I’ve made no secret of my immense love for monsters in general, having dedicated the tail end of October to featuring some of my favorites. Yesterday I featured the doppelganger from Dungeons & Dragons, and he ties into what I want to write about here.
A more accurate title might be “Why can’t we play as monsters in games?”. Sometimes you’re given the optional of playing as some kind of non-human cartoon character — like Yoshi, or Spyro, or Kirby — but typically these are cutesy. The rest of the time you’re just playing as a human. It’s exceedingly rare to play as or have control of a truly inhuman, monstrous character. I think that’s really unfortunate.
I’ve always gravitated toward the least-human characters present when playing a game, regardless of genre (this is why I fell in love with Demon’s Crest so quickly). In Turok or Perfect Dark multiplayer, I’d always pick the monsters, aliens, or at least armored, robotic-looking guys; in Halo 2 multiplayer, I never touched the Spartan character model. In fighting games I always go for the most feral characters, whether they’re literally creatures or just wild humans. Then there are the RPGs where they let you tame the monster enemies or at least copy their abilities, or the RTS games where sometimes at least one of the playable factions is a race of monsters (I’m a Zerg player and proud of it!). But, as odd as it seems to me (because I frankly don’t find them cool at all), lots of people prefer the more normal choices.
I can certainly understand why it would be the case, because not everyone is into monsters like I am. Humans are still the most identifiable characters you can have, and since a game is usually about getting wrapped up in the role of the character you play, it makes sense to favor them. Not to mention that people don’t like monsters much overall except as enemies. Even the horror movie crowd arguably would mostly associate monsters as being the enemy, and wouldn’t think it preferable to play as one. Even in real life, beasts are wild and are rarely friends to humans unless domesticated… and no one thinks of the wildest, most dangerous beasts as pet material.
So I can certainly understand why things are the way they are. That said, I think some adjustments could be made overall to allow for a little more variety and some appeal for my people.
Monsters might not be as identifiable, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make for interesting protagonists… or at least playable allies. And I mean it can be interesting in every way. Gameplay. Aesthetics. Story, even.
Within the gameplay, having a bestial playable character allows for many gameplay opportunities you wouldn’t have normally. First, depending on the beast, you could end up with a host of quick, feral, and brutal moves. A gameplay style that emphasizes speed, efficiency, and brutality. This is something that would suit me nicely, as I almost always play hard and aggressively. Even aside from speed, there’s a lot of options, and a well-designed game where you play as lumbering hulk could be fascinating. Throw in other powers and gameplay opportunities ranging from action, to puzzle-solving, to stealth, and you have things you can do with creatures that you can’t do with humans unless you extend that and give them super powers or technology.
It can also be interesting in terms of the visuals and theme, because aesthetically it’s going to be a lot different to see a monster carving up the enemies than a human. It helps give you a sense of how cool and badass your own player character is, which I find crucial in certain genres. It also can make for some interesting themes, having beasts fighting beasts, or a beast preying on humans (good or bad).
Which ties into the story angle, because having a plot focusing on a creature or creatures could make for something really interesting. Either a detailed or minimalist plot following a war among beasts could be great, regardless of whether they’re just animals (which would bring Gon to mind), or intelligent. Perhaps your beast could just be fighting for survival or dominance, or perhaps he’s a benevolent creature with a fearsome appearance who’s fighting his evil brethren or just evil humans. Still more, playing as the villainous monster would be awesome for a change; a game with the mindless fun of taking down the goodguys. Obviously these don’t and shouldn’t make up the majority of video game premises, but they’re still interesting ones that would be fun to tackle in the interactive entertainment medium, especially since they’re things that are so far from reality.
The absence of these concepts especially frustrates me in pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, or any game, electronic or otherwise, where player freedom and experimentation are the main ideas. The aforementioned doppelganger is an excellent example. I understand you can play as a doppelganger at a high level, but I guess it still seems to me like it and other monster options are shoved off to the side because of how overpowered they always are; none ever seem to fit within the default player balancing.
Thankfully, we do see playable monsters sometimes. Final Fantasy often lets you summon powerful beasts or copy enemy abilities, and a lot of tactical RPGs let you capture the wildlife and use them against the enemy (not to mention games where this is much more the point, like Pokemon or Kingdom Hearts 3D, although these begin to fall into the cutesy problem I mentioned earlier; not bad but not exactly what I’m writing an appeal for). Games exist where you can play as zombies, vampiric beasts, and play a brutal game of survival of the fittest. Dead Space, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, and Gargoyle’s Quest are all games that offer these kind of options to you, and there are others.
I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s underrepresented overall, but perhaps with common multiplayer experiences like those in Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War, and even Resident Evil 6 — where you can play as the enemies — it is improving. And there are usually the obscure options in RPGs, RTS games, and fighting games for playing as creatures. So the the options are there if you look for them.
Maybe that’s where I should stop complaining. The options exist and I’ve always had them, even if they only come along every so often. But as a lover of monsters, it doesn’t seem like it will ever be quite enough, even if that’s not entirely rational and definitely completely personal.
Do you like to play as creatures like I do? Do you have any favorite examples or games to recommend? I’d love to hear about them!