The Brief Agony of a Video Game Boss Who Isn’t As Dead As You Think

By Stephen Totilo on at

“Got him!” I exclaimed in a text message to my colleague Kirk Hamilton at 2:33pm on Friday of last week. I’d been fighting a tough boss in the difficult 2D exploration and combat game Hollow Knight. One minute later, horrified, I was sending a follow-up text: “Oh no. Didn’t get him.”

Soul Master had been a formidable opponent, what with his swirling orbs of energy, his love for dashing across the battlefield and his knack for slamming into it from above. He’d killed my little Hollow Knight hero many times. I had thought at 2:33pm that I had finally killed him. I’d jumped through the swirling orbs of energy to strike his underside with my hero’s nail-sword. I’d hurdled his dashes and sidestepped his slams. I’d stayed alive long enough to watch him wilt, to see what I thought was an indicator on screen confirming his death, to hear the battlefield go quiet with the conflict’s conclusion. There’d been enough calming aftermath that I had time to text.

Wrong.

You’d think playing more than a thousand video games for who knows how many hours would have prepared me. Soul Master had a second form. That second form, in which Soul Master slams into the ground with even greater frequency and vigour, killed me seconds later.

“Hahahahahaha,” Kirk texted back to me at 2:36pm. “If it helps, I extremely feel your pain.”

It didn’t help. It didn’t soothe the momentary despair I’d felt at climbing a mountain only to have the mountain punch me in the face and send me tumbling back down to base camp.

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I climbed once more, grumbling to myself about the odds that a mere mid-game boss would have a second phase. Why would they do this? Clever of them, sure. Devious. Good trick to play on players. But don’t they know? Don’t they know my time to play games is short? Of course they don’t know. Isn’t this cruel? A cheap trick? How could …. OK. I’m back there. Let’s try this again.

I feared the worst, but fear helps no one. Just nine minutes after Kirk laughed at me, I nervously was texting him back. “...got him now?” I’d just beaten Soul Master’s first and second phase.

There was no third phase. Soul Master stayed in his defeated heap. My character gained a useful new power and picked up piles of in-game money. I’d won, and I’d collected great rewards for it.

The second-phase boss is a classic video game design ploy. It teeters between wasting a player’s time and giving them the type of dynamic, dramatic victory that we wish we could have in real life. A bad version of this forces a player through an uncomfortably long gauntlet, requiring them to go through a first phase that is initially challenging but that practice can make boring, just to reach a second phase that can be brutal. I think Soul Master’s second phase is actually easier than his first, which makes this two-phase experience better. If video games are a fantasy for life, then this fantasy is most alluring: we struggle, we win, life hits back, but if we stay calm, we win again. We just need to stay focused and not prematurely send celebratory texts.