Happy Halloween! Let’s talk about monsters, or, more accurately, the construction of monstrosity and its connection with marginalization. And boy is there a lot of that!
The idea of being monstrous typically has a negative connotation. What are examples of games where the opposite is true? What value does a positive representation of “monstrosity” have?
Zainabb Hull: I just finished playing Undertale for the first time and its depiction of “monsters” provides a good example of monstrosity as potentially good, actually. In Undertale, the monsters are presented as, essentially, a marginalized group of people, having been forced to flee and hide from violence and oppression inflicted on them by humans. The game challenges the player to question preconceived notions of monsters as evil by presenting your human protagonist with RPG-style battles but with the option of sparing the monsters who attack you. All of the monsters you meet have lives and personalities of their own, and many end up becoming friends with the protagonist. Monstrosity becomes a symbol of survival, endurance, and family, themes that players who are marginalized in real life can relate to. The game encourages empathy and compassion towards the monsters, and the player might extend these attitudes to marginalized communities and groups in actual society.
Melissa Brinks: I’ve spent some time thinking about this and I wholeheartedly agree with Zainabb. I’m hard-pressed to think of a game I’ve played where being a monster isn’t just a feature but rather a core part of the game’s narrative and themes. There are other games that include monsters and even do so empathetically, but I think Undertale‘s at times serious, at times playful engagement with humanity and monstrosity is one of the most compelling that comes to mind. This is especially true because it’s not about learning that monsters are really “just like us”—instead of simply normalizing them in our minds as fellow people, we have to engage with them as full and complex characters on their terms—that is, monstrous ones.
Sara Davis: I’ve been trying to think of good game monsters all month but I keep coming back to Elder Scrolls Online, which is decidedly not a game designed to explore monstrosity, morality, or marginalization in any meaningful way! It “opposes” a negative construction of monstrosity in that it is almost neutral: being a monster in the ESO universe is not a metaphor or an identity; it’s just an optional game mechanic with negligible consequences and rewards. Oddly, in its refusal to present an intentional or intelligible view of game monsters, I find myself spiraling into existential reflection far more than I have when playing games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
For example, you can be a moral monster; there’s an entire DLC dedicated to the shadowy assassins guild, the Dark Brotherhood, for whom you carry out hits on NPCs and occasionally just go on murder sprees. There are no consequences if you can evade detection or pay off guards for your crimes; none of your allies or political leaders in any domain seem to mind, and, in any case, your victims always come back. In the Gold Coast towns near the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary, respawned NPCs pace around or stare broodily down at their own murdered corpses while other murderous players creep up behind them.
In terms of being a literal monster, I’ve opted to play one character as a vampire, which allows me to turn invisible and therefore dodge the tedium of fighting off endlessly respawning mobs. Big plus, and there aren’t many consequences here either, except that some merchant NPCs cower or call me names when I try to trade with them. That’s disappointing and annoying. What’s destabilizing is that other vampires don’t seem to recognize me as one of their own—whether they want to kill me or ally with me, no one acknowledges that I might have some special insight into vampire life. Even Molag Bal—the father of all vampires, according to lore—doesn’t acknowledge the Oedipal vibes when I infiltrate his kingdom in the endgame. I keep texting my group chat with mournful missives about how little my choices matter in this multiplayer universe.
Emily Durham: I agree completely with Zainabb and Melissa—I think it’s hard to point to specific games that go out of their way to engage with what “monstrosity” means, let alone portray it in a positive light. Undertale is a great pull for games that actively do make you question what it means to be monstrous. I will say that games like Monster Prom and Hades portray “monstrous” characters as complex individuals with positive and negative character traits, and I deeply love them for it, but they’re not necessarily commenting on the concept of monstrosity. The characters just happen to be, by our definitions, monstrous. I would also, however, pitch Monsterhearts 2 as a game that encourages you to explore what it means to be monstrous, by playing as teens discovering their own forms of monstrosity and working through those challenges and learning how to harness their powers for both good and evil.
Monstrosity is often associated with marginalized identities, in particular people of marginalized genders. How do games relate monstrosity to being marginalized?
Jameson Hampton: This is an interesting question because the first thing that comes to mind is D&D, but actually D&D has a really backwards take on this! In D&D as written, all the monstrous races—orcs, goblins, tieflings, even drow—have associations with “badness” in various ways. But it comes to mind because players (particularly those of us from marginalized communities) have just unanimously decided to throw out D&D canon as written and adopt these races as our own precious children. And now “stereotypical” tieflings are fashion gays and “stereotypical” orcs have strong arms to hug their friends. So there are some really interesting things happening in the D&D community (no thanks to Wizards of the Coast) regarding the monstrous races and the way that marginalized folks see ourselves in them. And I think that reflects something very real about people who understand what it feels like to be labeled as “bad” by society because we know that perception is not actually true, or at least doesn’t have to be true.
That said, there are other indie tabletop games that have seen this desire to play within the realms of monstrosity and have baked that into their system in a more interesting and nuanced way than D&D is capable of. As Emily mentioned above, Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts is really a game about figuring yourself out as a teenager, and it uses the monstrous races as a metaphor for queerness and mental health issues and abuse and lots of really heavy stuff that can be tough to unpack otherwise. So I think that’s a game that can be really cathartic, particularly for queer folks, because it makes space to tackle important stuff but in a safe and whimsical way.
Zainabb: Monstrosity can often be a useful metaphor for being marginalized, whether done intentionally or not. As Jamey says, monstrosity in D&D is canonically linked to being evil, and these monstrous races come out of the racist high fantasy created and popularized by Tolkien and other fantasy creators. Monsters like orcs and dark elves are coded, racist stereotypes of Black and brown people; while queer players often choose to reconstruct these races to subvert their association with evil, players of color often choose to play without racial differences, like differences in base stats, or without races at all, to move away from a fundamentally racist system that sets up white-coded beings as superior and “good,” while Black- and brown-coded monsters are inferior and “evil.”
Personally, I’m less interested these days in D&D, where the entire character system requires modifying to move away from its racism, and more interested in games that thoughtfully and intentionally use monstrosity to explore the experiences of marginalization. Horror games are a natural fit for these themes, and I’ve enjoyed playing Bluebeard’s Bride, an indie game that uses monstrosity and horror to examine cisheteronormative patriarchal oppression. In this game, monstrosity is associated with attempts to exert agency and autonomy while oppressed; monstrosity becomes power when characters otherwise have none.
Melissa: Games often encourage us to empathize with marginalized people by abstracting from a real concern to a fictional one—for example, Dragon Age‘s mages. On the one hand, it’s clear that sequestering people away for being a potential danger to society is morally wrong, and you can extrapolate that to any number of real-world marginalizations: race, queerness, ability, and so on. But where these fictionalizations often fail, and where Dragon Age does specifically fail, is that the fantasy element overtakes the attempt at getting the audience to empathize with difference—not to mention prioritizing the experiences of the non-marginalized over the marginalized. More specifically, in Dragon Age, the mages are put into isolated towers because their connection with the Fade, the source of magic in this world (to put it simply), also means that they’re prone to turn into demon-possessed abominations. Their source of power is also their source of corruption, meaning it is, to some degree, actually safer to isolate them (even if it’s immoral).
This, unfortunately, makes the metaphor for real-life marginalizations fall apart. People in real life aren’t marginalized because they’re actually dangerous—they’re marginalized because our society is a white supremacist, ableist, heterosexist, and cisnormative society, among many other problems. Marginalized people aren’t threats, but these kinds of metaphors—making us into figurative monsters to encourage non-marginalized people to empathize with us, but also giving a story reason why it’s actually for our own good that we’re marginalized—are dehumanizing and counterproductive. I love Dragon Age, but it’s the perfect example of why using monstrosity as a metaphor for marginalization is a fraught tactic when it isn’t coming from the marginalized group themselves.
Maddi Butler: Last week I saw a Twitter thread where the poster was discussing the lack of body diversity in Hades, and how most games only depict fat bodies as an enemy class. It made me think about how it’s impossible to make a fat character in, say, Dark Souls III, but the large enemies in FromSoftware games are almost always depicted as fat. It’s certainly not a positive connection between monstrosity and identity. This isn’t unique to FromSoftware by any means, which I think goes to show how deeply ingrained fatphobia is in our society.
Emily: I agree with your point about the lack of body diversity in Hades, Maddi, and to add on that, I also have beef with Hades (and lots of other games/novels/TV shows, etc.) that use token nonbinary characters as the “trickster god” or “chaotic evil” stereotype. The character “Chaos” in Hades is referred to with they/them pronouns, but they are the only one in the entire game to use gender neutral pronouns, and while they’re not explicitly evil—rather, amused and intrigued by all the chaotic possibilities in the universe—they are prone to offering you choices that require pain in order to receive later reward. Their whole character is about helping you by hurting you first. It’s exhausting to see characters like Chaos and She-Ra’s Double Trouble being praised for their open nonbinary presentation, when they’re literally just more shapeshifting tricksters like Loki. Despite their inclusion, most games (etc.) aren’t expanding on what it means to be nonbinary, but rather fitting their nonbinary characters into the preexisting trickster-god mold. (To be clear, though, I think Hades is a masterpiece and this is one of, like, two bones I have to pick with the game.)
But I also want to call out that this is in sharp contrast to Travis McElroy’s Chaos from The Adventure Zone: Graduation! While Chaos themself is definitely a chaotic evil trickster god, it’s really important that Travis has gone out of his way to include many nonbinary characters, not just the one token trickster. From Mimi to Festo to Dakota to Azamondelius, Travis has shown that nonbinary characters can be plentiful and complex and of all sorts of alignments! So including Chaos as a nonbinary character doesn’t feel like a lazy tokenization in TAZ: Grad, because Travis has laid so much groundwork that normalizes nonbinary identities.
[Editor’s note: Friends at the Table is another actual-play podcast with a huge cast of nonbinary characters, represented in both player characters and NPCs. Multiple cast members are also trans and/or nonbinary (phrased as such because I don’t know their precise self-descriptors as of today, and because a few cast members’ pronouns and names change over the course of the show). Start with Twilight Mirage in particular for a really rich and queer-inclusive world! —Zora]
What games make you feel empowered by monstrosity?
Zainabb: Okay, it’s a trash game, but one of my first PS3 games was The Darkness, based on the comic books and full of almost as much toxic masculinity. However, the game sets you up with tentacles made of shadow, which I spent gleefully using to punch holes through bad guys and generally whip around as I explored the environment. I would love to find games that provide power like this to a marginalized character, not only so I can live vicariously through a hulking or writhing queer character of color, but in order to explore the links between monstrosity and marginalization. When my character in The Darkness obtains his tentacles, the horror evoked in other characters comes from the monster itself, from the darkness and shadow, and the violence it threatens. I would like to play a game that examines the horror experienced by our oppressors when a marginalized person or group obtains power. Give me the shadow tentacles and let me wreak havoc on white people, who aren’t afraid because I am a monster but because I wield power.
Melissa: Did I dunk all over Dragon Age in the last question? I sure did, and I’m still going to pick it for this because listen: I love to be a six-foot-five, beautiful, buff, bisexual woman with horns. I like to see her wooing Josephine in a sweeping romantic courtship complete with a duel. I like to see Sera pursue her not just because she’s a romantic option, but because she finds Qunari attractive. I’m not actually a six-foot-five person with horns, but I’m not ashamed to say that inhabiting the body of a “monster” and being found romantic and charming and desirable in spite of that is validating!
Maddi: I think this is part of the reason I enjoyed Nier so much. Each of the main characters—Nier, Emil, Kainé, and Weiss—considers themselves monstrous. Nier is a loner who gets magic powers from a talking book (Weiss), Kainé is possessed by a shadowy demon called a Shade, and Emil is a genetically engineered human weapon with magic eyes. But they’re all able to find community and family in one another and help each other as Nier tries to cure his daughter’s illness.
Emily: I’ll reiterate that Monsterhearts is an amazing game for exploring what it means to be monstrous, and in a lot of cases during my course of play, I’ve felt empowered by what my monstrosity has allowed me to do. I’ve been playing a game of Monsterhearts 2 with some friends for about three years now (Jesus, has it really been that long?) and my player character is Cedar Tanaka, a sasquatch-turned-leshy who is awkward and sweet and gay and has way more power than she knows what to do with. She can animate trees and speak with animals and kill shadow wolves with her bare hands, terrifying her best friends and protecting the ones she loves from harm. I feel genuinely empowered playing Cedar, and Avery Alder has enabled that empowerment by creating a game that encourages playing queer characters who use their monstrous powers to create deeply connected communities. Also, the potential for gay shit involving monsters is extremely high.
Gays when they see monsters during Halloween pic.twitter.com/fTWrP60EWC
— I said what I said (@Spilling_The_T) October 1, 2020
And I gotta say, Monster Prom is great for making you feel like monsters can be fully realized people, too. Each and every character is dealing with complex emotions and sidequests, and I love that in one run, you can make Damien love you and in another piss him off so bad he makes you fight him. (I definitely didn’t accidentally trigger the secret hate-fight ending the very first time I played Monster Prom because I did every single thing wrong while trying desperately to woo him or anything, definitely not.)
In the end, my takeaway is that teens are monsters (lol), but it’s okay because even monsters are capable and deserving of love. (Side note: I am VERY EXCITED to play the sequel, Monster Camp, which literally just came out a few days ago.)
Which games make you feel scared or discomfited by your own potential for monstrosity?
Zainabb: It’s not related to physical monstrosity, but I have found it unnerving to play games like Black & White or even Mass Effect, where you can choose to be cruel or nasty. I tried a Renegade playthrough of the first Mass Effect and was quite upset by some of the dialogue—and after getting stuck on Black & White, I turned to the “evil” options, like making human sacrifices, to try to get unstuck. It didn’t work and I just ended up feeling bad but also uneasy about how easy it is to inflict cruelty on pixels when it serves your goal. Nowadays, I know that these character choices don’t work for me and that I’d rather work towards creating a just and loving gaming environment wherever possible, but I am interested in what makes people choose to play a Renegade Shepherd and how our gaming goals might influence the choices we make in these kinds of games.
Melissa: Big same! I wanted to explore different parts of Mass Effect (and also romance Garrus because I didn’t realize that was an option on my first playthrough), but I found it really difficult to be cruel to people. There are some genres where I’m totally fine with being a villain, but I eventually gave up on a Renegade playthrough because I liked so many of the characters that it was hard to be ruthless. I don’t think a Paragon playthrough is perfect, either—Mass Effect‘s morality system has always bugged me, but that’s a subject for a different roundtable—but I personally just couldn’t create a character who would react the way Renegade Shepard does.
Sara: Jumping in here to play the devil’s Renegade, as it were: I prefer purple or Paragon, but I’m the kind of video game completionist who feels compelled to explore every decision branch in games like Mass Effect, and I did find a certain satisfaction in playing a Renegade FemShep. True, some Renegade choices are needlessly cruel—and you can imagine how actions like punching Khalisah al-Jilani read differently if you’re playing a Renegade BroShep. But other Renegade actions seem designed to value the lives of the few over the good of the many, which is a philosophical decision branch baked into every Mass Effect game from your first character creation (Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero), and which is a trolley problem question that troubles us for a good reason. Then some Renegade choices are simply opportunistic, mercenary, or rude, and there is a kind of wish fulfillment in seeing your immensely powerful FemShep waste no energy on patience, gentleness, or generosity. Renegade FemShep does not in any way represent the kind of person I want to be… but she’s not meant to, and that’s also not something I ask of my Elder Scrolls assassin mowing down entire caves full of bandits.
Emily: Back to Undertale: man, this game fucked me up. I didn’t know, at first, that you could absolutely befriend/woo every single enemy in the game, so I killed Doggo before I realized I didn’t have to. And I could never and will never do the genocide run. It would hurt me too bad to kill everyone. But even in these most extreme situations, Undertale encourages you to think about what it means to be monstrous. Your character is a normal human child, but in the genocide run, you become the only true monster in the entire game.
How do you think games can enable positive constructions and explorations of monstrosity, particularly for marginalized players?
Zainabb: I think we need more thoughtful and playful constructions of monstrosity, especially given the historical and artistic links of monstrosity to being marginalized, as in the racist high fantasy of D&D. It’s not enough for marginalised players to have to appropriate those representations of monstrosity because there’s no other way for us to fit into the system. We deserve to be able to engage with monstrosity on our own terms, as in the silly and queer dating sim Monster Prom, or in tabletop games like Bluebeard’s Bride and Monsterhearts where players can explore monstrosity in more serious and provocative ways.
I think there is room for games to both explore monstrosity as it relates to being marginalized, and to simply enjoy the horror and fun of monstrosity. Either way, it’s necessary for marginalized people to be involved in the construction of these games to ensure that real-life marginalized people are not being equated with monstrosity, as is the standard in high fantasy settings based on the racist hierarchization of elves, dwarves, and orcs.
Melissa: Agreed. It’s not enough to simply include monsters, just as it’s not enough to simply include marginalized people as characters. These things must be done with intention from top to bottom. As Zainabb said, this doesn’t have to be serious, necessarily—I think Monster Prom is a great example—but it does have to be deliberate. Monsters shouldn’t be simple shorthand for marginalization if you’re not going to explore what monstrosity means in context, and their designs should be considered as more than mere references to established concepts (such as Tolkien’s orcs and dwarves). Orcs have cultural meaning now, and that meaning is inextricable from Tolkien’s racist constructions; if game developers want to use them, they should do so by learning what makes those constructions racist and actively deconstructing, revising, and redefining that without their work.
One example of this (which I unfortunately haven’t played yet) is Tusks, a gay orc dating sim. Since I haven’t played it yet I can’t vouch for all of the content, but looking at the art, you can see designer Mitch Alexander has created a variety of orc bodies of varying features, colors, and shapes. They’re also all queer in a game where queerness is celebrated, making them another step removed from Tolkien’s extremely heterosexual (and yet sexless) Middle-earth. This kind of deliberate shifting of the narrative is something indie games are able to do particularly well, by virtue of being made by fewer people for a smaller audience, which is why I’m more interested in indie games about monstrosity than AAA games!
Maddi: If certain physical characteristics only show up in enemies for players to mow down, it’s sending a message that they’re inherently bad. Obviously this shouldn’t be the case, but it’s disheartening to see nonetheless. I think in addition to more sensitivity to racial depictions of characters, it’s important to think about which types of bodies are being depicted as monstrous, too.