Before leaving for work in the morning, my dad was in the habit of writing out lengthy lists of chores that he wanted me and my brother to complete that day. He always signed his lists with the same two ominious words, always in capital letters: THE BOSS.
Bosses are frightening beings. They can make you do things that you wouldn't normally do, like wear a dumb uniform, and say strange things like, "Welcome to Chili's!" Bosses also have the power to tell you that you can't go home yet even if you want to go home, because, as they will explain, "There is still more work to do." Worst of all, bosses can take money away from you with another pair of words that is even more terrifying than THE BOSS. Those two words are: YOU'RE FIRED.
Maybe this is why I've always adored boss battles in videogames. It's a chance for me to dole out some well-deserved karmic payback for all those mustachioed middle managers who told me that I couldn't go home, that there was still more work to do, and, oh yes, please wear this dumb hat while working or else I will take money away from you.
Bosses--the virtual kind--have technically been around since a screen-filling mothership first appeared in the fifth and final level of Phoenix, an obscure 1980's-era arcade shooter. The first boss encounter I personally can recall with any clarity is Bowser in Super Mario Bros. I remember getting to the end of that white brick and lava level, and seeing this heavily pixellated lizard standing in front of me, and thinking two things: 1. WHAT THE SHIT ASS HELL IS THAT? and 2. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO BEAT IT?
So began two long, dramatic decades of boss encounters for me. I've confronted bosses in Contra III: The Alien Wars (ROGUE TURTLE WITH A BEES NEST LIVING ON IT!), Super Metroid (RIDLEY!), Doom (CYBERDEMON, NOOOOO!) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (DESERT WORM THING!). A fantasy that I've actually had on several occasions: I imagine all the bosses in all the games getting together once a year, maybe in a nice resort like Sandals, and sitting in a room, trying for the life of them to understand how the hell this Scott Jones person keeps beating all of them, year after year after year. "Enough is enough!" Bowser says, pounding one of his lizard fists on the table. "THIS STOPS NOW!"
Yet my beloved boss battles seem to be on the decline in recent years. Gamers, at least most of the gamers who I talk to on a routine basis, seem to be tired of dealing with this artificial ramping-up of difficulty in a game's final moments. Worse still, as evidenced by the lackluster boss fights I've seen so far this year, game makers seem to be growing increasingly tired of making them.
Boss battles have, very sadly, become fill-in-the-blank exercises in tedium. Same way that old movies always ended with the image of two people kissing or a cowboy riding off into a sunset, games still insist on ending with a boss battle of some sort. I've finished an unnatural amount of games so far in 2010. But could I tell you who, or what, I fought in the final moments of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Bayonetta, Alan Wake, or even the vaunted God of War III?
I could not.
And that's a problem.
What I do remember, in each case, is a flurry of noise, and hyperbole, and melodrama, and CG. All of which was designed to give me a sense of closure, to make me feel powerful, and to let me know that I have arrived at the end of a very great experience. Like a Vietnam flashback, I can recall vague explosions, and amorphous, oversized creatures coming into view. And I remember frustration--lots and lots of frustration.
Yet, more than frustration, I remember feeling irritated and pissed off in these final moments. Instead of having a ball in what should be the game's dramatic crescendo, most of the time I recall thinking, Goddamn it all, will this thing just fucking die already, and let me get on with my life. All that stood between me and a hard-earned rolling-of-the-credits of an uneven 8 to 15-hour experience was this big, stupid, bellowing, nonsensical creature with a multilayered health bar spanning the screen. Not once did these creatures, or the moments they were providing me with, give me closure, or make me feel empowered. I didn't walk away with any sort of fist-pumping, woo-hooing satisfaction. Strip away the explosions, and the hyperbole, and the CG, and what you're left with is a dated game design trope.
The fight with Fontaine/Atlas at the end of BioShock, to my mind, is the tombstone at the end of the boss-battle era. After one of the most consistently inventive and evocative experiences I'd ever had, Irrational Games/2K Boston ended the whole fucking thing in the most banal way imaginable: with a dull, unsatisfying boss battle. That milquetoast fight against Fontaine/Atlas still irks me. Even the eerie beating you dole out to Andrew Ryan's smug face with a golf club would have made for a bolder, more unsettling, and more appropriate ending to BioShock.
I've written the epitaph for this virtual tombstone: "Here lies the body of the boss battle. It lived a good life. In the end, its multilayered health bar finally ran out. Rest in peace. 1980-2007. P.S. Yes: It's really dead this time."
The larger question then becomes: As games grow more complex and nuanced and mature, how do we end them?
I'll take a stab at answering that question in an upcoming post. Wish me luck.