Oct 312009

The role-playing game, as a genre, owes much to the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. The same could be said for much of the fantasy genre in film and literature as well, but the diversity of approaches in these media reflects intricate linkages to multiple concepts of fantasy and folklore. Role-playing games, which build lengthy, epic storylines in fantasy worlds populated by multiple sentient races, follow in the footsteps of Tolkien’s magnum opus. In terms of the time investment and the breadth of the imagined world, many RPGs are quite similar to The Lord of the Rings, but while that trilogy keeps going for several chapters after the climactic fight with the forces of Sauron, a game typically stops dead after its most intense battle, with ill effects for both character arcs and the closure of the story. Since they’ve taken so much from Tolkien already, perhaps games could look to his last chapters to find inspiration for gameplay beyond the climactic fight.

Let’s begin by considering the case of Eowyn and Faramir, two characters who are slowly falling in love during the late phases of The Return of the King. Their stories effectively end with a scene in which Faramir confesses his love and asks Eowyn to consider him. It’s not particularly realistic, but RPGs that have a particular focus on relationships and the use of conversation trees (Mass Effect, for instance) could take a cue from this. A relationship that has developed slowly over the course of the game could be realized in the aftermath of the final battle. Obviously, you could make this dependent on successful navigation of a conversation tree. In a game like Mass Effect that links conversational proficiency with actions and attitudes during the game, making this tree impossible for a particular alignment could be a way to emphasize the personal cost of the decisions that have been made.

As part of his closing arc, Aragorn, who is concerned about his ability to maintain Gondor in the future, is led by Gandalf into the mountains, where he finds a seedling offspring of the sacred tree Nimloth, symbolizing the rebirth of the nation. This is, essentially, the novelization of a fetch quest, and a gameplay denouement of this kind would require some extra elbow grease to be emotionally effective. However, if an appropriate symbol is developed throughout a game, then a mission to retrieve that symbol could be a good way to bring closure to an epic RPG. Having defeated the great enemy, you find an object that matters personally to the characters and implies hope for the future.

The hobbits have the most elaborate denouement, in the form of their journey back to the Shire, and the elimination of the forces endangering it. This approach has several advantages, which are shared between trilogy and game. Firstly, many interesting characters are developed at the beginning of the story who must necessarily be left behind when the journey at the core of it begins. Returning to those characters reminds the player (or reader) of the things that seized his interest back when he started. Additionally, seeing the central characters in the presence of the initial supporting cast again provides a yardstick for measuring their increase in maturity, confidence, and power. Because RPGs, particularly of the Japanese variety, are often concerned with the maturation of the hero as a parallel to his leveling up, this is an effective way to reflect on the implications of the game as a whole.

The triviality of the destruction of the forces of the Shire displays the newfound strength and leadership of the hobbits of the Fellowship, but it also points out another possibility for closing out a story. For some reason it is typical to have the final boss or the leader of the opposing forces be some immensely powerful warrior, but this need not be the case. You could set up a story where a relatively weak king is supported by an army of incredibly powerful soldiers. Defeating his minions could be tough, but the king himself could be a trivial boss. The climactic battle could come much earlier than the final fight, with the last battle in the game serving as an expression of a new power relationship in the world. Something along these lines occurred near the end of Final Fantasy X, where the real climax of that game is the battle against Yunalesca and the bosses within Sin constitute various moments of farewell, although admittedly some of these fights are not easy.

The final phase of The Lord of the Rings that I want to draw attention to is the departure of the ringbearers from the Grey Havens, symbolizing their passage into the next life. Characters in RPGs often die as a part of the story, or occasionally (as in the Fire Emblem games) perish permanently if they fall in battle. A journey to carry their spirits to the next world, or simply to return their bodies to their home villages, could provide gameplay that puts those losses in context. One could also make the bodies a physical burden in some way, making this journey more difficult in a Lonesome Dove kind of way.

Of course, these various approaches could also be combined in various ways to provide a closing chapter that follows the climactic boss. My point here is not that The Lord of the Ringsis the apotheosis of effective denouement in fantasy storytelling. However, the way it ties up its character arcs contains a number of ideas for developing a more interesting closing to an RPG story than just a cutscene followed by a credit scroll. Extending the gameplay beyond the climactic boss offers the opportunity to put a satisfying cap on the character and world development, and thus make the whole story a richer and more rewarding experience.

  2 Responses to “Blog of the Round Table: The denouement of the rings”

  1. I must say that this is something I hadn't really considered before. The standard end boss and subsequent cutscene is so prevalent that I kind of accepted it as the way it should or would always be. That alone is good enough reason to say that it should be changed to allow for more depth of story and character development. You made some great points that have got me thinking. Interesting post.

  2. I agree with the above. One of the things I liked most about the recent Red Faction game was that the end boss was a regular strong enemy even though he was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other strong lackeys. I killed him in one shot and it did feel like it was meaningful.

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