A climax is when every bit of foreshadowing, each side interaction, and the main attractions steer into one focal point. A fantastic conclusion will sear into my mind, long after I’ve parted ways. However, in many genres it will come down to a half-hearted, misplaced boss battle, maybe a big enemy with extra health points. It comes off as a vague obligation, to do this thing that everything else does, this thing that’s supposed to be done before a game is allowed to end. An effective dramatic climax is fueled by irreconcilable philosophies, individuals caught in their unshakable personal beliefs to do what they think is right. The audio and visuals will reflect the importance of the moment. I think a sure way to hone this, to go beyond effective, is to subvert established mechanics to forge a climax.
Undertale is a game with a sort of meandering pace. It’s caught between a few thematic goals, wanting to be sketch comedy, to pose dramatic confrontations, even throwing in a few arbitrary puzzles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s very engaging and well paced, but there’s no bite for quite a while. Instead of intense dramatic developments, the game fills itself up with comedy and foreshadowing. Though, once Undertale reaches climax, it’s remarkable. Each final confrontation takes established drama, switches it up with a unique aesthetic, and turns it upside-down with new mechanics.
The final boss, the monster king Asgore, is repeatedly foreshadowed as a big fluffy sweetheart by the denizens of his kingdom. He’s introduced in a tranquil flower garden, but moves into a uniquely 3D, seemingly-infinite and empty space. A musical jingle and some narration prepares us for the fight.
“Human… It was nice to meet you. Goodbye.”
Asgore raises his weapon and destroys the game’s MERCY button. Normally players would use the mercy button to navigate a fight using pacifist means and disarm the conflict. A purple gradient with fiery sparks rises from the bottom of the screen, the first time color is shown in the background of a battle. A stark shift, tangibly establishing that this fight different from all others, materially demonstrating its exception. Asgore is an enemy of circumstance. He does not wish to kill a human child, but he has a duty as the king of his kingdom. Realizing this duty, he solemnly hardens himself and steels his resolve. Humans will keep subjugating monsters unless they grasp onto power to define their freedom and defend themselves. Physically changing the ruleset and destroying MERCY shocks the player into the gravity of the fight; there’s no talking their way out of this.
The second final boss, Omega Flowey, occurs when Flowey absorbs six human souls, obtaining ultimate power. Flowey, as understood by the player at this time, is an inexplicable villain, essentially a being of evil. He’s introduced with a flashing red screen and ominous music. A giant black silhouette crawls into view, covering over half the screen. Silence and an eerie, toothy smile. Their eyes widen and become bloodshot. The screen stops flashing and Omega Flowey in all its grotesqueness is revealed. A sharp mix of thorns, vines, wires, and eyes that all wriggle and jitter wretchedly. Omega Flowey is photoshopped from real pictures and full resolution drawings, defiantly unlike the rest of the game’s plain pixel art. A blood curdling laugh plays for five seconds. Flowey now attacks as breakcore music plays, much faster than any other song in the game. Each incremental element of Omega Flowey one-ups the last. By the time the fight starts I couldn’t even comprehend what was happening. The attacks are overwhelmingly fast, with much denser bullet patterns. The battlefield is no longer relegated to a box, the screen is open leaving any space free to maneuver. Gone is the menu-based formality of picking your action in between attacks, so there’s no pauses, no time to breathe or recollect. At the first opportunity for the player to retaliate, they deal a measly 1 damage. Throughout the fight Flowey will even “save” the game and “load” moments from seconds ago to trick the player into getting hit, just to nail in their powerlessness.
The game constructs a being of power suggested as being beyond even its own containment, breaking previous rules of engagement, going as far as altering the game files themself. Despite the sensory overload and the suggestion of ultimate power, it’s really not an excruciating fight. The player’s last sliver of health will take many hits before they finally die. I died to Asgore quite a few times before winning, but never lost once to Omega Flowey. Its artifice lays bare the intent to create an excruciatingly intense and overwhelming climax, without breaking narrative pacing.
It’s a little obvious, most stories will have a clear peak, a confrontation between characters. However, I think it’s rare that a game utilizes every audiovisual, mechanical, and narrative tool at their disposal (and really it doesn’t fit many games or genres). Subverting preset rules is an excellent way to drive in important themes. The act of doing something new is evocative, stimulating, it draws attention to the text. Breaking the rules challenges conceptions of the text, it recontextualizes engagement.
This can be an important point for static, non action-oriented, games as well. At the end of The Talos Principle, players find an ally. They left you various messages throughout the game, but no direct contact was ever established. After the player’s pensive, solitary experience of solving puzzles by theirself for over a dozen hours, they finally find someone! They don’t speak, but they do help. Puzzles become a race against the clock. Instead of the familiar settings of dated civilizations, players must maneuver high in the clouds, as fast as they can. The emotional experience of finally finding someone is nurtured as they work together to best this final set of challenges. The change allows puzzles to break out of being an abstract ritual. It becomes a very human experience of working together and problem solving. Finally establishing a humanity within robots.
Undertale has gotten a lot of traction and attention, usually citing its story as personally impactful and powerful. It’s a good story, one that’s important to me, but I think the true power of Undertale comes from its climaxes. It’s subversion of mechanics is a core competency that bolsters its climaxes and individually conveys meaning. Without it, I don’t think Undertale has the fuel to execute on its themes. Hearing the music morph, seeing the visuals take on new forms, aesthetic changes drilling in the stakes of my interactions, that’s the power of Undertale. The exceptionality of these climaxes pushes them from competence to excellence. This is what resonates with me, more than Undertale’s platitudes.