You know what’s fascinating about the original Guild Wars release, later redubbed as Guild Wars: Prophecies? The Prince Rurik fight works.
Yes, these are spoilers for a game that’s been out for 15 years: You ultimately wind up fighting an undead Prince Rurik near the end of the main story. And at a glance, this shouldn’t feel like a big moment. Most people – including me – don’t like Prince Rurik very much. He has the most telegraphed Heroic Sacrifice possible, and he then is so obviously set up as an undead punching bag that there’d be no surprise to it even if there had been hints of at at one point.
But it works. It feels satisfying, fitting, and thematic, even in a story that is largely cheesy. And I feel like it’s worth examining why this fight works, why other fights work, and how these story elements can be arranged to ensure that fights in official stories or RP storylines feel like necessary moments rather than gratuitous ones.
Prince Rurik isn’t alone, of course; there are lots of MMO fights that do work well. Many of Final Fantasy XIV’s big fights work very well, especially to end off expansion storylines, World of Warcraft delivered some suitably dramatic fights with various bosses like Arthas and Garrosh, and Star Wars: The Old Republic definitely delivered some big fun setpieces. Yet all of these games also have big bosses who should be even more important but were given fights that were perfunctory, boring, or unearned.
So why is this? Well, as near as I can tell, there’s a pretty straightforward checklist for fights to make sure that the fight is worthwhile: The fight needs to be part of a larger goal, the fight needs to come as a direct consequence of player or villain actions, or the fight needs to be an established danger.
Obviously, all three can be true. But at least one needs to be true to make it feel like something other than just being a big guy at the end to fight.
Being part of a larger goal is pretty obvious; you need to defeat this person in order to accomplish something else you’re already trying to achieve. A good example of this is most of the Chapter 1 storyline bosses in SWTOR. More often than not, either you’re trying to stop Darth Somebody (or in one case, Master Somebody) from doing something that’s going to hurt people, or you’re trying to accomplish something being blocked off by this person. That means fighting Darth Somebody along the way, by necessity.
Coming as a direct consequence of your actions, meanwhile, can be a little trickier but is still pointedly satisfying. One of my favorite examples is Susano in FFXIV. He’s not an antagonist you know about until you accidentally summon him, but as soon as you do, he’s a significant problem, and it’s a direct result of the actions you took in the first place. Similarly, Omega is a direct outgrowth of actions you take to curb Shinryu, who himself exists because of a villain’s actions. You are responsible for these consequences.
Last but not least, of course, there’s just setting up this fight as a known environmental hazard. A fine example of that? C’thun in WoW. He’s not coming for you, and he’s not out to get you; he’s just being summoned. Once that summoning finishes, you have to fight him because you’re here and otherwise he’s going to destroy you. It’s not even that you’re trying to stop him; it’s that walking into Ahn’qiraj had a nonzero chance of pitting you against C’thun, and now it’s happened.
At the best times, of course, all of these facts are true. Prince Rurik has all three going on. He’s part of a larger goal in that you’re trying to stop the undead. He’s also a direct consequence of your earlier actions when you allowed him to have that heroic sacrifice (which itself is a direct consequence of the idiot not trifling with doors earlier, but hey). And he’s set up pretty early on as “this is a scary thing to fight.” All the pieces line up.
By contrast, a bad example of all of the above is Sri Lakshmi in FFXIV. She’s not stated as a hazard until you’re getting ready to fight her. You aren’t fighting her for anything other than “she’s here now, we need to fight her.” And while she’s technically explained as a product of the villain’s actions, it’s all in things that happen offscreen and unrelated to us, which means that it feels like just an arbitrary roadblock we don’t need.
This also explains why many people were somewhat nonplussed by the N’zoth fight as the capstone of the most recent WoW expansion. N’zoth was a known environmental hazard, but he hadn’t really been set up as an imminent threat; Azshara had, and we’d already fought her. Similarly, fighting him now wasn’t the result of someone’s actions, nor was it the result of some active ongoing threat beyond “suddenly, in this patch N’zoth wants to fight us.”
The corollary to this is also that any given fight becomes less interesting the more times it happens without any real change. Consider, for a moment, that no one feels like the first three fights against Zenos yae Galvus in FFXIV are gratuitous. The first fight is a desperate struggle, the second is a failed attack, and the third is a proper showdown. But the fight against him during the end of the Stormblood expansion quests is cited as being unnecessary because it’s just… another showdown, in a context that doesn’t feel substantially different from prior fights, except now there’s a battle raging.
Now, the nature of combat in MMOs means that a certain number of bosses and enemies are doomed to just be there as speedbumps. But the big moments don’t need to just be places where you fight someone because a fight should go here. And in RP, which is much more flexible, you can make a point of investing these fights with a sense of inevitability.
What gets discussed a lot when it comes to story and fights are stakes, which is all about whether or not there are substantial penalties if one side or the other loses. But all the stakes in the world won’t make a fight feel relevant. You can have something literally threaten to end every world in existence and have the power to do so if you don’t stop it, but if you’ve not set up the fight, the stakes won’t feel real.
Because, well… stakes are pretend. We all know that failing a boss fight will not end the game world; that would end the actual game, and no one wants that. But emotional investment is real, and even if we know that it’s just as pretend, it’s the feeling of satisfaction that makes these stories engaging.
So now you have tools for figuring out why a game is trying but failing to convince you that fighting Lord Marrowstorm or whatever is a very important moment instead of just a bag of hit points for you to murder. And when it comes to RP stories, you know how to make sure that everyone is pumped to fight Lord Marrowstorm.