"IT'S THE CLIMAX!" - Haruhara Hakruko. episode 6. FLCL
Mario's JUMP has an apex. Each level has an ending. But getting to and defeating the true Bowser in world 8-4 is the climax of Super Mario Brothers. In this article, I'll investigate what denotes a climax and identify several types within the video game medium.
The 2008 film Speed Racer is an excellent example of storytelling through action. Through racing, the film was able to define its characters, create conflict, transform the main character, and stage the final climax before resolving. Video games, being an interactive medium, tend to tell their stories (or at least some part of their stories) through action. More importantly, even if there is no story, video games use challenges, scenarios, and/or set pieces to create their climax; the most meaningful, difficult, and/or intense challenge in a game.
Though an individual level can be designed so that the tension can rise, fall, and then resolve, climaxes are most easily identified when they cover a larger amount of a game. In general, looking at the end of a game is the best way to find its climax. I've identified these styles.
Recap Climax: ie. Look How Far You've Come
Do you realize how long you've been playing? Do you remember just how many enemies and/or bosses you've smash through getting to this point? Do you realize how much you've learned or how much your skills have grown? Probably not. Fortunately, the recap climax style reminds us of such things.
The recap style is very versatile and highly effective. By making the player revisit areas, tackle already conquered challenges, or battle old enemies the player can't help but juxtapose these experiences with the past experiences. If the player has gained any skill at all (increased knowledge, timing, adaptation, reflexes, or dexterity) then the player will realize how much they've changed.
Because video games are learning systems, the chances of the player having more skills by the climax of the game is very high. However, the alternative to using skill as the primary change for a climax is using tranformative powerups. In Zelda, each item gives link new abilities that allow players to solve puzzles and conquer challenges that were inaccessible before. In this way, each item transforms the player.
The masters of the recap style of climax is undoubtedly Capcom. From Mega Man, Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, to Okami, somewhere near the end of the game you'll have to fight old bosses over again (see video above. spoiler warning: the video shows the last level of Mega Man 9). In each of these games, the second (or third, or even fourth) time you fight the boss you know all of its tricks and have more powerful weapons than before. The challenge isn't the same as it was. Even when players have to battle 8 bosses in a row, it may seem like fighting 8 simple enemies in a row.
In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker players have to fight the old bosses over again before being able to take on Ganon. But a better Zelda example comes from Majora's Mask. They say some writers imagine, plan, visualize, and/or write knowing the ending of their story as soon as they start writing the beginning. I know this is true for myself. I understand a story as being an organized collection of characters and events that convey a message or show the transformation of the main character. Stories require a certain level of cohesiveness that binds all the characters and events together. This cohesiveness is also why the ending of stories are set up, connected, and bound by their beginnings. Think of it like narrative book ends. Frodo starts in the shire and ends there. Wall-E starts on earth and returns. And in Majora's Mask, the adventure starts with a battle against the mask wearing skull kid on top of the clock tower, and players must return to the very same battle (because of the jump back in time) to take on the skull kid using the abilities Link has gained. When you reach this point in the game, you know the end is near.
Cumulative Climax: ie. Everything You've Learned Was For This
This type of video game climax is very similar to performing music. As one learns a piece, particularly a difficult one, musicians often develop specific tricks and techniques in order to play a song accurately. When the musician plays this piece in a concert, every thing he/she learned about the music, every technique, and all those hours of practice are put to the test. I remember thinking to myself once before playing in a piano concert, "This is it. All that work...everything I learned was for this."
With video games many final levels are built to test a wide range of skills that are taught throughout the game. This style of climax is very similar to the recap climax style. After all, all climaxes are designed to link the previous actions/events/moments in a work before moving into the resolution. In a video game where the meaning is derived from interactivity or action, giving context to the climax means comparing the elements of the climax to what has happened previously. The main difference between recap and cumulative climaxes is that with the cumulative style climax is a challenge composed of new or remixed elements as opposed to revisiting old and unchanged challenges.
A good example of a game that features a cumulative climax is Pikmin 1. The last level tests the player's skill through a clean and compact level design. Players have to understand and use each type of Pikmin for their unique abilities including water travel (blue Pikmin), fire travel (red Pikmin), and carrying bomb rocks (yellow Pikmin). The level was designed to test the player's understanding of 3D space in addition to understanding the nuances of how Pikmin follow Olimar (the player avatar) even when separated by barriers. This last level contains no treasures to collect or enemies to fight, yet it builds a climax by testing just how well the player understands Pikmin. Oh, and at the end of it all is a giant boss monster. Good luck with that.
Challenging Climax ie. Harder, Trickier, Tougher
This one is simple. As long as the final challenge is harder than any of the other challenges in the game (or at least the mandatory challenges) players will tend to put it at the top of their "this challenge is challenging" list. Organizing challenges this way, even vaguely in one head, is a way of understanding the game as a whole. When one thinks, "nothing else in the game was this hard" they have inherently compared the climax challenge to every other challenge in the game. When the player reflects on the game as a whole, the climax is working.
Fighters commonly use the challenging climax. By increasing the computer AI and/or adjusting other parameters the last fight in a typical, linear fighting game single player mode is always the most difficult challenge.
The video above shows the last level and boss battle in Super Mario Galaxy. The level is action packed introducing new gameplay elements and remixing old ones making the climax partially recap and cumulative. However, the Bowser battle is the deepest and most layered Bowers battle in the game. Just like in Super Mario Brothers, the Bowser boss battles are designed so that the last one is the most challenging.
Set Piece Climax
Some game developers don't set action and interactivity as a priority. For some of these developers story is the most important part of a video game. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking tends to yieldsgames with mediocre stories and climaxes that are more about looking cool than being cool. In other words, instead of telling a story or creating meaning using action, such games employ a variety of cinematic techniques (set pieces, cut scenes, dialog) that ultimately fall flat in the video game medium.
The last battle and escape in Resistance 2 was heavily scripted so much so that I didn't even feel like I was playing much of a game at all. The whole experience was very confusing. Sure, obtaining the power to blow away enemy chimera fit the premise. After all, Nathan Hale was slowly transforming into "one of them." Unfortunately, the climax is more focused on the story elements of Resistance 2 than creating a satisfying climax using any of the other styles above.
Gameplay and interactivity is what games are all about. You can't make a game better by designing a better climax. It doesn't work like that. A climax is a way of pulling a game together in the mind of the player. If the majority of the game is terrible, then there's nothing a climax can do to fix that.