Remember boss battles? They used to take place not just in RPGs, but most genres too. Even first person shooters had boss battles! Can you believe it? Crazy, I know. But this isn’t about boss battles; this is about the lack thereof. Except to understand the lack thereof, we must first understand boss battles; or rather, their evolution.
The boss battle used to be the default gameplay and narrative climax. The smaller battles would act as the crescendo by building up an ever increasing level of difficulty that not only helped the player amp themselves up, but also required them to stay on their toes so that when they finally did face the boss battle climax, they would be ready for an even tougher challenge. Meanwhile, the story would set up a suitably hateable villain or villainess to wreak vengeance upon in said boss battle, in the background.
The bosses themselves generally followed the same arc of ever increasing difficulty that their peons did, with subsequent bosses often employing the same skills as previous bosses, while also using a new set of skills that the player had to come to terms with. This meant that there was satisfaction in putting something you’d already learnt into action again, while you also had to deal with a new, unpredictable and as yet unexperienced danger.
While this arc wasn’t always consistent or well done, a consistent flow of crescendo and climax was generally the intention. Then something changed. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that it did, but suddenly the penultimate boss was very often the hardest in the game; and quite often the final boss followed closely behind with little—if any—build up beyond lengthy cutscenes and narrative exposition or heart string tugging. (It’s a little like milking a cow.)
The reason for this was obvious: the penultimate boss was the ultimate climax of the gameplay, while the final boss was the hackneyed gameplay component of the final conclusion of the story. Some games even had final bosses that were impossible to lose to; which begs the question: why include a final boss if its only purpose is to try and establish gameplay where it makes little, if any narrative sense? Who would have known that such a train of thought could be so dangerous!
This is important to note because ever since developers have tried to tell a more complicated or engaging story, they have struggled with just how to merge it with gameplay and the gameplay structure of the game itself. Arguably Pac-Man is far better told than Journey—all the components of the story are illustrated exactly within the confines of the gameplay; but that’s a different story for another article.
Fast forward to the present and we find ourselves in a world strangely (though not completely) devoid of boss battles. Despite my status in this article as rascally, child hating old man, even I can see that there’s obviously no reason why this is inherently a bad thing. One can hardly expect gameplay structures to remain the same forevermore; but the issue is that boss battles have not been adequately replaced.
What have they been replaced with, then? Well, I’m sure you can guess that by now: quick time events (QTEs). However, obviously many games contain not only QTEs, but boss battles too. The question for these games is: does the attempt at having two separate states of narrative or gameplay climax dilute both of them, or are they used complimentarily with one another, each evoking different types of climaxes?
Before that, let’s consider the motivations for employing a QTE; both in terms of gameplay and narrative. For the gameplay it offers a simple way to provide the player with a strong challenge based only on reflex, which thus requires little effort on the part of both developer and player, and provides a break from the more complex gameplay elsewhere. For the narrative it can be used to link gameplay with cutscenes and other moments of narrative illustration that have previously been unable to be merged with gameplay in a meaningful way, with the ultimate goal being to elicit a more emotional response from the player thanks to the heightened immersion that interactivity can provide.
Another way to try achieve this is by having the cutscene play out in real time within the physical space of the game itself while the player is allowed to do as they please; within reason, of course. This is an approach that is generally even less successful than QTEs as the sense of freedom is inherently false: the player is still forced to witness the scene play out due to it taking place in enclosed environments or, if not, then another disingenuous architectural excuse is given to prevent the player from leaving the scene completely, which results in the player being removed from their state of immersion in the same way that they are during an intrusive cutscene—the rules of the gameplay and aesthetics have jarringly changed for the sake of narrative exposition or padding.
On top of that, the narrative impact can easily be lost due there being no room for visual direction beyond the opening perspective of the scene. The most feeble part of the whole farce is the fact that the best way to experience the scene is almost always through that very first perspective, which means that not only was the developer unable to think of a way to compliment the narrative with gameplay, but actually diluted the narrative experience with the inclusion of gameplay. No wonder developers are eager to use the far more sophisticated concept of QTEs!
And now back to the question that lead us into that divergence: can QTEs, boss battles, and perhaps even pseudo-cutscenes all be used in a complimentary manner together, with each concept making use of its unique strengths and not allowing its weaknesses to dilute what the developer intends both in terms of gameplay and narrative? The answer to that is Metal Gear Solid 4.
Admittedly, Metal Gear Solid 4’s boss battles are not up to the standard set by previous entries in the series, either in terms of narrative or gameplay, but they are still used as they should be: narrative exchanges with antagonist expressed clearly through gameplay as the climax to a certain narrative or gameplay sequence. And I know what you’re thinking: pseudo-cutscenes? If ever there was a game chockfull of cutscenes, it’s Metal Gear Solid 4.
You are both right and wrong: the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 are meticulously directed, and do not take place in game—even though they do in engine—but that does not mean that there is no gameplay involved. During many of Metal Gear Solid 4’s cutscenes (specifically the briefings), the player has limited control of the camera as well as a few other clever tricks; all of which make for a far more dynamic and effective combination of gameplay and cutscene than having the player stand statically or otherwise within the scene; limited as Metal Gear Solid 4’s cutscene interaction may be.
And it does not in any way prevent Kojima from indulging in his trademark cinematographic and editorial direction styles, because less freedom is afforded to the player. But it’s this very lack of freedom that prevents the player from losing immersion, yet also allows them to feel more involved: there are no preposterous physical barriers for the player to find and become disenchanted by, because the physical barriers involved actually make sense—the zoom of a lens is limited!
And the QTEs? They were used rarely, but sometimes to excellent effect. Some of them perfectly married gameplay and narrative in places where a little more gameplay could add just that extra bit of emotional punch. The scene that immediately springs to mind is that of a suffering Snake crawling desperately through searing hot heat, his OctoCamo suit slowly melting and his gruff, trademark grunts painful and wincing. It’s exhausting (for the player just as much as snake), and little more than a prelude to a brutal bout of fisticuffs.
The fisticuffs that follow are a gruelling experience (even though a brief cutscene—by Kojima’s standards—affords both Snake and the player a moment of respite; a moment of respite that can be enjoyed without QTEs intruding into the experience) because of the punishing nature of the preceding QTE which makes the player’s joints ache almost as much as Snake’s, allowing the player to relate to Snake’s pain and exhaustion all the more easily. It’s a perfect crescendo and climax.
Distraction is yet another issue with QTEs. No doubt one major motivation to use a QTE is to be able to illustrate an action scene that may have, in previous generations, been done through a much less visually grandiose means such as gameplay, with a cutscene. Thanks to the inevitable increase in power and storage space—both of which have lead to more freedom in cutscene direction—such a thing is now possible and, if a QTE is included, then no doubt the developer sees such a design decision as perfectly justified; QTEs are gameplay after all, so they’re not really robbing the player of a gameplay climax by replacing it with a flashy, bright cutscene, are they?
Undoubtedly that’s what goes through their heads as they try desperately to fall asleep at night. But, unfortunately QTEs are not only inadequate in terms of gameplay for this purpose, but also visual stimulation because they actually obscure the cutscene both in terms of visual space, and also through forcing the player to concentrate on the simple, yet often demanding button mashing gameplay that is taking place at the same time as the cutscene. They’ll still sleep like babies, though—the cocaine and prostitutes will see to that.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is guilty of this too; albeit in a slightly different context. During an incredibly elaborate action scene with a certain sword wielding hermaphrodite, the player is forced to engage in combat unrelated to the hermaphrodite’s, which not only distracts from the super smooth moves of the hermaphrodite, but also makes it a minor challenge to follow what’s happening in the player’s own fight. The motivation for Kojima to split up the scene in the same way that he did during the previously discussed QTE event is no different to what it was there, but the issue is that the more complicated gameplay involved allows the distraction of the cutscene to dilute the gameplay, and the distraction of the gameplay to dilute the cutscene. See, you can stuff things up even if you don’t use QTEs!
Confusion and distraction are problems that not just Metal Gear Solid 4, but many games suffer from. In these instances, I can’t help but think of rhythm games. The elaborate backgrounds in many rhythm games often serve a purpose beyond visual stimulation. The visual action can be used as an indicator to help guide the player by using visual cues to compliment scrolling command prompts (characters dancing in time to the percussion, for example), or to literally illustrate what the player must do by having the characters act out the required player input—as seen in Space Channel 5. These are but two examples of how rhythm games approach QTE-like gameplay in a much more complex, and successful manner when compared to most other genres.
But in non-rhythm games, the player usually ends up with the cripplingly inept reverse of that. It’s not as if there isn’t a wealth of similar gameplay styles to QTEs for developers to draw upon and try to learn from; if even I can see the similarities between rhythm games and QTEs, and how QTEs might benefit from rhythm game lineage, then surely anyone can. And that’s not to mention Street Fighter and Tony Hawk…
Yet, instead of there being any form of guide (be it rhythm, or visual direction) beyond command prompts, the vast majority of QTEs are simply a random, jumbled up collection of button presses that rely solely on one’s reflex skills and memory—let’s be honest; the harder QTEs are rarely passed the first time around!
Oftentimes it can feel as if gameplay is an unwelcome guest; an intruder in the cutscene. It’s funny to think of it that way—how many times has the opposite felt true? Many of the games that use QTEs most egregiously sometimes suffer from the reverse problem as well—cutscenes intruding into gameplay; only not in the traditional sense of a long cutscene stopping gameplay completely, but instead a small dynamic camera shift—or something to that effect—that takes autonomy from the player completely; if only for a moment. Most likely it’s just another result of the stronger focus on visual direction thanks to higher technological freedom.
Tomb Raider is a perfect example of this. Not only are many of its QTEs rather redundant, they are also used so inconsistently that they only help to make the narrative use of cutscenes feel disjointed, and are a negative influence on the overall pacing of the game. Tomb Raider is also guilty of overusing dynamic camera angles that swing around Lara for dramatic impact; but the game is already so stunning that quite often the constant downblousing results in the player not only being yanked from controlling Lara (a disconcerting feeling due to the excellent synergy of movement and control; when she’s squeezing through a crack, why take away the player’s input?), but also from appreciating the beautifully realised world as they see fit.
In Tomb Raider, the QTEs take the place of boss battles, with the vast majority of narrative and gameplay climaxes taking the form of QTEs. But, in the latter sections, QTEs all but disappear, and there’s almost nothing to take their place (apart from bigger fights with normal enemies, but these are not a successful replacement due to being little different from normal adversarial encounters), which means that no gameplay crescendo can reach a natural climax. This is how the QTEs so negatively affect the pacing. Technically there are two boss battles that both appear suspiciously only after QTEs have been done away with, but the impact of both is lessened due to the previous pacing structure of the gameplay having lead up to QTEs, and not boss battles.
Tomb Raider tries to do both QTEs and boss battles just as Metal Gear Solid 4 did, but in the reverse order (QTEs from beginning to middle then boss battles), and in opposite quantities too (far more QTEs than boss battles). Which is interesting considering that Metal Gear Solid 4 did both so much better. Even Tomb Raider’s best use of a boss battle and QTE is disparate to Metal Gear Solid 4’s, with the QTE following the boss battle. This demonstrates that QTEs can be used flexibly to compliment other forms of climax, and that perhaps I need not be quite so obsessed with Metal Gear Solid 4!
But there’s one more game I would like to talk about: Fahrenheit (better known as Indigo Prophecy). Fahrenheit made extensive use of QTEs; in fact it based the majority of its gameplay around them, and they were almost always intuitive. Quantic Dream had clearly done their homework, investigating how rhythm games handled similar gameplay concepts, or perhaps they simply understood intuitively how to do them—a ridiculous notion, I know.
The on screen cues, beyond what was physically happening in game, were often subtle because the movements and button presses required to progress accurately mimicked what was literally happening, which meant that it was obvious what to do with the controller in your hand—every action felt natural, rather than being a frantic test of reflexes and memory unrelated to the action.
Fahrenheit’s greatest illustration of what can be achieved with QTEs was—funnily enough—a boss battle. It took place on top of an old orphanage and unfolded as a punishing, incredibly tense and long (or so it seemed while playing), Matrix-style, superpower-laden boxing match with debris flying this way and that with melodramatic aplomb. Almost every single action that had to be performed correlated directly to what the characters involved were doing, and—due to this intuitiveness—it was possible to appreciate the direction of the scene; while also partaking in satisfying, challenging gameplay that never felt cheap or pointless—it was nothing short of glorious!
Which leads us to something of a premature conclusion: even if QTEs have not entirely replaced boss battles, there’s no doubt that they are diluting them; worse than that, they often have a negative effect on both the narrative and gameplay pacing of the game in which they are used. And yet; imagine what they could be! They need not replace boss battles: they could be boss battles! Looks like this was about boss battles all along. Oops, sorry guys. My mistake.