Bowser. Sephiroth. Ornstein and Smough. Some of the most iconic characters and moments in video games come from boss battles, tense encounters with powerful opponents that go above and beyond the other challenges of the game.
These intense moments of conflict and difficulty can seem out of place when compared to other artistic or narrative mediums. We don’t typically fist fight characters in books or movies in order to experience everything they have to offer. So why do so many games, even in the modern era, do this?
The idea of epic conflict against the fantastical and mundane stretches its roots as far back as literature goes. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to name some of the biggest icons, all presented worlds where individuals clashed against overwhelming odds.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to slay a fearsome giant with the face of a lion named Humbaba the Terrible to attain immortality through fame. The Odyssey features numerous trials and tribulations for the harried king Odysseus: think the Cyclops and the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Romance of the Three Kingdoms was so primed with larger-than-life personalities from the Three Kingdoms period that it spawned dozens of video game adaptations.
The long tradition of these narratives instilled certain rhythms in our storytelling. To make a quest or goal worthwhile, there need to be encounters with forces that oppose its completion. Forces that present struggle and challenge, or else, what would the stakes be? That element of human narrative tradition would go on to be replicated in the systems and early narrative experiments of tabletop role-playing.
The tradition of tabletop wargaming has a long history dating back to Prussia in the early 1800s with Kriegsspiel, a game meant to improve Prussian army officers’ tactics and ability to read the battlefield. The game went on to find wider, though niche, popularity, and the genre of wargaming survives to this day. It would be over a century until the hobby would go mainstream in the most unlikely of ways — with swords and sorcery.
In 1971, a member of the wargaming community in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin released a small game meant to help wargamers model medieval combat. Created by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, Chainmail also included a small supplement that injected the idea of fantasy into a hobby that had long relied on simulating battles throughout history.
Armed with feedback from Chainmail players, Gygax and Dave Arneson began co-developing what would become known in 1974 as Dungeons & Dragons. Some debate surrounds whether Minnesota native and avid wargamer Dave Arneson developed the first true tabletop role-playing experience with his lesser-known Blackmoor setting that used informal rules inspired by Chainmail. However, most remember D&D as the game that caught on and changed everything.
Where wargaming had previously been focused on recreating historical battles rife with onerous rules and referees, Dungeons & Dragons streamlined everything and added character and conflict persistence across sessions. The early adventures of Dungeons & Dragons centered on traveling to and exploring ancient dungeons in search of valuable loot that could be used to improve the players’ characters. Over time, these excursions would take on a more personal nature as players developed more connections to the world; players realized they were creating a living narrative.
Like so many stories throughout the ages, player narratives tended towards those conflicts and resolutions — but now they had mechanics attached to them. By naming the game Dungeons & Dragons, Arneson and Gygax ensured that players would have concrete goals and objectives: Explore the dungeon and slay the dragon. In this manner, vampires, beholders, and dragons — just a handful of the preeminent horrors a dungeon might contain — often became what we might call today “bosses.”
The timing dovetails nicely with the rise of electronic games. By the time Dungeons & Dragons released in 1974, video games had found their feet. Starting with Tennis for Two in 1958 and continuing development of games in the 60s, the early 1970s saw the release of The Oregon Trail, Pong, and the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console.
Two students at Southern Illinois University — Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood — stepped into that world of early experimentation. The pair was uniquely positioned, both early adopters of Dungeons & Dragons who had access to the university’s PLATO computer system. That access allowed them to play one of the earliest dungeon crawl games titled pedit5, a project by Rusty Rutherford that was seen as a waste of resources by university administrators and repeatedly deleted.
Frustrated by the deletions of pedit5 and feeling like they could improve upon it, Whisenhunt and Wood set about creating their own virtual dungeon based on Dungeons & Dragons’ rules. Their resulting creation was the first version of dnd in 1975. The game would go on to have numerous improvements across various versions from 1976-1985 courtesy of Dirk and Flint Pellett at Iowa State University.
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Dnd started with players creating their own unique characters with which they could enter and explore the Whisenwood Dungeon to find two coveted treasures: The Grail and the Orb. The dungeon featured multiple levels of increasing difficulty. In an innovation for the time, Whisenhunt and Wood built dnd to enable players who ventured too deeply to turn back and search for helpful pieces of loot or battle weaker foes for experience on easier floors.
Whisenhunt and Wood avoided the dreaded deletions that plagued pedit5 by convincing administrators that dnd served as a great way to acclimate new users to the quirks of the PLATO system. From that perspective, dnd could be considered a forerunner to modern educational typing games.
Following in the footsteps of the adventures offered by early Dungeons & Dragons, dnd had a boss awaiting the players who managed to make it to the end of the Whisenwood. Lurking in the heart of the adventure, a mighty gold dragon guarded the final treasure, the Orb. Players needed to overcome its minions, then the dragon itself, to obtain the final relic of the dungeon – and then escape the dungeon – to complete their playthrough of dnd. The Orb made escape more thrilling by drawing every powerful monster in the dungeon out on the way out.
By the time all of the improvements were made by the Pelletts, dnd would include two additional dungeons, a new vampire boss guarding the Grail, much deeper character customization, and a larger variety of spells and monsters. Players could also leave the Whisenwood Dungeon to return to town, buy items, and save their game. Not only that, the game told an adventure story from start to finish that included jokes. Whisenhunt and Wood named one good-humored spell “Kitchen Sink,” allowing players to hit enemies with everything and the kitchen sink. The duo also dubbed one enemy “The Glass” as a reference to a particularly irritating freshman student with whom Whisenhunt and Wood’s circle of friends would have been familiar. These small references make dnd possibly one of the first games to include humor.
It’s not hard to see how dnd influenced the design of many games following it, even to this very day. In fact, if someone updated the graphics of dnd, wrote more text for a story, and cleaned up the mechanics a bit, it could easily sit on Steam and find an audience.
Since all of this is following a general trend in human psychology, it’s useful to think about why we react so well to manifestations of evil or struggle. You can’t punch income inequality or challenge a flood to single combat, but you can once those concepts or larger-than-life disasters are given a name and body, and you, the player, are given the means to defeat them.