6

Note: my story is for a video game, but that should hopefully be irrelevant to the question itself.

Our heroes spent a long time fighting their way to the evil demon king. The hopes of all the people in the land rest on their shoulders. If they fail, the entire universe will be destroyed! So after a long journey, the heroes finally confront the demon king! A lot has been building up to this battle of epic proportions, one that would be a worthy climax. One hard-fought battle later, the heroes emerge victorious! The villain has been defeated and peace returns to the land.

Except not quite...

It turns out the heroes didn't fully defeat the demon king yet. After many years, the demon king was reportedly seen lurking around in the nearby mountains, but there is no sight of his army. Reluctantly, the heroes perpare themselves for another battle, to put an end to the demon king once and for all.

(Note: to put things into perspective a bit, this whole "after climax" portion takes up about 1/20 of the overall story. People know they are getting close to the end.)

Despite their victory, the heroes didn't walk away unscathed. Their victory was never assured, and they had a lot of doubts. They were overall less powerful than the demon king and they won with some luck. Many of them sustained injuries that never healed, both physically and mentally. When it comes down to it, all of them wished they didn't have to fight the terrifyingly powerful and brutal demon king. But someone had to do it. They had to put their fear behind.

All the heroes moved on, some of them even started families, but they realize they had to fight the demon king once again. They prepare themselves for the worst, a battle even more damaging than the last. They go and find the demon king in the mountains and are terrified to discover his new final form!

The demon king is in a shriveled up state, just a shell of his former self. He is just a walking corpse at this point, unable to return to his glory and unable to die on his own. He can't leave this place and he couldn't hurt a fly if he tried. He was waiting for the heroes to finally put him out of his misery, having seen the error of his ways and wishing he never started his campaign of terror. He had many years to reflect on his actions and showed remorse. The heroes almost didn't recognize the former tyrant. Eagerly, he was awaiting his end. Reluctantly, the heroes grant him his last wish.


Now finally onto the question itself! The above is a very simplified version of what I have planned for my story. I want to know: is it a bad idea to tease the player/reader with another potentially even bigger battle than the last, only to disappoint them like that, especially when it's near the end of the story? They already had a climax after all, and showing what happened to the villain afterwards should hopefully allow to give the villain some character growth and close his character arc before he bites the dust and the story ends. Would this kind of surprise be more annoying than satisfying?

  • Consider True Final Boss trope. – Alexander Aug 7 '18 at 20:10
  • So, you have a climactic anteclimax followed by an anticlimactic climax? – Chronocidal Aug 15 '18 at 12:10

12 Answers 12

5

This can work. I'll even give a couple examples of boss fights that pull off this kind of pacing and feel very satisfying. But it's difficult to pull off, and there are a few things you have to get right for an unusual pacing trick like this to land successfully - especially at the final climax of your story.

A video game is a unique story-telling medium specifically because, in addition to all of the narrative elements that are present in all other storytelling mediums, video games incorporate ludology - that is, the gameplay What this means is that for a video game in particular, if you want an emotionally powerful moment, it's not enough for the story to reach a high point. You must also simultaneously reach a high point in your ludology. This means either creating a spike in difficulty, pushing your player outside of their comfort zone, or throwing a twist into the game's mechanics, forcing your player to quickly adapt to new situations. So in the rest of my answer, I'm going to talk about how to get your story to a high point, how to get your gameplay to a high point, and how it's possible to achieve both even with an anticlimax ending.

Narrtive High Points

In a well-written story, emotional weight primarily comes from four elements:

  • Theme
  • Character arcs
  • Conflict
  • Plot momentum

A scene in your story that ties tightly into one of your story's main themes, shows a character changing or making a truly difficult choice, advances or complicates a major conflict, and propels the plot towards its climax with the stakes continually raising will resonate emotionally with readers.

What's important to notice - very very important to notice - is what is not on the list. These elements do not determine whether a moment in a story is an emotional high point or not:

  • The intensity of the action
  • The impressiveness of the visuals
  • The amount of violence, power, or magic being used

These elements do not weaken a scene, but they don't necessarily strengthen it, either.

Sonic Forces handles this badly

For example, Sonic Forces has, frankly, an absolutely atrocious story. In its climax, we see Sonic and the avatar character leading a huge army against Eggman's fortress. Eggman uses reality-bending magic, there are multiple boss fights against your rival and giant robots, there are huge armies kicking the snot out of each other in the background... The imagery is there. This is a high-intensity climax. But it falls very, very flat.

This is because the elements that give a scene emotional weight are absent:

  • The only narrative theme in Sonic Forces is the avatar character becoming cool enough to hang out with Sonic, and that is too thin and fantasy-fulfilling to give the ending any gravity.
  • Besides the avatar character, none of the other characters in the game have any character development whatsoever, and we certainly don't see any one making agonizing choices in the climax.
  • The conflict between Eggman and Sonic is a very plain, vanilla take on the good guys vs. someone who wants to end the world, so it doesn't pull any weight.
  • From the moment you first turn on the game, you already know that the plot ends with Sonic winning and Eggman losing. The climax has a couple of twists, but never enough to make you question where the plot's momentum is going.

The Beginner's Guide handles this well

In contrast, The Beginner's Guide, a walking simulator by the developers of The Stanley Parable, has understated imagery during its climax but is very emotionally powerful. The story is about a man, Wreden, who used to be friends with a game developer, Coda. Wreden hasn't had contact with Coda in several years, so (in the story's universe) he releases a compilation of Coda's games with commentary in an attempt to reconnect with his friend. As you play through Coda's games, they slowly become more and more unhinged, strongly suggesting the Coda had some serious personal demons and tried to use their hobby as a way of working through their pain. Through his commentary, Wreden explains what he tried to do to help Coda deal with these issues, but it slowly becomes clear that Wreden has some demons of his own that he's blind to.

The final scene takes place in a building with some pretty twisted, prison-like architecture and moments where Coda's game design actively tries to make it impossible for the player to finish. This is reasonably severe imagery, but it's nowhere as intense as, for example, Sonic Force's giant robots and explosive magic. This leads up to a moment where the imagery gives way to very comfortable, warm, home-like architecture where Coda has written one final message to Wreden before cutting off contact for good. This change in architecture means that whatever energy the imagery has is completely undercut. The climax takes place in probably the single most inviting and calm environment in the entire story. But it still packs an enormous punch because all of the narrative elements are present:

  • There are several themes in the story, and they all come to a head at once. The consequences of Coda and Wreden's personal demons come out in full force. And the ways that Wreden has been trying to help Coda are called out for the ways in which they're toxic and counterproductive.
  • This is Coda's final message to Wreden. The fact that Coda is willing to permently end a relationship with a friend they've had for years is a very severe and personal decision for a character to make.
  • What Coda specifically says addresses the conflicts that have appeared in a very unusual way.
  • One of the first things the game tells you is that Coda and Wreden haven't been in touch for years. This foreshadowing gives the entire plot strong momentum towards learning why this is the case. The climax answers that question, allowing the plot's momentum to come to an end with satisfying gravity.

(I do want to emphasize, though, that strong imagery does not make a bad climax. It's just unrelated to the climax. Stories like Undertale, Bastion, The Lord of the Rings, The Incredibles, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have bombastic endings that land incredibly well.)

How this applies to your question

What you're suggesting is a final climax with low-intesity imagery. This absolutely can work. What you need to do, though, is figure out how your ending ties into your narrative elements.

For this to work, you have to do two things:

  1. The difficult boss fight before the final climax can't answer all of your narrative's questions.
  2. The pushover boss fight at the true climax has to answer the leftover questions.

Right now, from what you've described, it's not clear to me that you have any questions like that. The heros go about there lives for a decade or two, then get back together and punch out the bad guy. What theme does this address? What difficult decisions do the main characters need to make as a result of this, and how are they changed as a result? What conflicts are being addressed, besides the almost flavorless conflict of the big bad being a potential threat to the world? And how is the plot structured so that ending the story at this moment is the most satisfying point, as opposed to the grander boss fight shortly beforehand?

That paragraph came across as snarky, but that's not my intent. You only had a couple of paragraphs to summarize your thoughts on your ending, so of course you didn't give me all of the details I'm asking about! I would not be surprised to learn you already have answers to all of those questions. And even if you don't, the scenario you're considering certainly has room for answers to those questions. Your heros have settled down and have families and lives they want to return to, give you a rich vein to probe for agonizing character choices and thematic material. Your primary antagonist both regrets his past decisions and wants to die. These are both very unusual things for a villian to decide, so you've got a lot of juicy material to explore there. And with a little planning, you can tie the themes that you emphasize during this final, sad encounter throughout the rest of your story, setting up your plot so that it's only satisfyingly resolved when the themes are addressed in this final scene.

Ludological High Points

At its core, gameplay is about solving interesting problems by making complex decisions. When you make the right decisions, you win and progress to the next stage in the game's progression. When you make the wrong decisions, you lose and go back to a checkpoint to try again. The nature of these problems and decisions certainly change from game to game. A JRPG that plays like an Excel spreadsheet with anime clipart everywhere makes the nature of making decisions to solve problems very explicit (and that's not a bad thing at all!). A flashy beat-em-up like God of War or Devil May Cry might seem on the surface to be about action instead of decision making - but your moveset is specifically designed so that different actions have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing which kind of fighting style to use and which abilities to use when boils down to making rather complex decisions very quickly.

What these means is that there are two ways to make a ludological climax in a video game:

  • Use the mechanics you've already established in the game and spike the difficulty up. This tests the player on whether they deeply understand how to make the right decisions for the situation they're in.
  • Add in a new mechanic or throw a twist onto an existing mechanic. This forces the player to scramble as they make decisions for new, uncertain situations.

This gives rise to the most common gameplay progression we see in video games. A level or chapter in a game starts out by bumping up the difficulty slightly in order to keep up with the lessons the player learned in the previous chapter, but levels rarely start out particularly challenging. At some point, a new mechanic or twist is introduced, and the rest of the chapter focuses on exploring the implications of the new mechanic. This increases the difficult pretty organically and keeps things interesting. The difficulty continues to gradually increase until you reach the level boss, which spikes the difficulty up dramatically and pushes the new mechanic to its logical conclusion. Then, the cycle repeats in the next chapter, which incorporates the new mechanic for good, drops the intensity of gameplay down from the high of the boss fight, and starts introducing new mechanics once more.

By the time you get to the final boss, you've established all of the mechanics you want to use in your game, so you push all or most of them as far as they'll go all at once while pushing the difficulty to its highest point in the game. Many final bosses also throw in last-minute twists that have obvious implications but nevertheless force the player to think on their toes.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a great example

Paper Mario is a fairly standard turn-based RPG (in terms of its game design) with an excellent final boss. She is a demon queen with more health and damage output than any other mandatory enemy in the game. The nature of the turn-based battle system is about winning by attrition before your enemies can grind you out of all of your resources to put up a viable fight. So the boss's high HP forces you to very carefully manage your pool of mana and HP to last for a long time, and her high damage output puts a lot of pressure on those resources.

In addition, she has several nasty tricks up her sleeve. For the first several turns, she's completely invincible. This invincibility is automatically removed after a scripted cutscene, but this isn't clear the first time you fight her, so you're likely going to be baited into expending a lot of resouces figuring out how to remove her invincibility. This leaves you in a weak position for the rest of the fight. Later, without warning, she kills helpful NPCs that allow you to regenerate one of your mana pools, putting an unexpected and painful restriction on one of your resources partway through the fight. And some of her attacks require you to use very specific abilities to counter them, forcing you to be prepared to either tank lots of damage or switch your strategy quickly to answer her attack cues.

Altogether, this boss fight tests the player on whether they deeply understand the game's core mechanics and also throws them multiple curveballs that can force them to completely rework their strategy on the spot. This makes for a very memorable and satisfying boss fight.

It helps that Paper Mario: TTYD has a reasonably strong story to go along with it, as well! The Shadow Queen is simultaneously the climax of the gameplay and the climax of the story. This makes here the perfect way to end the game.

What this means for your situation

For your anitclimax, you're not likely going to be able to put together a battle that pushes the player to their limits. So instead, you're going to want to throw them a bizzare twist. Even if the battle is ultimately a foregone conclusion, changing the rules at the last second will leave your players thinking very carefully about how they approach the scenario. This will make the anticlimax boss fight still have memorable and satisfying gameplay.

For example, you could set up the final fight so that the boss never attacks you, but you have to solve a puzzle to destroy the artifacts keeping him alive. Or the particular way you kill him determines which ending the player gets - a kind, swift, and magically pure kill gets a good ending, while using dark magic to make the villain suffer gets a bad ending. Or the boss heals dramatically each turn (even though he doesn't want to), forcing the player to crank out as much damage per turn/second as possible to finally bring things to an end. These are just a few ideas. I'm sure that, as someone much closer to your game, you can come up with an idea that fits your game particularly well.

An example of a successful anticlimax final boss

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time has an excellent example of an anti-climax boss. The high-point final boss is a four-stage battle against two alien princesses. It's an over-the-top marathon that can easily last half an hour to an hour! The game is another turn-based RPG, and the core mechanic is that by putting in the right action commands, the player can completely dodge enemy attacks or even turn them back onto the enemies. In order to survive for long enough to see this marathon final boss to the end, the player must dodge the large majority of the bosses' attacks.

After all of this is over, though, there are still some unresolved questions. Bowser has popped in and out of the story, and his arc hasn't been brought to a satisfying close yet, so the game throws in one last battle to tie up the story (Youtube recording of the fight).

In this battle, Bowser is possessed by one of the alien princesses' spirits and, high on the power she gives him, decides to take out Mario and co. once and for all. This fight only last a couple of minutes and, at this point in the game, is comfortably easy for the player to complete. This is in stark contrast to the neverending final test the player has just finished! So, to make this anticlimax fight feel satisfying, the game throws in a very unexpected twist: The player doesn't get to have any turns. Instead, Bowser constantly lobs fireballs at the player, who can only counterattack using the action command system. This twist forces the player to abandon much of what they learned about the game's give-and-take strategy, knowing when to dish out damage and when to play defensively, and instead hastily adopt a new strategy based on going all-in with counterattacks. This doesn't make the fight much more difficult, but it certainly makes it memorable.

3

In order for your last ending to feel worthwhile, it needs to complete some important part of the protagonist's story arc left unfinished at the big battle. The Wizard of Oz has an anticlimatic second ending, but it has a crucial purpose. The apparent first ending (flying home with the Wizard in his balloon) is too passive. Dorothy still needs to learn that she controls her own destiny --she has her own source of power.

Your story, as currently presented, doesn't give the reader this, so it will feel doubly frustrating. First, the build up to the battle will seem like an unnecessary repetition. Then, the battle itself will seem like a useless cop-out.

But that doesn't mean you couldn't rewrite it to make it function properly. You'll need to find some way to make the first ending less satisfying, and to build a promise into it that you'll fulfill with the second. For instance, maybe your main character is saved only by outside help in the first ending, and the second one is where he proves he can stand on his own. Or he's tempted by dark power in the first ending, and decisively rejects it in the second. Something like that.

  • Agreed - there needs to be some arc that the extra-ending "closes". Perhaps there is some curse that can only be undone by the villain's "true death" - but was partly undone by his earlier defeat so people didn't realise that he wasn't fully dead. (e.g. a curse that takes away all the children, and prevents any more being born. After his initial defeat, new children can be born - after he actually dies, all of the missing children are magically returned.) – Chronocidal Aug 15 '18 at 12:15
2

I think the answer could potentially be yes, if you aren't careful.

It's not uncommon to have the "final boss" not actually be the "final boss." (Ex, when you fight Ganon in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you defeat him, then you have to go fight Calamity Ganon on horseback!)

I think it could be horribly disappointing...unless it reveals something important. My idea to have this happen and have it not be disappointing, but rather foreshadowing? The demon king was not acting alone. He wasn't even the biggest bad. He was being used (Like in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Zant was Ganon's puppet the whole time!) This could lay the groundwork of the heroes questioning everything. What more is in their future? Who could have puppeted the Demon King around?

I think an anti-climactic post-climax has the potential to be disappointing. I would make sure that the scene has some value, in terms of resolution, foreshadowing, portraying a specific message, etc. Don't do it just for the fun of doing it.

2

As a gamer, when you gear up for a battle, you want to get a battle. Mass Effect 3, for example, was criticised for not having a final boss, even though the way the story was structured there was no way it could have a final boss. (Instead there's surviving waves of enemies, followed by an extended dialogue scene. So there's a major, hard, satisfying battle, just no boss.)

You plan to go further than Mass Effect 3 - you want to have your players gear up for a battle, and then give them no battle at all. That's not going to be taken well.

If you want a more complex end than just "and they lived happily ever after" after defeating the demon king, you have many options, some of them sequel hooks. For example:

  • Your characters never find a body. Some other hints make them concerned, so they need to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.
  • It turns out that removing the demon king doesn't suddenly remove all the political structures at the head of which he stood, and things are still not great.
  • The demon king surrenders at the end of the battle, saying something about repentance, like you planned for the epilogue. The player gets to decide whether to accept the surrender or kill him, but either way the characters wonder whether they did the right thing.
  • Etc.

What all those possibilities have in common is that you don't make promises you do not later keep, and you minimize the after-last-battle content to some text or some dialogue. Using those guidelines, I'm sure you can construct an ending that would suit the kind of story you want to tell, with the kind of moral choices and consequences that you find interesting, without sacrificing players' enjoyment.

2

A game and a movie have great power. You can roll the credits. A book can do this too in some ways, but it's not as effective. An epilogue is just not as strong as a credit roll.

So once you roll the credits you are kind of free to do something else crazy. In a game it can easily be non-canonical. Post credit scenes can be just a joke. In a game it can also now be part of the game that while it has 1/20th of the story it has 99% of the hours needed to complete. Disgaea is infamous for this.

So yes after a credits roll you can do a little after story. This can now be a completely independent ark. Just be ready to disappoint your players that may think that this is the new infinite mode, or a teaser for Game 2. I would recommend making it short. Maybe like 5 still images. No one wants to play through an anticlimax. Using a different storytelling style than the rest of the game will let people know that this is not part of the main material.

2

I LOVE This question. Here would be what I would add to this. I have read a number of books that had anticlimactic second endings. It can definitely be done, but don't think of it as anticlimactic. What is the threat in this scene? Clearly it isn't the demon king, but the reader, and the characters don't know that. This can actually be a very effective tool if you have had a long build up to fully resolve your characters.

Thoughts to make it work.

  1. Don't take too much time explaining your resolution and what the heroes did after the first battle before jumping back in. The threat is still out there, and if you transition your reader to a full resolution before providing this additional conflict, they'll get annoyed.

  2. Play up the emotion within the heroes and the doubt of success in facing this threat again. That is your final climax.

  3. Recognize with your characters the purpose of this second encounter. It provides a very real and total satisfaction that the threat is gone. Your new resolution is no longer a question mark of what happened, but now that we have the demon king in such a fragile state, what is the just thing to do.

Don't go for this with the intent to irritate or misdirect your audience. You are providing a delayed resolution to come off of the adrenaline of the pursuit in your book. This second encounter provides a lot of perceived threat, but also provides a perfect opportunity for you to fully resolve your characters fears and doubts.

Think "The Three Musketeers" movie made in the 90's. When everything was finished and they're being knighted, guards come to arrest them, and because everyone there is a musketeer, they turn on them with an overwhelming force and chase them out of the castle. It's meant to be funny in that scene, but the concept is still the same. Your climax was too big to truly resolve quickly, so you extended it.

A perfect example of a book with too much resolution without a proper diminish would be almost any Lord of the Rings books. Fantasy books, but ultimately tends to leave readers uneasy and unsure of a full resolution at the end. I mean, is Frodo really okay?

2

I can recall a video game that did this in a very satisfying way; Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc. In the final boss, you have Reflux the Knaaren, essentially the Big Bad, Andre's muscle. He's souped-up on a MacGuffin to the point of mutilating/mutating himself with its power. By the time you fight him, he's just a big, extremely powerful monster.

The Big Bad, Andre, however, has only been in a direct fight once, and it was as a Hoodlum (the standard, lowest level mook; essentially, Andre is the progenitor of the black lums, a set of black, corrupted-looking fairies who harvest fur to give themselves bigger bodies, hoodlums). He went down laughably easily. And now it's later in the story, when you have the ability to uncorrupt black lums to red lums.

Once Reflux's MacGuffin runs out of power and he turns into a crystal, this is it, your final confrontation with Andre, who doesn't even have a hoodlum body. But surely he'll put up some kind of fight, right?

Nope, you uncorrupt him like any other black lum and he goes out begging to be saved. And it's so satisfying after the hell of a boss battle marathon Reflux was.

Essentially, if it's established in-universe that it's possible for the post-climax enemy to be laughably weak (and in Andre's case, very likely), then go ahead. It could make it even better.

1

Personally, I do not find this a satisfying ending, in fact in a way, it ruins the story. The villain's character arc was completed when he died in the major battle, they should have found his body in the rubble.

So instead of the happily ever after ending you gave your heroes, after this incident, despite killing the demon, we have to think they will spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders for something else to happen. They are left with no peace, they must be warriors forever.

If you want an epilogue, hint at a "next generation" sequel, whether you ever write one or not. After starting these families and settling in, they discover their children have certain natural talents they recognize ...

1

Stories are about conflicts and resolution of those conflicts so in a sense your ending fits this bit.

However from the very beginning you promised the reader action and fulfilled this promise by giving the reader that action.

If you now foreshadow the return of the bad guy the reader will expect more action as you have done in the rest of the story. By not giving that action you are breaking the promise of your story and dissatisfy the reader's expectation. This will devalue the rest of the story.

To fix this, you will have to make it either foreshadow a larger conflict or have another action scene. But that doesn't sound like an ending but rather the start of another climax (or the actual climax) or maybe even a new act / sequel.

I would not recommend this ending the way you propose, but rather think of a way to keep the promise you made to the reader.

1

I'm not certain that this question is strictly on topic but I'll take a bat at it anyway. The demon king is either a threat or not, if he's a threat then he's worth fighting, if not then another confrontation is a pointless aggravation. This doesn't mean you can't have the structure you're are proposing it just means that at some point in the epilogue he, or maybe his new minions, has to pose an active, legitimate threat or there's no reason to go another round in the first place.

1

I would point to the Ace Combat series of games which literally do this every single game edition they put out (or so it seems). Pretty much it's a Jet Combat sim where you're side of the war usually pulls off the victory in the second to last mission, and the final one is a few years after the fact where some hard core enemies who rejected the peace deal take over a doomsday weapon of some kind to pull off one more last stand against you... typically you have to fly through a narrow corridor to destroy the weapon.

Red Dead Redemption did something similar where the final chain of missions are very much slice of life for the heroes and feel a lot like the tutorial mission chain in most respects... but the second to last mission of the game starts out soft slice of life... and then everything goes horribly wrong... and then the last mission, which... given the entire story, is very very depressing...

All things considered, Red Dead Redemption's ending was something that without spoilers, no one saw coming, and was slightly controversial, though generally accepted that the first mission in this chain was a great twist and very daring, but the payoff at the end of the entire chain was weak.

1

Games are different then a pure Story, because people have different expactations. And those are important.

If your players think they are going to get a battle, they will be dissapointed if they don't.

Luckily you can tell your after Story, without misleading your players. You can do this by presenting it differently then the rest of your game. For example it could all be a cutscene told in a past tense (while the rest of the game was present). So the players know, whatever happens in this cutscene already happened, and they won't have an impact on it.

Or you could just not give your players time to prepare for this, they hear about it, and they are there. No time for expectations to build up.

You could even employ game mechanics, like if they are going up to this final boss, you could make it so they can't pull their weapon and attack. This signals a change. This is different.

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