What do bosses do?
The first boss I remember fighting was Doctor Robotnik at the end of Sonic 2‘s first level. I couldn’t beat him; I was six, and I hadn’t played a lot of video games that required twitch skills; I’d mostly played PC adventure games. One morning, my six year old self got off the bus from school and my mother, picking me up from the bus stop, ran up to me, yelling, “I beat him! I beat him!”
And from that point on, I never found Sonic 2′s first stage difficult. I got stuck on the second, but I persevered, because I knew if I beat him I’d never have trouble with Chemical Plant again.
Critical analysis views bosses as video game anachronism, awkward homages thrown into modern games. But that’s not what bosses are: bosses are punctuation, the periods, commas, and semicolons of a video game. A good one, a quick stop, can raise tension, building the stakes to new heights, while an easier boss can change the mood dramatically, as well. Rather than just being points where players can express their mastery or a nostalgic adherence to tradition, a good boss can accentuate what a game is trying to tell us.
Dark Souls provides us with a veritable masters class on boss design. More than any other game it employs bosses as finite punctuation. Its first boss, the Asylum Demon, is a checkpoint designed to prove mastery, sure, but the rest are all designed as definitive battles that change the world the player experiences. For instance, the Capra Demon fight at the end of the Undead Burg follows up a relatively painless area with an incredibly difficult boss, a boss who made me quit the game for the first time. The boss battle makes the area before him begin to seem oppressive and dangerous, and the more trouble you have with him the more dangerous it seems, even though it’s probably the area of the game I died the least in. And when you beat it, the area retains some of that mystique. If I were to replay Dark Souls I would dread going under the Undead Burg most of all, because I don’t want to fight the Capra Demon. In this sense, the Capra Demon is a menacing dash—it’s not a major event, but it puts emphasis on the areas before and after it.
Contrast this with the Gaping Dragon in the Depths. In terms of area difficulty the Depths is eighteen times more terrifying and difficult than the path underneath the Undead Burg is. The Burg has some dogs, while the Depths has dogs, butchers with huge meat cleavers, and the dreaded curse frogs who can wipe out hours of game time if they manage to get to you. Couple this with tense darkness, lots of dangerous pitfalls, and twisty corridors, and you have a hell of an area. Of course, unlike the Burg, which ends in the Capra Demon, the Depths end in the Gaping Dragon, an easily dispatched horror of a boss. He’s terrifying to look at, but he doesn’t pose a threat: in fact, he’s one of the rare bosses I beat on my first attempt. It’s a period, especially when it’s followed by demonic Blighttown.
How easy the Gaping Dragon is colors the area before him, too. Despite the fact that the Depths made me rage quit, too, in my mind it’s a pretty happy place. It doesn’t seem threatening when I think of it. In fact, I wouldn’t mind going there. This is all because the boss fell so readily under my sword. That’s how a boss can be punctuation: it lets the developer define how we think about and remember the game we just played. The Gaping Dragon is a period: he makes you feel like the previous section of the game is over, and a new (more hellish) section is about to begin.
And it’s well used punctuation, too. The lower Undead Burg, which I remember with trepidation, is an area a talented player won’t have to go through many times. It doesn’t connect anything useful. It’s not a causeway you have to cruise through very often. The Depths, meanwhile, is an area you’ll probably pass through a couple of times throughout the game. The boss makes it seem like a solved dungeon, so you don’t feel apprehension when you’re traveling through there again. This modulates how tense you feel, and lets Dark Souls relax you so you don’t explode.
Used properly, bosses can relieve tension, or they can increase it. They can do other things, too. Like semicolons they can be misused, placed in the wrong place by overeager developers trying to impress with their narratives, or they can accentuate elements that the player has never thought of. The best example of the latter is Fable 2, not a particularly successful game but one which features a chilling final boss fight that redefines what the game is telling us, what a boss fight can mean.
You spend all of Fable 2 fighting Lucien, the man who killed your sister, left you for dead, and then made a lot of people miserable. You’ve gone to incredible lengths to get your revenge: you even worked in a tower for one of his subordinates for a decade just for the chance to get back at him for what he’s done. You, the player, are consumed by revenge.
Throughout the game you’ve had one thing, through thick and thin: your dog. Even though you hate the stupid mutt at first, eventually you grow to appreciate him because he’s always there. When you go into the tower and leave him behind you feel a little twinge of regret because of how present he’s been. So it stands to reason that the game would follow a typical “Revenge has destroyed everything you care about” plot. Lucien shoots the dog. Lucien shoots the dog and he retreats to his last line, where he tries to drain power from your allies to become a god or something.
You thwart this without much difficulty, and then Lucien makes his last speech. And then you shoot him. Once. And he dies.
Lucien is a boss. He’s the final boss, but he doesn’t work how the player would expect. He does what a good boss is supposed to do: he focuses the player’s attention where the game developer wants it to be. Were he a long, classical boss fight we would have triumphed: we would have won. Winning makes us feel good; it validates our revenge. Instead, Lucien takes on measly button press to go down. He dies before we can even process that we’ve killed him, before we can savor proving our mastery in the way of the classical boss fight, and that creates a very different reaction in the player. The revenge you pursued, that cost the lives of thousands of people and, more importantly, your beloved dog has consumed you utterly. In that one moment you can see plainly your failures over the past dozen hours of game.
And it’s brilliant. It’s a very modern boss fight, not challenge of mastery but instead punctuation. It puts a hard stop, a paragraph break, after the game’s climax, the death of your friend. Like a good piece of punctuation, it makes you think about the ideas that came before it before you move on to the next sentence. In Fable 2‘s case, the next sentence is choosing whether to save those thousands of dead people or your faithful pet dog, and it’s a choice put in context by the boss fight.
The fact remains that boss fights, in their traditional form, are a bit of an anachronism. They’re designed to keep you plunking quarters into an arcade machine, or to make you feel like a true master of the game you just beat (even though very few retro boss fights test the same skills you need to get there). But video games are rarely that type of experience anymore. More than ever they focus on narrative, on thematic elements, on telling a story. Even the ones that don’t, like Dark Souls, view bosses as a different sort of challenge. They’re more like obligatory stealth or vehicle levels in games from the early 00′s than they are traditional “boss fights”: they require a different set of skills, and they are used to effect the way the player sees the portions of the game they just played through, or that they will play through immediately after.
But for a game like Fable 2, nominally about telling a story, there’s no reason for mastery checks. A player can beat the game without “mastering” it, not necessarily because it’s so easy but because that’s not what the game cares about. In this paradigm a traditional boss means absolutely nothing: they would be building off in a direction that the game doesn’t want to go. Instead, the game turns the boss concept on its head and uses it as a narrative mechanic. It uses it as punctuation.
This sort of boss makes more sense in the modern game. Boss fights are no different than the rest of games: they must be crafted conscientiously, designed as narrative mechanic or as punctuation to help the player traverse through the wilderness of the game. A thoughtless boss fight can ruin a good game, destroy any momentum it possesses, while a good one can turn a relatively boring area of a game into a stellar set of moments.
Like the header image? It comes courtesy of Steven Ray Brown, whose work can be found here.