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Like A Boss… Or Not -- An Exploration of the Age-Old Boss Battle
Post by Adam Redsell @ 02:57pm 11/02/13 | Comments
AusGamers features contributor, Adam Redsell, takes a close look at the videogame boss and asks just what his job is in the modern videogame office...

Like most people, you hate your boss. That cigar-chomping, suspender-pulling maniac barks orders at you, day in, day out. But when you come home, the gloves are off. You grab an ice cold beverage, kick back, and boot up your favourite videogame. At the end of the level, you bring the boss to his knees. Revenge is sweet.

Boss battles have served up dishfuls of sweet, sweet revenge for decades, and for the most part, we’ve savoured them. To some, boss battles are a time-honoured tradition; others think it’s time for boss battles to go bye-bye. Either way it’s clear, something’s changed. Have we lost the taste for bosses, or have they simply gone stale?

It’s easy to see where their appeal comes from. End-of-level bosses are GIGANTIC, and to play David against a Goliath makes for a powerful personal narrative. Once you find the [red, glowing] weak point, you can topple the giant with a mere pebble. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right? And all those other things the cartoons told you before your next beating at school tomorrow. A lot of satisfaction can be derived from the triumph of the small. To game developers, this can represent a lot of storytelling heavy-lifting for relatively little conceptual effort.

But their size alone can mean a lot of development time in exchange for a very brief period of play. If a boss battle is to represent a break from the usual gameplay experience, then it also represents an additional drain on the developer’s resources.

Team ICO avoided this pitfall by making bosses the focal point of their game, Shadow of the Colossus. Instead of making end-of-level bosses, the bosses were the levels. Colossus turned the boss-player dynamic on its head with its premise: the only way Wander can bring back his lady love is to slay these magnificent beasts. And yet the game refuses to do anything but affirm their majestic beauty. Watching these ancient giants crumble and shrink into the darkness puts the player in a unique headspace: sympathy for the devil.

Dishonored is a recent and notable example of a big budget game without boss battles, and by all accounts, they were not missed. According to Designer Harvey Smith, the decision to exclude them was not borne out of limitation.
“The thing is, we're very conscious of tropes in videogames that are kind of lazy, frankly. Or dogmatic is the better word perhaps. You know: here's a boss, he reveals his weak spot, you gotta hit it three times and then three times again, whatever…So roundabout way of answering, I guess, is that we never really felt the need for boss monsters.”
Harvey’s (and by extension, Arkane Studios’) design philosophy speaks to a confidence in the game’s core experience. It says, “This gameplay is so fundamentally satisfying that the player won’t want a break from it.” This is true of many modern videogames, but few have the backbone to buck the trend.

When Harvey Smith referred to the “dogma” of boss battles, I couldn’t help but think of another stealth-based action game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This is how I imagine Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s boss battles came into being:

Eidos Montreal crafts a brilliant action role-playing game, without boss battles. Representatives from Square-Enix -- a traditional Japanese game publisher - take a look at an early build of the game, and are quite pleased with the developer’s progress. One of them speaks up and says, calmly, “We find this to be most satisfactory. Now, if you would kindly show us the boss battles...”

The designer –- let’s call him “Jean-François” –- clears his throat before muttering, “There aren’t any.”

“WHAT?! No boss battles?! Surely you jest!” The Squeenix Man chuckles falsely.
Jean- François sighs, and repeats with a heavy heart, “...There are no boss fights in the game.”

The man in the suit covers his mouth, astonished by what he’s just heard for the second time. He swiftly leaves the room, shutting the door behind him. Three seconds later he bursts back through the door, his lips quivering, barely able to contain his outrage: “how DARE you dishonour your gaming ancestry!”

The next day, Square-Enix delays the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and outsources boss battle development to GRIP Entertainment

That last bit was true actually, so we can at least assume that boss battles were pretty low on Eidos’ priority list (if indeed, they were on the list at all). The game was delayed three times without the main team ever having touched a single boss fight. And it showed: critics unanimously praised the core experience, while panning the lacklustre boss fights.

In a game known for its alternate routes, strategic stealth, and non-lethal takedowns, players found themselves funnelled into a small square room with no exits, and a barging bullet-sponge of a man. The ensuing boss battle had all the subtlety of a rhinoceros in a china shop, demanding deadly force from the player, regardless of their approach thus far. Players aiming for a pacifist run were not only ill-equipped for the gunfight; they were forced to break character for the sake of bad boss design. The description of the ‘Pacifist’ achievement says it all, really:

Straight from the horse’s mouth: boss fights do not count. They did, however, count against Deus Ex’s otherwise impressive Metascore, which arguably could have moved a few points higher without them.

Say what you will about Madden and FIFA, at least sports games have confidence in their core gameplay. You don’t see EA Sports throwing in a giant Joe Montana or Pélé in the closing minutes of each match. Players are looking for an authentic, immersive experience; they don’t need constant reminders that they are in fact, just playing a videogame. Puzzle and strategy games are similarly convicted in the inherent goodness of their game design.

Perhaps there was a time when the player wanted a break from running and jumping in a platformer, or level-grinding in a role-playing game, and the boss fight represented a welcome reprieve from that. Nowadays, all they seem to do is break the flow of gameplay, and yank the player out of the immersive game-world. Could there be anything more annoying? Is the boss fight out of date?

An Eidos-published title (back then) sparked this question two years earlier: Batman: Arkham Asylum. It too was a fantastic stealth-based action game marred by disappointing boss fights. None were more disappointing than Batman’s final confrontation with his arch-nemesis, the Joker. On roids. Because that’s what we all love about the Joker, right? His ability to pound Batman into submission with his fists...

Their mental game of cat and mouse was reduced to mere fisticuffs. Compared with Batman’s far more cerebral encounters with the Scarecrow, the final battle with Joker-Hulk was limp and lifeless, devoid of any dramatic weight or consequence.

That’s the problem with final bosses: they are rarely equipped to provide a satisfying resolution to a game that, up to that point, has been propelled by a rich, compelling narrative. And yet it seems developers are compelled to throw one in or it’s not a “real” ending.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mass Effect 2, my favourite game of this generation. The game’s combat sequences were an improvement over its predecessor, but its finest moments were delivered through dialogue and choice. The final choice in the game is one of the most compelling: destroy the enemy base which facilitated unspeakable atrocities against the human race, or save it to use their own technology against them? It’s a tough choice, and it has weight; it would have been the perfect coda to a perfect videogame. But all of that is wiped away when the Human Reaper claws its way back from the depths for one last boss fight. Adding insult to injury, it’s one of those unexceptional, unimaginative attack-the-glowing-weak-point-for-massive-damage bosses. And honestly, how menacing is a giant Terminator when I can kill it with a pistol?!

The counterpoint to all this is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City, which took pains to address the [very few] criticisms levelled at Arkham Asylum. They regrouped and returned fire with the best boss battle in recent memory: Mr. Freeze. Freeze’s genius became the narrative impetus to make him more challenging as a boss: he will not fall for the same trick twice. The player must then draw upon all of Batman’s skills and gadgets to take him down. Like all good boss battles it functions like a final exam; a great way to gauge what the player has learnt thus far.

So what can we glean from all this? If by some magic, we avoided using the term “boss fight” altogether, videogames could stand to benefit. Up to now, it’s been falsely equated with “climax”, but we’ve seen how anti-climactic a lazy boss fight can be. The David and Goliath trope has been overplayed, and boss battles have become a storytelling crutch for games that don’t need one. Many of last year’s greatest games did not have boss fights at all – XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, Mark of the Ninja, Journey, The Walking Dead -– and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. All of these games were confident in their presentation, design, and gameplay.

Boss battles should be the exception, not the rule. The fight with Mr. Freeze was consistent with Arkham City’s gameplay and narrative. Shadow of the Colossus took the concept of boss battles, made them central to the game, and transformed our understanding of what a boss could be. These bosses had a reason to be there. Bosses that don’t, need not apply. You’re fired.

Adam Redsell is a freelance (boss-less) writer based in Brisbane. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.