Scary Monsters, and How To Create Them

Godzilla is not only a major influence for the author, but also one of the most iconic monsters in history.

My love for monster films started when I was a child. It began for the most obvious of reasons – as an eight year old, I thought it was totally awesome to see Godzilla swing and stomp his way across Tokyo, demolishing everything in his path. But my love for the genre grew when I began to see how monster movies could tap into some of the deepest fears many of us share. To this day, one of my favorite films is Jaws, a monster movie in which the monster is nothing more than a shark and the violence and gore are toned down (by today’s standards). Yet it’s such an effective film because it forces us to accept that, in the deep ocean water, we don’t know what’s lurking out there, and when we do meet the creatures of the deep, they’re often more dangerous than us. We’re not at the top of the food chain anymore, we’re at the bottom, looking up.

This says nothing of the cautionary tale that Jaws delivers – the deaths of beachgoers and the panic that grips the small town of Amity Island were all preventable, if they had heeded to reason and stayed out of the water. But greed won over reason, and pushed the entire town onto the verge of economic and psychological collapse.

That is the power monsters have over a narrative, and it’s no different in video games. Even though they are often reduced to mindless fodder for the player to shoot through, the same rules that apply to movie monster design also apply here, and the results can be memorable or disastrous, depending on whether or not the developers understand what makes a great monster in the first place.

The Six Rules

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Despite being a typical shark, the monster of Jaws is one of the most effective in modern cinema, because it follows a list of key rules and guidelines.

Monsters have long been a part of human communication – we’ve used them throughout our history, in stories and in religious texts, to confer danger, warnings, and generally to thrill and excite the listener. Throughout this time the standard for the look and function of monsters has changed, but with the advent of film, the contemporary monster design has been clearly defined. As such, the below rules and examples have a contemporary angle in mind, although as we’ll see, developers can still draw on monster design from the Lovecraftian era while still adhering to contemporary rules.

There are a number of sources across the internet explaining what goes into the creation of making an effective monster. Philip Athans, on his blog Fantasy Author’s Handbook wrote a post titled “What Makes a Monster Scary?” in which he lays the groundwork for how to design a monster, offering solid advice for authors and filmmakers alike. Same for an interview with Neville Page, a special effects designer who has worked alongside J.J. Abrams for some of his most ambitious projects, who takes the role of creating monsters very serious. These, along with many other sources, help us define a list of six rules of good monster design. These rules are by no means definitive, and of course exceptions can always be made, but these are solid guidelines that most contemporary monsters should follow:

  1. The appearance of the monster must be relatable. Good monsters will feature human-like qualities, or exhibit a natural look, meaning they mimic the look, size or movement of an animal.
  2. Their form or function plays on a common fear people hold, specifically a phobia. Tapping into phobias is a great way to connect to an audience, as phobias often tend to elicit a strong emotional response, and a monster embodying that fear will, in turn, elicit a strong reaction.
  3. They reveal their true form or functions slowly. Some of the most enduring monsters are werewolves and vampires, who at first appear to be normal humans, but eventually unveil their true selves. Done at the start, it can overwhelm the viewer and lose its impact.
  4. Monsters should have unknown or difficult to determine motives, if any at all. Giving a monster a backstory and motive can humanize them, something that should generally be avoided, and by removing motivation, the viewer can fill in the gaps with their imagination, projecting their own fears onto the character. Take, for example, two portrayals of slasher Michael Myers, from the original film Halloween and the 2007 remake. In the original, his motives are unclear – he is merely a menacing figure emerging from the dark, killing indiscriminately (his motives and history are explored in later sequels). This creates a tremendous amount of fear, since humans try to make sense of anything they see or experience, and senseless murder by definition defies that expectation. But in the 2007 remake, the character of Michael Myers is shown as a child, and his mental instability is explained in great detail. He becomes a tragic figure early on, and while that makes him more relatable, it also means that by the time he begins stalking and killing people, the tension created by the unknown has evaporated, the monster losing all of his bite.
  5. Monsters should have an appropriate scale, meaning that they should closely resemble in size the thing they are mimicking. This is why you never see twenty-feet tall zombies, and why werepups are a horrific idea.
  6. The look and tone of the monster should match the look and tone of the story it’s in. If a monster is meant to revolt and disgust, it should appear in a horror film. If a story is far more light-hearted and even comedic, the monster should reflect this.

There are, of course, variations to these rules, but these are the basic elements most would agree upon, and there are plenty of examples of video game monsters that adhere to these rules.

The Horror of the Plaga, the Threat of the Colossi

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The monster design in Resident Evil 4 provides some of the greatest examples in contemporary gaming.

Trying to select two games to highlight for their creative monster design proved to be a far more difficult task than I imagined. I went to the obvious titles first – the monsters in The Witcher series are incredibly varied and detailed, and the Husks from Mass Effect fit most of the rules outlined above. But there are two games that stand out when it comes to monster design – Resident Evil 4 and Shadow of the Colossus.

When it released in 2005, Resident Evil 4 became the new standard for survival horror. From the intense action, to quick-time events that surprised gamers and felt like natural elements of the gameplay, this was the shot in the arm the franchise and genre needed. Years later, the game stands out because of its expert use of monster design. The game slowly rolls out its monstrosities, starting off with humans who appear normal on the surface, but are infected with a parasite called Plaga, which turns them into mindless murdering machines. This decision by developer Capcom allows them to slowly introduce the concept of the Plaga, which can cause horrific mutations, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or remove surprises for later in the game. It also makes the villains relatable – at the start, they look like people, seemingly living a normal life, but they hide a disturbing secret.

Of course, the monsters become more outlandish as the game progresses, but they stick closely to the above rules, creating memorable moments like the boss fight with the creature named Del Lago, a giant, mutated alligator residing in a lake.

As a monster, Del Lago works for two reasons – it closely resembles the natural world, but with clear deformities, and it fits within the tone of the game. The function of the Plaga parasite (to mutate lifeforms) has clearly been established, and the scene, in which the player character fends off the creature with a harpoon in a tiny (and easily overturned) boat, taps into some of the same fears Jaws did decades earlier. It fits the horror theme perfectly, as does the most notable monster from the title, the Chainsaw Man, a large man with a sack over his head that runs screaming at the player. A clear nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and another effective use of monster design – he is clearly human, but his face is obscured, leading the audience to instinctively distrust him before he even revs up his chainsaw.

That said, great monsters don’t necessarily need to be vile and grotesque.Take the design of the enemies in Shadow of the Colossus; the player is tasked with defeating strange beings known as the Colossi, and with no other traditional enemies to fight, all of the focus of the title is placed on these creatures. Their appearance is jarring – almost all of them are giants, lumbering toward the player, eyes glowing a light shade of blue. They appear to be made of stone, and are covered in a dark fur. To defeat them, the player must climb onto the creature, find a weak point, and plunge their sword into it, which results in a thick, black oily substance shooting out of the creature.

The Colossi are strange creatures, but in a stroke of brilliance, developer Team Ico designed them to closely resemble animals from the natural world. The second Colossus, Quadratus, resembles a bull, and other Colossi resemble horses, birds, eels and lizards.

This means that despite their odd appearance, they are still relatable on some level, since they reflect creatures commonly seen in the natural world. There are Colossi that are humanoid in appearance, and although this breaks the rule of monsters adhering to a consistent scale, the effect is downplayed because the Colossi are unknown entities with no clear motivations. That they don’t exhibit any traits commonly associated with humans helps this cause, and the idea that the Colossi are meant to make the player character feel small is a stronger point to make in this instance (and when most of the rules are expertly implemented, it leaves room for the designer to break a rule or two if necessary). Complicating matters is that the player is guided by a disembodied voice named Dormin, who only has one known motivation – destroying the Colossi. The player is left to wonder if what they’re doing is right or wrong, whether or not Dormin is in fact the real monster of the story. The ending confirms this suspicion, putting an additional twist on the monsters of the game.

It would have been very easy to go overboard with the design of the Colossi, to make them overly grotesque or ridiculous in appearance. By keeping their image grounded in a natural design, the Colossi can still be effective monsters, even if they’re made of stone and bleed black oil.

Mouth Tentacles and Hand Worms – When Monster Design Goes Wrong

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The monster design in Bayonetta is tonally inconsistent with the contemporary design of the game.

I didn’t initially set out to explain how to create a good monster, but instead try to figure out what went so wrong with the monster design in Bayonetta.

First, we need to take a step back – the below examples of monster design are ones that draw heavily off of Lovecraftian and Greek Mythology themes. That in itself isn’t an issue, but the issue is that the games designed around them are contemporary in aesthetic and tone. A title can feature monsters inspired by Lovecraft and still adhere to the six rules – Bloodborne, for all it’s faults, is a visually stunning game, and the monster design plays a big factor in that. With one exception, the God of War franchise features monsters taken directly from Greek Mythology, but are presented in a way that meshes with the contemporary design of the rest of the characters. Problems arise when developers and designers take their inspiration too far, and strip all contemporary elements out of their monster design, while keeping the rest of the game modern in both look and design.

That caveat aside, let’s look at two examples of monsters that push the envelope too far, and weaken what would otherwise be a strong game. Bayonetta gets a lot of flack, and most of it is underserved. Yes, the concept that Bayonetta’s suit is made out of her hair, and that she uses said hair in special attacks, thereby leaving her naked, is absurd. But the game is never shy about its use of sex appeal, and if that can be overlooked, players will find a game that plays remarkably well, doing nearly as good a job as DOOM did with combining the old and the new into something exciting. But all of this is undone and overshadowed by some truly awful monster design.

The moment that I realized developer PlatinumGames took their monster design too far was the boss battle with an entity named Iustitia.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and most of it is not good. The design of Iustitia relies so heavily on Lovecraftian themes that it forgets it’s in a contemporary title, and defies the most basic rule of monster design – that the monster resemble a human or natural form, so the audience can relate to it. I understand that Iustitia has a human face, but it has multiple human faces, all of which remain expressionless and motionless, except when they open to reveal tentacles that have smaller motionless faces at the end of them. It’s main form of attack is two spike-covered balls (seriously) that it slams on the ground, and the way the player defeats this giant flying orb of mouth tentacles is to punch it in the face, thereby exposing a tender part of the tentacle, and then sever it from the main body. After doing this the prerequisite three times, the boss is defeated by Bayonetta, who engages in a sexually-charged dance that allows her hair to form into a giant monster itself (which has a contemporary design), and crushes Iustitia until it is a floating, pulsating sphere of blood and broken bones, with one lone face remaining to talk to Bayonetta. Not only is this monster unrelatable, but the tone is off the mark – it’s difficult to go from sultry Bayonetta dance moves to throbbing bloody tentacle orb.

At this point, the motives of Iustitia, or whether its design taps into some phobia, no longer matter, because the player has been overwhelmed with too much too fast. It’s a disgusting battle against a disgusting monster in a game that relies heavily on sex appeal. In a way, the monster is effective, but not in the way PlatinumGames hoped – instead of solidifying itself as an amazing third-person brawler, the Bayonetta franchise seems to have come to an end, with a sequel appearing on the Wii U that featured more of the same, and lackluster sales. Part of that can be attributed to the lack of interest in the Wii U, but Bayonetta 2 came out when the Wii U still had some momentum going for it, and even then the title failed to resonate.

Which is a similar case to the critically panned final entry (for now) in the God of War series, God of War: Ascension. The fact that a God of War game is appearing in an article on how not to design monsters surprises me – I’ve played every single God of War title (even the handheld entries), and one of the many things they all have in common is great monster design. But then I got my hands on Ascension, and after experiencing the opening boss fight, I understood why the game failed to reach a wide audience.

As is customary with God of War games, Ascension opens up with a boss battle, which is often used to set the tone for the game and teach players the basic controls. In previous entries these boss battles were some of the most memorable moments of the franchise – the Hydra in the original God of War is an incredibly fun boss fight that lets the player know that protagonist Kratos is no average Spartan soldier. But in Ascension, the opening boss fight does too much too fast, overwhelming the player’s senses, and leaving little for the rest of the game to build off of.

The game begins with Kratos being captured by the Furies, who hunt and torture any who make an oath with a god and betray that oath. Kratos is sought after because the Furies believe he has betrayed Ares, and so they bring him to a place called the Prison of the Damned. But this isn’t just any old prison for the damned – the prison is made out of the remains of the Furies’ first victim, a giant named Aegaeon. Kratos initially escapes from the Furies, only for them to unleash insects from their skin. These insects burrow into what appears to be a dead part of Aegaeon, but instead a giant worm monster emerges from the deceased giant.

Immediately, the design of this monster does more to disgust the player than to motivate them to defeat it – it emerges from a hand with six fingers, and the imagery as it bursts out of that hand would make Georgia O’Keefe blush. Yes, the design of Aegaeon sticks closely to the source material, but it does so while also being violent and revolting, forcing the player to face nightmarish horrors before the tutorial has even begun. From there, the battle moves around the Prison of the Damned, and the scale is so large that at multiple points, the player loses sight of Kratos, a tiny blip at the bottom of a screen being dominated by this unrelatable beast.

Large scale boss fights are nothing new to God of War, but in previous entries these fights were saved for the late game, and were built up and framed as pivotal encounters. By the time Kratos finally gets to take on Cronos in God of War III, the tensions between Kratos and the Titans is at an all-time high, and despite the battle taking place on a grand scale, the player never loses focus of Kratos during the action.

None of that is present in the battle with Aegaeon. There is no history between Kratos and Aegaeon (remember, Ascension takes place before Kratos wages his war against the gods) or the Furies. Again, the player loses focus of Kratos at multiple points, simply because the action is too big. And that action occurring so close to the opening of the game also means the rest of the title suffers from pacing issues – after defeating such a large, menacing enemy, the player is then expected to feel a sense of dread and tension when encountering much smaller and weaker enemies. To top it off, the setting of the battle, the deceased body of Aegaeon, shares some unfortunate characteristics with Iustitia from Bayonetta. Instead of tentacles, Aegaeon has arms, lots of arms. According to the God of War Wiki, “The outline of Aegaeon in flashbacks depicts him as a giant with six arms with twelve smaller arms on his six arms.” Yes, the is in keeping with the design of the character from Greek Mythology, but it also means that the prison shoots out in a number of different directions, and the player can never get a sense of place or a true sense of the scope of the battle. And, of course, the rigid, frozen head of Aegaeon has a large structure coming out of its mouth, obscuring what little human elements there are to the creature. Eventually, that structure is removed and the head comes alive, only to feature a series of claws surrounding a mouth filled with rows of teeth.

Coincidentally, this is the only God of War game I have not completed.

Running Scared

It’s important when designing monsters to create ones that not only scare us, but compel us to defeat them. Titles such as Resident Evil 4 and Shadow of the Colossus do just that, by adhering to a set of rules that have worked for decades. It’s not hard to see why these two titles in particular are memorable, even though both have plenty of weaknesses in other areas. Their use of monster design carries them past those weaknesses into must-play territory.

Then there are games like Bayonetta and God of War: Ascension, which could have been just as memorable, but instead drop the ball at the most crucial moment. The monster design betrays the most basic rules, and in turn removes the player from the moment, disconnecting them from games that feature great gameplay and intriguing stories. Monsters should strike fear in us, they should make us recoil in horror, but above all monsters must be respected.