Many developers have been going darker with the tones of stories lately. It's time we stop asking definitively if this is a good or bad thing and consider the artistic value at hand.
Bioshock Infinite: A Future Without Boss Fights
Spoiler Warning: Read no further if you haven’t finished or plan on playing Bioshock Infinite in the future
I already examined the significance of Bioshock Infinite to the Bioshock franchise earlier in the week, wherein I discussed the advantages of letting Bioshock Infinite be the last entry in the series.
Now, I want to talk about Bioshock Infinite’s potential impact on the video game industry as a whole. For a significant period of time in video gaming history, one overarching thread that connected most games was the Final Boss Fight against the main protagonist, or perhaps even someone revealed late in the plot to be pulling all the strings. Along the protagonist’s journey he would face a series of trials or bosses, culminating in the final showdown. The final test of your skill or the thrilling conclusion to the story, a final showdown was in everything from racing games and platformers to role-playing games and shooters.
The concept of a game devoid of boss fights surely isn’t new, and the game industry faces many of the same problems that the great entertainment industry faces as a whole: how to strike the balance between being innovative and feeling familiar. This is of particular interest to those trying to ‘advance’ the first person shooter genre by injecting meaningful and emotional stories into them with varying degrees of success. One way to do this is to swap a traditional boss fight with waves of standard enemy during which a secondary character tries to complete a certain task or learn a vital truth. Typically though, games that adopt this approach sacrifice a well developed villain all together in favor of ‘shadow organized X.’ To invest the time in creating a fully fleshed out antagonist, and then for there to be no boss fight against them, preposterous!
Bioshock Infinite not only attempts this, but achieves in spectacular fashion. Perhaps it was a knee-jerk —you can hardly say anything about a 5 year development is knee-jerk—reaction to fan backlash to the rather disappointing boss fight against Atlas at the end of the first Bioshock. Regardless of how they came to the decision to eliminate boss fights, their choice to use the antagonist in a manner more critical to the narrative than to the players gunslinging skills serves to increase the impact of individual moments.
As with Bioshock, each antagonist has a significant amount of information circulated about them before you meet them. Where the boss fights and the areas leading up to them served to lends clues to the evolution of Rapture, Bioshock Infinite is very much wrapped up in the development of people in the current time. The game uses its living world to its benefit. Propaganda and rumors are in abundance and by the time you meet Comstock, Fitzroy, Slate, Fink, or Songbird you’ve heard enough to formulate an opinion even if the information you were given was bias one way or the other.
While the foundations preceding each boss are the similar in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, the differences are abundant thereafter. When you engage in a one-on-one fight as Jack, the game’s narrative is temporarily put on hold, the state of Rapture a distant thought, and it purely becomes a skill test for the player. Jack doesn’t gain anything from pumping 20 shotgun shells into one guy while avoiding his hack saw. It is purely an interaction between the player and the game. In Bioshock Infinite the focus is shifted away from the player and you become a witness to the development and advancement Booker and Elizabeth as characters. These distilled moments are far more impactful in the latter scenario.
No boss fight could ever encapsulate the amount of emotion generated when Elizabeth stabs Fitzroy in the back. That particular moment captures more narrative, and matures the character more than any boss fight imaginable could. You see the in-the-moment impact of what killing means to Elizabeth, and then the following attempt by Booker to comfort her.
Again, just as Fitzroy’s death is a big moment in Elizabeth’s story, the scene in the Atrium where Booker and Elizabeth confront Comstock does more for Booker as a character than any player-inflicted action in the game. The choice to substitute standard boss fights for these emotionally charged sequences allows the game to stay better connected to the narrative. Sure you had to fight through waves of enemies to get to that scene, but those moments are worth it
In addition to those two scenes, the final —or almost final depending on your choice– confrontation with Slate shows an interesting mechanism built into the plot. He is the guy who has been hounding you and sending hundreds of men to their death, well knowing they couldn’t stop Booker. And when you meet him, you are faced with not a daunting boss encounter but a wounded man asking for death by your hand.
On all three counts the game builds up to a crescendo and delivers not a 10 minute boss fight, but a singular distilled moment crucial to the characters and story. See it as you may, but I see this as, in a way, poking fun at the notion of killing hundreds of men to get to one more guy, and what is one more guy to countless others you killed through out the game.
The very final anti-boss fight ends up becoming lost in the plethora of things beginning to unfold. That is of course the death of Songbird. The ever formidable Guardian of the Lamb, you learn form Elderly Elizabeth, ALWAYS stops you, just as Booker NEVER rows. But as the siphon is destroyed the creature who has haunted your journey and has had a clear impact of Elizabeth’s childhood, instantaneously becomes insignificant. As though swatting a fly out of the air, Songbird’s death marks Elizabeth’s birth.
The use of the antagonist as means of developing and maturing character’s instead of merely obstructing them or testing a player’s skill test marks a direction I hope we will see more of in the future. Let Bioshock Infinite be a template for any game trying to develop strong characters or construct an emotional narrative, as people respond best to individual moments. A great moment can make 10 minutes of fighting waves of nobodies infinitely better than a sub-par boss fight. There will definitely still be room in the industry for the classic boss fights, but Bioshock Infinite shows us they aren’t necessary.
Image courtesy: [Bioshock Wiki]