In Face Off, PC Gamer writers go head to head over an issue affecting PC gaming. Today, Tom and Wes argue about boss fights, which have been around nearly as long as video games themselves, and whether they’re an outdated concept.
Wes Fenlon, Hardware editor
Wes wants modern boss fights to be a bit more original.
Tom Marks, Assistant editor
Tom thinks boss fights are still a nice change of pace.
Wes: YES. I’ve played many great boss fights in my day, but far too many big games shoehorn in boss fights when they don’t need them. Boss fights once made perfect video game sense in linear, side-scrolling levels. Get to the end of the stage, fight the big bad in charge, and move on to the next. And that’s still fun! But as games have evolved with open worlds and non-linear levels and forms of gameplay more nuanced than “shoot slash punch bad guy,” boss fights don’t fit as well. Bioshock and the more recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution are two modern examples of boss fights gone really wrong. Bioshock needed an emotional climax, not one that involved shooting a roided-up bad guy. And Human Revolution betrayed the core of its gameplay by making you shoot it out with its bosses, which is something the new Deus Ex is thankfully addressing. Boss fights can still be done well, of course, but they’re most definitely antiquated.
Tom M.: NO. Boss fights aren’t always fun, but used correctly they can be vital to the pacing of a game. Boss fights don’t just represent the end of a level, they are a change of pace after a long stretch of similar gameplay. You’ve been running around shooting and beating up bad guys for a while, but how are you going to deal with this new enemy? That’s when the concept of a boss fight really shines; when it’s not just a bigger harder enemy, but instead challenges you in some interesting and different way. I completely agree that AAA games have recently misused the boss fight trope, treating it more like an expected practice than a place to shake up the game’s design, but that doesn’t mean boss fights as a whole are an outdated concept.
Wes: Sure—I’d look like a big dumb idiot if I said all boss fights today are lame and crappy. There are still good ones! But I think there are two big problems with how boss fights are implemented. In big-budget games, they’re often used to facilitate some dramatic cutscene or story moment, which means taking control away from the player or forcing you to play in a specific way. That sucks. And in general, I think too many games use boss fights because they’re expected. Boss fights are part of the language of video games, but they’re a very old word. And I’d like to see more games creating new words instead of falling back on the Middle English that is the boss fight.
Tom: I actually don’t mind boss fights being more rigid or scripted than the rest of a game. Making open world experiences where the player has lots of choice is a very difficult thing to do, and too much freedom can sometimes make for a crummy story. Boss fights are the perfect moment for a developer to bring the story back under their control a little bit to let them reliably tell the story they want to. Of course, the boss fight shouldn’t take certain options or playstyles away from the player that the rest of a game has made them accustomed to, like in Deus Ex for example. Those fights should be climactic and should represent a shift in the story. Even if they’re expected, they can play a vital role in the rhythm of a game.
Wes: Ah, so idealistic! Time and again, boss fights in big-budget games do change up the play style you’ve been taught just to show you something cool. Even the Batman games, which have fantastic combat, lose their lustre when they put you in an arena to slug it out with a boss. Think of the end of Asylum, when the Joker gets all beefy and slugs it out with Batman. It’s a great game, but that’s a cookie cutter boss fight that relies on antiquated video game language. How do we make a big, climactic battle? Hm, how about lots of punching? But the Joker would never do that! He’d do something clever. A smart, modern take on the boss fight there wouldn’t end with a punching match. I’d like to see more games have confidence in what they do best. To use a pretty traditional 2D game as an example: I don’t even remember the final boss of Rayman Origins, but I do remember the incredibly challenging and rewarding final platforming sequence leads up to it. Surviving that level is the true “boss” of the game.
Tom: Lots of games have also tried doing “boss sequences” or “boss levels” instead of a straight up fight, and I love that. I think it’s great when games don’t adhere to the formula, but that’s not the solution for every game. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t really have many boss fights, instead a particularly special baddy will get a mission all to himself. That’s cool and different and doesn’t shoehorn a stupid arena fight into an assassination game, but I also don’t remember a single one of those missions. You know what I do remember? Every single boss I fought in Dark Souls 2. I still agree that developers will put cookie cutter boss fights unnecessarily into games that don’t need them, but it’s by no means a concept that’s lost it’s value. It’s just more valuable in certain types of games.
Wes: I may not remember the characters of many Assassin’s Creed targets, but I do remember some of my more epic assassinations—and I loved that those characters could be killed silently and instantly, if you planned the perfect stealth kill. That’s a smart modern twist on the classic boss fight, too me--it elevates what’s best about Assassin’s Creed, instead of suddenly changing how you play the game. And hell, I love Dark Souls bosses too—I don’t hate the traditional boss fight, I just think many games today could do something more interesting with them. It seems like we’re mostly on the same page. So...what games are really doing creative boss fights right these days?
Tom: The first example that jumps to my mind is Titan Souls, a game made up of nothing but boss fights. It takes the “kill the big monster in an arena” concept to its extreme and cuts the fat off everywhere else. If you need to be convinced that compelling and exciting boss fights are still possible in modern games, Titan Souls will do that and then some. Terraria is another good example; each boss is difficult and unique, but also represents a tier of progression. The game has an open world with no fake constraints, but you can mostly only reach bosses in a certain order, each one giving you the means to fight the next. These games embrace the boss fight as the effective tool it is; a change of pace, a milestone in your progression, and a generator of “wow” moments.
Wes: I’ve played my fair share of Terraria, but I’ll be checking up on Titan Souls. If killing each boss doesn’t make me feel a deep and intense sorrow in true Shadow of the Colossus fashion, though, I’m going to hold you responsible for my irrational expectations.
Tom: Titan Souls was the first game that made me physically jump out of my chair when I killed a boss, and I did so for every single one. Consider your expectations rationally high.