The boss battle theme is the auditory signal that shit is about to get real in a video game. It is the theme that is guaranteed to be covered in a metal style, soon to be uploaded to You Tube for all to enjoy. The boss theme is second only to the final boss theme, which, if composed correctly, heightens the emotional tension in the final conflict. But what if the final boss didn’t require a final boss theme to obtain the desired effect?
I ask this question after watching the entirety of Cowboy Bebop (again). Cowboy Bebop is known for synchronizing its kung fu and action scenes with its wonderfully prolific soundtrack. This helped contributed to a fun tone despite its adult themes. However, I noticed that the show also makes use of the absence of music. The show is at its most grim when Spike confronts his past. Each time he confronts his nemesis, Vicious, there is no music, and subsequently there is no kung fu; it’s simply a gritty fight to the death. Even for the final confrontation, the lounge piece “See You Space Cowboy” ends right as the two nemeses confront each other; the tension is thick, despite the ridiculous notion of a gun vs. sword fight. In place of the music is the clashing of metal, and the snarls of the combatants.
I’ve only found one videogame equivalent (if you know any others, feel free to let me know), which is Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead. Despite this, the Walking Dead is an adventure game, and does not have any boss fights per se. In the last episode, Lee is pressed for time as he struggles to rescue Clementine from her kidnapper, who has previously remained anonymous, contacting Lee only through the walkie-talkie. When Lee arrives at the hotel where Clementine is being kept, he’s forced to sit down at gunpoint by her kidnapper. After settling some disputes, the two eventually come to blows. There’s no music, there’s only the scuffle of chairs and struggles of men grappling to the death, until Lee’s opponent is killed by one, resonant gun-shot–either by Lee or Clementine’s hand.
Both Cowboy Bebop and The Walking Dead place heavy emphasis on sound effects, rather than the music, for their final confrontations. Both of the IP’s soundtracks may use their music to punctuate more grand events, such as space dog fights or zombie stakeouts. By withholding a final track, they heighten the tension, which is appropriate giving the dire situation.
How the developers choose to use their music to heighten the tension depends on entirely how they want to present the boss fight; of course not every boss fight should adopt this practice. Final Fantasy 6 has one of my favorite boss fights in video game history. The final fight against Kefka requires the player to use every member in their party to climb a visual representation of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—the actual fight with Kefka takes place at the highest point in Heaven. Nobuo Uematsu wonderfully crafts his songs in grandeur fashion; the Hell section makes use of thunderous mix of prog-rock and organs, and the heaven section resonates with the familiarity of church compositions. The fight is supposed to be grand in scale and omitting the final boss theme would practically be blasphemous.
I think there is some room for experimentation in final boss presentations. If a developer would like to try and omit music to emphasize the seriousness of the fight, I think they would have to design their fight to be a short, intense duel—kind of like in Cowboy Bebop or the Walking Dead. Their emphasis should be working on all of the sound effects that keep the game grounded in the reality of the situation.
Have you ever seen any unorthodox boss fights in a video game? What would you like to see experimented in a final boss fight?
Author’s Note: Also, I just want a Cowboy Bebop game to come out in America. Open world (open space?) and plenty of Jeet Kune Do and sidequests. Is that too much to ask?