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How to make a monster? from a game design perspective

Sylvain Payen

After only 10 years of existence, in the early 80's, as from a reflux of the wave of horror cinema, the worlds of video games were invaded by all kinds of monsters in a perennial way (Therrien, 2009). But beyond a simple convergence of targeted audiences (Grant 2010) between fantasy readers and game players - first of all with role-playing gamers (Tresca, 2011) - it is important to understand the significance of monstrosity in the game and through the specificities of the medium. Rich from the knowledge of dramaturgy, game designers have successfully borrowed codes to create monsters established in other medium with increasingly terrifying appearances following the technological evolution of game support (Perron, 2016). Firstly, we will present a quick retrospective of the monster figure in the video game and will explore - as a representative example - the evolution of monsters in the survival horror series Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996-2017).
But the fundamental question for a game designer is not so much about the visual representation of a virtual object but rather its mental representation resulting of the behavior that produced by the player. Why a horrible zombie from Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996-2017) is less terrifying for the player than a cute creeper from Minecraft (Mojang 2011)?

Secondly, through an explanation of the cognitive process of fear and the behavioral implication of this phenomenon (Lang & al., 2000 ; Öhman, 2010) we will present how the experiential component is fundamental to the monster creation in the game. Summarily, the visual representation of the monster is secondary compared to its behavior (Courtney & al., 2010) and its gameplay implication within the gaming system, in terms of real investment for the experimenter (Lerner & Keltner, 2001) in our case: the player. The player will feel fear for a dangerous and risky conflict situation in terms of time and emotional investment, and sunk cost into the game but for himself and not the avatar (Payen, 2016). The design strategy in a game such as Amnesia: the Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) or Five Nights at Freddy's series (Scott Cawthon, 2014-2016), results from this idea of creating fear through powerlessness in front of the danger (Grip, 2011). Beyond the fact that the most terrifying monster is often the one which haunts our imagination (Carroll, 1990), the idea here is to create a monster in the player mind through the feeling that it evokes, consequence of the iterative and punitive failures. The monster is no longer monstrous by essence, but as a result of experience, a phenomenological consequence of the fear of failure and its punishment (Juul, 2009).
Thus, although the monster creation from a game design perspective is mainly driven by the creation of a system that puts the player in a powerlessness conflict situation, we will conclude by opening the discussion about the definition and conceptualization of the term monster and about the potential discontinuity of the definition across the domains of creation. Is the monster a "finality failure" (Aristote, 1907) : an individual not in accordance with the normative standard of society, or the entity source of a potential or suspected danger?


Aristote (1907), Physique II, trad Octave Hamelin, Felix Alcan : Paris
Carroll, N (1990).The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, Routledge, New York, p. 129-144
Courtney, C. G., Dawson, M. E., Schell, A. M., Iyer, A., & Parsons, T. D. (2010). Better than the real thing: Eliciting fear with moving and static computer-generated stimuli. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 78(2), 107-114.
Grant, B. K. (2010). Screams on Screens: Paradigms of Horror. Loading..., 4(6).
Grip, T,. (2011), The terrifying Tale of Amnesia, Post mortem, The Escapist,


Payen, S., “How to make a monster? from a game design perspective”, ICFA, Orlando, Mar, 2018

Publication Type

Conference Papers and Talks