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Feature: BOSS FIGHT! The Complexities of Boss Battle Design
by Chris Hawke

Boss battles are simple, right? A bigger foe cycles through a series of advances, as the player attacks glowing weak spots. Sure, some fights haven't changed much since their 1975 inception in dnd, but modern bosses are much more complex than they used to be. Pack up your gear, tell your parents you're heading out, and don't forget your scarf - we're going on an adventure through the complexities of boss battle design!

Nowadays, games have much more emotional strength. It's no longer acceptable just to have bigger and more challenging boss fights; they often come with grand cinematics sewing together plotlines. Developers now have to choose how to design a boss battle so that it has the right effect on players.

WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead. Tread carefully, young wanderer.

These distill into two main categories: the difficult and epic war of attrition; and the climactic and story-focused, easier fights. The former focuses on testing players mettle, challenging them to use all the combos they've learned, test their dexterity and button-bashing, and require several deaths before the obstacle is overcome. The latter is concerned primarily with plot, and the actual fights are usually easier, designed to be beaten in one or two goes, in order to keep players immersed and involved in the story that's unfolding.

'Course, that doesn't stop games having their cake and eating it. One example of a balance of these two designs is God of War III, which is both action- and myth-heavy. Boss fights with the likes of Poseidon, Hercules, and even Zeus consist of a straight up vanilla-fight: you slice and dice with your deity counterpart as he does his unique version of slice and dice, while occasionally performing a 'special attack'. Kratos has to duck, jump or take it like a man. However, after that, you get your 'reward' - a simple Quick Time Event that allows a story-driven back-and-forth (usually 'please don't kill me!' while Kratos gets stabby), while also keeping the player inside the action. It's something Heavy Rain took and ran with, allowing a very cinematic experience while also having the player somewhat in charge.

It's more usual, however, for a developer to stick with only one method. Borderlands had various milestones in the forms of 9-Toes, Sledge, and the other misfits, culminating in 'The Destroyer'. These enemies were often touted as 'real challenges', with a struggle against minor bandits leading up to the fights. Story and action got separated from there - you'd get a piece of the artefact after the battle, but in that moment it was all about the killing. RPGs (especially JRPGs) love to have waypoints in the form of mythical beasts or crazed gang-leaders, but often these lead to all manner of problems - with role-playing allowing you to choose your own style, it's hard to find battles that cater for all of them, often resulting in plenty of deaths for those who prefer sneaking or long-range attacks. Borderlands just threw you into a small room with a bigger guy and told you to plug him the the face. Like a boss.

This can be seen again in Killzone 2. Instead of fighting the ultimate dictator, Visari, he's saved for the 'story' part of the ending (a.k.a. The Talky-Talky Bit). Radec serves as the boss here, and having already put a bullet through Jan Templar, you know that 'the gun points at him'. Much like Borderlands, this battle borders on insane, requiring multiple playthoughs and guerrilla-style tactics to defeat him. This choice, made by the developers, means that there's a tough obstacle followed by a reward (the final cinematic). You fight Radec totally detached from any story development, meaning it has to be near-impossible in order to justify itself and to avoid an underwhelming, anti-climactic ending, before sitting back and simply watching the conclusion.

In contrast to this, you have the second method: cinematic, easy, plot-driven endings that seem more in touch with interactive cutscenes than actual gameplay. A fan-favorite example of this is, of course, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare. Yes, you've shot up thousands of foreigners, made an explosive escape from a missile silo, and have almost been blown to high heaven on a bridge. Instead of then having Soap and the gang pump lead into more waves of bad guys before a final showdown with Zakhaev, Modern Warfare takes out the biggest butter knife it can find and spreads a plentiful amount of emotion all over your screen. Price gets shot. Griggs gets killed. Gaz's face meets a shard of hot lead. And there's just you, a pistol, and Zakhaev. It only takes three more well-placed shots and the game's over. Rather than plumping for a sense of accomplishment via player victory from a hard shootout, Modern Warfare tugs at your heartstrings, combining story and action into a seamless blend.

Splinter Cell: Conviction takes a similar cue. The act of getting into the White House requires a lot of skill and cunning, but the final moments just require Sam to look round the room and mark the enemy. A button press later, and it's all over. It's the same ilk as Modern Warfare - the 'victory' isn't a clear win or lose, but something inbetween. It's a hard subject to deal with in terms of a videogame story, and rather than annoy and frustrate the player with an incredibly difficult last act (without the offer of a happy sunset as the closing shot), the developers decide to keep you fixed with a simple task void of much skill, but heavy on emotion and plot.

Not every boss battle pays off, though. Some games can't quite pull off either the battle, or the story, leading to a misjudged ending. Grand Theft Auto IV, an otherwise stunning game, had this issue. Most people had Niko's love, Kate, cut down in a drive-by, and Rockstar obviously wanted this to have some effect on players. Unfortunately, most gamers found her just a tad annoying, and became more affected by the fact Niko turned into a depressed teenager. Not only was the emotional side a little botched, but - apart from an incredibly tricky motorbike-to-chopper jump - the action was relatively standard too. Rockstar saved face thank to their brilliant characterisation, and a final monologue from Niko managed to engage players one last time, but the end result was still slightly disappointing. Especially in my game, where Roman phoned up 30 seconds later wanting to go to a strip club. Creep.

A more interesting case is the Metal Gear Solid series. From the very first PS1 installment, boss battles were an absolute joy to behold; both a triumph of emotional gravitas and challenging gameplay. Swapping controller ports was only the start, as tense Sniper Wolf set pieces and heart-stopping hide-and-seek with Raven (among others) made for a truly stunning story, and went hand-in-hand with involving player interaction. This trend only continued through the second and third games, but MGS4 was the exception. The whole style and feel of the series had changed, meaning it was more action-heavy, and the members of the Beast Corps were only characterised after the battle. For a few, myself included, this led to underwhelming boss fights; a far cry from the original. The action consisted of standing stock-still as you plugged endless rounds into enemies you knew little about, didn't really care for, running though the same attacks. Crying Wolf was much better, requiring thinking, sneaking, and hiding as you tracked the enemy; but the others were neither exciting enough in the action department, nor emotionally involving enough - Screaming Mantis was nothing more than a 'tribute', requiring only a few seconds worth of aimed gunfire to kill.

It has been 35 years, but bosses still remain an integral part of gaming lore, whether they be bald-headed bad-blokes from Uncharted 2, or even randomly appearing 'Special Infected' in the Left 4 Dead series. The developers need to decide first whether to test a player's gaming skill or their ability to choke back tears, lest the game be scorned for an underwhelming ending.

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- Chris Hawke

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