While writing an article about the top five villains of this generation, I realized something about the state of difficulty and adversity in our current gaming landscape. Bosses, which have been a typical staple of video games since their inception, no longer carry the same meaning they once did in the golden era of games. Big bads in current games are often times just as easy to kill as the countless others you cut down along the way, and developers’ lack of creativity (or fear of exploring it) in enemy and concept design has left the difficult, satisfying, and frustrating boss battles of yesteryear completely out of the equation.
It’s been years since I played a game where a boss actually challenged me. It’s quite likely that part of the reason that’s true is due to the fact that most developers are unwaveringly focused on creating realistic experiences with believable, squishy enemies. Think about it: most military shooters (which comprise the majority of games, these days) build up an uninteresting or otherwise nondescript villain whom you chase after for the majority of the game, only to easily dispatch him when you finally catch up. Most of the time, taking down a boss is just as easy as killing anything else in the game before it. It may be an adequate for some players simply to complete the game, but the utter satisfaction of outmaneuvering, outsmarting, and generally outplaying a tough boss AI is absent from most modern day endgame experiences.
It’s an unfortunate circumstance that has, sadly, marred the otherwise advancing landscape of current generation gaming. In our ongoing quest for photorealism and utter believability, we’ve left behind some of the most successful elements from gaming’s past. Compare any title from the Nintendo 64 era to a game from today. Nearly every single retro title features bosses at regular intervals throughout the course of the experience. These bosses punctuated the core gameplay standards and forced players to think about how best to approach the unique abilities at their disposal. Bosses required gamers to utilize their skillsets in intriguing and creative ways to discover each baddie’s weak points, rather than have them explicitly highlighted for easy identification.
Even today, boss battles are little more than glorified interactive cutscenes, with clearly marked weak spots and attacks that are far too telegraphed to be dangerous to the player. On most occasions, players are able to immediately determine predictable boss attack and movement patterns and subsequently exploit them on the very first try. Whatever happened to experimenting with your various equipment and weaponry to *gasp* discover the best way to beat a boss? In fact, whatever happened to dying during boss fights? It just seems a little silly that taking down these enormous, incredibly powered bad guys is as easy as shooting a bunch of assault rifle bullets at a glowing eyeball or pulsating open heart (Gears of War 3, I’m looking at you). We often times watch these huge bosses do unspeakable damage or otherwise wreak havoc in cinematics, only to do away with them in ways that should have been ridiculously obvious to the others who fell to their wrath.
Suspension of disbelief is the single most important thing to consider when developing an engrossing narrative experience. Games don’t need to be grounded so firmly in reality to establish it, either. When developers create purely fictitious universes that are compelling and rich, that same level of immersion and believability is there. Too often are bosses bound by the “rules” of real life, which ultimately defeats one of the more important benefits of video games: escapism. To put us in the shoes of “just another soldier” and grant us regenerating life and other superhuman abilities for gameplay purposes directly counteracts any attempts at realism. Try playing through Battlefield 3’s singleplayer or any Modern Warfare title and ask yourself, “What makes me so special?” when the game tries so hard to establish that you are just as human as the enemies you perforate so easily.
I understand that having a zombified super soldier as the final boss in Battlefield 3 would completely ruin any established fiction, but what about a tough fight with a helicopter, piloted by the man you’re so determined to take down? Or maybe a nail-biting finale involving a car chase and a fist fight? Developers need to leave utter realism at the door and focus on creating memorable boss battles that give villains a chance to shine and challenge the player. I should die the first time I fight a boss. I should get frustrated and experiment to get the upper hand. I should have to use all the tools at my disposal and barely come out on top intact. When video games start to treat bosses like obstacles and not glorified in-game cinematics, maybe the difficulty and challenge in games that have become lost along the way will return to form.
What do you think? Do bosses suck in the current generation of gaming? Or have games simply evolved to become more emulative experiences? Leave your thoughts in the comments!