|The Days of the Final Final Dungeon
While there are many conventions inherent in most RPGs from the classics to today's most innovative titles, there is only one so rarely tampered with, across both Eastern and Western styles and that is the final dungeon. Every RPG fan is overly familiar with these devices, these sinister devices. If one plays enough RPGs, one eventually encounters the boundless flying castle that traps the player inside, frustrates, exhausts, and ultimately obliterates all enjoyment. Not all RPGs possess such radically difficult final dungeons, but almost every one employs some form of this abominable and tired mechanism, and hence I ask: how long must we wait until the days of the final final dungeon?
To clarify matters, I posit an operational definition of final dungeon: the last area or zone in an RPG that often contains the final boss, but not always. There are three types common to almost all RPGs. The first type is the least formidable, the final dungeon that bears resemblance to the previous dungeons in the game. The second type marks a significant increase in difficulty, complexity, and/or length, as compared to the rest of the dungeons. The third type of final dungeon provides an intense increase in difficulty, complexity, and length combined with the ultimate transgression: the dreaded premature point of no return.
The first type is found in a fair number of RPGs including The Witcher and Parasite Eve. These dungeons are not frustrating and do not attempt to indefinitely impede a player's progress. The second, intermediate final dungeon is the most common, and found in the Final Fantasy series, the Tales series, and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. This classic approach to the final dungeon may present vexation, but it varies greatly with different levels of difficulty. It also contains the possibility of strings of boss battles, and various confounding layouts. The worst of the offenders, however, belong in the third category: the make-you-quit-the-game final dungeons. Their use of a merciless point of no return, namely at the beginning of the dungeon, makes leveling up, healing, and side questing impossible or inconvenient at best. Games such as Arc the Lad IV and Suikoden IV possess these monstrosities of bad design.
While there are undoubtedly those who look forward to these colossal obstacles, I often find them the least enjoyable portions of any given RPG. Those final dungeons in the first category, and some in the second, do not significantly harass my entertainment, but at least half of all final dungeons present some unnecessary irritation. This is not merely due to difficulty; I enjoy challenging RPGs. It is beyond that, often a ridiculous and exponential increase in difficulty compared to the rest of the game. Random battles that repeatedly slay the entire party and multiple mini-bosses without healing in between often indicate potentially unnecessary elements in a final dungeon. Other issues include labyrinthine design, which only serves to aggravate the situation, or repetitive dungeons that just don't seem to end after corridor and corridor of mindless exploration. The exclusion of an exit is the worst offense possible. There is always a point of no return in an RPG, but I refer here to those that include these at the beginning of the final dungeon, placing great constraints on a player's actions. These RPGs are among my least favorite, or they simply remain unfinished.
There exists a rare breed of final dungeon not yet mentioned, however: the absence of a final dungeon. These mold-breakers are the future. During a time in which many gamers and critics alike argue over the originality of RPGs and video games in general, the lack of a final dungeon is a progressive move. Without a final dungeon to obfuscate the RPG experience, players are free to tackle the final boss with full resources at any time without a burdening dungeon to hassle with or a hellish point of no return. Furthermore, developers could remove the final boss as well as his traditional lair. Either way, this means progress for the RPG formula and relief for the player who dreads endgame content.
Fallout 3 and The World Ends With You are recent examples of this fourth endgame setup. No doubt there is a correlation between date of release and the lack of a conventional final dungeon, as evidenced in these examples. This seems to be a recent development, although it is far from a trend as of now. Fallout 3, representing the Western side of RPGs, completely removes the final dungeon and final boss. In its place: a short final "scene." The World Ends With You, a Japanese RPG, presents a final boss, but no defined final dungeon, just a short segment of the game's city, which requires no combat at all, if desired. Upon first examination, however, these may seem to be disappointing conclusions.
Some may claim that the lack of a final dungeon, and perhaps a final boss, is anti-climactic, but I find this erroneous. Fallout 3 may be brought into question. There is an intense final sequence, but the final location is used elsewhere in the game, and there is no winged, demonic form to defeat before the credits roll. Some players would say this is anti-climactic. After playing a horde of final dungeon-toting RPGs, however, and half expecting a flying castle to burst from the ground even when completely out of place, a concise conclusion is fresh and ultimately preferable. Furthermore, it is more realistic. Especially in a game as realistic as Fallout 3, the anti-final dungeon is more fitting. It just does not make sense (in most cases) for a massive, convoluted fortress brimming with thousands of inexplicable beasts and obscure puzzles to conveniently appear at the end of adventure to house some villainous madman.
I am not postulating that the final dungeon should forever be removed from RPGs. That would not be undesirable, but if the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series retain them, I would not complain. After all, there is a certain classic image to maintain in those cases. My hope is to move from the majority of RPGs containing final dungeons to the majority of RPGs using more interesting and less frustrating devices to conclude an adventure. In a step toward progress, let developers lock away these antediluvian contrivances and allow players to enjoy their RPGs from beginning to end.
- Kyle Miller