Surviving 2016's Deplorable Boss Rush

Postscript columnist Cameron Kunzelman's attempts to understand the year that tried to kill us all, with a look at great boss rushes of the past.

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Dec 30 2016, 9:00pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities. 

The story of 2016 is a morbid joke: 2016 is trying to destroy us all. We have to laugh at it, or make light of it, because what else is there? It's just an amazing, unrelenting assault on the senses: Donald Trump ran a campaign of straight-up hate and sexism and won handily, half of the celebrities and musicians I've ever cared about died, and our planet is accelerating into the death cycle that human beings started.  

I'm not sure what the response to such unbelievable existential panic is. My solution, the only solution I can think of for the near future, is to look for strategies of coping and survival.

My strategy of survival in our world of overwhelming bleakness is treating everything like a boss rush. If you're not familiar with the concept, a boss rush is a series of battles in a game where you have to face powerful enemies over and over again without a break. It's a big umbrella, and lots of different gameplay experiences exist within that large framework. In Dark Souls 3's first DLC, you're forced to fight Sister Friede, Father Ariandel alongside her, and a "final form" of Friede without any pause. It's a brutal, hard-as-nails fight that just doesn't stop. You either get through it or you flounder, destined to start all over again from the beginning. That's a boss rush.

Header and Dark Souls 3 image courtesy of From Software

The value that I see in thinking about 2016 as an emotional boss rush is that there are tried-and-true methods of making your way through a boss rush. You see, from a gameplay standpoint, rushes aren't just about tactically killing enemies or about overwhelming the player. They're about testing the player through attrition. You enter into the arena with a finite number of items, hit points, and tools at your disposal, and the boss rush tests your ability to use them at the best moments to the best effects. Boss rushes are about learning, and they're also about sacrificing. They're hard.

Shovel Knight has what we might call the most standard and elegant boss rush. Late in the game, the player accidentally drops down into a dinner party that's being held between all of the game's bosses. Understandably, they're incredibly angry, and they each fight you one-by-one. Shovel Knight's retro-inspired gameplay means that this event is all about exercising what you know about the game to the best of your ability to save health for later fights. It's incredibly stressful.

One of my favorite rushes (a loose term, as I've said) is the long finale of Final Fantasy VIII. You enter into the castle of the evil sorceress Ultimecia who has achieved her nefarious goal of "time compression." All of time (even 2016!) exists in this one moment, and you have to traverse this wild and wacky funhouse of horrors to make your way to that final boss fight. However, the castle is made more complicated by locking all of your abilities behind sub-bosses. Surviving the end of this game means sequencing how you unlock your abilities. Do you need to be able to summon the mystical Guardian Forces first, or would it be better to have access to your inventory of magic? All of the decisions compound as the bosses get harder, and eventually you land in the final boss fight, which is another, more traditional boss rush of several ever-more-final forms.

Why do I take personal and political solace in the boss rush of FFVIII? Well, while there's a lot of talk about how video games can change the world, but I remain unconvinced that badges, extrinsic motivators, and Skinner boxes can get us to alter global warming or dismantle white supremacy. I bet that there are hundreds of people worldwide trying to figure out how they can develop a match-3 game that is going to solve the trend of resurgent violent nationalism happening across the globe—but I don't know how playing ourself to a solution is supposed to really work other than the fact that psychological research and a thousand different game evangelist anecdotes say that it definitely will. I'm not sure we can play ourselves to a better world.

Final Fantasy XIII screen courtesy of Square Enix

I don't think that video games that teach you how to do a thing, like recycling or reducing your carbon footprint, are very interesting, but I do think that games can teach us new ways of thinking. In the same way that anyone who does photography for an extended amount of time will begin to see things a little differently, I think that anyone who gets deep into video games has the same thing happen.

I don't think the value of games is in telling you what to think. I think they can help teach players how to think. Boss rushes are some of the most bleak, difficult, rage-inducing parts of video games, but that also means that they have a lot to tell us about how to cope with bleak, difficult, rage-inducing things.

If Kingdom Hearts's Coliseum of battles is the metaphor, then we're all just Sora. We're trying to make our way through an unrelenting amount of terrible stuff. Some of it is easy to get through, and some of it feels like you're trying to fight your way through solid concrete. But just like Sora, we've all got a few different strategies available to us. We've got Fira spells of burning Twitter rage and Megalixers of successful demonstrations against police brutality, but it's just as important to remember that we have friends and allies. Goofy and Donald helped that key-wielding kid through a lot of hell, and the ability to depend on them to tank a boss or heal through the worst of things was deeply important to the project of not getting his ass handed to him on a platter 24/7.

So we take the things we have and we survive with them. We recognize that, just like 2016, things are just going to keep coming. Many of us live on the edge of economic precarity—many more do not even have the luxury of that; worldwide, there are plans at the moment to sweep the basic human rights of many off the table; the Arctic ice is going to keep melting.

I don't list out these things to be pessimistic. I list them to be realistic, to face the challenge head on. Idols die, voting districts are gerrymandered, and we're all driven into wage debt. It's a sequence of things, but we've got a secret weapon. We have other ways of thinking, of dealing with systematic, rolling problems that come with us. Use the tactics of the boss rush. Have faith in one another. Move forward. Memorize the enemy patterns, but don't just write them down in an FAQ of Twitter receipts. Respond. React. Create new movements and tactics that can outmaneuver their tired old strategies. Be responsive. Save each other.