The phrase "dragons are cool" verges on tautology; as far as mythos lauded by contemporary society gp dragons rate close to Jesus in terms of appeal. People like dragons. They like the image of them, the iconography of them. From noble, sentient creatures to simple beasts hellbent on consumptive destruction, dragons manifest themselves in every cultural arena, saturating our collective consciousness even as their qualities shift to occupy the needs of their cultural container.
This pattern saturates video games as well, but there's a core quality to dragons that manifests itself in that choicest of genres, something that makes them more than just awesome placeholders, and it's what I'd like to briefly discuss today: dragons are uniformly awesome boss fights. Even games with dozens upon dozens of dragons hanging out in them, games like Skyrim where you trip over motherfucking dragons, they remain are fearsome foes that you have to test your mastery of the game to beat.
This is especially true in the Baldur's Gate series of games. Dragons in the Dungeons and Dragons landscape are often conspicuously absent from the games themselves (but if the game system was just called "Dungeons" it would have a very different feel to it). The first Baldur's Gate was guilty of almost completely ignoring dragon, but Baldur's Gate the Second was riddled with the fuckers, relentlessly pushing players up against these scaly be-winged foes every twenty minutes. A full playthrough of the game doesn't require fighting any of them, but each of them constituted an optional boss fight that was as difficult as any of the plot-required fights in the game proper. And unlike the other punishing optional fights of Baldur's Gate 2, made challenging largely because of enemies effectively cheating at the game, the dragon boss battles had a phased, paced sense to them that made them simultaneously desperate and soothing: sure, you were fighting a dragon, an armored lizard tank that spit spells at you, but the dragon was, in some sense, fighting fair, even when he fought your entire party. It's not like he was just spitting out imprisonment spells endlessly or something. These were fights that tested your ability to synergize your party. That Cavalier Paladin? A must for her fear immunity and class-granted AOE removal spell. That Rogue? Going to deliver some choice backstabs and trap damage. That Archer Ranger? Making it rain arrows while the tail swipe and wing gusts from the dragons make all the melee damage scatter. And so on: where other optional boss fights oriented themselves around finding one trick and exploiting it, the dragon boss fights were about testing your mastery of a game's systems. Even in my new playthroughs, with my jacked party and encyclopedic knowledge of the game to draw from, there's still a tension to every dragon battle I engage in, one that only resolves when I'm standing atop a bescaled corpse, rifling through its pouches or wing folds or whatever to see what all the fuss was for.
There's a sensibility to dragons as boss monsters that just works, something about how they can engage with multiple foes, on multiple fronts, without losing any of that personal touch or intimidation. Neverwinter, which I am unfortunately still playing, managed to build an entire expansion around dragon boss fights, and it's actually one of the better things they've done. Dragons as boss monsters require a kind of collaborative play that is simultaneously intuitive and surprising: players seem to ring dragons by reflex, swarming them like insects, bravely holding their attention, darting in and out of the red circles they drop like it's no big deal. There's a sense of community that fighting dragons engenders, a quasi-Quixotian collaborative narrative that draws players in, whether or not they want to fight. A dragon stands as a sort of challenge: come and get me.
But there are other means of approaching dragons and, by relation, boss fights. The puzzle based structure can be especially fruitful, as Shadow of the Colossus demonstrated. While many of its bosses are not dragons per-sec, many of them are dragon-like, and if one wants to be edified by dragon oriented boss battles, SoC is the place to be. Then there are titles like Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 mix and match the chaotic dragon beat down and the pensive puzzle fight by adding deliberate MMO-boss-battle-esque phases to the mix. By tying shifting conditions to a kind of inherent idiomatic nerd-fu, the boss battle simultaneously becomes an intellectual exercise and a calming immersion in cultural comfort food.
That's where the real power of the dragon-boss lies: not just in its ability to semiotically engage with our shared cultural consciousness, but in its ability to generate a new framework for that semiotic language. By constructing unusual or unexpected events around a set of known cultural quantities, developers can effectively use the dragon as a known quantity inhabiting uncertain surroundings. The dragon-as-boss trope is an old one, ingrained in Western cultural awareness as far back as Sigurd, so showing us a dragon lets us know what we're in for, opening up an opportunity for developers to simultaneously surprise and satisfy players.
Of course, this can backfire too. Players will enter fights with expectations, and might grow upset when those expectations are subverted. We're far more likely to take semantic issue with structures we find semiotically familiar. Players bringing preconceptions to particular kinds of play might find dragon battles tedious or unpleasant or played out - there are, after all, quite a lot of them in our cultural atmosphere.
But even then, we're left with another lesson, this time in how to subvert expectations. While there's little to be done to unruffle the feathers of someone who wanted a particular kind of play and didn't find it, a well constructed boss battle that defies participant expectations can be tremendously effective. It's more difficult to present examples of this, by merit of its positioning outside the realm of the familiar, but something like the final boss battle of Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, which revolves peripherally around a dragon and resolves itself, at least partially, through dialogue choices might qualify. But what excites me about dragon-based boss fights is what I haven't seen yet, what I hope I might see one day. Sure, I've been through a great many dragon battles before, but it feels like there's always something unexpected around the corner each time one of those beasts unfurls their leathery wing and lets a gout of flame sear the sky. Assuming, of course, that it's a firey, wingy, dragon. Which, as we know full well, is not always the case.