End Errors: Game, Part Deux!
What was that, it’s almost feels like I skipped through time. Like this article isn’t actually it’s own premise, but the continuation of another article, one from the past.
Weird. Anyway . . .
So far we’ve seen how video game endings can fail in a literary sense (denouement), in a literal sense (simply not ending at all) and in an integrity sense (Narrative Hostage taking through DLC). But the canny reader might realize I haven’t mentioned any major problems due to poor game design. Yet anyways, as that’s the can of worms we open today.
Because there is a growing trend in the world of gaming. An idea that has taken root in the hearts of several developers, and is beginning to show up more and more often. Like X-Men with a XX chromosome, it’s a gambit that many have tried, but few have been successful with.
And in order to explore it, I’m going to get into some Mass Effect 3 spoilers because that’s the popular thing to do these days. While this is about the ending of the game it isn’t really about the story, but I figured I’d be fair and put up the warning for the spoiler sensitive among us.
5) Boss Status: MIA
Something that gets my “Dangerous Understanding Disparity” (DUD) Sense tingling is when video game developers say they don’t want to make their video games “too video gamey”. Usually this means some common video game element is removed, most often the HUD. Choices like this aren’t a bad thing, but “too video gamey” is one of those stock phrases that reveals that they might be going against the grain for the sake of it, rather than for specific reasons, like making their game feel more naturalistic.
At first it seemed this behavior only cropped up in devs who would rather be the next Tarantino than Miyamoto. But at least devs with Director’s Chair Envy are trying to fit a particular style, that of cinema. Far worse are the ones imitating choices like minimalistic UI design because it’s trending at GDC one year; making permanent changes based on what’s fashionable usually won’t hold up over time, and can quickly get annoying if too many do it. I don’t know about you, but I still remember early post-millennium media, otherwise known as “Remember how The Matrix had bullet time? WE DO TOO!”
Why do I bring this up?
Well, because Mass Effect 3‘s finale has a problem, and not the nonsense they call a story during its last ten minutes, but a gameplay problem: it’s missing a Final Boss.
Which . . . hold on a minute. I think, yes! It looks like the Mass Effect is only one square away from winning Trite Gaming Trend Bingo! “No Last Boss” fills up a square, and the second had pure health regeneration while the third included “Unnecessary Horde Mode”. Along with the free space granted by Day 1 DLC, it’s only one away! Now all it needs is, let’s see . . . “someone to poorly justify any of the preceding entries”, to win.
What do you say, Director Casey Hudson?
“We had the final fight with the The Illusive Man, but it just felt very video gamey.”
Except . . . does he have a point? I mean, The Illusive Man was supposed to be the final boss? The guy voiced by Martin Sheen who spent most of the second game as a hologram lounging in a leather armchair smoking enough e-cigarettes to keep Space Phillip Morris in business? That Illusive Man?
As much as I hate to admit it, he’s partly right. While the logic isn’t sound at all – video games are “video gamey” – an enigmatic elderly emphysematic, no matter how much he’s betrayed humanity, isn’t going to end up a fitting confrontation for Commander Shepard – a battle hardened veteran whose exploits basically make him space Audie Murphy. Of course this just begs the question: If the Illusive Man is inappropriate as a Final Boss, why not just use someone or something else?
*cough* Harbinger! *cough*
Other than the “too video gamey” response there is no apparent reason, which leads me to believe that Hudson and company have fallen into a trend trap. Buying into a small, but growing belief amongst game developers that bosses, especially final bosses, are passe. Bolstered by a few major games with underwhelming encounters at their end and a few really good games that excluded or subverted the practice, many have begun saying the boss is unnecessary; they’re from a “bygone era“; a dinosaur of old design methods that will soon die off.
Which is completely and utterly wrong, and Mass Effect 3 is the perfect example why.
Unfortunately, to explain why this seemingly trend following thinking is a mistake, I have to get serious. Like Paul Rudd serious. So grab a cup of coffee and and let’s get to work!
Plotting a course over Dangerous Curves
As every upcoming screenwriter/waiter knows, you can define most, if not all, narratives as fitting along a pretty basic structure. Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’m trying to embrace economical writing (read: being lazy), I present this structure thusly:
That red line under Jean Luc’s nose? That’s the dramatic arc of the plot. It represents the flow of a story, the stakes the characters face and the tension and excitement the audience should feel for them all at the same time. As has been proved to me time and again, it’s also applicable to every story ever: in play, book, film or game. When the occasional tale actively subverts it – for example, say a Giant Robot Anime drops the entire resolution – it usually ends predictably: angry and confused audiences.
Now take a look at this little chart over here:
This is a classic difficulty curve for a game. The measure of how hard a game is intended to be from the developer’s perspective, starting out easy like boiling water and ending up as difficult as correctly filling out tax forms . . . with boiled water. Notice any similarities?
You should, because the difficulty curve for a game tends to match the same upward slope – with plateaus and short downward shifts – as the 2nd Act (or the Rising Action) of the plot arc. This isn’t some mere coincidence, it’s because they are in fact, the same thing!
Warren Spector called this phenomenon the “2nd Act Problem“, and posits that functionally, most games are really just the second acts of a story, with very simple intros and outros to represent the exposition and resolutions respectively. It’s an assessment I agree with. Truncated outros of poor quality are exactly what I’m talking about when I said games need more denouement in the last article.
I’d also point out one other similarity: tension. Both the dramatic arc and the difficulty curve are fundamentally based on tension. In a non-interactive story the tension’s caused by seeing the characters struggle to succeed, and in games this becomes literal: the tension felt as YOU struggle to succeed. For developers, mastering the difficulty to create proper tension through challenge is a feat unto itself, but necessary to maintain engagement. It’s a tightrope walk to prevent a game from being tediously easy or frustratingly hard.
Implementation isn’t my concern here. Rather, the last major point of convergence between plot and gameplay difficulty is. Though the difficulty curve doesn’t label it as such, it’s obvious both lines terminate in the same all important place: the Climax!
Hitler’s head explodes, the House of Usher Falls, and Jack Nicholson tells Cruise he can’t handle the truth! The climax is the ultimate moment for both narrative and challenge, the final hurdle to our catharsis as audience or test of a player’s mettle. Notably, both result in a release of tension. Everyone everywhere loves a good climax!
Now notice on that difficulty curve, how the bumpy rises have a note that says,”peaks occur at boss battles”? Well, if the ultimate peak of difficulty is the climax, and the peaks occur at boss battles . . .
That’s right! The final boss fight IS the climax to a game..
Okay, not literally, but just about. There’s an obvious reason why: the final boss is usually the primary antagonist. It makes perfect sense – both in narrative and gameplay – to pit the player-protagonist against the boss-antagonist. Effectively, they are climax personified.
So why would developers ever want to remove such a key component? As a recent divorcee might tell you, removing the climax from something results in a lot of dissatisfaction and unrelieved tension. More importantly, can you even get rid of such a core concept like a climax?
Those waiters I mentioned before would tell you, no, not really. It’s pretty integral to storytelling. Of course, as many gaming industry fans and insiders will counter, games aren’t stories, not by default anyways, and so they need not follow story telling rules, right?
Well, I’m not so sure about that. . .
The Illusive Boss Always exists
The obvious point is that a great many games don’t have story arc elements such as a climax, and therefore an equivalent “boss”, because they aren’t trying to tell stories at all. Beyond the abstract puzzle games, there are several genres that create experiences without narrative; sports games, racing games and most sims, for example.
From home and city building of The Sims and SimCity to the empire cultivation of Civilization (and other 4X games) the need for a “boss” is redundant as that’s the role filled by the player. Most any genre of game where the object is building things, really. There may be goals in these games, sure, they’re games; but story, and any of its basic elements or structure? Bah!
And yet . . . the emphasis of player power and control has led to the the observation that – as anyone who has locked a sim in a inescapable room will tell you – the player is not only the “boss” in these games, but the antagonist.
Of course then there’s the fact that due to a rising difficulty curve all games inherently have a climactic challenge point, even without a plot. Though the climactic challenge point doesn’t necessitate a “boss”, if the point of challenge is a singular object or unified group that can be personified, it might as well be considered one. A functional, or “De Facto” Boss, if you’ll pardon the Legal Latin.
A good example lies in racing games. Exceptions like F-Zero GX and Blur notwithstanding, most racing games don’t feature any plot, or characters that could constitute a traditional “boss”. However, almost all of them do feature progressively tougher to navigate courses as a result of a rising difficulty curve.
Ultimately, they come to a “Widowmaker” track of some kind. Such a climactic course, if memorable enough, arguably counts as a “final boss” of the racing game. A loose definition, perhaps, but I can think of at least one example most would find unobjectionable . . .
This is a slippery argument, but if I keep on it I would posit that due to a climactic challenge point existing, even games without intentions on making narrative end up with at least the 2nd act and climax of a story (what Spector was talking about) and that this implies that all games have narrative. Essentially, the difficulty curve above not only fits within a story structure, it creates one.
If all games have a narrative, then whether or not the audience recognizes it, they come to expect at least some narrative structure to appear throughout. For things like a protagonist (Player Character), a rising struggle (challenge), a climax (boss), and some ability to change the state of their protagonist (winning the game). Should a developer not provide some of these elements officially, players may recognize existing elements as them unofficially.
Hmmm. I wonder if there’s any validity here?
There might be. This idea seems related to what’s being called Emergent Narrative; contrasted to the purposeful story the devs put in, called Embedded Narrative. Simply put, players do what people tend to do and create drama for their games on their own, which I can prove happens with exactly two words: fan fiction. We’re creatures of who thrive on context as much as food and water it seems, with appetites never sated.
Emergent behavior in games, including narrative, is still poorly understood though. A few smart developers like to keep track of stuff like this to keep the player experience in line with their intentions. Developers with less foresight however . . .
Let’s ask Marauder Shields about the unintended consequences of player expectations on narrative, shall we?
Though satirical, the Marauder Shields meme is the direct result of not giving the audience an actual final boss in Mass Effect 3: the players simply made one up. He’s just a regular Marauder, a very common enemy in the game, that happens to be the last enemy the player faces before they reach the game’s Ending-o-tron 5000. Apparently, if a game doesn’t give you a final boss, the players simply say, “Nope. It’s that guy.” and point to whatever fits the best.
In other words, he’s exactly what I said earlier: a de facto Boss. It’s just a more literal (and sarcastic) example.
So if there really isn’t a way for a game to not have at least a climax, and that climax can often be considered a “boss moment”, if I’m right about the de facto Boss essentially, then (ignoring Marauder Shields) doesn’t Mass Effect 3 have one as well? If it does, then what’s the problem?
Well, that involves getting into the nitty gritty complications of the end of Mass Effect 3.
There are no Climaxes or Bosses, only Illusive Men
Mass Effect 3 does in fact have a challenge point climax. The second portion of the 3-part Priority: Earth mission, the game’s finale, is a grueling test of the player’s abilities. It’s one of those “defend a location from incoming waves of enemies” missions; essentially the ending to Halo: Reach, except winnable. It’s intense, exhilarating, and a big relief once you finish it.
Functionally, it’s the defining moment of Mass Effect 3‘s rising action. However it’s neither established nor given validation as the final moment of climactic gameplay. It’s presented as one step in a series and once past it, there’s still another portion of the level (and who knows how much game) left to go!
This setup for further action nullifies a player’s chances of recognizing this as the challenge point climax. If anything, this moment feels like a build up toward a “real” climax, a “real” boss, and probably one just around the corner. Just more rising action.
But for the primary gameplay system of Mass Effect 3 – the cover shooting of bullets at SCARY THINGS – it is the last moment of action, period. Shepard gets injured shortly thereafter, so the rest of the game uses the game’s secondary dynamic – talking to people through passive menu selections – for player interaction while you hobble around. It’s in this state, that a wobbly, concussed Shepard encounters one of his primary antagonists and has a dramatic confrontation.
Guess who it’s with!?
The Illusive Man of course, as this is obviously the point where the “too gamey” fight was to occur. Due to Shepard’s crippled state there’s no chance for a confrontation like that though; it’s a battle of words over weapons. This actually works out pretty well as a climax . . . for the narrative.
Or should anyways. Whether or not it works is debatable – I think the “DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL CHOICE” that follows negates its impact personally – but what isn’t is that this confrontation doesn’t satisfy as a gameplay climax. No matter how important the dialogue is in Mass Effect, picking menu options and hitting QTE prompts simply can’t match the intensity of firing guns and psychic powers.
The end result is that Mass Effect 3‘s climax is muddled to hell and back. Either there is no gameplay climax at all, or there is, but only in retrospect. The fact that it’s hard to tell is a failure in of itself!
Worse, it’s unnecessary. An official final boss for the player to fight somewhere before, during, or after the confrontation with the Illusive Man would have solved the issue. How?
Well as stated earlier, a final boss creates a clearly defined point of gameplay climax. Besides, Mass Effect 3 isn’t some racing game without characters, it’s an RPG known for them: a de facto boss of any stripe shouldn’t exist. A poorly designed boss like the one at the end of ME2 might have been lame, but that’s still better than Marauder Shields.
Secondly it would keep the two climaxes in sync. Currently, the gameplay climax (wave defense) is occurring twenty minutes before the narrative climax (Illusive Man). This gap creates a disconnect, even if you like both sequences, it feels off.
Syncing the action and story together is perfect example of why bosses, official bosses I mean, exist in the first place. Bosses can act as a nexus between narrative and gameplay, keeping the two in harmony. They’re sort of like a meta-game metronome or . . . a deadly tuning fork maybe?
This synchronization gap is bad, but it’s something that does occasionally happen. Ken Levine cited this exact thing as the biggest problem with the end of his game BioShock, for example. It’s notable that in both cases, this seems like it’s also the result of having more than one villain: BioShock has Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, Mass Effect has the Illusive Man and the Reapers (and/or Harbinger).
The real reason to bring up BioShock (and perhaps for this article), is that I think people didn’t recognize this as the real problem. The confrontation with Fontaine was lame and felt off, and the reaction seemed to be that it would have been better without it at all, that the final boss existed, period. Thus reinforcing the general idea that bosses were unnecessary, and perhaps leading to the current debacle in ME3.
But reading through Levine’s words (and looking at trailers for BioShock Infinite), it seems he thinks the issue wasn’t in having a final boss, just that he didn’t realize that putting the narrative climax so far before the gameplay climax created the sensation of the story dragging on like Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. This is the real lesson I think.
Poor placement leads to poor pacing, and the jumbled, “maybe it has a climax I guess” ending to Mass Effect 3 serves as a cautionary tale of not only why a boss can be used to solve this problem, but also to gameplay/narrative pacing in general. Synchronization is VERY important. Final bosses are tools to keep in sync, why not use them?
Extant Expectation Effects
Hopefully I’ve been clear as to exactly why a boss is important from a structural standpoint. Certainly this essay is long enough, right?
But there’s one last problem, a big one.
Hudson’s “video gamey” comment, and the subsequent Illusive Man conversation implies a belief that a narrative climax can substitute the gameplay. This belief understands player psychology on about the same level as Dr. Phil understands the mind of a couch cushion.
Leading the player to expect a boss fight and then denying it at the exact point of highest tension, is frustrating to say the least. But if the player trusts the game, it’s like a flirting tease: excitement through denial. You trust catharsis will occur later.
But then you get a mostly cutscene driven conversation when you’re expecting an action packed, adrenaline filled shootout. It’s like getting a copy of The Brothers Karamazov from your spouse instead of sex on your birthday – it might be a great book, but when you were expecting to get laid it simply doesn’t suffice. “Boss Battle Blue Balls”, is the most alliteratively obvious way to describe the state many players find themselves in at the end of ME3, and I think being in this state is a primary reason the subsequent endings fail for many gamers.
BioWare seems oblivious about the effect this expectation has on player psychology in about the same way Peter Venkman fails to recognize what the effect of electroshock therapy has on psychic ability:
To put it another way, BioWare forgot the other main reason a final boss battle is REALLY DAMN IMPORTANT: It relieves the built up tension and anticipation by giving the player an endorphin high. In fact, I’d say one of the primary reasons that gamers have been more accepting of crappy endings in games overall is because beating a final boss can be awesome. Sometimes this Pavlovian response to conquering a final foe is disproportionately important.
That being said, this seems an intentional choice rather than pure miscalculation.
Denying the player a sense of exultation wouldn’t be in line with the somber mood of the rest of the finale. This makes sense, and might have been fine – others have pulled it off – if the mood stuck to the “noble sacrifice” theme. But then, the final sequence continues and the tone shifts to metaphysical pondering, much of which is vague and requires that the player implicitly trust the developers to work in the slightest.
At this point, not only is this trust damaged because of the recent denial, players are also hyper-aware. Boss battles, especially the final climactic kind, require players to identify weaknesses quickly and react swiftly to succeed. Efficient extermination is key; you never know if the evil mastermind is going to pull out some nasty special attack that ends you faster than Fox ended Drive.
Asking the player to explore philosophy calmly and rationally when they’re irritated is a mistake. Trying to pass off a bunch of contrived gibberish, hoping no one asks questions when you’ve put them in the exact state to critically analyze the situation? That’s a “Custer’s Last Stand”/”Let’s invade Russia in Winter” level error in judgement.
This level of presumption on BioWare/EA’s part, along with other factors, is what’s let to such a strong backlash I think. An outcry so loud that BioWare is actually going to add onto the ending in DLC, to try and “clarify” it.
Good game design is primarily about two things: getting the player to trust you, and making your game illusory enough that the limitations are ignored. At this point, the illusion is shattered, and the trust needs to be repaired. Acknowledging that they really didn’t understand how players would react by trying to make amends is good, but if they couldn’t see the problems (Missing Boss, Tonal shift, Deus Ex Machina) in the first place how can they hope to address them now?
Seriously BioWare, if you had an appropriate boss fight in your game, the ending could’ve been this:
Because THAT is the effect of the boss. To give the player an afterglow so strong that they’re pliable to whatever idea you toss their way. Even genocidal glowing ghosts.
Without that climax . . . well, even if you attempt counseling, you just might have to deal with the reality of divorce.