There's been many a boss fight in video games over the years, but what's the scariest? The Janitor from Little Nightmares? Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2? What about Mr. X from Resident Evil 2? All honorable mentions, all effective in their ability to change whites to brown. But for me? The Rat King from The Last of Us Part II takes the biscuit.
"The Rat King? What's that?"
Glad you asked. The Rat King is, in a nutshell, an abomination. A mass of grotesque, ripped flesh that seemingly has one thing on its mind: chasing you down and ending you.
Let's dissect the design brilliance of this terrifying boss fight - and ultimately - find out what makes it such an unsettling experience.
Design Elements That Terrify
Remember when you were a kid, and you were thirsty throughout the night? You'd try to put it off for as long as possible, but eventually, your craving would override any notion that you're better off in bed, and you'd head downstairs for a cool glass of water.
Sure, that's pretty spooky as a kid with an active imagination, but it's what your brain does as you head back up the stairs that makes the Rat King battle such a terrifying one.
The phenomenon of feeling like someone or something is right behind you, especially in moments of fear or tension, is a common human experience that transcends both real-life situations and the realm of video games. This instinctual reaction can be attributed to our evolutionary history and the way our brains are wired.
The designers and developers of TLOU2 capitalise on this by designing one of the most terrifying bosses ever.
We're literally wired to feel an intense fear from what lurks behind us, and that initial glimpse of the Rat King ignites our neurons, just as it would Abby's, prompting us to run as fast and as far away from that thing.
In the case of the Rat King in TLOU2, the game's savvy use of camera angles and gameplay elements are designed to elicit fear and a sense of being pursued, which can make players feel like that small child again, coming up the stairs after getting a glass of water.
In the context of video games like The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), it's often how a game's been designed that creates and elevates this sense of imminent danger or the feeling of being pursued. Unfortunately for us, or Abby rather, is that in order to escape, she must traverse a series of dimly lit corridors, trying to find the correct exit point.
Meanwhile, the snarling sounds intensify, suggesting that for every mistake you make, the Rat King draws ever closer. This combination of visual and audio elements makes for a terrifying, adrenaline-filled, ordeal.
The feeling of one wrong turn, and its game over, is overwhelming.
The combination of sound design, restrictive and manic camera angles, and gameplay mechanics (I'm looking at you Quick Time Events), that immerse players in a tense and suspenseful atmosphere. Let's not forget the amazing voice acting by Laura Bailey.
In the context of the Rat King, it feels like it's never going to let up, as you're chased down the corridor looking for respite behind a door.
In Defense Of Quick Time Events
When you come across a button-mashing moment in a game for the first time, it can be jarring, often cited as lifting players out of an immersive experience. You see the square button flashing on the screen and you're promptly reminded that this is a game. What's going on? Should I start pressing it rapidly?
The use of QTE in TLOU2 is one of the few games I think works well.
I get it if you don't like Quick Time Events (QTEs). They can be pretty frustrating. But in TLOU2, they're used really well to make key moments even more intense to really get your heart racing.
No moments are more intense than the QTEs that flash up during the Rat King Battle. Coming across a locked and battered door in TLOU2, and the game asks you to mash that square button as quickly as you can to open it.
It might sound a bit odd, right? But when you've got a terrifying creature chasing you, that adrenaline rush kicks in, and you're laser-focused on survival. In moments like these, the QTEs in the game really work their magic. Press square to survive, otherwise...
You'll do whatever it takes to get through that door and stay one step ahead of the danger. It's an intense and immersive experience, something that I've rarely experienced during QTEs, that keeps you on the edge of your seat. QTEs in TLOU2 are one of the few games that enhance the experience, rather than detract from it.
The Psychology of Fear
In real life, the feeling of being pursued or watched when you're alone, such as going downstairs for a glass of water in the middle of the night, can be attributed to our primal instincts for self-preservation, and this self-preservation overlaps with the games we enjoy.
"We wanted Abby to have this really intense thing that she overcomes because she's kind of on this redemption mission to get the supplies for Yara's arm and so it seemed like the perfect place for the Rat King. She's gone through all of these trials: Overcoming her fear of heights climbing to the sky bridge, fighting through hordes of infected on the way down, and coming out the other side thinking the worst was over – only to be thrown right into this nightmare boss fight." - Co-Director Kurt Margenau
Our ancestors needed to be hyper-aware of potential threats in their environment, and this awareness could have saved lives. When you're in an unfamiliar or dark environment, your brain might become more alert, and your senses may become heightened, leading to that eerie sensation that something is close behind you.
This psychology of fear is triggered in us, heightened even, given how the environment during the Rat King is designed to be oppressive and claustrophobic.
The role of level design, as a means of creating a sense of fear, shouldn't be overlooked. Naughty Dog, known for pushing the boundaries, once again demonstrates how crucial this aspect is. In the case of this specific boss fight, the level layout creates a rollercoaster of emotions.
It starts with those narrow, almost claustrophobic corridors that intensify the feeling of being trapped and vulnerable. Then, as the actual boss battle unfolds, there's a subtle shift to a slightly more open space, offering a glimmer of hope.
Hope is crushed, however, as after "defeating" the boss, you now have to crawl, making your character, and by extension you as the player, even more vulnerable. Being forward to crawl through even smaller, confining vents is likely to trigger claustrophobia in those who don't normally suffer from the condition.
The level design becomes a storyteller, guiding your emotions throughout the encounter, and Naughty Dog excels in mastering this art.
A masterclass in designing for fear then.
The way TLOU2 sets the stage for fear and the clever design choices it employs come together to create a boss battle that's truly outstanding in how it generates fear.
This is why the encounter with the Rat King stands out as one of my all-time favourite and most unforgettable boss battles.