Ask a Dork: Boss Battles
Boss battles have been a staple of the video game industry since the early days of Space Invaders, and have become an integral part of game design for several video game genres. Role-playing games are well known for their use of “big bads,” but fighters, shooters, beat-em ups, platformers, and even basic action games have become well known for their use. Is this because they are an easy time-filler or that they have a justified place? I’d argue the latter.
Usually known for appearing at the end of a level or a series of levels, these climactic confrontations break up the monotony of core gameplay. Stronger than average enemies and usually requiring unique tactics to defeat, these bastards aim to keep you on your toes and spice up the game’s overall play. If these unique boss battles are not implemented in the flow of the game the developer risks boring its audience with the same, repetitive gameplay concepts. The Call of Duty series is a great example of this. Sure, the general gameplay is tight, however, you can approach every corridor, building, dug-out, or air drop the same way. There is nothing there to flip the basic concepts you learned in the first twenty minutes on their head, and by extension you get fatigued by thy monotony.
A lot of people like to complain about how Deus Ex: Human Revolution implemented its boss battles. Whether its developers will admit to it or not, Deus Ex is not an action game nor is it a shooter — it is a stealth game that offers the illusion of choice. To that end, it falls far short of its franchise namesake. This design is also why it makes so little sense when a boss fight requires you to kill something instead of avoid it or non-fatally neutralize it. For this reason and more, the boss battles were altered for the DX edition. They weren’t cut though. You see, even if you were to play every section of Human Revolution with stealth in mind, you still would need something to break up the monotony. Otherwise, all missions have a conclusion that can be best defined as “anti-climactic.” No, the story has too high of stakes to not require the presence of unique, powerful big bads for Adam Jensen to challenge. And that’s exactly what happens in the DX edition; Adam still has to deal with enemies who challenge him in unique ways, but his hands aren’t tied when it comes to dispatching them. This choice enriched the experience and finally gave the player real freedom.
To contrast that experience, Fallout 3 featured numerous “bosses” that had horrible implementation. Fighting them didn’t require any experimentation, puzzle solving, or even the use of unique items. No, in Fallout 3 the final boss you fight is just some ass hole in a suede jacket without any head gear. You can literally take him out with one well-aimed shot of a handgun. That doesn’t enrich the story or gameplay. In fact, his death feels so anti-climactic that it will likely kill any boner you have for that game’s plot.
Boss battles are only as good as they are implemented. There will always be some companies that become lazy when it is time to test the gamer’s skill, however, their presence in game design isn’t an unwarranted one. Regardless of where the gaming landscape goes, there will always be adventures that need to be concluded a special way. Without a big ending involving interesting opponents and unique gameplay, a game’s conclusion can ring hollow. A well designed game will make the gamer feel both proud and satisfied to have thoughtfully taken down a challenging boss.