Friday, July 24, 2009

When Final Battles Fall Short - Do Games Know How to End?

Use all the skills you have learned... Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo recently posted about a discussion re: game endings on a 1UP podcast.  Garnet Lee and Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt debated about how the traditional Final Battle prevents games from having dénouement, in the literary sense. 

Is dénouement absolutely necessary for a good story?  No, not necessarily.  Plenty of good stories (whatever the medium) end abruptly, but that is usually done to emphasis certain themes or motifs. 

It’s almost become cliché to disparage game narratives.  Why?  Is there something inherently flawed about storytelling in an interactive medium?

Part of the problem may be the terminology we attach to finishing a game.  More general terms aside, books are read and movies are seen.  Games are “beaten.”  This comes, of course, from gaming’s preteen years, when most titles were primarily challenges of skill.  Some, designed to ravenously consume your quarters, didn’t even allow you to complete the game – limited hardware prompted games to commit seppuku lest they carry on indefinitely.  The challenge-based design aesthetic still pervades an industry characterized by Achievements, High Scores, and Time Trials.  Of course, presenting the player with puzzles and tests is something movies and books can’t do.  I’ve never, upon finishing a book remarked that I “beat” it (though I may about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, if I ever get through it).  So do we need to dump skill-based, challenge-to-challenge design if we’re evolve narrative in games?

Hopefully not.  As I said, it’s one of the things games have over other media.  Unfortunately, this holdover from the Golden Age of arcades has led to widespread implementation of the Big Boss/Final Battle.  And this is where so many game stories go astray.  I’ve tried to be an apologist for BioShock’s final battle, something Andrew’s railed against repeatedly.  But really, I can’t argue with him.  A game dealing primarily with the illusion of choice and the power of the individual should not have a boss that uses minions.  In fact, were BioShock to end at its infamous twist (no spoiler, I’ll be nice), I’m sure we’d be having a much different discussion.  Mass Effect’s final fight, while certainly tense, felt anticlimactic, especially given the scope of the space battle being waged offscreen.  Half-Life 2, a game critically renowned for its ability to deliver an entertaining yet straight-faced and linear narrative, should not have ended with a glorified gravity gun puzzle. 

How should these games have ended?  I’m not sure.  But isn’t it interesting these critically-acclaimed stories end with underwhelming or out-of-place boss battles?  I think it’s, in part, an issue of player agency.  Games have evolved to point where the truly memorable moments can either be created entirely by the player (the gleeful, wanton destruction of Red Faction: Guerrilla) or seen to evolve organically out of the player’s actions (the carefully orchestrated encounters of Half-Life 2).  I’m reminded of a moment in HL2: Episode Two, when a massive Strider attacks Gordon and Alyx in a riverbed, and the robot DOG leaps off a nearby cliff, engaging the alien monstrosity in melee combat.  You, playing Gordon, can still move.  You can fire upon the Strider.  Sure, DOG will always be the one to kill it King-Kong-style, but doesn’t the negate the feeling of player participation. 

Contrast moments like these to the cut-scene epidemic.  BioShock, after making you fight a senseless final boss, tosses a ten-second cut-scene (one whose content depends entirely on whether or not your morality lapsed just once) at you.  Mass Effect dazzles with its seamless transition from everyday Walking-Around-to-Gather-Intel to I-Need-to-Shoot-These-Dudes combat.  Yet it cannot relay a worthwhile end to the story without resorting a scripted movie sequence.   Even though it maintains the first-person perspective, Half-Life 2 ends with an immobile, one-sided conversation with a well-dressed, time-stopping supernatural man.

There’s a paradox here. Games thrive on the player’s ability to shape, impact, and help co-author the narrative, yet they have no say in how it ends other than to turn off the power button prematurely.  That’s not necessarily the developer’s fault.  Gamers want story.  And they want to participate in it, as well.  But I think this “I’m going to beat this game” mentality limits the developers’ options.  Shadow of the Colossus is one of the few games where upon completion I felt pangs of regret.  The ten-minute, largely playable sequence that follows the final colossus aptly drives home the story’s themes and overall message.  I was left wondering if I should have beaten it. 

If game stores are to clear this storytelling hurdle, more developers will have to employ tactics similar to Shadow of the Colossus or the first half of BioShock.  Toy with our completionist expectations.  Dare to tell stories that don’t end triumphantly.  Perhaps then we can distance ourselves from the Final Battle trope and embrace a wider variety of narratives.