You won’t believe what I’ve been through to get here. I’ve traveled the galaxy. I recruited a loyal team. I fought countless formidable foes. Hell, I even came back from the dead. And now I’ve led the charge right through an impossible suicide run. All led up to this point. The final battle. The meaning of my effort, the success of my entire mission, hinges on me defeating…just some wretched machine.
I’m Commander Shepard and this is not my favorite boss in the Citadel.
As the player about to finish a nice 30-hour game of Mass Effect 2, I’m afraid I must agree with my esteemed character. Why should I care about fighting a faceless, seemingly random giant robot that the game basically pulled out of its ass 30 seconds ago? It’s meant to be a surprise, but as a result I have no real motivation to defeat this boss other than finishing the game.
Don’t get me wrong: I like boss battles and final bosses. I also admire games that continue to find clever ways of melding such a traditional game element into their interactive narratives. A hot, story-based tart like Mass Effect 2 might still come my way, however, then suddenly skimp on character and motivation in her last moments, the final boss. She leaves me heartbroken with the memory of a soulless, mechanical romp. Well, game, I think we should break up.
our guides through these
richly developed worlds –
are stripped down to the
bare bones…” –Henry Jenkins
Really though, when you consider how long boss battles have been a part of games, the occurrence of the crazy, spontaneous final boss comes as little surprise. Think of King Koopa at the end of Super Mario Bros. Or Ganon at the end of The Legend of Zelda. At the time, games had little in the way of story, and instead focused on the fun of the gameplay. Sure, they had story elements, even with the bosses. The princess has been kidnapped. Defeat Koopa to save the princess. Defeat Ganon to…well, save another princess. First and foremost, however, Koopa, Ganon, and final bosses in general were the ultimate tests of player skill. Everything you learned about jumping in Mario or wielding various magical items in Zelda you’d then need to defeat the final boss and beat the game.
Only later did narrative become integral to games and, consequently, their final bosses. As game narratives grew increasingly complex, they could use story-based goals to further motivate boss battles beyond gameplay-oriented goals. Yet despite this, old-fashioned bosses from ME2’s Terminator rip-off to Crysis’s alien warship to Dead Space’s hive mind still occasionally menace us with tedious, obligatory tasks rather than meaningful conflict.
Perhaps the reason for the shallow final boss comes down to the nature of game narrative itself. Henry Jenkins, a leading voice in game theory, points out in his article, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” how critics might unfairly scrutinize game narratives, especially when they compare them to the established literary canon. “In many cases,” says Jenkins, “the characters – our guides through these richly developed worlds – are stripped down to the bare bones, description displaces exposition, and plots fragment into a series of episodes and encounters.” More akin to travel narratives like The Lord of the Rings, game narratives are spatially and journey driven rather than character driven.
Jenkins’s conclusions might excuse the very basic boss characters of older games, but they don’t necessarily mean games can’t ever put characterization to good use. Not to mention, his conclusions also don’t excuse the zero character in ME2’s final jack-in-the-box. Now more than ever, game narratives need characters.
Here’s where the final boss comes in handy: it’s a point where game mechanics and narrative standards can easily meet and not clash. Fitting right into traditional literary roles, the final boss is an obvious choice for the foil or the antagonist to the player character’s protagonist. The perfect character model for the boss thus already existed, and so games didn’t hesitate to adopt it.
For a fantastic example of the final boss foil/antagonist, you needn’t look further than Mass Effect’s own Saren. Put simply: he’s totally badass. His face is the face of the enemy. His voice is one that you, and your Shepard, can argue against. Once a Spectre, a galactic protector, now corrupted, Saren helps define Shepard by being either the Paragon’s opposite or a model for the Renegade’s anti-heroism. Through your various encounters with him and his general looming threat, his ongoing antagonism gives the game time and cause to develop the character’s corruption.
By the end, the hunt for the rogue Spectre is precisely what drives most of Mass Effect’s journey story and gameplay. It makes your final encounter with Saren one that you anticipate and care to complete. Ultimately, the lengths that Mass Effect goes to develop its final boss make Saren one of the most memorable game villains in recent years.
But what about characterization in games like Half-Life 2 that don’t have final bosses? Well, Half-Life 2 certainly has its share of antagonists: the puppet king of Earth, Dr. Breen, and his interdimensional alien overlords, the Combine. The game repeatedly features the deceptively calm, oppressive speeches of Big Brother Breen, which ramp up during the last few sequences and anticipate our hero Gordon Freeman’s final encounter with him. Instead of making Breen a traditional boss, however, the game instead opts for a climactic series of smaller battles against the Combine. The sequence yet makes for a satisfying way to overthrow the pragmatic tyrant while showing how a story-based game can successfully end without a final boss.
With that in mind, story heavy games like ME2 could take measures to ensure their final bosses make the impressive impact that they should. I mean, ME2 already has its outstanding suicide mission near the end, which forms the perfect gameplay and story finale for the game’s premise: Shepard’s recruitment of his team. Does it need a final boss after such a sequence? Half-Life 2’s similar set of end challenges tells us it might’ve been better to end the combat there, on a high note. Leave the oversized tin man for a cut-scene.
Then again, all the work the developers put into designing that final monstrosity probably prevented them from just cutting it, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t at least make the fight worth having. Consider the Illusive Man, the game’s main pain in the ass. So what if he brought Shepard back from the dead? His intermittent efforts to coerce Shepard down a dark path would make him a great villain. He does show up at the end anyway, so I already half expected him to somehow control the robot against Shepard if things didn’t go according to his plan. Now that would’ve been interesting.
As much as I’d like to fix an excellent game’s last faltering moments, ME2’s Iron Giant battle still happened the way it did. Maybe someday games will forget the meaningless bosses of the past and stick to ones appropriate for both gameplay and story. One day there might exist a glorious boss fight between Hamlet and Laertes at the end of Hamlet: The Game. Even then, however, I suppose there’ll still be the occasional random mecha-dragon at the end of EA’s latest Citizen Kane adaptation. Despite my silly examples, I’ll always take seriously games that go out of their way to make the final boss important and necessary. The final boss might not be the ultimate challenge for game stories to overcome, but I look forward to a time when they’ve mastered it.