Imagine a game without a final boss. Not just a strategy game or a social game or something that usually doesn’t have a boss. I’m talking about a game which has combat, a fictional story, and doesn’t include a climactic battle with an archvillain. I’m talking Mario without Bowser, Zelda without Ganon, Final Fantasy without an evil mind-controlling, genetically engineered, time-traveling sorceress/alien from another dimension, Half-Life without that weird giant mouth thing, or Castlevania without Dracula. I’m talking about a game where the designers had the opportunity to portray an act of violence against a villain at the end of their game, and deliberately chose a different approach. I’m talking about Ultima IV and VI, and not much else.

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These days, it’s pretty much unthinkable to have a story-based game with combat that doesn’t include a big boss at the end. Back in those days, 1985 and 1990, respectively, it was extremely rare as well. The first three Ultima games included a normal batch of big bosses: an evil wizard, an evil witch, and their spawn, a demonic inhuman named Exodus. Other RPGs and action games of the era all included final confrontations with supervillains like Metroid‘s Mother Brain or Wizardry‘s Werdna. Ultima III gave some indication of the series’ future by making Exodus unkillable in combat, only defeatable through puzzle-solving, but regardless, your success in the game was still based on a final act of violence.

It may have been rare in the 1980s, but it wasn’t unthinkable. “Scorpia,” Computer Gaming World‘s queen of RPGs, coined the semi-derogatory term “Foozle” to refer to the big boss of roleplaying games. Games with simplistic plots were derided as “Kill-the-Foozle” quests. Yet these days, Kill-the-Foozle is the default.

What does that say about games, or worse, what does it say about gamers? The immediate reaction – that maybe having a strong villain makes for better games – doesn’t fly given that the Ultima series in general, and these two incarnations of it in particular, are amongst the greatest RPGs of all time. Ultima IV takes the entire concept of heroism in games and subverts it by asking the player to embody each of eight virtues (Justice, Honesty, etc.) as the “Avatar.” While this could have been viewed as an academic exercise or a novelty, Ultima VI takes the no-Foozle concept and expands upon it to tell a fascinating story.

The kingdom of Britannia, the setting of the Ultima series, is being attacked by gargoyles from the underworld. In a more conventional game, you’d fight off a few attacks, run into an evil wizard or the like controlling the gargoyles, and then defeat his nefarious plot to destroy the world in a final battle. In Ultima VI, the Avatar learns his enemies’ language, earns their trust, and concludes the game with a peace treaty. This narrative is musically embodied in the end of the game with a beautiful little tune that combines the main themes of both the humans and the gargoyles into a single song – no rocking boss music.

Ultima VI is a classic game with a strong narrative, built around conversation and exploration with as much combat as you desire. It ends not with victory through force of arms, but peace through understanding and diplomacy. Few games since these two Ultimas have allowed you alternative means to finish the story. Famously, it was possible to finish Fallout without firing a shot, but some mechanism was required to kill the villainous “Master” who served as its Foozle. Some games offer semi-puzzles during the Foozle fight – like destroying the machines which make the antagonist invincible, or shooting arrows into a mirror to bypass an enemy’s defense – but they still feature a prominent Foozle. Ultima showed that it was possible to not have a big bad at the end of a game – so what happened? Why aren’t there other games continuing that trend?

Like the great gaming question – why do so many games involve violence? – the answer is complicated, but much of it has to do with inertia. Game studios and designers don’t change their ways easily. Since most games throughout videogame history have used stories with evil antagonists who are defeated through violence, it makes sense that modern games use that model. As major game releases became multi-million dollar investments through the 1990s, risks like uncommon narratives without a major villain were frowned upon.

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It’s also easier to use Foozles. Let’s be honest with ourselves: the vast majority of videogame storylines are lazy and generic – a big bad guy is threatening to destroy or take over the country/world/galaxy. In most cases, you know that if you succeed in your quest, then the evil plot will be foiled. For most games, and apparently gamers, that’s enough. With both traditional and economic reasons for designers to use Foozles, it’s no surprise that Foozle-less games are so rare.

And to be honest, that rarity isn’t a bad thing. Where would videogaming be without Sephiroth, Andrew Ryan & Frank Fontaine, Luca Blight, Bowser, Liquid Snake, Kreia or the Guardian? These are our Darth Vaders and Anton Chigurhs – mythical villains who dominate their respective stories. A drive for all games to be Foozleless ignores this aspect of videogame history, and may do more harm than good. Games like Ultima IV & VI should be rare and special; they should momentarily make you stop and wonder how certain game mechanisms work – or don’t work – without a primary antagonist, something that could make any game better.

Two classic PC games, Planescape: Torment and Warcraft III, illustrate in completely different fashions how games can use the narrative boost of a strong antagonists without having a simple Foozle. In Planescape: Torment, the goal of the game is self-discovery, as you play an immortal – or at least, impossible-to-fully-kill – amnesiac called “The Nameless One” attempting to understand the circumstances of his condition. The obstacles placed in your path as you navigate the game have the same function as a straightforward antagonist. However, the game slowly reveals that these obstacles were put in place by previous incarnations of the protagonist. His faulty memory and a detached personality known as “The Practical One” muddle The Nameless One’s journey to uncover his true identity, but they’re trying to help, not hinder. At the end of the game, the primary antagonist is revealed to be yet another detached rogue aspect of Nameless, called “The Transcendent One.”

The formal experimentation of Warcraft III and especially its expansion pack, The Frozen Throne, works in a different direction, by having multiple in-game factions with different antagonists for each, who often double as playable characters (building on a model began with StarCraft, another game that doesn’t get paid its dues as a single-player experience). The primary villain at the end of the game – who continues in that role in World of Warcraft – is Prince Arthas. But the story is in many ways his story, as you control Arthas more than any other character in the game. He is the protagonist of three of the game’s seven chapters, and his story arc of descent into evil and rise as the new avatar of the Lich King is the primary storyline. By making you, the player, guide Arthas and act complicit in his crimes, Warcraft III offers a more nuanced and mature kind of story. Protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, are mixed together in one of the most satisfying plots in videogame history.

These two games are both “Hall of Fame”-caliber, and both demonstrate that it’s possible to make plot-driven games without one-dimensional Foozles. The daring formal experimentation of Ultima IV & VI isn’t always necessary to break out of Kill-the-Foozle mode, though it would not be unwelcome should it make a comeback. The BioWare/Fallout model of PC RPGs, with their focus on towns and characters instead of massive dungeon crawls seem like they’d be perfect for a more experimental, antagonist-free storyline.

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However, there is a thriving set of games partially descended from the Foozle-less Ultimas: MMOGs. In more than one sense, these are the spiritual successors to the middle games in the Ultima series. In addition to their obvious derivation from Ultima Online, they also offer similar experiences in that you can be satisfied by playing the game in multiple different fashions. An MMOG player can engage in the equivalent of the main plot and complete the hardest quests and top-tier raids with a well-geared party, yes, but they can also play entirely socially, interacting with other players safely in towns. You can play for PVP, or solo exploration, or constantly build new characters. The huge, relatively static worlds built for exploration and interaction offer much more than “beating” the game. Likewise, Ultima VI can be played with a mind towards finishing the game, but great joy can also be found in searching a meaningless dungeon, discovering a new conversation option with a previously reticent non-player character, going on a psychopathic killing spree, or baking bread for profit.

Part of the reason that the Foozle-less Ultima games were so refreshing was that they felt naturalistic. The game world felt bigger because it was bigger, yes, but the lack of a Foozle lifted a constraint from the storyline and from the player trying to follow that storyline. It was possible to relax and try to see the game world as the end, instead of the means to a storyline-fulfilling end. It took me over a decade to actually finish Ultima VIM, yet I say it’s one of my all-time favorite games, and have since my first few attempts at finishing it. In this way, MMOGs both fulfill the promise of these games at the same time as they disappoint. The open-ended world and emphasis on finding your own way through the game bring to mind the classic Ultimas.

Yet, as most MMOG players can tell you, there’s not much sense of relaxation. There’s always something you should be doing – a daily quest, a grind for better items or more gold, or a raid you can’t miss – and there’s always someone telling you that you could be doing it better. Those anxiety-inducing interactions and also the psychological tricks of “grinding” aren’t particularly welcome in single-player RPGs, and they offer a very different experience from the comfortable exploration of single-player RPGs like the Ultima series.

We may not see a mainstream, single-player, story-based game without a Foozle to kill for a long time. Although Ultima IV & VI provided examples of how it could be done effectively, the example wasn’t followed by game designers. Although other games have experimented with the role of the antagonist, which is welcome, they still aren’t daring enough to eliminate the Foozle entirely. And while multi-player games with static worlds can recreate some of the joys of the Foozle-less games, they don’t provide entirely similar experiences. Perhaps someday, as the game industry moves away from narratives in which the player’s victories derive from successful application of violence, games as daring as Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and Ultima VI: The False Prophet will reappear and players can stop killing the Foozle.

Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the Bay Area. He blogs at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com, tweets @rowankaiser, and is currently working on a book about the history of videogames.

Question of the Day, July 13, 2010

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