Last time, you decided that petting the dog is better than entering cyberspace. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. And you probably don’t even notice me sulking here in cyberspace because you’re so busy tickling some lousy stinkbag with the mind of a toddler. Fine, fine, whatever. This week, it’s all about self-imposed challenges. What’s better: fighting your double, or optional challenges giving rewards upfront?
Fighting your double
You enter the boss arena and there they stand: your nemesis, your next victim, your…self? I am always delighted when a game makes me fight my double.
The best recent example is Elden Ring’s Mimic Tear, a mercurial blob which congeals into the shape of you, fighting back with your weapons and your spells. If you beat it, you can summon it as a friendly spirit, your own little you in your pocket. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivions’s Shivering Isles expansion similarly makes you face your shadowself. And Control’s mirror side-quest is absolutely worth hitting just so Jesse can claim esseJ’s cool coat. Go on, tell me more examples.
The mirror match can be difficult. You get to see your build performed without the slowness and clumsiness of your meat. In some ways, this is validating! Your buildcrafting is proven solid. It’s interesting too, because players and NPCs rarely fight with the exact same toolkits. We’re so used to having advantages, existing with access to so many more systems than these fake people. This is how monstrous it feels like to face me, huh? But it can be outright horrible if the game buffs my double for extra challenge or to counterbalance subhuman AI (how come they so often have so much more health than me?).
In many games with doppelgänger duels, people find ways to cheese it. A classic in RPGs is to strip down before the fight, taking off your sturdy armour and tucking away your shiny swords so your clone doesn’t spawn with them, then hastily redressing once your nude foe has manifested. It’s cheese, sure, but pretty funny to: 1) mess with the system and remind that NPC that you have special access to reality; 2) see that idiot in their/your pants. Another way is to equip detrimental skills and items, making your twin poison themself or sacrifice health with abilities you know better than to use. I’ll admit to equipping bad builds in Guild Wars to cheese the mirror match on some of my characters. If it ruins your fun, well, you have only yourself to blame and only you and your twin need know.
Some twins are admittedly wholly useless, just a showcase of wonky AI which clumsily mashes spells and attacks without the combos and finesse that fuel my murders. I do feel a little bad for them, but I still appreciate the thought. And if you’re okay with a little self-delusion, sure, let’s say it proves that you are so smart and good at video games that even an AI with silicon synapses cannot best you.
If you want, I’m willing to hear arguments that fighting game mirror matches could count. They’re you, you’re them, you have the same moves—and they might have a human mind who knows how to properly be you. Convince us? Or dissuade us.
Optional challenges giving rewards upfront
In most games, optional challenges are judged afterwards and rewards handed out if you have met the conditions. This is: a bit boring. One thing I am starting to see more in roguelikelikes is the opposite. These few splendid games hand you the reward upfront then say, “Alright, cool, here’s your fancy new toy, now let’s see if you get to keep it.”
Lately I’ve been playing a lot of dice-building dungeon-crawler Slice & Dice, which sometimes presents optional challenges before a battle. It’ll show you the items you’ll receive, and the extra monsters you’ll face in the battle if you accept. You know exactly the rewards and the risks, so how do you feel about this gamble? Are you confident that these items bring enough extra power for you to take down the bonus baddies? Or do you want to roll the bones and chance it? If not, hey, no worries, go right ahead with the formal fight.
While they’re not issued as formal challenges, fun little wave survival game Brotato replicates this effect on a handful of items. The Peacock item gives you a permanent 25% XP gain bonus plus a temporary whopping extra 100% XP bonus for the next wave after acquiring it, but also you’ll take 50% extra damage from enemies during that wave. This feels like a great dare, especially when you know the next wave is a horde. Survive and you’ll come out laughing. But if you’re overconfident or miscalculate the strength of your run, you could easily die. And the Bait item offers a permanent damage boost at a low cost, but in the next wave it’ll spawn a handful of tough bullet-spitting leeches that chase you down. Beat them and you’ve scored some cheap damage, but those leeches can be deadly nuisances if you buy it at the wrong time. I have died to both of these items, and I have thrived with both. Putting these effects onto items is a clever way to handle it. Catch me off-guard idly browsing for bargains and confront me with a dare.
I suppose a broader application of this idea is difficulty modes where you get better drops or bonus stats on higher difficulty levels but naw, that’s too broad. Let’s save that specific thing for another time.
This thing might be mostly contained to roguelikelikes and other games with permadeath (or at least without savescumming) but it’s far more interesting to me than rewards afterwards. Give me the cool thing upfront, give me the excitement and the (over)confidence that come with the cool thing, then make me fight extra-hard to keep it. Arm me then send me out to get battered. Give me opportunities for hubris, because no feeling defines me more.
But which is better?
The only thing which could make a mirror match better is beforehand offering me a powerful item which I know doppelgänger would also receive and wield against me. Yep, that seals it for me. But what do you think, reader dear?
Pick your winner, vote in the poll below, and make your case in the comments to convince others. We’ll reconvene next week to see which thing stands triumphant—and continue the great contest.