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Saturday Soapbox: Horrible Bosses

Are gaming's greatest villains an endangered species?

I love bosses. I always have. I love their blend of spectacle and challenge, and I love their screen-shaking scale or - if it's Treasure - their luminously stupid names. Fatman, Bowser, Pinky Roader - who wouldn't want to hang out with people like that?

But I love them in principle, too. I love the fact they're called bosses, suggesting that they somehow also manage the levels they top or tail, keeping grunts signed up to the health plan and collecting timesheets. I love the way they belong only to video games, and not books or movies or paintings or folk songs. Turner wasn't moved to draw a massive lizard-headed mech stomping out of the ice storm as Hannibal crossed the Alps, and Jane Austen didn't interrupt Mansfield Park every fifty pages to make way for a thirty-foot baby skull mounted on a scorpion's body. I wish she had, frankly, but she didn't. Why? Because bosses are ours, and this is the only art form where they really make sense.

Often these days, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that they don't make as much sense as they used to. In fact, sometimes they seem distinctly out of place. Is something weird going on? Are bosses in trouble?

"Deus Ex is the poster boy for horrible bosses, but it's far from the only game knocking about that makes taking on the big guys feel like an empty, inane faff."

Look at - you guessed it - Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and you might think they are. This is, after all, a game that's been universally lauded for its intricacy, its cold-edged battle-smarts, and its crate-stacking, vent-sneaking freedom of approach. Everyone agrees that Eidos Montreal did a staggering job on this one.

But you know what else everybody agrees with? The fact that the bosses stink. They force you to kill even if you're trying to just tranq-dart everyone, they turn the game into an all-out shooter, and they interrupt the elegant make-your-own-fun pace of the whole enterprise. They're the jocks dropping in to spoil your Dungeons and Dragons evening. They shouldn't be there, and now they won't leave. (Also, they've brought brewskis.)

It's alright, though. You know why? Because apparently Eidos Montreal didn't create the bosses. The team out-sourced them to a studio called Grip Entertainment.

Seriously, the team did what?

A boss should be the kind of thing a development studio leaps at the opportunity to tackle, right? A big showboating exercise in art skills and design brilliance. It shouldn't be the sort of work you hand off to the guys down the road - but apparently that's what it's becoming. Bosses in Human Revolution appear to have been included because, well, a game needs bosses. Any bosses. Even bosses that break key mechanics and do nothing but annoy everybody.

Treasure makes some of the most lovable bosses in the business - and some of the most ingenious.

Deus Ex is the poster boy for horrible bosses, but it's far from the only game knocking about that makes taking on the big guys feel like an empty, inane faff. Sometimes it seems that everywhere you look, bosses are growing old, stale, and weary. There are still plenty of great bosses around - we'll get to them in a minute, in fact - but there are just as many that feel like vestigial tails, ideas that have outlived their time and their usefulness.

Where did bosses come from? I think they came from the arcades. If that's true, then their origins, as Eugene Jarvis, who worked on boss-masterpieces like Smash TV and NARC once said to me, were anything but respectable. Jarvis told me that the likes of Mr Big and Mutoid Man turned up in his games because someone came down to the design pit one afternoon and said, "Okay, at this point in the game, you need to take four dollars from the player right now." In terms of mechanics, they were pure road block, pure cash-sapper, and the only reason we loved them were because the people who created them were supremely talented at taking your money in a way that made you come back for more.

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About the Author
Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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