Penning the Solution to the Penultimate Problem
Great RPGs are driven by a spellbinding story, but a major plot mechanic has started to make my brain itch. Before I scratch it, heed this fair warning: spoilers lie ahead. With that sign posted, here’s the rub: the formulaic twist wherein the final boss is not actually the final boss is overused and sometimes underdeveloped. This issue shouldn’t burden either players or developers, though, because it can be avoided by a well-penned story that proves mightier than the ultimate sword.
Many RPG tales begin simply enough yet grow convoluted as the plot thickens, relying on the oft-used “true final boss” plot-twist. This fantastical skulduggery presents an antagonist throughout much of the game as the primary objective, but in a surprising turn of events late in the story, a new antagonist appears out of the blue. Suddenly, the main threat players had fought towards for most of the story is relegated to a side-show. In the best-case scenario, this boss escalation seems like an afterthought, but in the worst-case scenario, it feels like a bait-and-switch.
The plot twisting tendency has become anticipated like a common trope or a telegraphed ambush. Though I haven’t played many RPGs, it feels like a “true final boss” reveal is the expected norm. During this year alone, two grand RPGs I finished — both are excellent overall — employed this curve ball plot device.
For example, in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Shadar, the Dark Djinn, appears to be the main antagonist throughout most of the game. In fact, in the Nintendo DS version of the game, he is, and the White Witch of the PlayStation 3 title was added in, with the game revised for her inclusion. Thus leveling up for the great Shadar showdown, reaching his sinister dwelling, and then finally defeating him was a wholly gratifying experience I felt through my bones. With that victorious vanquishment, I was ready for sweet denouement and a fulfilling credit roll. Instead, I realized that the White Witch truly was the real force to reckon with and, with nary my breath caught, the quest continued to grind away. The story I had thought was well and done became undone and then overcooked.
The other epic game I completed recently that also follows this formula is Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition. The three-act story — spoiler warning — has the player focused on Mordegon, who is the main antagonist for much of the first two acts. However, the third act throws a time-traveling true final boss curve ball that, though it nicely ties the game to the greater Erdrick saga, feels like bonus content for finishing the real game in the second act, which included its own full rolling of credits.
Leading players on a quest against a formidable foe then switching out said foe with a far greater enemy is a reasonable story mechanic. I appreciate the intention to surprise gamers, raise the risks, increase the challenge, amplify the threat, and lengthen the overall game, all of which should yield greater satisfaction in true final victory. However, when the apparent ultimate antagonist proves to be only penultimate, giving way to yet a more superior villain, it’s somewhat misleading — call it artistic misdirection — when it’s not plotted well.
Revealing that the final boss is a secondary threat works against itself because what is portrayed initially as climactic ends as anticlimactic; the grand showdown loses its grandeur. When I fought Shadar, I was ready for significant pay-off for my efforts accrued over tens of hours. However, I felt the joy of success deflated as I soon needed to revisit towns and complete newly added quests. Although I should have been happy to get more of the game to play, I felt the quality of my initial quest and goal was disproportionately exchanged for quantity. In other words, the last act towards the White Witch felt tacked-on, despite being foreshadowed, and the great build-up towards Shadar lost significance, making him and the initial quest seem trivial.
While I don’t claim to be an author or storyteller, the solution to the penultimate boss problem is straightforward: pen the plotted path to the ultimate boss better. For example, rather than the true final boss being a surprise, make it a mystery. This isn’t a distinction without a difference, it’s a way to enhance the story by weaving the final enemy into the player’s mind throughout the game, thus making the ultimate boss reveal more confirming than surprising. Well placed and timely paced clues will draw the gamer in with subtle — not hidden — plot points. Perhaps keep players guessing by presenting two or more antagonists; the arch nemesis could pull the strings on all the other puppet adversaries.
Two good examples of a similar final boss approach are found in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII. In VI, while Emperor Gestahl is portrayed as the highest ranking enemy, it’s Kefka who, throughout the game, seems to be the main antagonist. Sure enough, he ends as the uttermost villain in the climactic battle to end all battles. Likewise, in VII, although the sinister Shinra company and its suspicious cronies are a large threat, it’s the mysterious Sephiroth who, being chased through the story, remains the primary target to eliminate.
Solving the formulaic final boss plot-twist with better storytelling will make good RPGs great and, consequently, great RPGs outstanding. While it’s no easy task for a developer to write a game story that contains twists but is not convoluted, this is the challenge any great developer will rise to. In so doing, the fruit of their labor will be greater sales, increased positive brand awareness, and accolades like, “Game of the Year.” It will also satisfy players while making them crave yet more. In the end, both players and developers would win.
Great piece. Love the discussion of FFVI and VII. I never considered those to even qualify as fake outs.