As gamers, boss battles are practically in our blood. They go back at least as far as 1975. They’ve long been the go-to climax for a game adventure, the final goal for players of all ages. Sometimes they are epic set pieces. Sometimes…not.
Recent years have seen several titles get criticized for weak boss battles, even become notorious for them. Has gaming outgrown bosses? Has the march of progress left boss battles as vestigial as so many instruction booklets? Dix and Steerpike clash in the bottommost dungeon to find out.
Dix: So this entire discussion got started because I recently finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And for anyone who has played (or read) about that game, that’s probably all I really need to say to justify myself.
I think I might be over boss battles.
Sure, a great boss battle can be…well, great. But most of them feel obligatory, like it’s something we keep putting in games because they’ve been in games since forever. If I’m brutally honest, they also often feel kind of lazy and artificial: like, “We need to make the player feel like this is an important part. Throw in a boss battle.”
I understand the limitations of game platforms for years meant that a big fight was one of the best ways to accomplish such a thing. These days we have lots of other options. Creating a really tough enemy just doesn’t seem to fulfill that function on any but the most basic level.
Steerpike: I like them, but.
But they’re so often awful. Nothing beats that thrill of terror when you get a cutscene or whatever and realize you’re about to face a boss… sadly the result is often a disappointment.
It’s funny about games, which are slaves to technology and play-culture, that so much is a throwback. For ages beyond the dominance of the coin-op game, we still had three lives… a mechanism that has no use outside of making the player feel like his or her quarter is buying them a reasonable chance. Scores, time limits, they’re all part of the past. In a way, boss battles are the same – a major challenge to end a section of the game, with victory as its own reward, plus moving on to the next part.
But unlike other mechanics, boss battles have evolved with the medium. “Three lives” doesn’t evolve; boss design can. You look at a game like Shadow of the Colossus, which is sixteen boss battles and nothing else, and you can’t say the game is wasted because of this.
The real problem comes when, as you say, boss battles feel obligatory – “toss in a boss.” That’s what Human Revolution did.
It’s worse still when you have a game that strives for some level of realism completely betraying that in the interest of a “good boss fight.” If I’m playing a tactical shooter I’d much rather face a boss who’s, like, a terrifying ghostly sniper than Hitler in a mecha suit.
Dix: Shadow of the Colossus is definitely a good counter-example, and I can name any number of games that have outstanding boss battles that I’m glad I played. Shadow is one. Speaking of ghostly snipers, the Metal Gear Solid series offers numerous great bosses – some of the best.
I’ve lately been contemplating what makes a boss battle a boss battle, though, and as much as it’s probably correct to say that Shadow of the Colossus is sixteen boss battles, I wonder: what are the Colossi bosses of? They don’t end any levels. There aren’t any other challenges to speak of before reaching them. In a lot of ways, bosses are defined as such by comparison to the other stuff in the game. If there are no other enemies, can there be bosses?
I know it’s tempting to label Colossi as bosses because they are basically murder puzzles. You can’t just whack them with your sword until they die. I suppose they’d be bosses in other games, clearly, but so would some regular enemies in other games. It seems to me that bosses are defined by context, by the challenges that precede them and the way the game progresses after they’re defeated.
Steerpike: That’s a huge point. If you categorize a “boss battle” as something that ends one section as a gateway to another (which is a fair description), then Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t count at all. It’s just a game with sixteen encounters. One thing I’ve always wondered is how different the experience of Shadow of the Colossus might have been if all the Colossi were present throughout, and you encountered them in whatever order you encountered them, up to and including running away when you realized you couldn’t face one. As it is we all played the game the same way – the first Colossus first, the second second, and so on.
I think one of the key failures of Human Revolution was that not only were the boss battles bad, they were actually outsourced entirely to another company. It’s like Eidos said, “We don’t want to deal with this, but it’s an expected part of a game; we’re just going to throw it over the wall to some other company and ignore it.” It felt like the bosses were only included because it was expected. Of course, had Grip Entertainment done a better job with boss battles, had they been skillfully designed in the context of a Deus Ex game, our conversation might be very different. I can imagine a world where people said that Human Revolution was a really good, solid, workmanlike game without many complaints, but “man, the boss battles… they really made it.” Instead I remember someone here on Tap saying that the conversations were really the “boss battles” in Human Revolution, and that’s a great distillation of the whole Deus Ex concept.
I find myself thinking of Deadly Premonition, a very strange game where you’re hounded on and off by one specific boss basically throughout; another different approach to the concept of a major foe that acts as a sort of bookend. The rest of the game divides itself between very discrete chunks of mystery-solving and action, and you recognize those without the physical separator of a boss.
Where do games like Portal and System Shock fit into this? In both of those, you have a “boss” that’s also with you throughout the game, one who taunts you and mocks you, but you really only face them in a balls-out encounter once at the very end of the game. I remember the Portal team remarking that they knew they wanted to do a “boss” battle, and originally that huge, complex room with turrets on all the many balconies was going to be their grand finale, before they decided to include a fight of sorts with GLaDOS at the end.
Your main question – does the world need boss battles any more – is intriguing from a game design perspective. I would argue no, the world doesn’t, not any more than the world needs three lives and a time limit to force more quarters into the cabinet. But the concept of a meaningful encounter with a primary antagonist is quite different from the classic boss-battle view, which is basically the last paragraph of a chapter, the thing you need to read before you turn the page and move on.
Dix: I think there’s still – and always – room for “bosses” in the antagonist character sense. I can think of numerous games wherein a boss was present at numerous points earlier in the game, and the battle was just a climactic confrontation with them. In context, that had to happen, and it’s better that players do it themselves than watch a cutscene where the player character kills the bad guy (or whatever), but there’s also this assumption – and Eidos’s comment is telling here – that this needs to be not just an encounter, but a “boss battle.”
Another thing that I think categorizes boss battles is the fact that, internally, they tend to have their own rules. There’s some trick to figure out or at least a pattern to take advantage of, and sometimes boss battles function completely outside normal gameplay. I like to cite Mz. Ruby from Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus here, as her boss battle was a simple rhythm game that didn’t appear anywhere else in the stealth platformer. These can work; in some ways I think they’re safer because they take the skills available to the player character out of the equation, though that in itself can be disappointing. In a bygone era these could offer some neat variety, but tastes (and the complexity of games) have changed so much that now they seem out of place in many games.
More often, though, I think we see the “really tough enemy” type these days. These bosses can be killed the same way everything else can, they just hit harder and soak more damage. I’m thinking of encounters like Halo 2’s battle against Tartarus or, sure, that first guy in Human Revolution, since there’s nothing fundamentally different about how you fight him than how you fight everyone else in the game – if you fight people. I see the design wisdom of this approach in general, because it doesn’t take the player out of the game they’re playing and lets them make use of the skills they’ve cultivated rather than having to learn a new strategy that will become useless as soon as the boss is dead.
Steerpike: I like the idea of bosses as against the grain of the game, of demanding that the player actually synthesize new knowledge and play strategies in order to overcome the challenge, rather than just some(body/thing) that can take more damage than most foes.
Of course perhaps the most extreme example of that would be Psycho Mantis, from the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid. Why have we not seen more bosses that out of the box?
Dix: I think there’s two major reasons. One is that, once it has been done, it’s been done: every boss thereafter that breaks the fourth wall in such a physical sense feels like a copy rather than a compelling idea on its own. The other would be, I think, that given the way game development works, somebody along the line would put a stop to anything so risky at most companies. If it’s not the development team itself, it’d be someone up the line. Because what happens if players don’t figure out the whole fight-him-with-the-second-player-controller thing? You’ve got an unbeatable boss. If boss battles are already a feature that’s being added to games out of some misguided obligation to the medium – because they are “supposed” to be there – I wouldn’t expect many bosses to get designed outside of the way bosses are “supposed to be.”
Later Metal Gear Solid games toyed with similar things, and to a point that was okay because there was precedence for such a thing in that series; none had the novelty of Psycho Mantis, of course. As a series, Metal Gear Solid had some superb boss design, and when I need to label bosses done right, that’s one series I point to.
From a design perspective, good boss battles are hard to make, whether or not you pull some kind of Kojimaesque madness. Even playing inside the box, making a boss fight work is super tricky. Numerous game developers with outstanding design everywhere else flounder when they put bosses into the game. They’re strange, awkwardly-shaped things, and the truth of the matter is that the climaxes they were meant to produce can now be accomplished in tons of different ways.
To be sure, if a boss actually makes sense, then by all means, put a boss in there. After God of War released, one of the complaints about it – and I doubt many games get this complaint – is that there weren’t enough bosses. Not only were the few (3) bosses in the first game cool and well-designed, for the most part, but in the context of the game it made sense for Kratos to fight giant freaking monsters in epic bloody battles. That was the kind of climax that series needed, not because “Oh, you’ve gotta have boss battles,” but because the idea fits in with the nature of the stories from which God of War is derived, especially if you consider other pop culture depictions of Greek mythology, like Clash of the Titans, and because Kratos was very much about being the mortal who gets pissed at the gods and, despite the fact that they are flipping gods, decides he’s gonna kill ‘em anyway.
Steerpike: Okay, let’s design a kickass boss. We’re making, say, a shooter-RPG along the lines of Human Revolution, maybe with some mild supernatural or sci-fi elements. Go!
Dix: Ideally I’d want to know more about this game we’re making a boss for. But okay.
Let’s surmise that we’ve got some setting with assorted super-drugs, things that dramatically enhance character performance in various ways. Things that boost your speed for a little while, or your strength, or your damage resistance…whatever. They exist. They’re a thing.
Let’s also throw out, for now, the “you can talk your way out of this boss” option.
So this boss is at the end of some kind of, like, dispensary, right? He’s probably some sort of high level crime thug, but for the sake of character let’s say he’s coldly logical in the way he deals with murdering schmucks like the player. So he’s well-equipped enough, but so is the player, so to give him an edge the boss gets an injection of some crazy super-steroid mix. Makes him faster, stronger, hard (but not impossible) to beat in a straight fight. Battle ensues.
If we assume the player has a similar level of flexibility when it comes to play style as Human Revolution allows. A combat-oriented player might just face this guy down, using the available cover and whatever gear he favors to finish the boss off. Making this part kickass becomes a lot about balancing the boss’s combat skills and tactics really well, beyond just having good ideas. I assume we have awesome combat designers for this job.
For those who are more stealthy, though, there are additional options. Obviously stealth skills could help take the boss down the old fashioned way, but let’s add some alternate routes through this. One, if you’re quick and have the gear (maybe the necessary explosives are hidden somewhere nearby), you can break the injector assembly. The boss will come down off his high after a little while and have to return for more doses, but if you cut him off he’ll be easy to finish – no harder than a normal mook, because I’ve never liked that “why can this guy take five .45 caliber bullets to the head?” sensation. The trick is surviving that long.
Trickier still is finding one’s way into a nearby control room. Here, if they go unnoticed, perhaps the player can alter the chemical mix that flows through the injector, allowing them to cause the boss to eventually pump himself full of something with serious consequences. Maybe it’s an unbalanced mix of what he was taking, something that jacks his reflexes up so high it fries his nervous system after a short time. Maybe it’s just literally poison. Whatever.
Once he’s incapacitated thus, it’s just a matter of moving in for the final blow, whether that means moving into backstab position or running at him assault rifle blazing.
Anyhow, that’s kind of off the cuff.
Steerpike: The drugs you refer to have significant limits – they take a while to build up in the system, they’re only at maximum effectiveness for a short time, then they dwindle rapidly. Plus, they leave short-term damage. For example, if you take one that gives you greater physical strength, you’re going to be weaker for a few days afterward since you’re physically sore. It’s like the “suicide Tuesday” effect of the drug Ecstasy – take too much over the weekend and by Tuesday your brain literally has no serotonin left, so your mood hits epic lows until it can make more. This forces both the player and enemies to be cautious and tactical in how they use such boosts.
Having just reread Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I’m thinking that this boss has human handlers, too – he’s got an earpiece where they’re feeding him various tips and pieces of information, doing whatever they can to improve his overall effectiveness. Thus you have the added option of finding and taking out the handlers to greatly reduce the boss’s effectiveness.
Maybe ditch the traditional arena setting for bosses. This guy comes at you in a hallway, and you’re not locked into the place. The entire dispensary is still open to visit, but once the boss attack is triggered, he can roam the place freely as well. This ties in to your thoughts about alternative ways to defeat him, since you may have to make your way back to another area of the building to accomplish some options.
The boss is able to make educated guesses about what you’re trying to do based on what he knows from your previous exploits, and maybe what you’re carrying – in fact, you were caught and disarmed about two hours ago, but escaped and managed to raid their closet to get your stuff back. So they know what you had. If the boss knows you have no poison, he needn’t worry about his drugs getting tainted; if he knows you had no rocket launcher he needn’t worry about rockets. We toss in some dialogue (I think Tom Wilkinson is available to do voiceover) suggesting that he knows your capabilities to some degree. This is a subtle clue to the player… “You’re going to blow that up… how exactly?” isn’t just a toss-off, the clever player realizes that our boss knows what he can and cannot do. Since the boss has some inside knowledge on your capabilities coming in to the dispensary, it forces you to rethink your strategy to use that knowledge against you. You’ve been doing a Star Trek games series; this is like Riker having to throw out all conventional knowledge about Galaxy-Class starships in order to defeat the Picard-Borg who presumably knows everything there is to know about them.
So the battle becomes a free-ranging one across an entire playfield – contact, fight, disengage, move on – and you’re never quite sure when the boss is going to burst out and light you up again… unless, of course, you pay attention to his cues and figure out that he’s assessing your next move based on what he knows of your loadout and behavior in previous missions. If you’ve always gone balls-out gunfighter he’ll treat you like one; if you spend a lot of time in the HVAC system and his cronies have warned him of this, he’ll react accordingly.
And he looks at your Netflix queue to mock your love of How I Met Your Mother reruns. Shit! Forget I said that.
Dix: “When I kill you, the pain will be legen…wait for it…DARY!”
I’m actually a little surprised that more games haven’t given their characters some awareness of how the player plays. I’d wager it’s probably because that would make the time it took to code the AI explode. But our AI guys are top-notch, so we don’t have to worry about that.
I don’t know if you’ve played the Human Revolution DLC, The Missing Link, but – aside from having a much more appropriate boss encounter than the main game does – a few points in the mission have different dialogue (and, I think, slightly different items or something) depending on how many guys you’ve killed. You’ll occasionally hear guards chattering about you, and one might say, “Yeah, but the casualty count is low,” and the other will say, “Oh, that just means he’s even more skilled.” It’s a small thing and not unprecedented – Psycho Mantis taunts your play style, too, calling you “reckless” if you’ve set off lots of alarms and died a lot and things like that – but it’s still novel enough to lodge in my brain. And maybe it shouldn’t be.
Anyway. Opening up the entire dispensary level for the encounter means more work for the AI guys, but they can take it. Meanwhile, the level design types should add in a few good areas where the player might lay a trap for the boss, the kind of thing where, going through the level the first time, you realize there’s interactivity and wonder why it’s there. Maybe the player can lead him to a loading dock area and then run him down with a forklift. Maybe there’s a refueling Flying Wing outside, prepping for takeoff. Maybe there’s an office area where the fight can be made cubicle-to-cubicle, and staplers can be used as improvised weapons. Staplers!
Okay, that last part might not be serious.
Steerpike: But it is unique, which makes it a good way to underscore the discussion as we wrap up the discussion. Bosses have a place… but like anything, just because it has a place, just because it’s a common trope, isn’t an excuse to be bad, or derivative, or dull, or disconnected from the game experience, or anything else that signifies laziness. That’s where Human Revolution fell down in bosses – the encounters felt lazy because the developers – lazily – farmed out the work.
Not every boss can or should be Psycho Mantis. But more importantly, and this is a message to all game developers, not every game needs bosses at all. Use them if they’re called for, and if they’re called for use them right. Otherwise you’re just adding filler.