When Games Matter: The Anatomy of a Boss Fight

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

It’s quite popular these days to scoff at the idea of boss battles—some feel that they are an outdated game trope. I recently shared how Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s boss fights shattered some of the game’s most meaingful moments. After defeating the third and final boss, I decided it wasn’t worth writing about—it was every bit as annoying as the first and second. These experiences make me wonder whether games are better off leaving boss battles behind. Are such battles examples of how games are typically mere vapid entertainment?

The problem with DX:HR‘s boss fights is that they contradict one the game’s major themes—options. Deus Ex gives the player the option to play through its levels stealthily or directly and also to take lethal or nonlethal action against enemies. These options are shattered when the player faces DX:HR‘s bosses. There is typically only one way to defeat them, and they are incredibly hard to beat unless you have been building your character into a tank-like commando. As a stealthy hacking character, the second boss in particular was one of the single most frustrating moments I have ever had with a game. Additionally, the bosses you fight are never developed as characters, and the battles against them are randomly hoisted upon the player at the end of the game’s levels.

To throw out boss fights altogether, however, would be an overreaction—I immediately recognized this when I recently played two new games that feature them.

Batman: Arkham City contains some truly fun and well designed boss fights. These fights do not contradict the design philosophy of the game or the game’s narrative. My favorite boss fight, though a bit heavy-handed, was the fight with Mr. Freeze. There are multiple ways in which to approach this fight—none of them are direct and each involves using skills and gadgets you have been developing throughout the course of the game. This fight is challenging without being punishing, and it fits comfortably in the world of Batman. The game gives you options in terms of building Batman’s skills, abilities, and gadgets—unlike DX:HR, those options are honored in its boss fights. Arkham City treats us the way we all want to be treated—it’s fair, honest, and consistent.

One of the ways boss battles can be interesting is by warning players of an impending battle. Games can thus make infuse us with a sense of dread and anticipation for what is coming. Can I overcome this enemy? Will I be ready? Id Software’s RAGE did this excellently in one of its early levels. I am traversing an abandoned city that is infested with deadly mutants. Early in the level, I hear loud stomping that sounds like an earthquake or some giant mutant monstrosity. As I progress through the level, I am confronted with larger and larger mutants, and after I defeat each of them, I am given glimpses of the giant. In other words, what I greatly fear becomes more and more of a reality until finally I am forced to fight the enormous beast. These glimpses served to make me fearful of him and consequently served to make that fight more emotionally resonant. DXHR‘s bosses, on the other hand, are frustratingly random and lacking narrative relevance. Where as DX:HR‘s boss battles break the flow of its narrative, this boss battle in RAGE drives its narrative and gives it emotional power.

Games certainly have a history of over-doing the boss battle, and I do think that many games would probably better off without them. However, it is clear to me from RAGE and Arkham City that boss battles can be entertaining, interesting, and even emotionally evocative.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Two words: Shadow of the Colossus.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Four Words: That was four words.

  • Jordan Ekeroth

    I really appreciate when a boss is a big deal because the game takes the time to develop his character and his relationship with me, not just because he is really stinking hard to kill. I was so frustrated the first time I played through GoW because it was so tough for me to beat General Raam. However the second one was entirely underwhelming… spending ten seconds blowing up the lambent whatever it was.

    It’s such a fine line. What do you think about that first link? I tend to agree, it’s so strange that it’s expected of many games to deviate from their core mechanics in what are often the most important story moments of the game. It usually just ruins the flow of things.

  • http://quixoticiconoclast.blogspot.com/ Chris Todd

    Boss fights definitely have their place in game genre, but my experience with a WOW player is that they can quickly become an excuse not to bother with a story line. I don’t like grinding boss fights for gear.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Seth – that is one of my all time favorites but I don’t know that the Colossi are really “bosses,” they play more like levels themselves.

    @Jordan – yeah I agree with you–I think many, many, games fall to that temptation. With Mario–I kinda enjoyed the Bowser fights–that is sorta an iconic part of Mario, but still I think its unfortunate that so many games do that–deviate from their core mechanics in a boss battle.

    That is where Arkaham City really shines though–you fight its boss battles pretty much the same way you fight everything else–only its more involved and you have to be willing to combine things that the game has already taught you. Honestly–if a game is going to have boss battles, I feel like that game is pretty much the perfect example of how it can be done well.

    @Chris Todd. Yep Boss fights that are grinds are exactly the problem. They should feel like a natural extension of the game. DX:HR’s bosses are some of the most blatant and awkward tack-ons that I have ever experienced in a game.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    WoW does boss battles right and does them wrong simultaneously. I think the bosses that populate the game are well done and do a lot to promote the primary goal of the concept of the party. Elites are the big bads who cannot (or at least could not) be soloed. They required a diverse group of adventurers who could play off each other’s strengths in order to overcome each other’s weaknesses.

    I remember the first time I ran into Hogger in the penninsula between Elwynn and Westfall. This was less than a month after launch. I was doing pretty well, I thought. As a thief, I was around level 11 and had only died a handful of times. I was confident. When I found Hogger, he was surrounded by several dead bodies (all mid-corpse run I’d gathered). I thought that maybe they just weren’t that good or that maybe they’d have fared better if they could go stealth like me. I snuck up on Hogger, got a nice sneak-attack crit on him and then died faster than I thought was possible.

    I learned my lesson. Elite meant I needed help. I joined and filled out a party of five and we took on Hogger, hoping to drown him in numbers. It took a few tries ’til we were able to figure out how to work together. Hogger killed me three times before I killed him, but that experience taught me 1) the value of a party and 2) the value of knowing how to interact with other players’ unique skillsets.

    As I went on, various dungeons in the game helped me learn new lessons and every loss taught me how to play better. These were bosses done right.

    But also done wrong.

    The problem was the loot. The randomizing of what loot came out of victories encouraged grinding bosses. While at vanilla leveling was gradual enough that it wasn’t implausible to run a dungeon three or four times looking for the right loot drop, this wasn’t such a problem until players hit level cap. That’s where raiding life began, stripping the game of its previous tenor and turning it into a complicated Farmville, where grinding meant better loot which meant more grinding for better loot which meant more grinding for better loot.

    The bosses became more and more inventive and strategy intense, but the loot system turned them into grinds. So it wasn’t so much the WoW bosses that were the problem. It was the manner in which items dropped. Which was a shame. I loved the game but could never get into the whole Life Begins at 60 70 80 85 mentality.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Drew, the colossi are larger than life opponents that each require an entirely different strategy and each has their special weak spot that requires different tactics to find and attack. If that’s not a boss in the classical sense, I don’t know what is.

    Rich, four words for you, chum: which always the ladies.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Seth,

    Yeah but they are the only thing in that game that you “fight.” I mean they certainly play like boss battles but I think “boss battle” assumes you are battling other things until you come upon a much more difficult boss–that requires more foresight, strategy, etc.

    Anyway–that is neither here nor there because this article is not about how all boss battles are dumb–its about how a lot of boss battles are dumb and some examples of how games have done them well.

    Using my own criteria, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Colossi are “bosses.” If they are, they are excellent ones because they utilize the game’s mechanics, and the are incredibly emotionally resonant. I think there are probably other criteria that can work to make a boss battle work well within a game’s core mechanics and story but the two ways I have suggested–SotC nails both of those.

    So Shadow of the Colossus FTW!

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I battled a lot of white-backed lizards, if memory serves. And maze-y canyons.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I think you could hunt those, but I don’t remember them being violent toward Wanderer. I need to play the HD reissue!

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I’m hoping to get the HD reissue for Xmas.


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