Spoiler note:Though nothing overly specific is mentioned; Unforgiven, Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3 are all discussed.
Lately I've been thinking through of a few of my favourite bosses and thinking about what makes them tick. Then I watched the film Unforgiven and was astounded by the climax of the film. It got me thinking about how the film lead up to that end tension, and how games can learn from that build up (and some that already have).
For those of you who haven't seen Unforgiven, it's a western about a man who's had to put his rough lifestyle behind him, only to relive it after falling into some tough times. As I watching the movie I was completely enamoured by the protagonist and the antagonist, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman respectively, and more specifically, their climactic duel.
This final face-off proved to be one of the best I've seen in any movie, but why did I enjoy it so much? Thinking it through I believe it is largely in part by how the two characters are portrayed throughout the movie, or rather how my mind portrayed them. Both of these characters interactions create an image in the viewers mind that these are two absolutely unstoppable forces.
William Munny's (Eastwood) past life is constantly referred back too, but never outright explained. The viewer only receives glimpses of the former man he was. This creates a sense of mystery about Munny's origins and just how dangerous he was. A good comparison to this would be the Joker in The Dark Knight. By not being specifically told, are imagination is left to fabricate far more terrible things than the writer could provide.
The story also makes a point to show his unwillingness to revisit those former ways, this is portrayed by his unwillingness to drink. He goes through several points where he should by all means take the medicating effects of alcohol, but he refuses. This makes the moment before the climax all the more formidable, as he hears that his old partner has been killed, he takes the whiskey and alerts the viewer that this is the old man of legend.
We also see Gene Hackman's character raised up, especially through his interactions with English Bob. We see Bob to be a fairly competent foe, he's a man to be feared and one you don't want to mess with. However, Gene Hackman's character demolishes him in a matter of seconds and leads him in a bloody crumpled mess. We therefore see Gene Hackman as greater than English Bob, a man who the viewer previously thought was one of the top gunslingers.
Essentially what has happened is that, with both of these characters, the viewer has used their imagination to form both characters into individuals of immense power. The power is by no means measured, for that would ruin the effect. No, the viewer is left to think of all the things they are capable of. That is why the climatic duel at the end is so invigorating. Two unstoppable forces collide and the viewer has no real way of telling which will be the victor.
So, this idea that we as viewers essentially use our imagination to create how powerful these characters are is what I'm after here. Got it, good. Now, how do we apply this to boss battles?
Well, at first it's rather difficult. Because of the nature of video games, bosses have to die after a specific number of hits. This idea of our imagination defining the tenacity of an enemy seems to contradict the rule based design of video games. So what do we do to make bosses more challenging, more difficult, or more terrifying. Why we give them a bunch of health, make them look terribly ferocious, or just make them big. A good example of this is Fontaine at the end of Bioshock. A foe who was literally just a big, intimidating blue guy, who took a lot of shots. He even had the health bar to boot. It results in the game measuring out the strength of our villains, not our minds. So can this form of build up found in Unforgiven be applied to video games?
As you've been reading this I'm sure you've thought of bosses that do, at least to some degree, apply this idea. However, if you haven't been able too I'd like to point out a few examples and highlight some of the things done right and ways that this lesson of imagination was applied.
Design choice also may have helped here
I'd like to look at Sepheroph from Final Fantasy VII. This may seem like an odd choice, especially when I just stated that JRPGs often need to have boss's with set hitpoints, but FF VII did something rather cool to make Sepheroph menacing in my mind. Fairly early on in the game the player is given a flashback of (who we think is) a young Cloud fighting with Sepheroph in his hometown. As I recall Cloud is a little weaker than what you currently have him levelled at, but Sepheroph is loads more powerful than you are at this point in the game. His health is in the thousands, his attacks kill things in one hit, and his abilities have far longer cut scenes making them seem far more powerful.
With this, the player has a precise image of how powerful Sepheroph was at that point, but that was in the past, he's had all kinds of time to become stronger. For me it created such a caution when I went to approach Sepheroph in the final fight. He had been so much more powerful in the past, and even though I had far surpassed that past Sepheroph, I knew that he too would have bulked up. My imagination had essentially run wild with what abilities he could have amassed in that time. Of course it didn't end up being what my mind had fabricated, but it still created that anxiety leading up too it.
Next up is Dr. Breen from Half-Life 2 (though it could easily be Andrew Ryan or Glados). Throughout the game, Breen teases us, pleading the player to stop, but at the same throwing out aggravating quips. However, we're never able to interact with Breen, and rather just have to accept that he's up in his mighty tower, and we're having the time of our lives killing zombies and combine. The point is that it allows the player to develop a level of animosity towards Breen. It creates a very unique connection between you and that foe, something that an ordinary boss wouldn't have. Okay, so not playing as much on the imaginative thing, but it's sort of a psychological thing that makes boss battles more rewarding.
Not even a cardboard box can save you from this.
Finally, I want to look at The Sorrow from MGS3. The thing I'm after here is the idea of learning a specific rule set, and then completely abandoning it when it comes to the boss. This contradictory to most games as the typical format is for us to enter a level, learn a specific skill set, and the put that skill set to the test with a boss. However, The Sorrow took all the stealth, gun play, and clever survival tactics from the previous several hours and threw them out the window. A boss that does this can be absolutely terrifying, especially if a game could some how build this up.
What feelings of dread would loom over a player who knew that the final boss was somehow impervious to all of your attacks. That every way you had fought so far was going to be of no use. And then in contrast to that, how rewarding would it be to discover the way to defeat that boss who had feared so much just before. I'm not entirely sure what this looks like. I mean it could be something completely lame such as a player receiving a weapon at the end that suddenly makes their attacks super effective, but I'm more after something that throws out the previous mechanics (like healing your enemy instead of attacking it). Of course there would need to be some sort of hint.
This all said, traditional boss fights can be absolutely stunning if done right. I still consider the Hydra from God of War to be unlike anything else, and I'm sure all of you can think of great classic bosses. Still, it's wonderful to see fresh bosses as well, and I can only hope to see more and more in future generations.