James Wallis levels with you

Wondering monsters

I’ve spent the last week in the south of France, just outside Aix-en-Provence, drinking Banyuls and wondering why developers wait for a body to go on holiday before flooding him with emails.

It’s been delightful apart from one evening when we were attacked by a scorpion in the house. We were in the kitchen when it pounced, making a brutal lunge for my mother-in-law who was barely able to parry with a frying-pan. I pushed her out of the way, grabbed a breadknife and engaged it in hand-to-hand melee until it finally reared up and I was able to stab its defenceless underside. As it died it dropped a number of gold coins before its corpse evaporated.

Actually it sat in the middle of the tiled floor, not moving at all, until my brother-in-law squashed it with a beach shoe.

Here’s my point: the number of animals that attack people on sight in the real world is nil. (Okay, possibly trained attack dogs.) In video games, it’s all of them except chickens. Whether you’re playing Tomb Raider, Zelda, Oblivion or Fable, animals have a mysterious homicidal urge towards human beings that they don’t have towards their natural prey creatures–a homicidal urge that usually turns out to be suicidal. See the player, attack the player. Whereas elephants, rhinos, bears, lions, tigers, crocodiles and sharks don’t do that. If they’re angered, if they’re scared, if they’re hunting, then yes. But they don’t attack on sight. Not even rabid animals do that.

This is because in the real world animals occupy a niche in a complex environment, and in games they’re a source of XP and treasure. They exist for two purposes: to pose a threat and to be killed. And frankly this is not just unrealistic, it’s also a bit boring. If the only threat they pose is one of violence then your game is sending all kinds of message not only about the world in which it’s set (hostile) but also about the character’s role in that world (violent, oppressed, ultimately as unthinkingly aggressive as the animals he or she is slaughtering on sight).

Let’s have animals that behave like animals, and that force the player to adapt their behaviour to avoid them. Stealth-it-up to avoid a nursing elephant; recognise bear tracks to sneak round where a grizzly is sleeping (we have next-gen technology, we’ve been able to do footprints in snow since the PS1, we can do bear tracks); pursue rare and valuable animals that would rather flee than attack; and more interestingly watch animals for that moment when you get too close and they switch from being wary to charging you. Not that much harder, but much more fun.

Categorised as: game design


  1. Dan Hon says:

    I’ve got it – The Horse Whisperer, THE GAME.

  2. Tim Gray says:

    “Here’s my point: the number of animals that attack people on sight in the real world is nil. (Okay, possibly trained attack dogs.) ”

    Midges. Komodo dragons. Giant purple people-eaters.

  3. Dan Hon says:

    I was with you until the Giant purple people-eaters. Are those Barney the Dinosaur?

  4. Tim Gray says:

    Sorry, I let my brain off the leash in James’ park.

  5. Peter says:

    It’s become a genre trope. Blame D&D and the games that came out based on it. The whole concept of wandering monsters has no place in a game (computer or roleplaying) that is meant to be a simulation of near real life.

    Many roleplaying games do not have wandering monsters.
    There are no computer games that come close to what I would regard as roleplaying.

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