Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

A Framework for Making Better Monsters in Computer Games

(This was an abstract I wrote for a conference paper that has not been accepted yet.)

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons are true but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” Neil Gaiman

Computer games offer players a chance to engage with media in a way that has been likened to the bardic traditions of old (Murray, 1997). Players are afforded the opportunity to take the kernels of the story as outlined by the designer and explore and expand upon them. It gives players an opportunity to tell their own stories of defeating monsters and overcoming great odds. Yet the experience of many gamers unfortunately involves slogging through legions of formulaic and interchangeable enemies with little to no emotional payoff. The roots of this problem lies in the history of video games which has influenced how game designers conceptualize monsters.

The debate as to what makes a monster has been centered in the apparent conflict between the sublime thesis and the containment approach which uses encyclopedic methodology. Given that the sublime thesis suggests that it is impossible to create a formula or framework to build monsters, it is no surprise that game design has historically and practically situated itself on the encyclopedic interpretation of monsters. This has been traced back to the influence of dungeons and dragons and it’s roots in miniature wargaming. This has encouraged game creators to design not monsters but instead actionable adversaries to be defeated. To differentiate between the two, adversaries more closely align with Norbert Wiener’s ontology of the enemy, in that they are known, rational and ruthless, whereas monsters have a narrative and emotional purpose. From the pragmatic standpoint, the creatures in games must be defined by a series of numerical attributes which allow the creature to act within the game environment thus encouraging the designer down the path of adversary creation. The ensuing reduction of the creature to a spreadsheet entry has the knock on effect of stripping it of it’s narrative associations. This design method has produced an endless horde of adversaries for the player to dispose of but is successful in creating truly memorable monsters only rarely or by accident.

The paper argues that to create effective monsters in video games the narrative and emotional roles of the monster must be made apparent before the containment of the monster through the assigning of statistics. It goes on to present a framework designed to aid in the creation of better monsters. drawing on the basic plot and features that have been identified in monster stories across genre divides.(Booker, 2015), it analyzes monsters from the perspective of impurity which inspires revulsion (Douglas, 1966) and How the tropes of Art Horror can be used in the construction of monsters (Carroll, 2015) By combining and expanding on these works this framework suggests game designers consider five fundamental elements: the behavior of the
monster, the type of danger it exhibits, the interstitiality or categorical contradictions it possesses, the ways in which the contradictions are expressed and finally the environmental signaling used to introduce the monster. Various monsters from video games are then used to explore the utility of the model and show how the model may be used in the future.


Booker, C. (2015). The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories . London: Blomsbury
Carroll, N. (2015). Philosophy of horror: Or, paradoxes of the heart . NewYork:
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo .
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace .
Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.
Peterson, J. (2014). Playing at the world: A history of simulating wars, people and
fantastic adventures, from chess to role-playing games . San Diego: Unreason Press.
Švelch, J. (2018). Encoding monsters: “Ontology of the enemy” and containment of the unknown in role-playing games. The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference .


“Among us” Inner Sloth (2018)
“Bioshock” 2k Games (2007)
“Bioshock Infinite” 2K Games (2013)
“Half life” Valve (1998)
“Hell blade:Senua’s sacrifice” Ninja Theory (2017)
“Plants vs Zombies” PopCap (2009)

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