#DigitalFables is Alex Ziebart's column about the boons and banes of storytelling in video games.
Video games have been pushing narrative boundaries further and further every year. Gone are the days where games were only defined by earning points to reaching the next stage. Sure, a game can still be collect-a-thons and point-fests, but these mechanics aren't necessary anymore. Few things are necessary to be a video game.
There's one thing the general gaming audience just won't let go of: boss battles.
Rare is the game that can get away with not having a single boss battle. If an action-adventure game doesn't have a big showy boss battle at the end, particularly in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, even the game's most diehard fans will consider it a negative.
How many times have you heard "the boss fight wasn't very good" or "there wasn't even a boss fight" when reading about games you've played?
But the problem might not be that the boss battles themselves aren't well designed — it seems more and more like boss battles just don't exactly fit certain games and antagonists.
Here's The Fundamental Problem
When action-adventure games place an emphasis on their narrative elements, which games are increasingly trying to do, not every villain makes a good boss fight.
Not every world or setting lends itself well to the existence of boss fights, either. Final Fantasy has no problem with this. Enormous, monstrous, and supremely powerful creatures are part and parcel of Final Fantasy. But not every setting is Final Fantasy. And not every setting should be.
What if your villainous faction is primarily just people? How do you explain the one guy who has more health than the rest of his species combined?
What about the villains who are villainous based on their brain rather than their brawn? The ones who have reached a place of power based on political clout rather than strength of arms? These archetypes have existed as long as storytelling — as long as humanity — but big budget video games struggle to even approach them.
Gamers' insatiable demand for the huge, flashy, "satisfying" boss fight has made those stories almost impossible to tell.
Boss Fights Go Bad When They Put Mechanics Before The Story
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a divisive game at best, but for the sake of this discussion, let's focus on one particular element: The Archon, the game's villain. As you might suspect, spoilers abounds for Andromeda ahead. Like, right now.
You don't fight the Archon. Not directly, at least. Here's just a couple examples of players' reactions to the lack of a traditional boss fight:
Gamers (and I'm generalizing here) will knock a game without a boss fight, but the pursuit of the boss fight has tarnished otherwise great games. Before we dig deeper into the Archon, let's look at a few boss fights gone wrong.
The Joker (Arkham Asylum)
In Batman comics, The Joker didn't become a standout villain because he was a bruiser. He can't go toe-to-toe with Batman. But The Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum was turned into a huge, muscle-y mutant for the Boss Battle.
The Joker is known for using psychology and manipulation as his weapon, not giant ham-sized fists. Batman is a hero who employs fear to keep his enemies in line and The Joker is fearless. He possesses an unpredictable cunning, often playing Batman's psyche and morality against him. The Joker represents more than strength and violence; the conflict between Batman and The Joker is a battle of wills and ideologies. It's moral order versus amoral chaos.
Batman comics have plenty of villains who make for good boss fights and the Arkham game franchise makes use of many such villains. But when The Joker is your primary antagonist, and your players will expect a final boss, how do you achieve that with The Joker and make it satisfying?
You don't. You can't. So you make Roid Rage Joker which makes no sense and is super dumb, but you needed a boss fight, so screw it.
The Half-Life franchise, like many Valve titles, is a lesson in environmental storytelling. In many of their games, you learn the finer details of the setting through exploration and reading between the lines. You're explicitly told very little. By drawing you into their game worlds in such a way, you're more immersed in games like Half-Life and Left 4 Dead than you would be in your typical first person shooter.
Half-Life is science fiction, but it's grounded. You're trying to survive here on Earth, crawling through the bowels of a research facility gone wrong. The enemy is a full-fledged society, not random monsters. When you encounter human enemies, they're a little off. They've been changed. The monsters you're presented with are creepy, but feel as if they have a purpose — a reason for existing beyond something fun to shoot. Whatever world they come from, they have a place in it.
In the final stretch of Half-Life, you leave behind everything that kept the game grounded. You leave the Black Mesa research facility, go off to an alien planet, and everything gets a little Doom circa 1993. The immersion goes off the rails and suddenly it's much more video gamey. You no longer get a sense that everything has a reason for its existence.
In the end, you shoot a giant hideous baby in its weak point for massive damage because there's no easy way to translate Half Life's pacing and environmental cues into a satisfying boss fight.
Human Reaper (Mass Effect 2)
The Mass Effect franchise is a hybrid shooter RPG. Its combat is absolutely a big part of the game, but Mass Effect hinges on its story and narrative. When fans of the franchise discuss the original trilogy, they rarely discuss its mechanics, but rather than story told over the course of that trilogy.
Mass Effect has struggled with boss fights since its first installment in 2007, but it hit a particular low point in Mass Effect 2. The game's premise: A mysterious group of bug-men are kidnapping humans en masse. Find out why, then stop them.
It wasn't enough to investigate the Collectors, hunt them down, disable their flagship, find answers, and in a climactic moment, carve a path through the Collectors to sabotage their melt-all-humans machine. No, the game needed a boss fight.
The Reapers — visually — are robotic space squids. All of them. Why is this one the Terminator? Because boss fights, I guess. (Also, you shoot its weak point for massive damage.)
Mass Effect: Andromeda's Archon Solution
The antagonists in the games above didn't fit into a neat "boss fight" box, so the developers had to twist things around to manufacture a boss fight. They had to derail their narrative or, in the final moments, twist their antagonist into something they're not. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but why is it necessary at all?
I suppose you could turn the Archon in Mass Effect: Andromeda into a boss fight, but you'd be doing it just for the sake of having a boss fight, not because it was the compelling or interesting thing to do.
Instead of having a big shootout with the Archon, the player's Ryder must fight her way through a mass of smaller enemies to a control panel that will override a device and fry the Archon. Once she does that... the encounter is over, the Archon falls to the ground dead, the game is won. There's no slug-fest between Ryder and the Archon; there's no giant sack of hit points needlessly attached to the encounter. There's a context, an action, a result.
A major theme of Mass Effect: Andromeda is colonization. The Andromeda Initiative, the player character's organization, is looking for new frontiers in the Heleus Cluster for survival, yes, but in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
The Archon and the kett are in the Heleus Cluster with the goal of domination. The Andromeda Initiative seeks a cultural exchange on even footing. The Archon and the kett want the denizens of the Heleus Cluster to become kett.
The kett, as a species/society, place value in their genes above all else. Their reverence of their genes is downright religious. Genetic purity determines your place in their social structure. The Archon found a place of power within the kett not necessarily because he was the strongest or the smartest, but because his genes were pure.
His position as antagonist was determined by his bloodline. To him, being in a place of power is a given. It's his birthright. His society has instilled him with an undeserved arrogance. He's a genetic trust fund kid with enough power to make peoples' lives miserable.
In the context of Andromeda, the Archon isn't villainous due to his personal strength. He's a villain because of what he wants and what he wants is at odds with what you want. He isn't going to bring the Heleus Cluster to heel through strength of arms. He's going to do it by gaining access to the ancient technology with which he's become obsessed — the same technology you want to use to salvage your colonization efforts. To you, it's life or death. To him, it's something he wants that he can't have.
The Archon is a philosophical villain — an ideological villain. Not a hulking space monster. When it comes down to the final battle, you and the Archon aren't exchanging physical blows. You're facing the culmination of both your efforts and his: vying for control of the device that decides the fate of your survival in Andromeda. When the Archon falls, it's his arrogance that proves to be his undoing. His death is the result of raw hubris.
Slugging it out with the Archon would be like slugging it out with a politician. Metal Gear Rising only gets away with a Senator as its endboss because that game is supposed to be corny.
Most Boss Fights End Up Using The Same Formula
If every game needs to end with a boss fight, then every villain of every game needs the following qualities:
- Probably ugly
Should every video game ultimately have the same villain and the same conclusion? Do we want to cast aside anything that might make an antagonist unique for the sake of a boss fight?
Personally, I think we need to let boss fights go. Every story needs its climax, its final set piece, but not every climax needs to be a boss fight.
If it's fitting for the game, by all means, give me a huge boss to kill. But if your narrative doesn't call for a big, nasty, unambiguous monster, the boss fight shouldn't be necessary and we should stop whining if the villain doesn't have a big health bar and a weak spot.
Do you think boss fights are necessary? What games have you played that dealt with final encounters in a better way?