Boss Environments

Welcome back, friends. Last week I made a rush job of introducing boss mechanics. Now I would like to look a bit closer and what better to start with than the environment.

Environment in boss design is often framed as ‘what cool thing can we put in the area to make the boss fun’. While this is a very important part of environmental design (we’ve all fought that boss that occupies a non-descript cylinder, looking at you lot, every Ridley fight ever) and my personal qualms with the word “fun” aside, (given how long this thing is taking me to write you might see that essay first) there is a lot more you can do with a boss fight. As I said before: storytelling in video games is a very compressed thing. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a thousand pictures and an interactive experience is worth a thousand videos. Keep in mind that your game has what I’ll call a ‘data budget’. What does that mean? Well the human brain is only willing to take in so much raw data per second and the average human attention span is about 30 seconds (with an extended task limit of approximately 30 minutes, also, both of these figures obviously have outliers, as crunch time has proven to all of us). You can choose to fill that 30 seconds with dialogue or you can choose to load it up with as much information as possible. Oh! Before we begin in earnest; when I say “data budget” I don’t mean “information budget”. The human brain sucks at storing raw data, but information and data are different. Information is gained when data is contextualized and, as far as I know, the human brain’s capacity for pattern recognition and contextualization has not been mapped yet. I’m not saying we can store infinite information in our heads, I’m just saying we are really, really, really good at deciphering data once we’re given the tools to decrypt it.

Now, onto the point. The first step in designing a good boss environment is (as always) context. What are you facing? One thing I see frequently in the games I play are boss rooms that are almost completely divorced from the boss. Take the Nihilanth from the first Half Life. The Nihilanth was incredibly fun to fight but, whereas Gonarch successfully told a story about the last broodmother of a species belonging to a world that no longer exists, the Nihilanth’s boss room can only be described as a dark space. The “nondescript cylinder” I mentioned earlier. It felt almost as though the Gonarch was the last boss of the Half Life narrative but the guys at Valve decided that they couldn’t cap off a story about lovecraftian extra-dimensional space demons without having you kill some god-being (or demon fetus, as I called it before the days of game wikis, god I’m getting old). Megaman is also particularly guilty of this one. The boss rooms in Megaman are almost never anything but empty boxes painted to look like something. The X, Zero, and ZX series managed to handle this a little better with rooms like Storm Eagle (which lacked walls because it was supposed to take place on a crashing plane) and Flame Mammoth (which takes place on a conveyor belt because his stage was supposed to be a factory). I don’t know, maybe Mighty No. 9 will put a little more effort into it seeing as how Inafune-sama is a visionary, here’s to hope.

So, how do we fix it? As I said once, I’ve never completed a game project, I’m currently in the process of building my very first. I can’t give a definite answer. What I can give is a few pointers based on my observations. We can start by observing the boss’s location both spatially and in the narrative. Even if your boss is just a skill or gear check (like about 60% of the dungeon bosses in WoW) it can still work this way. I won’t go into full detail but for the full explanation go ahead and read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Short version, he was basically George Lucas’ sidekick while he was writing the original Star Wars trilogy. Don’t worry, I’ll wait… no I wont. Anyways, what part of the story is the current boss part of? Are you coming out of a cave level? Did you just finish crossing the city in the sky? You can go the obvious route and make your boss revolve around ground or sky (respectively) or you can go more abstract. You could give your cave level a death-themed boss. Human mythological tradition often associates underground environments with death and renewal, from Persephone’s origin as a chthonic seasonal entity to the Axis Mundi of Shinto mythology, Yomi no Kuni, a location where forgotten souls go to lament their abandonment. Or you could frame the death metaphor often present in subterranean legend as a means of achieving apotheosis, giving a light or holy theme to your subterranean boss.

How about a fire or water encounter? many western traditions frame fire as a means of sanitation. Take the phrase “burn in hell”. There’s a good reason why we say “burn in hell” and not “freeze in hell” or “drown in hell”. Fire is a nearly universal symbol of reclamation and refinement. We smelt metals in furnaces to remove impurities and strengthen the alloy, we burn our dead as a means of rendering the human body fit to be disposed of. We wash our hands and utensils in hot water because we subconsciously equate warmth with cleanliness. Many storytellers in our medium take a short cut and equate fire wholly with destruction; and while this is a perfectly passable use for the flame, you could very, very easily use a fire themed boss to symbolize a return to the most basic of elements. Instead of filling your boss room with the remains of the burnt dead you could reverse it and put your fire boss in a sterile, empty (but not blank) space. This is used to great effect in Dark Souls. there is this chunk of the narrative of Dark Souls that requires you to delve into purgatory. There isn’t much in the way of burning corpses but all of the enemies are fire themed and the boss of the region is an avatar of corruption that must be purged before the plot can continue.
Now, I’ve gone through 3 of the 4 classical elements so I might as well talk about water. Water is a symbol (obviously) of healing. Aside from that, you could also use water as a symbol of loss or confusion. The sea, while simultaneously a source of life, is also a smothering agent. “I’ve had it up to here with you”, “I’m drowning in paperwork” “you have to sink or swim”. There’s a reason why the word “abyss” is both an alternate name for Hell and the archaic name of the bottom of the sea.

This is a bit of a tangent but I can not stress enough how important it is for the leads of your level and boss design teams to have a basic grasp in classical and modern myth (and if your game designer that lacks a solid grasp of both you might as well throw in the towel). Even if you aren’t building a mythology-heavy game, many of the symbols present in the old stories have bled into the collective subconscious of our cultures and to neglect this part of the human psyche is to miss an opportunity to relay a great deal of information.

Now, earlier I mentioned the question “What gimmick can we add to this encounter to make it fun”. I realize there is a huge stigma behind the word ‘gimmick’ but for the sake of this discussion I will define a “gimmick” as a quirk unique and/or exclusive to the fight in question. You could use a throwaway trick like multiple platforms or different attack-able segments and extra enemy spawners, Blizzard is fond of these ones, but my favourite boss gimmicks are the ones that are directly infused with the lore. This could be anything from the fact that the final blow to Ganon in OOT has to be made with the Master Sword to something a bit more high minded. For example, while you can beat Vergil in DMC3 and the reboot with any weapon, the most effective weapon against Vergil in all of his encounters is Rebellion, the sword forged of your father’s soul, quenched in your mother’s love; the physical embodiment of the very thing that makes Dante the stronger brother, his capacity to love a human; and if it weren’t for that capacity for compassion, Dante would be just like his brother. Just another demon. A good boss encounter knows how to switch up standard tactics to add spice and variety to these extended encounters, a great boss encounter will do all that -and- tell you something you couldn’t learn otherwise.

I’m not saying every boss you ever craft needs to offload 15 metric tonnes of lore. Some bosses are best when used as basic skill checks and to treat every scene as an opportunity to club you players with story will quickly lead to your players tuning out the stuff they need. The Hero’s Journey splits each story into 3 parts (which I will discuss another day). These parts are generally stated as the intro, where you meet the hero and see her world, the action, where the hero is thrust into situations beyond his experience and is forced to grow, and the denouement, where the hero returns to his life, new found might in hand, to share in the glory with friends old and new. In this model, one of these real slugger, lore-packed bosses should be at the end of the first act, the end of the second, and (depending on the tone of your story) the beginning or end of the final act. For the rest of the bosses, however, you should still keep all these pointers in mind, just don’t push it as hard. Star Fox 64 does a great job at this. In Star Fox 64, while every level ends with a boss, most of the fights simply serve to reinforce how weird and fantastic the Lyliat System is, with the big act bosses highlighting the nature of the Fox Team’s fight.

As I write this, my friend Liam is across from me in the office playing Sanctum 2. While intensely focused on a wave of enemies, an Armored Heavy appeared. He suddenly says “I love how the music changes during a boss wave”. He was right, music is a very important part of your environment. Back in the day devs could get away with having only 1 boss song with a few variations for important bosses. Whether this was a matter of laziness or a limitation of the medium is anyone’s guess but nowadays there is no excuse for this (Artist’s caveat: unless that’s the point). Now, boss music can be literally anything, but the big take away is that it should serve the tone. Dark Souls does this with a level of skill that would make Maurice Ravel weep joyous tears. I can’t help but think of Sif from Dark Souls. Most of my deaths to that boss could be attributed to misty eye syndrome. The music just perfectly captures how wounded that poor dog is, as well as how tragic it is that you have to kill a creature that’s only trying to protect it’s master.

Now, seeing as how it took me 3 freakin weeks to write this essay I would like to apologize to you guys (especially Will Chamberlain). All in all I have gone on way too long and managed to cover not nearly enough. Drop me a line if you want me to elaborate any further on any of the above points. Tune in next week for boss mechanics.

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