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So like every person, their dog, their friends, and their friends’ dogs, I’ve been playing Elden Ring. Short version: yes, I’m enjoying it a lot.
I don’t really want to talk directly about Elden Ring right now, though. There is one particular gripe I have with the game which will be the subject of a later essay, but there are a couple of things I want to talk about more generally, using Elden Ring as a jumping off point.
The first subject is just examining an interesting aspect of fighting: tackling gigantic enemies. A lot of games do this – the God of War series had you fighting lots of gigantic creatures, plenty of JRPGs would pit your party against foes vastly larger than you. So it’s not like FromSoftware has broken any new ground.
But I wanted to examine these fights for two reasons: they are viscerally very fun, but they aren’t all equal.
…The Harder They Fall
Let’s start with some examples.
In Elden Ring there’s a lot to do. It’s an open world game, so obviously there’s a lot to do. Fairly early on there’s a big (but shallow) lake, and one of a few things can happen. Firstly, you can run around the lake, in which case you’ll likely encounter a character that warns you that there’s a dragon that roams the lake, and you should steer clear of it. Secondly, you can go out into the lake and find some ruins, which are aptly called the Dragon-Burnt Ruins. And, well…if they’re called that, it’s probably for a reason. Thirdly, you can explore the lake and just watch as a dragon smashes into the ground and starts to fight you.
However this creature is introduced to you, the dragon is pretty massive. And being the relatively tiny human character that you are, taking it down is just incredibly satisfying.
In Dark Souls 2, one of the last places you go is to an area called the Dragon Aerie. There you find a bunch of wyverns (which are not dragons) which you can kill, and at the very end is an NPC that is a huge dragon. The dragon gives you an important quest item.
But you can also fight the dragon. Just hit it to trigger a boss fight. The fight is tough, and not all satisfying once you complete it.
In Final Fantasy XV, the second major area you come to has these absolutely enormous enemies called Catoblepas, which are roughly the size of a dinosaur. Later in the game you can be sent on a mission to hunt one of them, which triggers a fight. Similar fights exist as well in Final Fantasy XIII, with creatures called Adamantoises. And if you’re familiar with FFXV, you probably also heard about one of the final missions in the game, which has you facing a special creature, again called Adamantoise – it’s literally a giant turtle with a mountain on its back.
The FFXV fights are interesting, though the Adamantoise fight drags on for way too long. The fights in FFXIII are pretty annoying.
In God of War 2 one of your first boss fights is against the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue that is animated by the power of the Greek God Zeus. You climb the insides of the Colossus to initially take it down, then proceed to deal damage so you can initiate a sequence of Quick Time Events that allow you to destroy it.
That fight is okay.
Shadow of the Colossus is a much-beloved Playstation 2 game which centers around the main character fighting 16 giant creatures (although some of them are only 2-3 times as large as the character, whereas others are mind-bogglingly massive). Most of the fights center around solving puzzles to get at weak points that the player can stab to take the colossi down.
Just about all of those fights are incredibly fun to do.
I give these examples as a way of illustrating that it’s not inherently the fact that big enemies equal good fights. There must be more going on.
Ultimately, any good fight against any enemy is going to boil down to a bunch of factors. How fun are the core fighting mechanics, for instance? If you’re struggling to just attack and defend, then it won’t matter much whether the enemy is tiny or gigantic.
Or how much importance is placed on taking a big enemy down. If the player is just immediately sent to the next objective, they have no chance to really stop and celebrate their accomplishment.
We might also think about the inherent difficulty of the fight. Big enemies generally signal a sense of danger. Which implies a significance to our victories. But if our character isn’t in any serious danger, that can make it tough to feel invested.
But two things I also want to try to highlight in particular are about taking size seriously and how the game communicates that size.
So what do I mean by taking size seriously? We tend to associate size and speed – the smaller a thing is, the faster and more agile it is; the bigger a thing is, the slower it is. Whether this would physically be true is irrelevant to our discussion. The association is so important that we see it reflected all over media, and it is something that we expect to see.
Here’s something that Shadow of the Colossus does exceptionally well. The various big colossi all move very slowly and ponderously, as though they really are lugging around massive weight in their limbs. They don’t just look big, they feel big. You as a character likewise feel small – like you are just a bug in comparison. Giant enemies in Elden Ring hit the ground hard, and create big shockwaves around them which damage you – they aren’t just so big that they have a huge hitbox, they are so big that they can affect the air and earth in a way you can’t. And so it gives this immense satisfaction when you succeed, because the game has made you sense on a visceral scale this difference between you and what you’re fighting.
But then how is the communication of size different from what I just described? While how a creature moves is part of that communication, we also want to think about how everything else in the game communicates that size.
Think about height. We tend to associate size and power, but we also tend to associate height with power. Something that is higher up and looking down on something is more powerful than something that is lower down and looking up. This idea can still hold even when the sizes are inverted.
So putting a small character up high over a bigger enemy conveys this sense of power that removes the feeling of being the underdog – that you’re prevailing over something more powerful than you. Instead, you’re the big guy stomping on the weak enemy. This is why Shadow of the Colossus has you physically climb most of the colossi, rather than just jump around. The easier it is to gain height, the harder it is for you as a player to take that size seriously.
In addition, the size of the arena you fight in is important. The Ancient Dragon fight in Dark Souls 2 takes place on a fairly big platform, but is still quite limited. Compared to the size of the boss, it feels small, and the boss can fairly easy deny space to you with some of its attacks. Comparatively, the fight with the dragon in the lake in Elden Ring puts you in a huge arena. And the dragon’s attacks – and how you respond – make use of that arena. The dragon flies up and strafes fire, so you need to run away fast (which means using the horse that the game gives you). The dragon can cover a lot of ground very easily, so distance won’t keep you safe, and you need to be able to close the distance quickly. The game keeps trying to tell you that this is a big enemy, to show off its size, and make you think about it as a big enemy. All through the design of the world surrounding that enemy and the way you engage with it.
I highlight these two aspects not because they are the most important elements of these fights. While I’ve said at the beginning that fighting these giant enemies can be viscerally appealing once you win, not every game needs to include these gigantic creatures. There are plenty of examples of fights in other games against enemies that roughly the size of the player, and those fights can also be incredibly good. Instead, I highlight them to help us understand why some of these fights can feel lackluster.
Feeling powerful is good, and how a game helps you to feel powerful is important. There are, of course, many different ways to accomplish that goal, so there’s not a single correct answer. But we want to think about how well that feeling gets communicated to the player.
One issue I think we commonly run into is walking a fine line between being powerful and feeling powerful. The more power we actually have, the easier it is win, and so in an ironic fashion we don’t feel powerful – not in the sense that we feel weak, but in the sense that we are bored by our own power. And so helping a player feel powerful is tied to helping a player feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes the best way to do this isn’t by making the player actually strong, but by making them only just strong enough to win. It is figuring out how to walk this line that helps to differentiate between a fulfilling fight and a boring one. The questions raised here are applied to a very specific context – fighting big enemies – but can just as easily apply in plenty of other contexts within games.