After what seems like an eternity, I have beaten the final boss in Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga. The game as a whole is not at all difficult: the play mechanics are introduced very gradually to minimize confusion, and the enemies are for the most part pushovers. It helps that the player has the ability to dodge any attack by jumping or counterattacking at the right time. This particular mechanic makes most battles easy and fun, but it leads to difficulties with the final boss. Where most enemies have one or two different attacks for which the specific timing of the dodging action can be learned with a little practice, the final boss has nine different attacks, some of which are obnoxiously difficult to avoid. It goes without saying that the boss’s attacks do quite a lot more damage than your garden-variety Goomba, and when it strings together three or four strikes in a row before you have a chance to heal, a minor slip in your timing can lead to a quick and painful death.

This is the problem I’ve always had with boss battles: they boil down to a mindless yet unforgiving call-and-response between the boss and the player, a square dance where the boss shouts out the steps, and the punishment for missing a step is death. Janet Murray distinguishes between activity and agency: “For instance, in a tabletop game of chance, players may be kept very busy spinning dials, moving game pieces, and exchanging money, but they may not have any true agency. The players’ actions have effect, but the actions are not chosen and the effects are not related to the players’ intentions.” To Murray, agency — the ability to make choices that have substantive effect on the world — is a key component of successful interactivity: “When things are going right on the computer, we can be both the dancer and the caller of the dance.”

If boss battles lack agency, though, and agency is a key source of pleasure in games, then why do people consider boss battles fun? Michael Mateas suggests at Grand Text Auto that agency isn’t the only pleasure to be found in interactive media. Talking about the interactive fiction Dead Reckoning, he says that “interaction must be inducing some other phenomenal experience than the feeling of agency. And this experience is rooted in the solving of puzzles.” His description of some of the affective qualities of IF could be applied to the final boss battle in M&LSS: decoding logical structure (understanding the boss’s attacks), problem-solving (figuring out how to dodge those attacks), experiencing a transformation of the player’s understanding of the world (well, not sure about this one), resolving the narrative tension (getting on with the plot after winning the battle). There’s definitely a square-peg-round-hole feeling to that mapping, though. Describing boss fights in terms of puzzles really only works inasmuch as every experience in our lives could be described in terms of puzzles: you can make anything fit as long as you shove hard enough.

Of course, Mateas isn’t really suggesting that puzzle-solving is the One True Phenomenon that will explain interactivity: he’s just suggesting one possible phenomenal effect of interactivity, and asking whether there might be others out there. Jill Walker hints at some in her essay “Do You Think You’re Part of This?” Discussing the use of the second person to force a player/reader into playing along with a text, she says that “When you play a game… you are more than a voyeur. You enjoy that feeling of being part of the text, part of the machine. Do you enjoy the limitations of your participation: the feeling of being forced, of submitting? Is this the pleasure of ritual?” According to this, we can find pleasure in the successful execution of ritual, even when that ritual requires us to give up our sense of agency.

This pleasure isn’t unique to electronic media. Nearly all performing arts involve adhering to a score, a script, or some other form of direction. The pleasure that musicians find in performing a Beethoven string quartet is different than those they find in improvising a solo over the changes to “Django.” In the latter, there is a high level of agency present: within the basic chord structure, the player has complete freedom to choose what phrases to play, and those phrases transform the piece and turn it into something new for the listener; in the former, there is very little agency, but there is great satisfaction to be found in the melding of the players’ instruments and the passing of the melodic line from voice to voice. The performance is a ritual with its own conventions, and engaging in those conventions as a group gives the players a nice feeling of unity.

This pleasure — the pleasure of unity in ritual — is what we feel when we successfully play the final boss in M&LSS. I’ve talked before about playing with a game instead of against it. The final boss is a prime example of this: the only way to win is to participate in the ritual forced upon you by the boss, to attack, evade, and counterattack at the exact moments it wants you to. Once you get over this lack of agency, though, you can focus on the pleasures of performance and convention, and find a weird (and sort of creepy) cybernetic unity with your Game Boy through this performance.