SPOILER ALERT: This article talks about major boss fights in several games, including The Last of Us Part II, Hollow Knight and God of War (the 2018 version). That means the article contains spoilers (including late and end-game spoilers) for each one. If you’re interested in the stories, I’d recommend coming back after you’ve finished these games!
Imagine this: you’ve carved your way through an underground kingdom, unraveling the mystery of this once-great land. You’re trying to stop a creature who has spread an illness that has nearly wiped the place out. You enter. Violins start playing. Something emerges from the darkness. As the music jumps into full gear, the monster (too similar to you for comfort) roars, and the name of the game’s “final” boss appears on screen—the same name as the game, which you thought had referred only to you.
Of all the scenes in a single-player campaign, boss fights are some of the most memorable. There’s something about these high points (or low points) in a game that, when well done, stick in your mind for years to come. These boss fights aren’t always focused on beating the boss either. Sometimes it’s more complicated—an escape sequence or an attempt to survive.
One way or another, a well-done boss fight can be the anchor for our attachment to a game, or the high note in a game we already love.
But what makes for a good boss fight?
Like any aspect of art, that’s a hard question to answer. What makes for a good landscape painting or a great punk rock track? Get a dozen connoisseurs into a room, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. It’s complicated further by the fact that gaming is a multimedia art form. Writing, programming, music, art, game design and cinematic details all come together to help craft the final experience.
Still, there must be some common elements between the grand boss fights that all of us so fondly remember. In this post I’d like to posit four main factors that I believe go into crafting a memorable boss encounter.
- A properly balanced challenge, according to the genre. Whatever else they might be, boss fights should be harder than the surrounding conflict. They are, after all, supposed to be high walls players struggle to mount to provide a sense of satisfaction. It’s crucial that a boss fight be properly balanced, especially according to its genre. In a story-focused adventure game, making a boss fight too difficult just leaves players frustrated. In a Dark Souls game, an easy boss fight may leave players feeling cheated. Once you know where your genre fits, you need to figure out the balance required for that specific boss fight to ensure it’s as challenging as it needs to be without going overboard.
- A chance to (creatively) use the gameplay tools you’ve been given. As mentioned above, bosses are supposed to be a big challenge in the game. If players are nudged or forced to use their full gameplay toolkit—especially in a creative fashion—the conflict becomes that much more memorable. It will be much more fun because it feels pressing enough to force players to bring their A game.
- Ludonarrative distance. In another article, I defined “ludonarrative distance” as the space between gameplay and story. For instance, if the story is talking about an injured character who can barely stand, forcing the player to move slowly and shuffle to the next area is an example of “close” ludonarrative distance. But close ludonarrative distance isn’t necessarily better. Rather, the intended tone of the game determines what sort of ludonarrative distance is appropriate. Nailing that in a boss fight greatly increases immersion, connecting players to that high point.
- Emotional resonance. This is the hardest criteria to pin down, largely because the emotional weight of any given scene will, more than almost any other detail, be affected by all the pieces that go into it. Art, music, cinematics and acting all play a part. Different players also give different factors different weight (I, for example, am highly affected by the music of a boss fight). But overall, a boss fight’s emotional resonance comes from its fit in the broader narrative. The fight needs to have meaning for the characters, stakes in the story and immersion for the player. It should feel like the natural consequence of the characters/players conflicting wants and flaws up to that point. A challenge thrown in just to give players something to do will never have this resonance.
Before moving on, let me note some possible criticisms of the above criteria. First, they clearly favor story-focused games. That is a valid criticism, but at the same time, I would argue that story-focused games usually (but not always!) have the most memorable boss fights. Second, the criteria above could apply to almost any other part of a game. That is also true.
In game development, sacrifices often must be made. Priorities need to be arranged, and some things will fall through the cracks. By highlighting the above, I hope to point out that boss fights—if you want them to be memorable—are a place where these four qualities should not be on the chopping block and may be worth preserving at the cost of other resources or details.
So, with all of that said, what are some examples of memorable boss fights, especially ones that fit the above criteria? Below, I’ve compiled a small list, including explanations for how these boss fights meet the above requirements.
“The Stranger” in God of War (2018)
The Stranger shows up in the first hour or so of the game, just after the tutorial. He’s a lanky dude who starts a brief argument with the big, burly Kratos—just before punching Kratos through his house. At that point, the fight is on. It forces you to really utilize all the skills you learned in the tutorial part of the game, and the challenge feels well balanced. What’s more, it makes you feel the stress of fighting an immortal enemy while also showcasing how powerful Kratos is, a detail that makes the Stranger’s stubborn refusal to go down all the more disturbing.
Tommy in The Last of Us, Part II
Yup, Joel’s chill brother is a boss in this game. The ludonarrative distance is razor-thin here, with Abby entirely unaware of who this psychopath is or why he’s shooting at them. It shows just how dangerous Tommy really is. He’s cleared out an entire unit of this paramilitary force, and the slightest error on your part will get you killed, even though he’s sniping from half a mile away. You see his strategic mind at play and how terrifying he is to the people he’s been hunting, reshaping your perspective of his moral status.
The Hollow Knight in Hollow Knight
This is the boss fight I alluded to in the introductory paragraph. The music is a huge part of the scene’s emotional resonance, and the realization that the titular Hollow Knight isn’t (just) you is chilling. What’s more, the fight turns from tough to sad, eventually becoming a simple beatdown. It mirrors the true nature of this story and leaves players mulling over the nature of sacrifice or the bleakness of cycles.