May the Fear Be With You

Your average gamer doesn’t break a sweat upon seeing a Balrog in Moria; we’ve been slaying giants for so long that it might as well be a rabid bunny. There’s no sense of fear—not from appearance alone. Titles don’t convey power either; Dragon Quest VI features Mortamor, the King of Demons, but who shudders at his name without personally battling him? No one. Your average gamer hears “King of Demons” and says “Oh, please.” DQVI and Dragon Quest IX themselves make sure that he’s no big deal by introducing a bigger and badder dude who mocks the poor sap. Direct quote from DQIX describing one of the bonus bosses:

“Brutal bad-dream demon from another dimension. So strong that he makes Mortamor seem more like Snoretamore!”

Hey Dialga, can you work on your time control? You keep getting hit by the other trainer's attacks and it sure seems like Rayquaza and Lugia and Mewtwo and Mew and Latias and all kinds of other legendaries are faster than you. I'm almost starting to think the time control thing is the real legend here. Palkia can control space, but can it see why kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Also, does this mean that it can shrink itself so that the living space inside a Poké Ball becomes gigantic relative to the Pokémon? That was a problem for the Genie in Aladdin, you know! You have to think about these kinds of things.
Dialga and Palkia may be capable of destroying the world, but breaking out of a tiny ball is a tough order.

After killing Death a dozen times in Castlevania and enslaving creatures who control time and space in Pokémon, we’re all Gimli from DM of the Rings. We see an elder dragon the size of a whale and our first thought isn’t “AAAHHH!!!” It’s more like “you’re going down” or “huh, pretty cool-looking dragon” or “I’ve seen better.” Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

So after I came back as a megastar who saved the village from the ultimate threat like the superhero I am, the first reporter who interviewed me asked what was going through my mind when I first saw the Ceadeus. Was I marveling that his teeth were taller than me, she asked, or was I worried about drowning before I could slice him up, she asked, or was I terrified of being crushed by the water pressure, she asked. No no no! Not at all! I was thinking that with the lack of underwater lighting and the way my photographer suddenly swam off to a distance, I couldn't properly show off my adorable new sandals. The girl from the guild 'recommended' them just before I left--well, I mean, I happened to see her wearing the cutest shoes and had to buy a pair for myself. You know how it goes. Or maybe you don't. I'm always on the lookout for new clothing to accentuate myself because I am, of course, the best picture of beauty on this planet. My legs are to kill for. My shoulders? Sublime. My eyes are amazing and my form--just divine! My arms are toned and impressive; my hands are pure grace. My hair is finer than silk, the only touch worthy of my face. But even with the quintessence of cute right before him and even with his camera zoomed in all the way, my photographer wouldn't come close enough to get the right shots. It just ruined every photo op. This was the best picture we got, which is kind of sad, and--oh, what's that? The Ceadeus? Oh, him. He was a pushover for me. You should know by now! I'm unstoppable. Simply unstoppable. Now, let me tell you about the most perfectly photogenic, spectacularly stylish sword and shield I've ever seen...

A monster hunter takes a dive in her best swimsuit only to swim across the Ceadeus. Not pictured: shortly afterward, she shrugged and continued enjoying her tropical vacation.

A monster can be memorable simply for its size, but imposing fear on players requires substance. Just like movies, stories, and plays teach the audience what to expect as they go along—a comedy usually opens with humor and makes minimal use of dramatic moments; a drama does the opposite—the challenge in a game directs players’ expectations. A monster’s real fear factor is rooted in gameplay.

To be clear, Monster Hunter is a great example of doing justice to intimidating bosses, especially in single-player. It just has very little to do with their size and more to do with the following factors:

    Most monsters can obliterate adventurers in a few hits when they’re first encountered.
    Almost all monsters’ roars are paralyzingly loud, leaving players’ characters involuntarily covering their ears for a few seconds.
    Monster hunters freeze in the headlights for a moment when a creature first spots them.
    Flying monsters kick up so much dust and wind pressure that standing nearby when they lift off or touch down can blow a hunter off her feet.
    Some monsters are so enormous that they can deal damage without even intending to; the elder dragon Ceadeus up above can innocently swish its tail to swim, but anyone crazy enough to get in the tail’s path eats pain like he was hit by a bus.

Monster Hunter demonstrates the magnificence of its creatures with every little motion. Not every game needs to get that complicated, though.

Mortamor and Dragon Quest may be old, but they can still teach you younguns a thing or two.

I riffed on the guy’s name and title, but DQVI‘s Mortamor does strike fear into the player because of the history of everything preceding him. Most Dragon Quest bosses can kill a character in two hits or three hits tops and the only resurrection spells either come late or have a dodgy success rate. Resurrection items are likewise extremely rare, making battles into legitimate struggles for survival. Although DQ tends to be balanced so that the player will win the war much more often than not, bosses can still change the course of the battle on any turn depending on which heroes they target, forcing players to react and adapt on a turn-to-turn basis. Dragon Quest bosses don’t present themselves as extreme threats visually, but their damage numbers tell another tale.

Breaking down the etymology here, Neo Exdeath is the new incarnation of ex-death. To be ex-dead is to be resurrected, which means that this boss' name can be parsed out to New Resurrection. Sounds less threatening when you put it that way, though! Maybe they could have named him ReNeo Unexdeath?
Seen it before, seen it before…

Final Fantasy demonstrates the opposite effect. Even in his unassuming first form, Mortamor is much scarier than ol’ Neo Exdeath here because most non-optional FF bosses take their salty time poking at the heroes’ HP and, even if they didn’t, resurrection spells are plentiful and cheap. Lots of RPG players have had good laughs about killing Safer Sephiroth in one hit with Omnislash or Knights of the Round or killing Kefka in one hit with Atma Weapon, Illumina, a Genji Glove, and an Offering equipped, but from another perspective the one-hit kill is only speeding up a natural progression. Zeromus in Final Fantasy IV doesn’t go down in one hit, but I never lost to him even when I was seven years old, had never played an RPG before, went through the story intro three times before figuring out that the Save option only worked on the overworld, and didn’t know how to equip new weapons and armor until I was about five towns into the game. By the time I got to him, I had a stockpile of Elixirs and would have won a war of attrition even if my attacks’ damage was cut by six sevenths. Final Fantasy monsters leave little to worry about; they’re more ceremonial than challenging.

Scylla is freaky for sure, but ultimately one of the LESS intimidating bosses of the Etrian Odyssey series.
Scylla, the fusion of an octopus, two crabs, an anemone, the spiteful spirit of a drowned lady, and two drills.

The three Etrian Odyssey games out right now make up my favorite modern example of restoring the fear of monsters; they’re my main reason for writing this post. Etrian Odyssey IV makes the jump to 3D models, but until now Atlus has used sprites, allowing dedicated people to rip the artwork and allowing me to show them off.

Some RPG fans would be shocked by the experience of these games; if you’re used to robots and humans taking the same damage from enemies, it can be stunning when an Etrian Odyssey boss deals eight or nine times more damage to fragile character classes than to tanks. EO bosses revel in extremes and can one-shot the unprepared; there are always ample ways to survive, but this is the last series where players should try to power through everything. Stat buffs and special setups are all the rage because they’re necessities—and every victory feels so much sweeter when beating a boss feels like knocking down a mountain with a toy hammer.

Etrian Odyssey also has the strongest synergy between gameplay and graphics. My favorite examples are a post-final boss, another post-final boss, and something I don’t remember seeing; the best thing EO does with its boss designs is to reserve Eldritch Abominations for the endgame. Scylla up above is pretty tame by EO standards of freak show monster design, but by the finale there’s no joking around.

Etrian Odyssey‘s warped mutants bring back the meaning of the word “monster.” They look like they will kill you—and then they do kill you. This is the proper embodiment of fear for even the most cynical of gamer audiences.

2 thoughts on “May the Fear Be With You

  1. Pingback: Ten Breeds of Memorable and Immortal 2D Sprites (part 2) | Game Design and Deconstruction

  2. Pingback: Dreamblazers Update: Week of August 17, 2015 | Project Dreamblazers

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