For years, videogame developers have enjoyed incorporating all sorts of fearsome beasts into their products. The elaborately badass attack sequences are easy examples. Watching Bahamut, king of the dragons, unload a volley of fiery energy from its fanged maw onto a hapless field of enemies – well, it’s just satisfying to behold. Maybe it’s the fireworks show of decimation that leaves us wide-eyed, or maybe it’s the schadenfreude we feel seeing such a behemoth liquefy a bunch of level 3 imps. But it’s just not game designers who get a kick out of breathing life into scaly killing machines. For millennia, artists have been inspired to use mythological beasts in their work. It is subject matter that has endured because of the emotions it evokes in the creator, as well as the audience: Awe. Fear. Fascination that such a horrifying, multi-headed wyvern could exist, if only in our imaginations. Videogames make these experiences more active. In a videogame, you interact with these gnarly monsters you’d otherwise just be observing. In a videogame, the monsters are under your control.
Humans dig anything that’s big or breathes fire, and games simply continue the phenomenon. Developers and players get a thrill encountering virtual versions of these legendary powerhouses – and get a bigger thrill from having them do the player’s bidding. Maybe it’s being able to summon a beast to your aid in battle, play as the beast itself, or being strong enough to vanquish the beast completely, but gamers are allowed to subjugate the powerful creatures that have been depicted in the visual arts for centuries. Mesoamerican creator-god Quetzalcoatl, the sweet-voiced, soldier-neutralizing Sirens and Norse lore’s moon-devouring wolf, Fenrir, are all Nara’s Todaiji temple, and the Trevi Fountain in Rome includes a façade of mermen wrestling hippocampi (horse and sea serpent hybrids) into submission. And the great artists themselves? Many decorated their homes with such iconography, as Francisco Goya did when he painted a gruesome image of the god Saturn eating his own kid. Goya hung it in his dining room.
Diane Reilly is an Associate Professor at Indiana University’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, teaching in the Department of History of Art. She told me that, based on artistic trends, it’s understandable that gamers would want to subdue these creatures.
“Certainly, most of us feel an instinctive need to cow that huge, foaming-mouthed, snake-like beast attacking from the 42-inch screen,” Reilly says. “Viking artists who carved writhing beasts all around the doors of their stave churches both feared the animals they represented, and respected their powers.”
Whether it was in ancient Greek buildings, Beijing’s Forbidden City, Japanese temples or Italian piazzas, humans have shown an ownership over mythical beasts by incorporating them into different forms of visual art. Cerberus and Sequoia-sized warrior-gods in royal palaces could certainly suggest a head of state’s political strength, or hint at wealth in a rich citizen’s lavishly decorated, high-culture home. Something like a painting contains or “traps” the creature, and displaying the artwork can certainly reflect the influence, status or taste of the owner or artist. It’s like keeping a canary in a cage, only the cage is a piece of art, and the canary, a Cyclops.
Videogames combine these feelings of intrigue and prestige, as well as a desire to manipulate and control, with interactivity. The idea of hunting or training seemingly incorrigible goliaths, for example, is explored in such games as this year’s Monster Hunter Tri. While the presentation is a lot more cutesy, it’s also a theme in Pokémon, which has become the second best-selling game franchise of all time. The God of War series, which features many mythological gods, is similar to Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, whose salons are named after Roman gods or goddesses. Both, in their own ways, honor the pantheon and its power. And Bishamonten, the Buddhist deity I mentioned earlier? He’s a playable character in Capcom’s fighter Darkstalkers, as well as a boss in the RPG Shin Megami Tensei. Whether you’re training, defeating or even inhabiting these titans, you’re displaying a level of dominance over them, and it’s why they’re so often used in videogames. It’s an interaction that the rulers of yesteryear, who may have displayed statues of lions or dragons in their courtyards, might find very appealing if they were around today.
Professor Reilly says that, generally speaking, many games can stand up to the more traditional forms of art that depict these figures, at least in terms of artistic and historical accuracy.
“I’ve been amazed at how realistic the visuals are,” she says. “I’ve also had students tell me about spotting actual monuments from my classes, which have been incorporated in historically-based games, such as cathedrals that are in the course of being destroyed during a simulated invasion, or altarpieces that appear in some hiding place in a crumbling city. In other words, the designers of these games strike me as quite artistically literate.”
But Reilly also offers a caveat. While gamers may share our ancestors’ desire to admire or control legendary creatures, a sense of appreciation can be missing. The gamer might not have the same knowledge of the creatures as the artists in the past did, and might overlook certain nuances as a result.
“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.