Due to the nature of this article, spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 3, the first God of War, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and Mass Effect 3 follow.
So that’s it. You just finished the final boss. You’re sitting on the couch, fingers still a little tense. You put the controller down to watch the last cut scene, when you realize something is deeply wrong. You don’t care. Why? The battle was tough. You were challenged, but at the end of the day, it was just a battle that was slightly bigger and harder than the other ones before it. And that’s probably the problem.
Final bosses go back to the dawn of gaming. The first boss–at least according to copious wikipedia research–was dnd, a 1975 PLATO dungeon crawler. The protagonist was a guy, trying to find a magic orb. Then, at the bottom of the dungeon, standing between him and the orb–and more importantly the player’s chance at making the high score list–was a dragon. A hulking, gold, written in BASIC dragon
In the intervening 40 years, the final encounter has become a little more than a macguffin. For a game where story matters, the final encounter needs to be the emotional apex for the player, which is a pretentious way of saying the big bad has to matter. They have to matter to the player, they have to matter to the world, they have to matter to the character and they should matter in a way that ties the entire plot together.
The final encounter has to matter to the player. If the player doesn’t feel the weight of the fight, it’s not a good final fight. Good boss battle gameplay could be an entire article by itself, but the quick and dirty version is this: games are like fireworks shows. The grand finale should be big, spectacular and so obvious no one can’t miss it.
I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 3. My boyfriend shouldn’t have to tell me that I already won the last battle while I’m still excitedly wondering what the last boss will entail. Way to drop the ball on that one.
The final encounter has to matter to the world. Whether someone’s playing Wolfenstein and shooting a giant robo-nazi or if it’s Mario trying to save Peach from Bowser, something big is at stake. Blazkowicz was trying to turn the tide against the cancerous regime that took over the world while he was asleep (that cancerous regime, of course, being robo-nazis). Mario is trying to prevent the power vacuum when the ruler of a kingdom with no clear line of succession is abducted.
Usually the fate of the kingdom/world/galaxy is at stake, but even if it’s something smaller, the character’s actions should matter. If the hero doesn’t intervene right now, something bad is going to go down. It should be obvious to the player to see why their character would risk life and limb for their cause.
Thankfully, most games have that one down. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a game’s big bad should be big and bad. The second kind of mattering is more difficult and subtle. It’s also what takes a good final encounter and makes it a great final encounter.
The final encounter should matter to the hero. It’s not enough for them to look at a bad thing happening and say “that’s bad. Someone should stop that. Oh, hey! I’m not doing anything next week” then go off and fight evil. That’s boring. Most good stories give the protagonist a deeply personal reason to be protagonist-ing, and that should still feed into the last fight.
The ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 should hurt. Naked Snake has been sent to track down and kill his boss, mentor and ultimate platonic love: The Boss. The fight that would be the the final encounter in other games, the fight where Snake destroys a nuclear-equipped-death tank, are over. His mission still isn’t done, though. The actual final boss is a much more personal one. The United States still wants the Boss dead and Snake has to choose between his mentor and his country. And Snake chooses his country.
Throughout the battle, The Boss explains why she betrayed the US–why he has to prove his loyalty to one or the other. She isn’t angry or even hurt. She knows one of them has to die, one of them has to kill the other, and there can’t be a happy ending. This quiet assurance is even more disturbing than if she had turned into a raving fanatic.
At the end, after Snake has taken her down, the Boss acknowledges that the student has become the master, and the player is reminded of how much Snake has had to change since he got dropped into the jungles of the USSR with a knife many many hours before. Although he’s gotten stronger, nothing in his life will ever be the same.
Then, to rub salt in the wound, Snake doesn’t kill The Boss during a cutscene. The player has to be the one to pull the trigger. It’s not enough that any credit Snake gets for the mission will be empty for him–the player already knew this wasn’t going to be a happy game for Snake–it’s painful for the player too, knowing that they were the one who actually pulled the trigger.
Even ignoring the gigantic pile of twists and story points that come after the final encounter of any Metal Gear, just that final battle is enough to completely change the player experience, push the knife in deeper, then twist.
The personal moment in the final encounter doesn’t have to be the worst day of the character’s life. It could be their huge triumph.
For Kratos in God of War, the final encounter means finally getting satisfaction. From the beginning of the game, the player knows Kratos needs to kill Ares for some reason. Once they learn Ares tricked Kratos into killing everyone he loved to become the god’s ultimate weapon, Kratos’ desire for revenge seems incredibly justified and the player is on the warpath right along with him. When the player gets to kill Ares back, the justice seems very sweet.
The final encounter should matter because it ties the whole game together. The end of Eternal Darkness, Sanity’s Requiem is possibly the most satisfying final encounter I’ve ever played. Not because the gameplay was great (if you don’t pick up a secret weapon that’s incredibly easy to miss, the fight is nearly impossible), but because it manages to wrap up the story in an incredibly elegant way.
Side note: Technically your final encounter isn’t against the eldritch horror (you summon another big eldritch horror to do that because Rule of Cool). Alex, the heroine, is actually fighting the poor sap who first summoned the monster some 2000 years before and has been doing its bidding ever since. If she can get through him and destroy the monster essence that he’s guarding, the monster will be defeated, the fight will be over, humanity will have won, yay humanity.
Throughout the game, you play as various characters from different places and times who have all tried to stop an eldritch monstrosity from rising. Some of them made progress or slowed it down, but none of them are able to stop it. Many of them die in the attempt. Alex has read about these past attempts and so she and the player both know about how well one person trying to defeat this big bad usually goes. So she does something different.
Instead of attempting to fight alone, she uses the experiences of those who came before her. By living through them. In the fight, either symbolically or through some weird soul binding (it’s never explicitly stated), Alex transforms into each of the characters you played as earlier in the game. Once you make enough progress, you move on to the next character.
Not only is it just cool to revisit the characters you got to know during the game by bringing them back for the final fight, it’s also incredibly satisfying from a narrative standpoint. All these people tried to beat the horror and failed. They can succeed now. All these people contributed in one way or another to Alex having a shot at winning. They all get to win with her.
And that’s really what the final encounter is about. Catharsis. Sweet justice. Pain. Hope. Making the player feel something. Making them feel a lot of something. It’s the end of the game and they’ve earned it.
Or just let them fight a big nasty dragon. It’s a classic for a reason.