So, in my recent spree of completing games that I own, I recently managed to tie a ribbon on the main story of Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. I’m aware that the games press and bloggers as a whole have pretty much dissected every iota of this game, mainly because the year it came out in was so sparse for big, AAA games, but it’s new to me, dammit, so I want to talk about that game. Specifically, I’m going to look at it as a case study for the boss battle as we know it in traditional video games.
For those of you who don’t know, Shadows of Mordor features some…pretty bad boss battles. There are, by my recollection, 5 bosses: The Hammer of Sauron, The Ghul Matron, The Legendary Graug, The Tower of Sauron, and The Hand of Sauron/Sauron. And all of them are absolutely unfun to play.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way: the final boss fight, against Sauron, is hot garbage. It’s three Quicktime Events. You destroy Sauron, the greatest darkness of the entire land, an actual demigod, and the titular character of the entire series, with three button presses. It’s terrible. But, everyone’s already talked about this to death. Let’s have a bit more of an interesting discussion than that.
Let’s talk about the Legendary Graug. This fight occurs about 2/3 of the way through the game, and there are some interesting things to talk about with it. Unlike Sauron, who just sort of shows up out of nowhere thanks to some nonsense magic the game explains 2 seconds before it happens, the Legendary Graug has backstory: Torvin, your hunter buddy, attempted to take on this monster years ago with his brother, only to fail and lose his brother in the process. Talion, your character, agrees to join in this hunt because the Graug has, in its lair, a treasure capable of restoring a memory to Celebrimbor, the wraith currently possessing Talion’s body.
Cool, we’re building a reputation of the boss before we get to it, we have vested interest, we have a big scary monster, it looks like we’re cooking with gas.
How does this boss fight fail? Well, Talion completes his hunter training with Torvin, which teaches him how to tame the wild Caragors (which are to lions as Worgs are to wolves) around Mordor, and how to fight and slay a Graug. Armed with this knowledge, Talion and Torvin ride atop Caragors to the Legendary Graug’s cave and….dismount? And just leave the Caragors? If the only thing I learned whilst training was how to ride Caragors, and we’re not going to use that in this fight, doesn’t that mean the training was useless?
OK, so any and all satisfaction and confidence I got from completing my training and getting a handful of new skills is completely gone, now that I know it’s all going to be useless. So, alright, whatever, let’s go in the cave, fight this Graug, and find the treasure that will restore my mem…oh, it’s right here. Literally, the first thing Talion does in the cave is find the treasure. Well, there goes my vested interest, so I guess let’s leave. It’s in character to leave, because Talion’s not supposed to really care about anyone else until he falls for Lithariel later so…why don’t I leave?
Alright, whatever. Torvin and I are still going to triumphantly slay the beast and avenge his brother! Isn’t that right Torvin! Torvin? Oh, the Graug just cold-clocked him, so I guess he’s not going to be in this fight. I bet he’ll be so proud of himself for avenging his brother by being absolutely goddamn useless through the whole fight.
Great, so the fight hasn’t even started yet, and we’ve already invalidated all preparatory work I did for this fight, gave me my incentive for the fight too early, and utterly neutered the narrative lead-up to the fight. Well, this is a game that really shines in its mechanics, so the fight itself should be solid.
Hey, I’m gonna stop my story for a second to ask you a question. Have you played a video game before? Literally, any video game?
You have? Cool. Did that video game have one of those bosses where they charge forward, and you have to somehow blind or stun them mid-run such that they hit a wall, and when they do hit a wall, you then run up and score some damage on them?
You probably have, because it’s a boss fight so common, TV Tropes has a page dedicated to it. And, yeah, that’s just this fight. So, as the cherry on top, the final, actual boss fight is a derivative, boring boss fight based on the general flow of a thousand boss fights before it. Even more annoying is the fact that this isn’t even how you learned to fight a Graug earlier in the game!
Alright, so, anyone can just shred apart a bad bit of game design. Let’s learn from this. The most obvious thing to do is invert the complaints, and try to make a good boss fight by negating a bad one. I listed four complaints with the Graug:
- All of my preparation leading up to the Graug was utterly useless, as none of the skills I learned were relevant in the fight
- I received my reward before the fight, making it unclear what motivation I had for fighting at all
- The narrative buildup to the fight was completely deflated
- The mechanics of the boss fight were derivative and forgettable
So, hypothetically, we can develop some tenants of good boss design by reversing these:
- A good boss should require the player to apply the knowledge they’ve obtained leading up to that fight
- A good boss should provide ample incentive for both the main character and the player to fight them
- A good boss should be built up to
- A good boss fight should be designed in a unique and interesting way
Most of these sound pretty obvious, but when you check them against good bosses, you see that someone seems to be following them. A lot of the best bosses in video games are ones players were gearing up to fight long before a boss health bar appeared on the screen, ones that inverted or hyperbolized the mechanics of their games in interesting ways, ones which players revel in killing, if only because it stood as a test to prove that the player had mastered the mechanics.
Despite the tendencies of modern games to stray away from the boss fight as a design concept, some of the most memorable moments in video games are boss fights. However, to achieve such a thing with a boss fight, we as designers need to make sure that they are as momentous an occasion as the name implies.