You start at level 1. Even in the sequel to games where your character previously fought evil kings and demon lords, you start at level 1. Batman has to learn how to do a backflip. Your Drizzt clone abruptly forgets how to dual-wield.
Which is ridiculous, and we all joke about it, but like so many patently absurd things in games it makes a lot more sense in context. Yeah, you could probably argue that we should start a game at the equivalent to level 5 so we can pick out a bunch of abilities beyond Stab With Sword. Yet if this is my first time playing under these particular rules and I don’t really know what I’m doing, giving me additional ways of irreparably screwing things up doesn’t improve my experience. So we let it slide: you’re never 1 for long. The levels keep accumulating until your stats, between your skills and equipment bonuses, make you unmatched. The endgame beckons!
Evil knights fall to you en masse. The arrows of the goblins cannot harm you. The abyssal overlords go down with a few swings of your +13 sword. The mayor of the first town is an impervious immortal because the devs need him to issue quests but you try to kill him too just to see if you can, because this is the end and he’s kind of a jerk. And although at this stage the oft-delayed final fight might barely qualify as a fight, it’s your sworn duty to clear that last entry from your journal so you do it anyway.
Now you’ve seen the credits roll and got the bonus scene for rescuing all the starfish but you continue on and the city guards still sneer at you. Bandits will continue to jump out from bushes to mug the adventurer clad in the bones of a dead god.
And it’s all your fault, because you killed the dragon and ended the game, and instead of stopping you kept going.
Settings differ on what a dragon is, exactly. Sometimes they’re treated like fantasy dinosaurs, powerful but ultimately savage and incapable of higher thought. More commonly they’re a nigh-immortal elder race, full of magic and cruelty. Sometimes they’re the gods themselves.
The one constant is that a dragon is bad news. While goblins and kobolds occupy the entry-level rung for adventurers, setting out to slay a dragon is not something to be done lightly. There’s a certain prestige to pulling it off, both inside and outside of the game world.
More than anything, a dragon is challenge made incarnate. It’s there to kill: not when you first encounter it (barring that one guy on YouTube who will almost certainly manage it within hours of the game being released) but when you come back to face it later with a dozen more levels under your Belt of Storm Giant Strength. Defeating the dragon progresses the main story or at the very least grants you access to items or side quests that are gated off from low-level players through the dragon’s mere presence. It’s really just a big scaly door and your sword is the key.
For some the mere existence of a dragon prompts eye rolls and in part that’s because they’re obligatory in fantasy and have ended up being genericised. It’s so established that plenty of people bristle at the presence of a dragon that they can’t fight. Betrayal! Why is the big lizard even there if I can’t slaughter it for XP and tier-5 crafting components? What a rip-off. If it bleeds pixels, we can kill it.
You know that the dragon is there to kill later. You know that it’ll have a hoard of some sort.
But the thing is, and I say this with the love of a DM who has also played too many computer RPGs, that’s pretty much everything. It’s not unique to dragons.
Tabletop parties are expected to showcase a kind of flowchart logic (is is it a quest giver? Is it a merchant? Okay, can we kill it?) and game design accommodates this. If it’s not dispensing items and quests like some sort of vending machine, it exists to supply gameplay time for however long it takes to die.
The problem is not the dragon. The problem is expectation: the expectation of dragons in fantasy, sure, but more specifically the expectation of escalation.
The action gets more and more bombastic until the final boss fight with a throwaway villain with boring motivations who exists just to fail and die, and then it happens again. If this sounds like it could describe a fair few movies as well as videogames, you’d be right. Subversions certainly exist but plenty of Hollywood blockbusters assume an increased threat guarantees a proportional increase in viewer investment and AAA games are more than happy to ape the formula. Many devs think players want it, and many players think devs have to do it to make the system work.
It’s assumed that all gamers want endless content and endless content, so the theory goes, calls for endless escalation. In all sorts of fiction you see it play out: the new antagonist must be stronger than the one that came before in order for them to pose some kind of threat to the heroes.
Which isn’t necessarily true, but is par for the course in action series and fantasy and science-fiction in particular. When the thematic conflict that drives a piece is actual battle and warfare, writers end up outdoing themselves with constant increases of firepower and scope.
Superhero comics are an explosion of new ideas and technologies that rarely affect the state of the world as a whole. Writers are aware of the stagnancy but are limited by 50-odd years of canon and a mixture of loyalty to it and concerns from higher-ups that challenging it will affect sales. Until the powers that be announce the World Changing Event, where all the writers are encouraged to come together to progress the universe. Everything will change, we’re told. Buy all these issues that you wouldn’t usually buy in order to understand how.
And, of course, what little change is introduced is inevitably reverted. Something that’s supposed to introduce suspense and wide-reaching consequences just hammers home how little it all actually matters. The World Changing Event and its aftermath aren’t particularly distinguishable from last time’s World Changing Event.
And it’s exhausting. It becomes predictable, even above and beyond the usual assurance that the good guys win in the end (which I don’t really have a problem with: a little optimism in fiction is fine). But the rote hierarchy of the city-ending threat leading up to a world-ending threat leading up to the hyperomniversal threat manages to be strangely devoid of tension. We know the conflict won’t have any lasting effect on the status quo or the people in charge of it. We know that in the end, the dragon falls.
Writers, such as those forced into ill-advised comic book events, will often focus on a small part of the cosmic proceedings and make the particular story they tell more personal and character-driven. Which ultimately just reinforces how little impact and significance the death of the universe even holds. That’s not the interesting part. It never was. Maybe it was never about the dragon at all.
To paraphrase a friend, perhaps this helps explain the proliferation of coffee-shop fanfics: there are only so many ways you can blow up the universe, but you can have endless coffees with different combinations of your friends.
So the real final boss? It was the friends we made along the way.