From Beowulf to Video Games: Why Monster Extermination Is Such an Existential Bummer

Extracts from Player versus monster Yaroslav Shvelkh. Copyright © 2023 MIT Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Fictional monsters have always reflected real-life social fears and anxieties, but in the rapidly changing world around us, it’s hard to tell where a monster is—and we may actually be the monster ourselves. Because of this, traditional monster narratives, in which overt heroes kill overt iconic monsters, seem very dated. There are several ways to challenge traditional monster narratives. In addition to the fact that monsters cause sympathy (what games do you like Undertale done with great success), you can also question the heroism of the monster slayer.

In the Western tradition, the last line of thought is much older than the century and can be identified in early Christianity. One of its most famous formulations appeared in the 1936 essay “Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien states that the monsters are crucial to understanding the poetic qualities of the poem. In his opinion, they provide a perspective that “transcends the dates and boundaries of historical periods” – in other words, they evoke a sublime sense of timelessness. At the same time, he makes it clear that killing monsters should not be understood as a virtue per se. He is on the side of the poet Beowulf in the rejection of the concept of “military heroism as an end in itself.” Despite his increasingly difficult exploits, the proud warrior Beowulf faces a “tragedy of imminent doom” that neither earthly glory nor wealth can prevent. Although he slays the dragon – the last “boss” of the poem – he is mortally wounded and soon dies.

Tolkien’s approach to Beowulf’s heroism stemmed from his Catholic faith, which influenced both his academic and artistic writing (perhaps with the important exception of his surprisingly one-dimensional portrayal of orcs as an evil race in Lord of the Rings). As Asma summarizes, Tolkien takes the early Christian view that “without Christianity, monster slayers are either hopeless existential heroes trying to rid the world of evil through pitiful human effort, or they themselves are monstrous giants among a herd of righteous and meek devotees. “. Accordingly, Tolkien reads Beowulf as a tragic hero, concluding that the poem is more of an elegy than an epic.

Beowulf raises his shield to protect himself from the fiery breath of the dragon.

J. R. R. Tolkien argued that killing monsters is neither heroic nor virtuous. By fighting the dragon, Beowulf brought a tragic end upon himself. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tragically depicted monster killers are not uncommon in popular culture. As game specialist Tanja Krzywinska points out, the “false hero” theme, borrowed from gothic literature and films, is typical of horror and fantasy video games. A dark, elegiac tone colors many games that use the player vs. environment model, while simultaneously challenging it. A prime example of such a game is shadow of the colossus (2005), widely recognized as a milestone in enemy creation and ethical gameplay. His story is about a young man named Wander who travels to a forbidden land to bring his dead lover back to life. An invisible mysterious entity informs the Stranger that in return he must kill sixteen colossi – gigantic creatures inhabiting different corners of the earth. To defeat them, the Tramp must identify and get to one or more of their weak points (or “life forces”). Not surprisingly, for an adventure game, each colossus is a unique boss-inspired puzzle. The Legend of Zelda row. shadow of the colossushowever, deviates from the formula in at least three respects.

First, there are no “mobs” (or weak, fodder-like enemies) in the game. The rationale behind this decision was both practical and artistic. As the game’s producer Kenji Kaido said in an interview, they did this “so that the team’s resources could be focused on [colossi]”, but also to emphasize the “contrast between the silence of the journey and the struggle.” As a result, the game doesn’t offer the easy fun of hacking and chopping down weaker opponents.

Secondly, the Wanderer can – and often should – scale, balance, and hold onto monsters, often grabbing onto their fur. As Kaido noted, “they are partly built and partly living beings.” The colossus is not only the enemy the protagonist fights, but also the ground on which he stands. When the colossi try to shake him off, the Tramp literally becomes an unstable entity – he spends long minutes clinging to the monsters, temporarily merging with the mass of their bodies before stabbing them with his magical sword.

Finally, the destruction of the colossi seems to be ethically dubious. In a retrospective interview, game director Fumito Ueda recalled that throughout his time on the game, he “began to question just ‘feel good defeating monsters’ and ‘feel fulfilled’.” Colossi are mostly peaceful until Wander attacks. their. While the player can experience triumph by defeating them (and in the 2018 remake, collecting PlayStation trophies for each), the game’s audiovisual design suggests just the opposite. As they are pierced by the Traveler’s sword, they roar and writhe in pain as black blood spurts from their wounds, and their final demise is accompanied by melancholy music. To illustrate how unusual it was at the time, Ueda revealed that when he first showed the music to his staff, “They thought it was a mistake and they laughed because they were so used to games that, after defeating a monster, they played fanfare.”

A screenshot from Shadow of the Colossus showing the hero Rogue fighting one of the game's colossi.

The tramp encounters giant colossi in shadow of the colossus. From the color tones to the music, the game doesn’t represent the Wanderer’s quest to defeat the colossi in heroic terms. (Source: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

From the start, Wander’s nightmarish search is portrayed as futile and pointless. Japanese scholar Miguel Cesar places the game’s narrative within a longer history of representations of what he calls “significant boundary violations” between life and death in Japanese folk and popular culture. In his opinion, “all of its mechanics, design choices and storytelling work in this direction: to convince players how wrong and dangerous [transgression] have, even if the game forces them to do so.” The Traveler’s trespassing is shown as “an immoral selfish act”, but the player has no choice but to move on and witness the Traveler’s inevitable demise.

Bye shadow of the colossus deeply rooted in Japanese rather than Western Christian culture, it is consistent with Tolkien’s remark about the tragedy inherent in monster slayers whose motives are more selfish than morally just. It also sends an ecological signal, calling into question the need to tame and neutralize the forces of nature represented by the colossi.

shadow of the colossuscertainly not the only game that questions the behavior of the monster slayer. Bloody And Dark souls (whose impressive monsters are likely inspired by colossi) also present monster-fighting as a gruesome, melancholy affair, equally tragic for all involved. In a telling anecdote, the director of these games, Hidetaka Miyazaki, well known for creating “sad” monsters, asked the concept artist to redo the hideous design of the undead dragon with the instruction: “Could you instead try to convey the deep sadness of a magnificent beast doomed to slow and perhaps , an endless fall into ruins?” All three games assume that the plight of the monster slayer is inseparable from the plight of the monsters. This observation is well expressed in the aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights monsters must see to it that he himself does not become one of them. And when you look into the abyss for a long time, the abyss looks into you.”

Bye shadow of the colossus deeply rooted in Japanese rather than Western Christian culture, it is consistent with Tolkien’s remark about the tragedy inherent in monster slayers whose motives are more selfish than morally just.

– Yaroslav Shvelkh

This theme echoes the experience of learning the mechanics of monsters to defeat them, which is common in many PvE video games. As Sony Santa Monica combat designer Danny Yeh noted about the monster designs for god of War reboot, creating an enemy also means creating something he can “make the player do”. If the enemy’s movements are intended to complement the protagonist’s actions, then the hero is inevitably corrupted by the enormity of his enemies.

At the end shadow of the colossus, Wander himself transforms into a giant smoke monster and tries to kill the people who came to seal the power he unleashed. The final cutscene suggests that he was reborn, but his sins were not forgotten. His story is a warning not only against transgressing the boundaries of life and death, but also against the anthropocentric pride that has done so much harm to the world we live in.

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