The boss battle is a concept that has existed for almost as long as video games themselves. It’s such an old trope in video games that I believe many designers have lost sight of what their actual purpose was when they were first introduced, and what that means in the context of modern game design.
To begin with, let’s examine a classic: The Legend Of Zelda.
|The first boss of the NES classic|
Traditionally, games in the Zelda series are structured so that you work through a dungeon, solving puzzles and defeating enemies to find the treasure of the dungeon, and then proceed to defeat the boss with that very treasure. In all cases, the treasure of the dungeon is also needed to gain access to the boss’s chamber, as well.
As you can see from the screenshot above, boss battles weren’t exactly a spectacle back in the 80s. Instead of merely looking awesome, boss fights served the purpose of testing the skills the player had been accruing in the dungeon up to that point. The rest of the level was just practice, and the techniques the player learned throughout it would be directly applicable to this final challenge.
Zelda has always been decidedly light on story though, and nowadays, boss fights tend to serve as dramatic climaxes or primary forces that drive the narrative. And this is where many modern developers go wrong with the concept.
Lots of games nowadays don’t use combat as the primary mechanic of gameplay. For these games, a classic “David and Goliath” style boss fight is probably not fitting, and it would be a much better idea to have a different kind of boss, or forego boss fights altogether, as is done in Portal 2.
Too many games these days shoehorn in boss fights that simply don’t belong, and this ends up creating boss fights that are the low point of the game, rather than the high point. Case in point: Batman: Arkham Asylum.
|Though he is Batman’s main antagonist, the Joker doesn’t really stand a chance against him if put in the same room for five minutes.|
Arkham Asylum’s gameplay is split up into three unique categories. The first being sections in which Batman navigates the asylum and tracks down clues to figure out where to go next. The second is basic fisticuffs against unarmed thugs. And lastly, the sections in which Batman must stealthily eliminate inmates armed with guns (which can kill him quite quickly). Exploration, fisticuffs, stealth. See?
Now, the purpose of boss fights in this game is two-fold: to allow Batman a moment of direct conflict with the many supervillains in the story, and to provide a new context for the player to exercise their skill in fisticuffs or stealth. The only trouble is, the new context they provide is generally gimmicky and not as much fun as the rest of the game. For example, the scenes in which you “fight” Batman’s fear based villain, the Scarecrow.
|Scary? Subjective. A step backwards in stealth gameplay? Absolutely.|
The idea with Scarecrow was to try to create a boss fight centered around stealth, a design challenge I’ve seen many people take a stab at with varying success. The glowing portions of the ground in the screenshot above indicate Scarecrow’s field of vision. Batman must navigate the terrain without being spotted by Scarecrow to win. This means waiting for Scarecrow to follow his rigid pattern of where he’s looking, and making a dash for cover as soon as he looks away.
This is the most primitive and boring form that stealth in can take in a video game. Back when this idea alone was enough to fuel an entire stealth game, there would always be more than one guard that you had to avoid so that it didn’t become so mindless and dull. But here, the player only has to watch Scarecrow as he moves his head back and forth like a robot to allow them to proceed. It’s not difficult at all, and it’s extremely tedious.
It’s especially tragic because the stealth in the rest of the game was so damn good. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.
|For the first time in a stealth game, the player is the one who is feared by the guards, not the other way around.|
In the regular stealth sequences, players use all of Batman’s gizmos and gadgets to knock out the guards who are looking for him. They must isolate individual goons, pick them off silently, and quickly move away back to the shadows before the other guards notice. With each thug that goes down, the rest of them start to visibly panic, Joker taunting them over the intercom all the while.
It’s a beautifully organic experience that can be approached from a hundred different angles. Batman has so many tricks up his sleeve that deciding how exactly you want to take down each guard is like being a kid in a candy store. For me personally, these sections of the game were the best power-fantasy I’ve ever played in a video game.
This unique, refreshing take on the stealth genre is thrown to the wayside so that we can have a super archaic boss fight with Scarecrow, simply because we need to have a boss fight with Scarecrow. Most of Batman’s villains are very psychological in nature. It’s weird to see him actually fighting any of them hand-to-hand. The conflict for Batman is always how he must stop a complex, diabolical plot that is already in motion, not how can he find the strength to punch some dude’s lights out. I know Batman is a superhero and he technically has a lot of supervillains so boss fights seem like a no-brainer, but every encounter with a boss in that game is a step down from the rest of the game.
I think the developers would have been wise to rethink that whole part of the game. Does this game really need boss fights? Can we create direct conflict between Batman and the villains without pitting them against each other? Can we create climactic moments in the story without boss fights? These are questions that need to be asked when putting a boss in your game.
For Arkham Asylum in particular, it’s hard for me to come up with what I would specifically do to fix these issues, so I’m not trying to say it’s easy. But I’d rather shoot for a product that was good from beginning to end rather than end up damaging the overall experience with a poorly conceived stab at a “high point” for the game.