"Assuming that the designers have the same agenda as the gamers when they incorporate these mythic beasts, it's still probably different from the agenda that drove the original creators of the art objects they mimic," she clarifies. "For instance, my students are very excited when they recognize these historical objects in a game. It confirms their membership in an unusual intellectual community." But she adds that a gamer who isn't as privy "may or may not know what he or she is battling, and whether they do [know] will impact how they feel about it."
It's one thing to think that a monster looks cool or is fun to control, but it's another to fully understand the character as an artistic symbol. Meowth, from Pokémon, is a mischievous-looking cat, with a large, gold coin on its forehead, and it attacks enemies by throwing these gold coins as projectile weapons. The coins are called koban, and they were thin, gold tokens used as money during feudal Japan's Edo period, which began about 400 years ago. There's also a well-known Japanese proverb, "neko ni koban" ("gold coins to a cat"), and it has the same meaning as "cast pearls before swine" in English - if you give something valuable to someone who is unappreciative, the gesture is a big waste. Japanese players, who'd likely recognize what the character represents, might get a bit of added satisfaction interacting with a manifestation of both a familiar adage and their country's history. Naturally, many people who aren't Japanese likely miss the allusion, making for a slightly different gaming experience.
Many references in videogames may go over some people's heads. But even if the player is unaware of the game's cultural or mythological minutiae, playing with monsters will still be exciting.
We also don't need to look far to find contemporary titles that play on this appeal. Last month, the latest edition in the popular Monster Rancher series debuted on the DS, and it involves creating, training, breeding and battling monsters. Team Ico's forthcoming action-adventure The Last Guardian, which was first teased at E3 2009, stars a young boy who works together with a humungous, but gentle, griffin-like creature. Reminiscent of The Iron Giant, the main character enters a relationship of control and cooperation with the animal by befriending it.
As with all art, the more you know about the symbolic monsters in games, the more you'll appreciate them. The next time you meet a majestic or formidable-looking monster in a game, monitor your emotional reaction. Does the creature present cultural or historical references that you recognize, and is that what attracts you? Maybe you associate traditional notions of strength with the beast, and the thought of conquering it inflates your ego? Or are you rapt with awe of its power, and immediately feel the need to tame and control the monster for your benefit? Beyond recognizing how these beasts inform your own emotional attachment to the game, the level 3 imps that your Bahamut just fried with its fiery breath would just like to know.
Bryan Lufkin is a freelance entertainment writer who cites the Final Fantasy series as a legitimate primer to world mythology. Get gaming news and reviews from his blog.