This post is the first in a series dealing with one particular aspect of a game across different titles. The idea is to compare/contrast how different designers and developers used the technique in their games: what the intended effects were, how effective it was, etc. I’ll also be keeping these posts shorter than the long-form critiques.
As always, spoilers abound!
THE OPTIONAL SUPERBOSS
Many players of RPGs will have learned to expect an additional challenge hidden somewhere in their fictional worlds, often far exceeding the strength and difficulty of the game’s central antagonist (or Final Boss). It’s a trope incredibly common to Japanese games in particular. Designers incorporate this mainly for the ludologists in their audience who enjoy the game for its gameplay. Sometimes, there’s a brief gem for narratologists as well, a small shred of story content folded away behind the experience’s most challenging battle.
But then, why bother adding a narrative to it at all? If the point of an optional superboss is purely gameplay, why factor narrative into it?
In fairness, there’s no practical reason. But there remains something to be said for games that manage to interweave every aspect of the experience into its fiction, something that puts these works and their development teams in a league of their own, something truly commendable. So my answer is: why not? Core content has its place in front of any high barriers of difficulty, but tangential content can roam free far beyond those walls without problems. It only adds incentive.
“LINGERING SENTIMENT” FROM KINGDOM HEARTS II: FINAL MIX+
The genius of the ‘LS’ combines an especially gruesome challenge with a teaser for future series instalments. It’s a great example of the optional superboss done right. The LS, like a devil’s advocate, provides no additional answers for the plot but only new questions. What’s his connection to the main villain? Players scouring the game for extra content are rewarded with a taste of what’s to come. That’s one of the best rewards a game can deliver. If it’s a good experience, players will crave more.
Besides the unexplained appearance of the dark portal to the LS, one major drawback of this approach was the cost of implementing that intensely memorable encounter: a custom model, custom environment, custom animations, special cutscenes, additional implementation/testing/balancing, etc. Tetsuya Nomura’s Kingdom Hearts team can justify the expense because it builds interest towards future titles and was part of a re-release with an in-built audience anyway. But without that, the LS wouldn’t have come to pass.
“YIAZMAT” FROM FINAL FANTASY XII
While he appears with considerably less cinematic flair, Yiazmat’s existence is also acknowledged. There’s a solid integration effort made in the minor character Montblanc, who relays via textbox his personal vendetta against the creature. There’s little in the way of narrative incentive; we never quite sympathize with Montblanc enough to want to avenge his master for him. The appeal is the challenge itself. Still, it does its job. And it even supports the notion that the fictional world of Ivalice is much larger than the game’s storyline.
A question raised by Yiazmat, however, is what the exact ramifications are for the world when there is a being more powerful than the main story arc’s antagonist. Could the Yiazmat have eaten the Sun-Cryst, or the Occuria themselves and voided the entire plotline? Could it have destroyed Vayne’s Sky Fortress Bahamut? It certainly seems that way given the many hours it takes to fell the thing. And why is it stationed out in the middle of nowhere, right outside the home of the Sun-Cryst? How did it get there?
“RUBY WEAPON” AND “EMERALD WEAPON” FROM FINAL FANTASY VII
While some adversaries are clearly meant to be slain, the Weapons of Final Fantasy VII provide an interesting grey area explored in the main story. Diamond Weapon marches on Midgar to cease the damage it wreaks on the planet. Players fight DW because countless innocents who also live in Midgar would be killed on the Weapon’s warpath. Sapphire Weapon precedes the event with its attack on Junon, in which innocents would have also been sacrificed had the planet’s guardian been victorious.
Developing Ruby and Emerald Weapon would have incurred costs similar to the Lingering Sentiment (custom models/battle animations/etc.), but it has the added disadvantage of cheapening that moral grey. Neither of the Weapons are found attacking anyone. The planet dispatches them as a last resort, yes, but to no discernible end. And for a game involving themes of environmentalism, hunting down the Weapon ‘species’ to presumed extinction seems almost cruel and vindictive. But at least their existence has a (mishandled) place in the lore.
END OF PART -I-