Final Bosses

A mainstay staple of video games is the final boss. After a number of levels (or dungeons, chapters, what have you) you finally fight the Biggest Baddest Boss, the defeat of which leads to  winning the game and the ultimate resolution. It’s the climax of the game, both from a gameplay perspective and narrative one: everything has led to this.

It’s important that the Final Boss feels like a Final Boss, though. I love Uncharted 3, but one issue the game has is that it’s final boss, a showdown with Talbot, doesn’t quite land. Talbot hasn’t really been Nate’s nemesis, so the fight, though big, doesn’t really feel like That Big Moment. Comparatively, Rafe in Uncharted 4 spends much of the game as a foil for Nate, so fighting him is not just a culmination of the game, but also feels in many ways like Nate fighting his own inner demons.

The Mega Man games, though a series that varies wildly on narrative quality, is a stellar example of mythic storytelling. This extends to its grasp of the Final Boss. After beating the eight (or so) regular bosses and going through the multiple levels of Wiley’s fortress, Mega Man has to reface the eight (or so) prior bosses one after another before finally fighting Wiley. But because you, the player, have already beaten these guys, you know their patterns and their weaknesses and will have a much easier time beating them than long before. In the lead up to the final fight you can see how much you’ve grown; now that you can beat Heat Man easily you’re definitely ready to take on Wiley. Before facing that Final Boss it’s important to remember all that came before and how now, more than ever before, you’re ready for this culmination.

And guess what! The Final Boss principle applies to stories as much as they do to games. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, the Final Boss in Empire Strikes Back is Darth Vader, whom Luke must face to complete his arc in that story. That one plays out not too much unlike how it would in a video game: it’s a hero against a villain, the hero hoping his training pays off. But it doesn’t have to be a conflict like that. Hot Rod has a Final Boss, and it’s not Rod finally kicking his step-father’s ass. It’s him attempting that massive jump over the busses: it’s his moment, it’s what the movie has led to, it’s what allows him to self-actualize.

Of course, Final Bosses aren’t always so obviously so; just about any good story should have one. Eighth Grade doesn’t have much in the way of villains for Kayla to fight, but there still is a Final Boss. In a nice touch, Kayla’s Final Boss turns out to not be another girl or even the guy that tried to take advantage of her: it’s herself, from the past. When Kayla opens a time capsule she’d left herself a couple years ago she’s forced to reckon with who she thought she’d be by now. Despite not seeming like a particularly big moment it’s a profound one for Kayla that leads to a quiet resolution with her father and a renewed lease on life. It’s the opponent that Kayla must overcome to succeed. We know it’s her Final Boss because we’ve spent the past hour-plus with her, and we know how much this means to her.

It’s when a Final Boss isn’t particularly clear that a story’s pacing begins to feel wonky. Alita: Battle Angel is a really fun movie that I really enjoyed, but couldn’t help but feel let down by the ending because it turns out I hadn’t realized Alita was fighting the movie’s final boss when she was; something that’s complicated by us not really knowing what it is Alita wants. Luke Skywalker and Mega Man want to defeat Darth Vader and Dr. Wiley, so we know who their bosses are. Rod Kimble wants to be a stuntman, and so accomplishing that is his Final Boss. Kayla struggles with being comfortable as herself, and so she is her own Final Boss.

For Alita it’s not clear if the big motorball game is the titular character’s Final Boss, or if it’s the giant cyborg who’s been plaguing her throughout. Or the guy pulling the cyborg’s strings. Or the guy pulling that guy’s strings. If Alita is a story about identity (and it certainly feels like one) shouldn’t her Final Boss involve her declaring who she is? That the movie’s Final Boss happened without me realizing (and honestly, I’m still not sure who or what it was) leads to a feeling of hanging threads with the story. ‘cuz man, I wanted to see Alita and the Final Boss square off!

Final Bosses and climaxes are similar enough ideas, but I think I like the term Final Boss because it’s clear that that encounter is with the ultimate obstacle. It’s what the hero has to overcome to ‘win,’ to self-actualize. It can be a big fight or a personal reflection, but most importantly, we gotta know what it is when it happens.

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KH3: GOTY 2008ish

As I continue to play Kingdom Hearts III while balancing all these newfound adult responsibilities that have sprung up since Kingdom Hearts II came out thirteen years ago, I’m struck over and over again by how much of a flashback the game is. Not just in the way that it makes me feel like a teenager again, but in how it embodies a game design ethos that’s been eschewed by a more contemporary zeitgeist.

For example: Invisible walls.

Virtual game spaces are limited by nature —there’s only so much world you can code. Figuring out how to demarcate that boundary has been a near-constant tension in game design. Mario cannot go backwards once the screen has advanced, if Mega Man tries to go beyond the edges of the map it’s a bottomless pit and he dies. Classic Pokémon has its hedges and fences that prevent you from wandering off the map. As games progressed into a more proper 3D space, limiting the play area became harder. There was only so much mileage you could get out of high walls and bottomless pits when you’re trying to make these massive, immersive spaces. Invisible walls were one solution; here’s a foot-high fence but try to jump over it and you’ll be unable to proceed. It’s an understandable device, but over time level designers have found more elegant solutions, be it by hiding those invisible walls in a thicket of trees, creating a level so intricate that the player cannot easily find the edge, or using a narrative intervention where the player’s character decides to turn around (and if you don’t you die!).

Kingdom Hearts III is having none of that and is all about those straight-up invisible walls. Not even the sort where they make it look there’s a ~magical~ barrier; nah, these are actual invisible walls that prevent you from jumping on to that rock over there that you could probably almost definitely reach. It’s almost charming in its bluntness, in how no attempt is made to disguise it. It’s positively old fashioned, particularly jarring against the game’s very contemporary graphics.

This probably factors into the nostalgic factor of the game, but there are so many things that make Kingdom Hearts III feel like a much older game. Where many modern games have been trying to find ways to keep players in control as much as possible, Kingdom Hearts III goes all in on its massive combat finishers and the like — these things are long enough for me to put the controller down and take a hefty sip of my beer! And also limited combos in an action game? The Arkham games and more recently Spider-Man let you whale on opponents endlessly, but Kingdom Hearts III still rocks the upgradeable three-hit-combo. When you’re used to being able to chain together hits, blocks, and dodges it’s weird to have to operate within a paradigm that requires a more measured approach that somehow also means mashing ‘X’ a lot.

Then there’s the animation. Major AAA game studios are all about that motion capture these days: they get actors to actually act out the scenes and then animate based on that. It’s what gives the beautiful cutscenes that Naughty Dog is known for. Kingdom Hearts III makes no attempt at that verisimilitude. Sora, Donald, and Goofy will stand around in cutscenes in their default stance, gesture as part of their dialogue/action, and then return back to their default immediately after. This was par for the course around the time Kingdom Hearts II came out in 2005, but it’s been a while, man. Once again, it’s almost charming to see how much this game harkens back to an earlier time; if anything it’s a marker of how far the ethos of game designed has evolved over the years.

I still don’t know if Kingdom Hearts III is an objectively good game. But what I do know is that I’m having an absolute blast playing it and, had this game been released closer to its predecessor, it’d definitely be a contender for Game of The Year… but, like, in 2008.

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Thirteen Or So Years Later

I think it was my cousin who turned me in to Kingdom Hearts, years ago, via a ROM of Chain of Memories. It was a novel game, mixing as it did Disney worlds with a Final Fantasy mentality. I played the original PS2 game later and shortly after rented the third game, Kingdom Hearts II from Blockbuster (remember those?) and subsequently bought it. This was all back around the summer of 2006.

This past Tuesday, the tenth non-remake game in the series came out: Kingdom Hearts III (the numbering system is weird, man). I’ve frequently made the joke that I’ve gotten old waiting for the game to come out, a gag which culminated in a recent Instagram post. It’s been a long time since Kingdom Hearts II and it to finally be holding — and playing — this game feels almost surreal.

I’m not talking about the plot here. Though III is the third numbered sequel and tenth game, all those spin-offs, interquels, and prequels have all been integral to the overarching story. But never mind the scope, length, or complexity of those games; here at last is a big one meant for the PS4 (and XBox One) and meant to be played on a tv. This is Kingdom Hearts freaking III. Not 2.8, not 358/2 Days, and not 3D: Dream Drop Distance, it’s frickin’ III.

So like I said, it’s surreal to finally be playing a proverbial white whale of video games. I’m playing Kingdom Hearts again, man. I did buy and play the remakes for the PS3, so it’s not like I haven’t touched this world in the last dozen-odd years. The sense of the surreal doesn’t stem from an unfamiliarity to it all — I’m quite used to seeing Mickey Mouse discussing the darkness in people’s hearts. It’s that here’s a new game, so long after the last one and yet so familiar. I’m playing this game in my apartment in Queens, and yet in some ways I feel like I’m a teenager back in South Carolina on summer vacation. For all its shiny graphics and the bells and whistles afforded as a major contemporary game, much of Kingdom Hearts feels like an older game; it very much plays like its predecessors.

It’s a good sequel in that it feels like a continuation. But through it all, I’m terribly curious about why this game, at once very new and yet more familiar than just about any sequel I’ve played resonates so strongly. What is it about it that tinges it with such nostalgia?

Part of it, I reckon, is because it’s a video game. Games are, by their nature, interactive and thus there is a level of projection to their immersion. I’m the one who rescued Kairi and teamed up with Donald Duck and Goofy to beat Ansem. Returning to an old series will of course bring back those memories. The other thing is that no other game quite has mechanics like the core Kingdom Hearts games. Sure, I spent a lot of time playing Halo when I was younger, but replaying it or embarking on its sequels reminds me of how great a first-person shooter it is. There’s no other game that plays quite the same as these, even director Tetsuya Nomura and Square Enix’s other Final Fantasy games aren’t quite similar.

Then of course there’s how singular this game is. Where else are ya gonna get Donald Duck, Jack Sparrow, and a kid with anime hair fighting monsters? The nostalgia towards Kingdom Hearts no doubt builds off of childhood memories of Disney stories, retold now in the over-the-top melodrama expected of a quality JRPG. I’ve shot space aliens in Halo, Mass Effect, and a plethora of Star Wars games; I’ve gone treasure hunting and spelunking in Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed. But there’s really no other game quite like Kingdom Hearts.

I’m only five-or-so hours into the game. Unlike the Josh of thirteen years ago, I have a job and other adult responsibilities to attend to. But the game’s a lotta fun. It doesn’t matter too much how ‘good’ it is (and I’m not so sure it’s really that good for a game released in 2019), it’s a new big Kingdom Hearts game and it’s about time.

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Colonialism… IN SPACE!

While replaying Mass Effect: Andromeda I’m struck by one particular element of its central narrative: Colonialism. The game’s story sees a bunch of pioneers from the Milky Way, the Andromeda Initiative, arriving in the Andromeda Galaxy, ready to explore and set up a new life and all that. Turns out, their chosen chunk of Andromeda — the Heleus Cluster — is already inhabited, by the native angara and the invading kett. If the Initiative is to set up shop here, they’re gonna have to navigate relations with the other two species here.

All this sounds an awful lot like a sort of colonialism redux. A technologically advanced outsider group arrives in a new place and starts throwing their weight around. Though the angara are as advanced as your typical science fiction race — faster than light travel, holograms, etc — they are also a fallen group, the shadow of a magnificent civilization laid low. There’s no doubt that they are the Other and, when compared to the Initiative and their sleek aesthetics, comparatively primitive.

The comparison here is fair: although the Initiative is composed of humans from a variety of ethnicities in addition to aliens from across the Milky Way, within the narrative they are still outsiders entering into another group’s territory. Sure, it’s all a galaxy away, but it is a story that exists in our world, and so is seen through that lens. Dress the boats as spaceships all you want, colonialism remains colonialism.

Of course, this is Mass Effect, a series too self-aware to blithely reenact Columbus. The Initiative is splintered, the same Scourge that brought down the angara throws a massive wrench in the Initiative’s intricate plans. The garden worlds are wastelands and attempts at settling has proven deadly. The narrative in Andromeda is changed: the colonizers aren’t quite marching in triumphant; they’re a scrappy group trying to pull it all together. The Initiative isn’t here to conquer the angara, they want an alliance.

It helps that there’s also the kett, the de facto villains of the game and, narratively, the actual force of colonialism. Like the Initiative, the kett hail from beyond the Heleus Cluster. Unlike the Initiative, these guys have no use for cultural exchange. The kett are conquerors, exterminating the angara or exalting them — assimilating their DNA into their own and transforming the angara into drone-like footsoldiers. Within the context of the game’s narrative, exaltation is seen as monstrous and barbaric. On a meta level, the complete annihilation and absorption of a race seems not unlike a science-fiction reinterpretation of the conquistadors.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so the Initiative winds up allied with the angara against the kett. The folks from the Milky Way aren’t the colonizers, how could they be when the kett are here following a page from Cortes’ rulebook? The dynamic between the kett and the angara — along with the Initiative being on their off-foot — means Andromeda can safely tell a story about exploring colonizers without having to really confront the problematic nature of colonialism. The Initiative, and therein the game itself, is absolved of malicious colonialist undertones because the villainous kett are the bad colonizers; the Initiative is allying itself with the locals!

Yet the game does fall into the trap of the White Savior narrative. No, the (human) members of the Initiative aren’t all white, and the player’s Pathfinder can be whatever race you want them to be; but just as the undertones of colonialism play out within the relationship between the angara  and Initiative, so does this one. At the start of the game, the angara are in a limbo: their civilization has fallen and they’re losing a war of attrition with the kett. It’s the Pathfinder and the Initiative — and their technology — that both turns the tides of the fight and helps the angara reclaim some of their past. The Pathfinder is the outsider who helps — teaches — the natives their own ways.

At the end of the day, of course, this isn’t all terrible. There is a lot of leeway afforded science-fiction, and Andromeda does do good work to avoid ascribing the more problematic aspects of colonialism to its heroes. If anything, I’m fascinated by the way this game dances around with the topic and its ramifications. Because I could just play the game, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I think way too much about it.

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War Games But Without The War

I’m playing Mass Effect: Andromeda again, trying to polish off my second playthrough and nab that elusive Platinum trophy. With the sheen of “Oooh, it’s new” worn off, the game is decidedly a buggy mess, UI popups stay on screen long after they should have disappeared and I’ve spent an entire cutscene viewing my character as a party member blocked the camera (after we walked through a door whose opening animation didn’t happen).

It’s a bummer, really, because there’s such promise in it as an idea. A group of explorers, millions of lightyears away from everything they know, strike disaster and have to make do with what they’ve got. There’s first contact with a hostile alien society, and then again with a friendly one. One thing that makes Andromeda really stand out, though, is that for all the fighting and all, the Andromeda Initiative is a fundamentally civilian organization. They ain’t trying to be conquerers, nor are they an army outfitted with warships and other such weaponry — most all of the Initiative’s ships are unarmed.

You play as the Pathfinder, Ryder, and yes, you’re fighting outlaws, genocidal Kett, and ancient Remnant robots, but the narrative as a whole is less about a war than it is exploration and setting up colonies to find a new life. You’re not a member of a group of warfighters, you’re explorers (who are good at fighting, yes). Compare this to the prior Mass Effect games. In the second, you were putting together a team to fight an existential threat, and the third saw you fighting said existential threat. It’s less pronounced in the second, where Shepherd is former military, though one who has thrown in with a militant pro-human organization whose leader believes Shepard is the only one who can stop a mysterious alien threat. There’s a lot of emphasis put on Shepard’s military background and how he’s the one who can fight this war.

It is a pleasant change, then, that Andromeda eschews a militaristic outlook. Even though the Pathfinders are military trained, they’re no longer part of an army; their skills now used to protect the colonists. Though there is a big fight against the Kett, the main drive of the Initiative is to establish a home in the strange Andromeda Galaxy. As much as you’re fighting Kett, defeating them is the goal than is exploring the galaxy and terraforming planets to support life.

A lot of big operatic science fiction tends to revolve around, well, war. Halo and Gears of War are both Thames that revolve around war — but in space! This is not a criticism; setting these stories in space frees them from a measure of baggage. One reason that Halo’s narrative works is that its existential fight is against a genocidal alien alliance so that militaristic rah rah is less rooted in xenophobia (see: most Call of Duty games and other ‘realistic’ militaristic shooters). All the same, when everything is skewed one way, it’s pleasant to see a narrative that goes in another direction.

It’s less an issue of one necessarily being better than another, and more the need to have different narratives. I love Star Wars, but I enjoy watching Star Trek because it’s a fun change to see a group of characters trying to solve the Problem of the Week (but in space!) rather than fighting an out-and-out war. Though the Trek has its Admirals and Captains, Starfleet isn’t a military organization so much as one that’s about exploration. Generals and such need not apply.

All this to say, there’s an enjoyable relief when it comes to these different narratives. For Andromeda to feature a space explorer trying to overcome the challenges of the galaxy and doing stuff instead of being the hardcore military commander is a nice change — one that you don’t really see much in video games. Such a shame that the game itself is so lackluster.

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Ahistoricism

I went into The Favourite like I do with many movies: knowing very little and having seen maybe a part of a trailer. I knew it was a period piece (duh) and there was a Queen in it (also: duh). Anyway, after watching the movie I read up on it on Wikipedia and found, to my immense surprise, that it was somewhat based on actual historical fact. It makes sense enough that I thought this movie was fabricated wholesale: there’s a Queen in power, nobles are vying for power, and England is at war with France; it’s the proverbial typical Tuesday. And yet, Queen Anne actually did have a pair of rival handmaidens, and many of the characters had their own Wikipedia articles detailing their real-life stories.

It was all quite fascinating, but, ultimately, also quite irrelevant.

Unlike many historical dramas dealing with heads of state, The Favourite is not terribly concerned with the major political movements of the time. Rather the focus is on Anne and the machinations of Abigail and Sarah that take place behind the scenes. There is some influence on the larger political landscape, but we see very little of life beyond the lush estate the action transpires in. Court life is ruthlessly savaged in this satire, the politicians reduced to overdressed men slathered with makeup in foppish wigs racing ducks.

Now, there is some criticism of The Favourite for playing fast and loose with history. Anne’s husband was still alive at the time all this drama went down, and the idea of there being lesbian liaisons between the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting is dismissed by some historians as nothing more than contemporary slander by the opposition. Despite being about real people and set against real events, The Favourite is an out and out lie.

Which is great, since the movie doesn’t purport to be anything but. There’s no fancy title card letting us know what century we’re in, there’s no real reference to the actual geopolitical situation at the time (let’s face it, England and France are at war in basically every period piece, and there’s always an opposition party). All the temporal trappings of the movie serve its central story and all the schemings therein.

The Favourite’s detachment from historical fact is what makes it all the more scathing. Since the exact time-period is indeterminate to the layperson (ie: me), I’m not gonna get caught up wondering about the exact details about the time and can instead happily get lost in the film. The world of The Favourite is the world the filmmakers want to use to tell their story. It is a world where men are useless and relegated to the background while the women with their plots and aspirations are far more important. We don’t need to care too much how accurate to the contemporary social mores it is, the way things happen is how they happen. It’s fantasy.

That’s the real pleasure of period pieces: they feel like another world with another set of rules and another life that’s very much not that of 2019. There’s a different set of rules, one that’s foreign yet familiar. Though the Queen may rule in The Favourite, some words in her ear from Abigail or Sarah can sway her mind. We go along with it because it makes enough sense not to break our suspicion of disbelief. Consider how most Westerns play fast and loose with reality, or the ersatz 80s-ness of Metal Gear Solid V; it doesn’t matter how accurate things are, so long as they feel real.

And so, despite its lack of historical accuracy, The Favourite really works so well because its world feels right and its characters real. For Anne, Abigail, and Sarah the world is deathly serious, and we buy in and get to enjoy the hijinks as they unfold.

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The Joy of Exploring

I continue to be endlessly fascinated by Breath of The Wild’s open world. Since the last time I talked about the game I’ve taken on one more Divine Beast, but I still spend so much of my time exploring Hyrule and trying to find everything.

Which of course makes me wonder why I find this wandering so satisfying. I have a completionist streak in me, a part of me that wants to finish everything. Get all the dang feathers in Assassin’s Creed II, unlock every character in LEGO Avengers, get the Platinum Trophy in Burnout Paradise. Open world games are thus a scary beast for me; sure, it’s fun to explore and stuff, but I also want to Do All The Things. I’m terrified of missing something, of there being some little nugget of fun that I glossed over.

In many ways, I’m very grateful for the map and its icons in Spider-Man. One glance and I know if there’s still stuff to do in any given neighborhood, I know if I’m missing anything. There’s a bit of a freeing feeling when you have that reassurance that you’ll be able to get to it later and there’s no harm in running up the Empire State Building again. Since it’s so clear what I ‘have’ to do in the game, the potential shenanigans are too.

Conversely, Breath of The Wild is absolutely taciturn with its goals. Sure, there’s a quest tracker, but beyond that you’re in the wind. The map is barebones, displaying only region names and the occasional marker for towns once you discover them. Those shrines and Korok scattered everywhere? Yeah, they’re only added after you find them. Massive monsters, treasure, and all those other little secrets will forever remain unmarked, unless you manually add a note to the map.

Hyrule is yours to explore, there’s very little in the way of guides to where things are or even how many of something there is (how many Shrines are there? I haven’t a darn clue). It’s kinda terrifying, there’s So Much to this world, and no way to know how much there is — unless I break out a guide or something.

Yet I’ve made peace with knowing that I might not be able to find Every Last Thing. Wandering Hyrule and discovering its secrets is fun enough in and of itself, plus there’s usually one of those Koroks hiding on the top of that really-hard-to-reach pillar. In Breath of The Wild I’m enjoying the journey.

Maybe this is because the Switch doesn’t have Trophies, and I know that it won’t make a difference if I’m missing one or two shrines in the run of it. I don’t have the pressure of a checklist of things to do while I play. Now, I do like Trophies; I like challenges to do on the side as I play the game. But the lack of them in Wild means I can really do whatever I want and not have some background concern that I’m not doing everything as it should be.

There’s also not really too much of an overbearing narrative in Breath of The Wild. Sure, there is the whole assemble the Divine Beasts and fight Ganon thing; but there’s little pressure beyond that. Link doesn’t say to himself “Hm, I oughta get to saving Hyrule.” In practice, doing whatever you want may as well be the story as it happens, and it’s so much better for that.

Hyrule is a world for you, as Link, to explore as you please. It’s baked into its DNA in a way that no number of expertly crafted side quests could ever muster.

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