The sound of inevitability
Boss fights are an unavoidable part of games. Although not as popular as they were in the old arcade days--when developers' raison d'etre was to separate you from as much spare change as possible by way of multitudinous harbingers of immediate death--if you're playing through almost any modern action game, at some point you're still going to run into a massive, over-powered git.
How can you prepare for such a confrontation? Easy. Games always tell you. Sometimes the message is direct, sometimes it's slightly subliminal. Some boss fight previews are communicated narratively, and others are the result of clunky old game design. But if you know how to listen, games are always, always warning you. Don't know how to listen? Well read instead, and I'll tell you what to look out for.
You find a superfluous ammo dump
So youve battled through corridor after corridor of Hellspawn. Your feet are sticky with guts, your forearms are screaming with the strain of endless gunfire, and that floaty thing in your left eye has come back. Always does when youre stressed. Bastard thing, that it is.
But lo! Blessings! The fighting has calmed down--on account of everything being deadtheres a delicate air of lavender on the breeze, and, whats this, a giant stash of ammo and guns is scattered around the floor. Not only that, but there are enough healthpacks in front of you to reanimate a fallen Roman Legion. This is the most benevolent room that mankind has ever known. Who built it? Why hasnt a whole colony of people sprung up to live here, full-time, forever? And whats that big thumping noise coming down the corridor?
You walk onto a large, circular floor
Stage layout is a key aspect of game design, and even the most mediocre title will try to mix up the shape of the rooms and hallways you explore. But theres one type of room youll see in almost every 3D action game. After trekking through any given dungeon or abandoned ninja factory, youll turn a corner and pause as the camera pulls back to show the giant circular floor in front of you. Either youre about to take part in a highly choreographed dance number, or a giant demon is about to attack.
The overuse of the circular final room is all too rational. So many boss fights require players to strafe big, open areas while the bad guys cycle through a few different attack patterns, making a massive circle the most practical fit. Unfortunately, that pragmatic design makes for some predictable gameplay. Once you see Link, Dante, Solid Snake or anyone else take a few steps into the arena, you just know a cutscene is about to introduce you to the levels Big Bad.
That random, friendly NPC starts getting a bit twitchy
Sometimes you dont have to go it alone. Sometimes you might meet other brave adventurers along your path to adventure. They might even have the same goal as you, and offer to pool resources for a safer journey through the inevitable dungeon. They may be really, really enthusiastic about finding the treasure at the centre of the labyrinth. Maybe even too enthusiastic. They may help you fight monsters with delicious aplomb. They might even occasionally seem a little too enthused about the killing.
But still, their winsome energy will push you through all of your subterranean tribulations with vigour and vim. So what, if their upbeat drive for adventure veers a little too close to aggression towards the end of the dungeon? So what, if they start getting a little antsy as you reach the final treasure room? They seem desperate to be the first one to grab the ancient artifact that youre going to share? Fine. Theyve helped a lot. Theyve earned it. But now their eyes are glowing. And theyre talking to the artifact like a long-lost love. And theyre growing horns. Sorry, friend, going to have to kill you now.
You discover an unnecessary save-point
Whew, this dungeon sure is a tough one, huh? Well, youve done a good job conserving your recovery items and ammo, so youll be safe no matter how much longer it takes to get to the exit. Can't be long now, anyway. That bridge in front of you looks pretty safe, so may as well take a step onto wait a minute. Whats that twinkling to your left? Thats the first save-point youve seen in the last 40 minutes. Crap
This classic boss-fight tell is a double-edged sword for players. On the one hand, you want to be able to make a hard save before entering a battle you just might lose, thus preventing any unneeded backtracking. But when it appears it becomes painfully clear that the end is near, taking out much of the drama thats been building throughout this section of the game. Auto-saves have mostly done away with this issue, but youll see it in random RPG and adventure games to this day.
The background music fades away
As with movies or TV, games use music to set the scene for the gameplay. Whether youre hopping around an ice, lava, or jungle stage, the omnipresent background music will emphasise the locale. Games' use of soundtrack is constant, so when it starts to get quiet, you know something--perhaps a murderous robot head--is about to interrupt your exploration.
Developers can rarely plan exactly when a player will cross the invisible line that starts a boss fight, so its understandably difficult for the music to find a natural end. Better-made games might artfully fade out on the music before your nemesis bursts in with their own composition. The worst offenders of this trend abruptly halt the sound as the screen cuts to black and pipes in the final tune of the stage. Either way, the moment ends up telegraphed.
You stumble upon a door four times the size of the rest
Wow, it seems you were wrong about this dungeon. You thought that it was a hateful place, existing only to house arcane traps and shuffling, shambling, carnivorous lurkers in the dark (seriously, what the Hell are dungeons actually for? Theyre completely inconvenient in every way, and they dont even function as actual dungeons), but it turns out that all of that stuff must have just been a huge mistake.
The architects' real intent was obviously to make this a really warm, welcoming place. Why else would they have put this giant gold door here? The management are obviously trying to make up for all the grinding, shit-encrusted horrors youve spent the last two hours wading through, and boy are they pushing the boat out. Theyve even laid out a red carpet for you, and lit the way with a ceremonial line of torches. There must be a party on the other side.
Or, you know, death.
You find yourself near 'the source of the corruption'
You are deep within the grim, suffocating shadows of a once-verdant but now tragically corrupted forest. It is definitely not Mirkwood. It might be full of giant spiders and poisonous spores, but it is definitely not Mirkwood. Anyway, youve been sent here by the local village, because for reasons not at all similar to plotlines from The Hobbit, your quest and the forests deathly plight have somehow managed to cross over.
Things started out a bit grim. Then they got grimmer. And the spiders got bigger. And the streams began to run red with blood, and purple with whatever that purple stuff is that video games use to indicate poison. The shadows have become darker. And now the rabbits are hemorrhaging from their eyes, and the flowers are spontaneously combusting, and the birds are committing ritual suicide because the pain just wont stop. Its safe to say that youve found the epicentre of the infection. And look! Theres a giant, gnarled tree, with branches that look a bit like arms, and knot-holes that look like giant, demonically-possessed eyes. Whatever, probably a coincidence. Wait, whys the music dropped out?
The kindly old quest-giver gets a bit aggressive upon your return
A companion trope to the helpful NPC boss, this one. An old man or woman in a nearby village/ hamlet/shit-encrusted hovel has had a treasured memento stolen by bandits. The bandits have stashed it somewhere nearby. S/He asks you to get it, so that they may live out their last years as nature intended; nostalgically worshipping the past.
But upon delivery of said item, s/he gets a little too excited to get it back in his/her hands and Oh you know where this is going. Glowing eyes, growing horns, and it probably turns out that the thing was the property of the bandits in the first place. Probably a sacred tribal artifact of some sort. Dont trust old people, kids. Theyre selfish, manipulative, and nothing but a drain upon the young.
Any surprises left?
So that was our best attempt to ruin any last element of mystique or surprise that video games might have left. But have we really finished the job? If there are any favourite boss-fight tropes you think we've missed, drop them into the comments.
And while you're here, check out some of our related stuff. A good start might be How to be a video game guard: A professional guide (opens in new tab), and then after that you might well like to check out 8 implausible things you can only get away with in a stealth game (opens in new tab).