same thread, one user mentioned a game called Astrosmash. The game would deliver a difficulty level related to how many extra lives you had, making it almost impossible to lose. This is the opposite end of the spectrum and should also be avoided. Even though it was frustrating to keep pumping quarters into an arcade cabinet to keep playing, it’s almost just as frustrating to feel like you can’t walk away because you NEVER die.
The Mr. Freeze battle doesn’t let you die too easily (unless you really don’t know at least five different ways to attack enemies; if that’s the case, I feel bad for you, son). Instead, it delivers appropriate consequences for obvious mistakes. Hopefully, after the third time getting smashed while trying the same attack again, you’ll realize you need to get creative. This is the kind of lesson I always look for in games: “get creative.” A game that doesn’t challenge you isn’t a game at all.
I might be glorifying this fight a bit too much. I will say that, if the fight were a little faster, it would have been better. What I mean by “faster”: Mr. Freeze should have started out speeding around on skates or something then slowed down as he was damaged, allowing you time to find ways to hurt him that aren’t immediately apparent to you. Still, I thought the showdown was extremely fun, well-paced, and also serves as a good learning tool.