The thing about Alpha Protocol that sat poorly with me was the fact that there were boss fights. This was a game that boasted, and here I quote directly from the box blurb: “In the first modern-day espionage RPG [Now there’s a valiantly qualified statement], the path you choose is in your hands. Will you seduce and subvert, or kill and coerce?”
The answer is, we will kill and coerce. Or, more accurately, we will kill. There are unavoidable boss fights – the kind with heavy metal playing in the background and the boss’s health meter going along the top of the screen. So if you haven’t been cultivating the specific combat abilities necessary to counter the boss’s various attack phases, then get ready to open wide and chew on the overloaded spoonful of shit that’s coming your way. There may be some specific conversation paths that let you circumnavigate the fight, but such a route would blatantly be based around dumb luck rather than where you’d been concentrating skill points. The game makes a big thing of the importance of gathering intelligence on characters so you’ll know what kind of response will have the most positive effect, but there isn’t much usefulness in this information when you have limited knowledge of how Mike Thorton intends to interpret the instruction “act aggressive” on this particular occasion. Forceful stare or knee in the balls?
It concerns me how few so-called roleplaying games exist that actually have one of the things that roleplaying games are supposed to be defined by – the ability to succeed in any challenge the game presents with any arrangement of skills, allowing the player to be whatever kind of character they want to be. Even System Shock 2 has this problem. It’s regarded as a classic by many, but very few of the people I know who have played it can claim to have finished it without cheating on their first run-through, because some character builds just stop being effective fairly late into the game. Deus Ex is one of the few action RPGs I can think of that genuinely does allow any approach, and it’s so old now it takes place on the blocky-leveled planet of the shiny fat people.
But I digress. I wanted to talk about boss fights. Now, the world of culture is driven by these things called “tropes,” little templates around which stories and productions of various media base themselves. They’re not necessarily bad things. Tropes and cliches usually exist because they’ve been proved effective, either as a storytelling device or because its mere presence has been proven by marketing to draw in more of demographics A, B and C and their enticing disposable income.
But every now and again it’s fruitful to take a step back and critically examine the tropes that have osmosed their way into the cultural zeitgeist as standard fare, and wonder if they are still having any beneficial effect or if we’re just blindly following the leader without even considering if it’s appropriate. Like how mainstream Hollywood films insist on levering in romantic subplots even while the entire rest of the film is a succession of medically significant blows to the face in extreme close-up. Or that peculiar tendency for Japanese animation to attempt to simultaneously cater for as many fetishes as possible so that jiggle physics are laboriously animated even if the work satirizes gender politics with its very next breath.
Likewise the humble boss fight. They’ve been with us ever since the earliest days of arcade shooting-’em-up, still bravely outliving its stablemate tropes “Lives,” “High Score Tables” and “Gruff Spooky Voices Reading Out The Level Number,” all of which have largely gone the way of all flesh. But let me make totally clear now that I don’t think boss fights are obsolete. Not yet, anyway. I just think a lot of people misinterpret the concept. See, the boss fight is supposed to be like a final exam. It’s a chance for you to use all the different skills you’ve developed up to that point. That’s why Zelda bosses are always traditionally defeated with whatever new tool you picked up in their dungeon. But while rounding off a game by pouring attack after attack into a massively inflated enemy with a massively inflated health bar (or even just a normal-sized enemy with a massively inflated health bar – which confuses the fuck out of me) is perfectly acceptable for a solely combat-based game, games are no longer solely about jerking off your big bloody gun cock. Except Gears of War.
My point is, concluding a game experience with a big fight when a game might have had you doing all sorts of thing besides fighting up to then, may be missing the point. It’s like a final exam for a philosophy degree marking you solely on the neatness of your handwriting. Yes, you probably had to do a lot of handwriting to get through the course, but there’s slightly more to it than that.
I’d like to refer to a specific game series as a case study. And lo and behold, it’s one of those series I always bring up as a case study in this column. How staggeringly predictable of me.
The attitude of the Half-Life series to boss fights has been a somewhat unstable one. The first game received a lot of flak for its concluding level on the alien planet because it was largely based around two mechanics that the rest of the game had frittered with uncertainly. Firstly: platforming, which is never a good idea from a first person perspective because it’s basically about performing gymnastics while wearing blinders and failing to see your own legs. And secondly: direct combat. Up until that point, you see, Half-Life had been more about the scrappy cunning of a scientist in a powered armor suit (created by science) pushing his way through chaos, besting a lot of soldiers and aliens who were relying solely on brute strength. Even if there was a lot of shooting going on, Gordon would still rather set up a rocket engine to kill a tentacle beast or flee from a giant stompy blue thing in order to reach a radio and kill it with hijacked military air-strikes. Then comes the end of the game, and suddenly you’re the title fight in an inter-dimensional dick-waving competition.
Then comes Half-Life 2. The game ending comes (crucially) after all your weapons have been taken away and you’re left to resort to the gravity gun that the rest of the game has been patiently teaching you how to use to best effect. You pull orbs out of orb generators and hurl them at the bad guy’s defenses, also shooting down a couple of helicopters that come to back him up, and bam, Earth wins. Now, that’s a much better ending. It brings together elements the entire game has been building up to, rather than teleporting you to a different galaxy altogether to fight a couple of the big things that live there for some slightly arbitrary reason.
So why, gamers of the world, did people complain about the fact that Half-Life 2 didn’t have a “proper” boss fight? OK, it wasn’t too difficult, but there was a very challenging fight with multiple striders immediately beforehand you could have classified as the “final boss” if it was that important to you. This demonstrates the other problem with tropes – if you use them too much the audience starts to expect them, regardless of whether they’re appropriate, like the good little sheep they are.
And it also illustrates my folly of addressing game developers in these writings when equal blame resides with the audience. So basically, the biggest problem here is you. Yes, you, in the stupid shirt. Sort yourself out, for god’s sake. And buy nicer clothes.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.