The Big Finish

by wjw on June 6, 2011

I just finished playing Dragon Age: Origins, the console game, to its conclusion.  For the fifth time.

While I like this game a great deal— enough to go through the sixty or so hours of gameplay no less than five times— it must be said that I truly hate the finale.  It’s a brutal slogfest in which your hero and his/her companions battle the Ultimate Evil and hordes of its minions, and nothing really interesting happens in it.  It’s just a long, long fight that you’re almost guaranteed to lose, the odds being so heavily tilted against you.  Even if you prepare properly, chances are you’re going to lose, and have to play the finale again.  And again.  And again.

When you finally win, it’s going to be pretty much a matter of luck.  Either the ball of blue fire falls from the sky and extinguishes you and your companions, or it won’t. It’s a roll of the dice— or whatever number comes up on the random number generator, whichever applies.

In the five times I’ve played this game, I’ve never once enjoyed the finale.  Not once.  It’s just something I have to drag myself through in order to say that I’ve completed the game.

This sort of ending isn’t really uncommon in video games.  The last big scene is often just more of everything from the previous scenes— more enemy, shooting more weapons, with more invincible leaders, and more hopeless odds, and fewer choices, and maybe you have to complete the mission before a deadline, otherwise the dragon wins, or the hijacked ICBMs take off and the world gets nuked, or Sauron gets the Ring . . . whatever.  I drag myself through these scenes, knowing that I’ll eventually try everything in order to find the something that may work, assuming of course that the random number generator is kind and doesn’t kill me in some stupid and arbitrary way, which it is almost guaranteed to do.

In these final scenes, the rewards for cleverness just sort of disappear.  Dragon Age, for most of its length, is a game that rewards intelligent play.  It’s full of interesting characters that you can interact with, and your choices affect the way those characters view you, and whether or not they’ll cooperate with you in achieving your goals.  You can talk your way around or through a number of situations instead of battering your way into them.

But none of that really matters in the finale.  It’s just you and the night and the random numbers generator.  Keep smashing your head against the console, and eventually (you hope) the console will give way.

It’s not just console games that have endings like this.  Blockbuster movies have endings like video games— or vice versa— and they just go on forever, in equally brutal, pointless scenes of combat.  Even clever movies end like this.  I rather enjoyed Mr and Mrs Smith, which was surprisingly funny and character-driven, until the protagonists were provided with a choice: either run away and live happily ever after; or fort up in a home store and have a 25-minute combat with every CIA killer in the world.  (Can you guess which they choose?)

And quite often these long scenes have no actual suspense.  You know who’s going to win, so why drag it out?  And in the recent Thor, the final battle is between two immortal gods who can’t die.  You need a powerful lot of special effects to distract the audience from realizing how incredibly dull this is.

(I will say one thing for Thor: Chris Hemsworth really looks the part.  When I see Christopher Reeve as Superman, I think “There’s a really buff actor in a Superman costume.”  When I see any of the Batmen, I think, “There’s an actor walled up in Batman armor.”  But when I saw Hemsworth, I thought, “Holy crap!  It’s Thor!“)

What most annoys me about these scenes is that they eliminate the clever.  Because if your hero’s smart, You don’t have to do the big slogging fight scene at all! You’ll do what great leaders have done throughout history: worked out a way to fight on your own terms, to put your enemy at a disadvantage, and to win without breaking much of a sweat.

Instead of fighting the dragon, you’ve already prepared your net-flinging catapults to snare it and hold it ready for the beheading.  Instead of charging headlong into the trench with enemy soldiers shooting at you from three sides, you go around it.  Instead of walking up to the Supreme Evil Magician and daring him to do his worst, you pick up your sniper rifle from 1000 yards away and shoot him in the head.  Instead of charging into the enemy fortress to face a thousand evil minions, you just call in a cruise missile attack and blow it the fuck up!

(You don’t think gamers would be stoked if they had this kind of option?   “Holy crap, once I deduced the codes to the B-52, I was able to wipe out the bad guys from six miles up!”  I think they’d be shrieking with delight in their own cleverness.)

But no, neither games nor movies are really into rewarding intelligence in this way.  You’ve gotta have the big blockbuster climax, even if your hero seems to lose most of his IQ getting there, and the action is suspiciously like that of the last twelve big blockbuster climaxes you’ve seen.

Sigh.  I feel great nostalgia for those old movies in which Bogart just produces a pistol, shoots the bad guy, and walks off down the rainy runway while the sound track plays La Marseillaise.  (Which is the best ending ever, am I right?)

So— now I’ve made my point— I’m not going to drag this out.  Imagine that final pistol shot just ringing in your ear.

Into the fog I go, walking slowly in the rain.

Swelling music.


The end.

What’s not to like?

David W. Goldman June 6, 2011 at 7:27 am

Um, five times through DA:Origins and you still haven’t noticed the half-hidden move that bypasses the entire finale?

Bruce Murphy June 6, 2011 at 10:38 am

If you haven’t played Portal, you really ought to. Just for the contrast.

Mardonius June 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I loved DA:O (although DA2 was a bit weak, frankly). It’s ending is actually a bit strange, as the Bioware RPG’s have a tradition of allowing you to talk the Big Bad to death, if you’re sufficiently awesome.

Perhaps you might want to try The Witcher 2. I’ve just completed it, and while the final fight is fairly typical, most of the finale is not, as preparation and some smart choices can allow you to really screw the plans of just about everyone involved with a single sentence. (Of course, this has consequences too, as their evil plans generally have a good point backing them up.)

The choices are also a bit harder than Dragon Age, there’s no such thing as a good or bad decision, every side thinks it’s in the right. (ie. Do you side with the corrupt nobles, or the violent revolutionary mob? The opressive and genocidal human kingdom, or the village burning elven terrorists?) An optimal playthrough is pretty much impossible, you’ll actually have to take the lesser evil from time to time.

DensityDuck June 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm

“Mama always liked me best!” BANG

Max Kaehn June 6, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Really good game design would have the slogfest for the people who like slogfests, and the cleverness for the people who like to be clever, and have a separate trophy for each one. (Me, I cranked down the difficulty of the game so I could do the final battle after getting killed too many times.) Done right, you could have all kinds of entertaining storytelling involved, with persuading the dwarfs to create and run the net-flinging catapults, etc., so you have to be an accomplished leader. (Or you could make a deal with the witch in the marsh to brew up a poison that will take out a dragon, then get the dragon to eat someone who just drank the poison, and have a third trophy for outright sneakiness.)

David Boyle June 6, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Do yourself a favor and play Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal with David Gaider’s Ascension installed. It’s a big finish for a big game, and intelligent (moral) character choices made earlier inform the outcome in a way that is dramatically and tactically satisfying.

Jim Janney June 6, 2011 at 11:02 pm

I mostly hated Bakshi’s Wizards, but the ending was good.

Steve Stirling June 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Alas, this is realistic.

Look at most wars. They’re usually won by attrition, by sheer bloody-minded persistence and by numbers.

What’s the end of WWII except a prolonged exercise in “more”? More tanks, more cannon, more grunts dying, more rubble, Hitler dies in the bunker. The end of the Civil War was pretty similar; no brilliant maneuver, just straight-ahead hammering until the side that couldn’t replace its losses gave up.

Fancy dancing and extreme cleverness usually aren’t the decisive factor, though they certainly don’t hurt.

What usually happens is that the biggest side wins; alternatively, if the sides are anywhere nearly evenly balanced, the first side to make a big strategic mistake loses.

wjw June 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

All true, though “the biggest side wins” really doesn’t work in this sort of video game, because the side with the biggest hordes and most weapons is always the bad guys. After all, it’s not heroic unless you can defeat overwhelming odds.

Myles Lobdell June 7, 2011 at 8:40 pm

I thought the uncleverness of Thor was the very point of the character. Cleverness is Loki’s shtick.

Thor vs. Loki fights are always going to be (if Thor wins) battles of brawn (and martial valor) winning out over cunning and wits.

Geoff June 8, 2011 at 3:32 am

Isn’t the real problem that the clever ending is only rewarding for the first person to figure it out? After that person posts his haiku/spoiler/walkthrough, anyone can follow the steps to win the game and then the game becomes too easy. “Oh, [clever game], I beat that in 18 minutes”.

Steve Stirling June 9, 2011 at 7:07 pm

One of the problems with fiction (and gaming) is that it has a lot of people who, for reasons of personal history, like stories in which the little guy or the geek or whatever kicks the big bully’s butt.

The problem with this is that in real life the beefy jock usually beats the crap out of the smart little guy after he mouths off, takes his lunch money and holds his face in the toilet bowl.

I’ve had people — other writers, too — object that my fantasy/low tech heroes are mostly big muscular guys, or (in rather fewer cases) biggish muscular women with inhumanly fast reflexes.

But this is because they’re ()&_*ing -jocks-.

Fighting in armor with swords is a goddamned contact sport like American football or rugby, only with death and maiming added in. Beef isn’t the only thing that counts, but it counts heavily — particularly as you can have the other qualities -and- the beef.

A close analogue of this applies to mass conflict of any sort too. It’s a huge beat-down and the ability to absorb punishment and hit very hard until the other side falls down is what generally settles it.

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