Spoiler warning: Major plot details for certain games – Arkham Asylum and Bioshock – follow.
With the recent release of the Dark Souls-esque Nioh, it’s the perfect time to look at boss battles and the place they have in games today. Do boss battles still have a place in modern games? Or are they an outdated part of game design that’s better off left behind?
Like with most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
The Pen vs. The Sword
Game designers have used bosses as a way to challenge players for so long that it’s easy to take it for granted that this is just part of games. But as developers have become more sophisticated storytellers, it’s strange that boss battles have remained in game design. A 1 v 1 battle against a powerful enemy or the main villain can be a reductive and all-too-neat way of solving the conflict in a game.
Games are now in a place where they’re comfortable with ambiguity and complications when it comes to narrative. Using a boss to solve a conflict has been the death of many great games.
Just look at a game like Bioshock. Irrational Games’ art deco, dystopian nightmare is a tense experience. It asks some uncomfortable questions about agency and power. Irrational Games had the opportunity to end the game with an emotional and narrative gut punch that embraced those themes. Instead, the end of the game is a boss battle with a roided out version of antagonist Frank Fontaine.
It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic game. It not only leans too much on direct conflict, but it breaks from the tense, creepy tone of the rest of the game.
Why So Straightforward?
And Bioshock is not alone here. Batman: Arkham Asylum has a similarly disappointing end game battle with a roided out Joker.
Yup, that’s right. Batman fist fights a muscly, never-skipped-arm-day Joker. Throughout the game the Joker feels like a threat because he challenges the player -and Batman- on a mental and psychological level. In this case, the boss battle completely undermines the Joker’s character, reducing him to just another brainless enemy to beat down. Like many boss battles, the fight against the Joker is extremely predictable and repetitive. It manages to make one of the most iconic villains in pop culture into a “dodge, strike, and repeat” opponent.
Not all games need to have a climactic battle. Not all games – or stories – need to resolve their conflicts with a mano-a-mano fight with the villain. Games that focus on narrative and tone can afford to avoid boss battles. Games like Bioshock should look for more creative and interesting ways to end their story. Ambiguity and a lack of a definitive ending can leave more of an impression than just another brawl.
Boss Battles and Narrative, Together Again
But boss battles are still an important part of game design. Like anything, when designers take the time to think about the purpose of a boss battle, games can benefit from epic, challenging encounters.
The Dark Souls series is well-known for its boss battles, not just because they are challenging. Every boss battle gives From Software the opportunity to build out the world and lore of the Souls games. In Dark Souls, bosses aren’t just enemies to overcome. They are physical manifestations of myths and legends from the games own world. The boss battles are obviously challenging and test players’ skills. But these boss battles also have weight because of how From Software uses them to tell its story.
Old school games used boss battles in a much more straightforward way, but even then they served a purpose. The Mega Man games used boss battles in much the same way that Dark Souls does. Shadow of the Colossus, which is essentially just “Boss Battles: The Game” also uses well-designed fights to flesh out its world and, ultimately, to deliver an emotional gut punch at the end. Good narrative resolutions and boss battles aren’t mutually exclusive.
The Last of Us: A Game of Two Bosses
The Last of Us, which has one of the most compelling narratives in gaming history, also managed to integrate the two. It has an incredibly tense boss battle that maintains the tone of the game’s combat and world while still offering a climactic fight. As Ellie, the player has to sneak around and attack David, the leader of a group of cannibals, at close quarters.
The battle follows the standard “do x three times to win” format of most boss battles. But it’s great despite its formulaic structure. It uses Ellie’s vulnerability as a young girl and David’s vicious, unhinged physicality to break the game’s combat down into a deadly, end all cat and mouse game.
Unfortunately, The Last of Us also has another boss-like encounter earlier in the game that feels totally out of place. The infected enemies in The Last of Us are effective because they force the player to use sight and sound to their advantage. However, early on the game forces the player to fight a Bloater, a colossal mass of fungal-infected flesh, in a straightforward run-and-gun battle. While it doesn’t totally ruin The Last of Us, it feels totally out of line with the rest of the game. It lacks the mixture of narrative and gameplay that made the battle with David so great.
So Where do Boss Battles Fit?
Boss battles have been a part of games for decades at this point. They won’t go away any time soon, nor should they. When designers take the time to think about how a boss battle will affect the player, these intense, epic battles can be challenging and rewarding moments. But they can also derail a game’s narrative. Modern games are a lot more thoughtful in how they tell stories. Some games are open to asking complex questions of the player. The answers don’t need to be so straightforward.