Demon’s Souls has been praised for its high difficulty, so its easy ending is surprising.
This idea of having the endgame be the easiest part flies in the face of conventional game design. Most games ramp up their difficulty as they go, steadily providing a challenge while the player’s skills are honed. This makes a lot of sense; if a game ceases to provide challenge it could be in danger of becoming boring. Yet the notion of a difficult endgame been enacted so often that it’s become something of a cliché. So when a game doesn’t do this, it makes you sit up and take notice. Indeed, several of my memorable endgame sequences over the last few years are ones that defied the cliché.
While Half-Life 2’s ending was controversial due to its cliffhanger nature, you can’t help but love the suped-up gravity gun that you’re rewarded with in the endgame. Sure, it neuters the challenge, but it’s oh-so-awesome to use. Thus, the reward for making it to the end isn’t a greater challenge, but rather the satisfaction of becoming a badass. Actually, this easier play serves a double purpose. Not only is it fun, but it gives the endgame momentum, what with you not getting a game over as frequently. The gameplay picks up steam just as the narrative does.
Killer 7 also had an interesting endgame, in its case by making its final sequence an interactive cut scene. Its last level is completely devoid of combat, consisting of several flashback sequences where characters’ backstories are revealed. There’s no final boss, either. Killer 7 has quite a few boss battles, making the lack of one at the end conspicuous. A character simply opens a box, leading to a major plot reveal, and the game ends. It’s utterly baffling for sure, but I was glad it ended the way it did because the game had picked up so much narrative steam at that point. Shoehorning a boss before the end credits would have felt forced.
Perhaps the ultimate in rewarding anticlimaxes lies with The Darkness, which has an endgame which combines Killer 7’s interactive cut scene with Half-Life 2’s level of ease and Demon’s Souls’ purposely underpowered final boss. By the end, Jackie has several demonic superpowers and foes don’t stand a chance against you. After you make your way through a mansion’s courtyard, the game shortcuts through the ending with an interactive cut scene of Jackie wreaking havoc in the mansion, devouring mafia types by the droves. The game’s final boss (if you could call him that) is Jackie’s Uncle Paulie, a truly despicable mafia boss who thinks Jackie betrayed him and murdered his girlfriend. Paulie’s an important character story-wise, yet he’s still just a suit with a gun and you’re still a badass with tentacles hanging out your back. Fair fight? I think not. Empowering conclusion to a revenge story? Absolutely!
The notion of an easy ending providing a feeling of power doesn’t always work. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time perhaps offers the best example of how to do an easy ending poorly. While the entire game is fairly simple, there’s an attempt to ramp things up with the final boss fight (the only boss fight in the game) against the series’ antagonist, the Vizier. The problem with this fight is that the script insinuates that the Vizier should provide some kind of challenge, what with his cocky attitude and all, yet we can see that he’s a scrawny old man up against a young agile warrior. And not just any young, agile warrior, mind you, but one with the all-powerful Sands of Time at that. How is this supposed to be a challenge? And if it’s not supposed to be, why portray it as such? Why give the Vizier extra health and have him recite ominous threats when we all know he doesn’t stand a chance?
There’s more than one way to make an endgame satisfying and ramping up the difficulty is just one possible solution. A clever plot revelation is another. As is empowering the player, adding relief and providing momentum by doing so. Or a wimpy final boss can make you sympathize with your foe, letting you reflect on all you’ve done up to this point. There’s nothing wrong with tricky final bosses– and indeed many of my favorite gaming moments have emanated from such encounters– yet sticking them where they don’t belong is a mainstay the industry needs to get over. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking the weakest parts of critical darlings BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Uncharted 2 were their final bosses, fights that were completely at odds with the story and gameplay up to that point. A game’s conclusion is important. It’s the last thing you’ll reflect upon after beating a title. It needs to go out with a bang. So why give the player two sticks when you could give them gasoline and a lighter?