You are Not the Boss of Me

Video games, like all forms of entertaiment, have their own set of idiosyncratic formal conventions. All the Zelda games have a series of dungeons, broken up by exploration, where you collect items to defeat the final enemy. Horror games have a slow pace, shuffling zombies and stupid camera angles. Platform games have hateful jumping puzzles and take place in a strange world where whacking a box turns it into money. Conventions like this can be useful because they provide a formal framework in which the game designers can work. The form gives the player context and helps to set expectations, the same way the formal structure of a film or a piece of music informs the viewer or listener about what should be coming next.

However, while some gaming conventions are useful enough to have evolved into a sort of form, most head over the line into the territory of annoying cliche. There are too many such game design sins to list here: useless backtracking for keys, juvenile puzzles involving 8 tiles in 9 spaces or the Towers of Hanoi, and of course, stupid savepoints. However, the single most damaging game design crutch is the Boss Battle. We are here to say that Boss Battles are stupid and should be annihilated. Bosses are a mainstay of action, RPG, platformer and shooter games. They tend to appear at or near the end of major stages of the game. The end of a game may also be structured around a climactic “final” Boss, which is usually like one of the intermediate Bosses, only more tedious.

Boss characters share a few common characteristics:

1. They are very powerful. Typically, they take a long time to defeat but can defeat the game character very easily.

2. In games with a narrative, they might be characters from that narrative transformed by some bizzare power into a huge deformed killing machine.

3. While powerful and deadly, they are not smart. They generally have one or two patterned attacks that they use over and over again.

4. There are usually only one or two specific ways to actually do damage to a boss.

Note that we want to distinguish between a “boss,” who is simply a strong enemy who may provide drama and challenge, and a “Boss,” who you can only defeat if you apply a set of nonsensical and arbitrary rules for a hideously long time. From now on, we will refer to the latter as a Boss with a capital B.

For the most part Boss fights are always the same. You figure out the pattern in which the Boss is moving. You therefore figure out how to dodge its attacks. Then you read the walkthrough to figure out how to do damage to the thing. Then you sit with your controller for fifteen minutes and dodge, hit, dodge, hit, dodge, hit until the Boss dies or you die and get to start over again.

In modern games, Bosses have become a crutch for both the game designer and the player. The “hardcore” gamer contingent wants Bosses because they are the traditional narrative hint that the end of a stage is approaching. They also feel like beating a Boss makes them bad-ass. Game designers use Bosses as an automatic way to change up the gameplay and thus provide some variety. Unfortunately, there are few fresh ideas in Boss design. This means that rather than creating a nice change of pace, Boss fights just replace whatever you might have been enjoying in the game with a task that inevitably boils down to a deathmarch of twitching and boring pattern matching.

Proponents of the Boss battle may argue that the Boss provides not only a climactic moment to finish off a stage of the game, but also a chance for the game player to utilize newly acquired skills or items. This happens in the Zelda games. You will go through a dungeon and pick up a couple of new things. The game then gives you some interesting things to do with the new stuff so you get some practice in using it. Then, just as you are really enjoying the game and your new toy, everything is ripped away and replaced with a huge stupid boss which you can only defeat if you puzzle out exactly how your new item can be used against the bad guy.

The question is: why not just stick to the fun gameplay that came before the Boss? Zelda is certainly not lacking for great gameplay. But rather than stick to it, the game leads the player into a boring twitchfest combined with boring puzzle solving. Why not allow the core gameplay to stand on its own terms?

Games that are true to their core gameplay are always better for it. For example, why, after providing 15 hours of high energy combat goodness did Halo 2 feel the need to throw in a completely redundant and unoriginal Boss fight at the end of the game? Did the designers lose faith in the meticulously tuned and balanced gameplay that had served them so well up until that point? Or did they just throw it in because the moron hard-core fanboys had complained about the fact that Halo did not have a “real” Boss at the end? They should have stuck to their guns, so to speak.

The Splinter Cell games never had any Bosses. The designers just made the final levels ratchet up the difficulty as you got close to the ultimate objective. This is just one of the ways that Splinter Cell is infinitely superior to Metal Gear Stupid.

RPGs lend themselves to a structure involving bosses, rather than Bosses. This is especially true in the turn based games since it is hard to design a Boss battle in a turn based battle system. If the combat is not in real time, stupid pattern attacks are easy to observe. And yet, a game with the stature of Knights of the Old Republic actually had a completely pointless final Boss, complete with puzzle combat.

On the other hand, more recent RPGs, including Shadow Hearts: Covenant and Bioware’s own Jade Empire did a good job of – for the most part – avoiding pointless Bosses. Occasionally you would run into stronger enemies, but they were just that. They were not mysteriously powerful macguffins who you could only damage if you sliced them behind their left kneecap. On a day with a full moon. While spitting. Perhaps we can take the fact that KOTOR had a Boss, but Jade Empire didn’t as an indication that Bioware agrees that the concept is outdated. As Corvus points out, below, Jade Empire did have some Bosses, but as they were (comparatively speaking) easy to dispose of, they were not as disruptive to the pacing of the game. Perhaps we can hope that Jade Empire II disposes with their use altogether.

Looking at platform games, we can draw a comparison between the best platform game ever made, Banjo Kazooie, and a later effort by the same company, Donkey Kong 64. There were a number of things wrong with DK64, but it’s a fair approximation to describe it as “Banjo with Bosses.” This is one of the reasons it is universally acknowledged as one of the worst platform games ever created. The other reason would be its “must backtrack through every level 5 times to win” nature, but that’s the subject of another rant. The reason Banjo succeeds where DK64 fails is pacing. The player is always in control of their game experience, and is always applying their skills in a straightforward, measured way. New dangers are introduced at a steady rate. In DK64, at the end of every level comes a Boss who squashes the player like an insignificant bug, until they figure out the “trick,” which takes the pacing and throws it out the window.

Sports games never have Bosses, and yet somehow they provide enough variety for people to finish all 5,000 races in the Gran Turismo or Forza career mode, or for would-be football coaches and armchair quarterbacks to run the Madden franchise mode for the better part of a simulated century. These games don’t fall back on the Boss crutch because their core gameplay is designed to provide variety and also because they provide some variety in other ways (franchise mode, tuning cars, mini-games).

The following thought experiment may elucidate just how stupid Bosses are. Just imagine if Madden were designed in the same way that your average third person action game or RPG is designed. Just as you get to the final minutes of the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl, suddenly the quarterback on the opposing team (let’s say it’s Peyton Manning) runs out into the middle of the field and lets out a deafening gutteral scream as he raises his arms and transforms into a flaming blue lizard beast with 15 eyes. In order to win the game, you must now repeatedly run over to the ball-boy and grab footballs which you throw at the eyes. If you hit one, Manning’s helmet temporarily opens up so you can bean him in the head with other footballs. Meanwhile, you have to watch out, because the lizard beast periodically whips his tail at you as you attempt to target him, so you have to be sure to dodge these attacks, since one or two hits are enough to take you out of the game. Once you destroy all the eyeballs and hit Manning in the head 20 or 30 times, he falls over, transforms back to his human form and is taken off the field on a stretcher and you can return to the rest of the football game.

It is understandable why designers want to use Boss fights: they want an event that provides a dramatic moment, similar to the climax of a movie. While this desire is noble, Bosses are a monumental failure in this regard. No game in recent memory is at its best during a Boss battle. The true highlights always spring forth from the core design and narrative of the game rather than some artificially constructed battle with an ultra-powerful beast from beyond. What we can hope for is that these “core gameplay” moments – consider how well most of Halo 2 worked with its “Sneak, assassinate, grenade, firefight” dynamic – will become more and more integrated into the dramatic climaxes of games, and the Bosses can be sent to some far off land and be retired forver. It’s a noble goal to strive for because if we reach it, games will have been made better forever.