WHY I LOVE... MEANINGFUL MONSTERS
How videogames use effective monster design as a way of externalising a character’s inner turmoil
Videogames are crawling with terrifying, spooky and wonderful monsters. Hordes of ghastly flesheating zombies, otherworldly fantastical fire-breathing dragons and ancient beasts with daggers for teeth are all the rage for players to have a good brawl with. But what makes a memorable videogame monster? Is it the challenge, the adrenaline of fighting one, or the satisfaction that comes when delivering that killing blow? Or, how about the monsters that cause your stomach to tighten, your hair stand on end, and the ones that make you feel the most vulnerable?
They are creatures that do not fit into what we understand as a stereotypical monster, like vampires, werewolves and zombies. These beasties, demons and ghoulies hit a nerve that no amount of blood, gore and violence could ever touch upon because they come from within. There’s something particularly disturbing about facing off against a foe that is an extension of the main character, be it their psyche, personal struggles or dark past.
Trying to understand the meaning behind the contorted fleshy beings or deciphering the logic behind these terrifying demons, horrifying as they are, is really interesting. They capture something that would take pages of written dialogue to communicate, and are a great opportunity for developers to convey a game’s troubled characters. The dread that these monsters conjure is grounded in human emotion and represent an unsettling look inward, unveiling a character’s subconscious fears.
This is the driving force behind many horror monsters, and a series that uses it masterfully is Silent Hill. The titular fog-covered town is a breeding ground for gruesome creatures that have materialised from each protagonist’s mind. With every grim encounter, you start to reveal the origin of each creature and begin to burrow deeper into each character’s hidden fear and trauma.
Trying to decipher these creatures is like a psychological puzzle, and the most well-known enemy of the series, Pyramid Head, has inspired discussion years after Silent Hill 2’ s initial release. This mass of meat and metal is a bringer of punishment for James Sunderland to confront, and is a projection of how the weight of his guilt still sits on his shoulders. Grotesque monsters can also be found in TheEvilWithin’s nightmarescape of distorted memories that its characters would rather forget. In puzzle game Catherine, Vincent is plagued by giant undead brides and babies, exposing his despair about commitment, parenthood and infidelity. Many games that use this storytelling technique have created complex psychological portraits of their characters. In Fade ToSilence, an apparition scoffs at your attempt at survival in the winter apocalypse. It berates you and suggests that you give up in a cruel and mocking tone. This monster is unsettling in that it’s the one constant voice you hear in a lonely world of frosty silence.
Other games have repurposed the meaning found in monsters and have used it to inform players on understanding human psychology. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice uses Norse mythology to help frame its monsters, and developers Ninja Theory worked alongside a team of mental health specialists to help convey Senua’s experiences of psychosis. The demons and projected illusions that Senua must battle are more than just imitations of Norse gods, they interweave mythology and metaphor to create a portrait of a young Celtic warrior’s struggle with mental health.
Sea Of Solitude explores a new approach to monsters in that protagonist Kay’s blood-red eyes and black fur are traits that she shares with the giants she faces. And the connection runs deeper than a shared appearance, these monsters are not only projections from Kay’s mind about her isolation and loneliness, but also beings who have their own stories of solitude. She is a part of them just as they are a piece of her.
What makes these monsters memorable is that they evoke a feeling of reflection instead of just scaring us. Their terror lies in the realisation that beneath their surface is a human core built from emotions like greed, guilt, anguish and loss. They encompass an aspect of ourselves that we can’t deny or escape, and our fear comes from the understanding that something so monstrous could come from a place of humanity. n
“Beneath their surface is a human core built from emotions like greed, guilt, anguish and loss”
RIGHT Monsters that have a more human theme to their design are much more unsettling.
ABOVE Kay’s resemblance to the monsters in Sea Of Solitude alludes to a deeper meaning.