Video games have a tendency to attempt a grand finale during their last acts, giving us a large, epic battle against something we have been preparing for the entire game. Sometimes, these moments come out of nowhere, but sometimes it leads to a final act that is exact what we might expect it to be. And yet, games rarely deliver. Final acts in games are generally bad, and even some of your favorites might suffer because of it. In the long run it might not matter, but to leave the player with an unsatisfactory or lazy conclusion might ruin their feelings on the entire game in the long run. Generally speaking, final acts in games tend to be missing something that everything prior to them did so well.
Let’s be honest, coming up with an ending can be difficult, especially if there is a narrative structure in place. But it hasn’t always been like that. For example, back during the 8-bit era, games that weren’t RPGs tended to have one key goal in mind: get to the end. And when you got there, you would usually be faced off against some kind of large, powerful final encounter that would test your skills up to that point. If done well, these encounters would be challenging, but not frustrating, and very memorable. Once you beat it, you felt a real sense of accomplishment. RPGs also featured final bosses, but those usually matched up with the story. This was the final battle, the big bad guy you’ve been trying to stop the entire time. It made sense, and with stories as basic as the ones found in the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, you still felt that sense of accomplishment. You saved the world, good has triumphed over evil once again, stuff like that.
The idea of having a final boss in video games is one that has stuck around since then, for better or worse. The concept of a final boss is an old, tired trend that really does not belong in most games, but somehow finds its way. Let’s look at a recent example of a game’s final boss that came absolutely out of left field: Mass Effect 2. This is arguably one of the better games this console generation, and the final mission itself is full of tense moments. But then you reach a point where you face what is essentially the “final boss,” but this thing has no real barring on the story; it almost literally comes out of nowhere. The fight itself feels out of place and isn’t particularly challenging or fun, it’s only there to keep that “final boss” trope alive when it was not at all necessary.
Mass Effect 2’s final mission was enough, but following it up with an encounter that did not service the story or the gameplay was a huge mistake. Developers need to understand that when they are crafting a narrative experience, they need to also craft the gameplay around that in such a way that makes sense. You can have a game end without a final boss. Mass Effect 2 pulled it off splendidly, but then the final boss showed up. It’s almost as if there is a split in regards to the final act itself: there’s the story ending, and then there’s the gameplay ending. A lot of the times, both don’t match up at all.
In the end, you’re left with an uneven, unsatisfying experience that ultimately impacts the story in a negative way as well. And to have those final moments feel any less than truly remarkable in a game that has been, up to that point, pretty great can definitely leave a negative impact. When I look back on the many, many games that end that way, I can only think about how they might have better been served if they ditched the final boss encounter all together, or at least made one that serviced the story better and was actually a genuinely enjoyable fight.
Let’s look at how a series has improved in this regard. Batman: Arkham Asylum is a fantastic game that ends poorly. It felt like there just needed to be a final boss, but it was done so haphazardly. On the other hand, Batman: Arkham City has a final boss encounter that is not only enjoyable, but makes sense in context of the story and is a surprise. It’s not surprising because it feels out of place; it’s surprising because it is a story moment that was legitimately well-planned from the start. Rocksteady clearly learned from their mistakes in this regard.
Here’s another great example of how to do a final act right: Portal 2. That entire last chapter is one great, big action sequence that is not dissimilar to the final moments in the original Portal. It plays great and leads to one of the best final moments in any game I’ve played in recent memory. It’s something that never felt out of place and was actually hinted at many times throughout the game. And once it happened, your jaw hit the floor. This is the definitive example of how to end a game right, and how it will forever impact the player’s experience for the best.
If you end a great game poorly, it might leave a poor lasting impression. If you end a great game just right, it will be remembered forever. I honestly believe that a good final act can lead to the most memorable gaming experiences around, but we rarely see those moments. I have no problem with final bosses in concept, they will probably never go away, but in this day and age they deserve to be there for a good reason. These final encounters should service both the gameplay and the story equally. Otherwise, you’re left with the gaming equivalent of a McDonald’s meal: It fills you up, but you’re still left absolutely unsatisfied.