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Keep Your Sanity Checks On!

Philip Bloom

Warning: Borderline Shadow Hearts spoiling, significant referencing.

Tonight I'd like to meander and rant over monsters. They're big. They're small. They're weird. They fill somewhere between twenty and eighty percent of the content in RPGs, depending on which game and who you ask. Well done, they can add atmosphere, challenge, and create legends simply from their effect. Poorly done they shatter the game.

The inspiring offender tonight: Shadow Hearts. Shadow Hearts, in many ways, was a very good game. It was a third stringer, to be sure, but it was a third stringer with a good deal of heart and promise hidden in its depths. It also, notably, had pretty inspired monster design for the most part. The folks writing it took plenty of hints from local mythology, reinterpreted them, and created a good deal of pretty good monsters. In a way, they do deserve a good deal of credit. They unfortunately forgot to keep sanity checks though on their designs, so right alongside very creative monster designs are things that really just come across as plain retarded.

It's a problem to be sure. When being highly creative, some of the stuff created will be bad. Yes, different, unique, unused before in games or art or literature, but bad. Shadow Hearts kept a general art direction that concluded: All of its enemies should be terrifying psychologically disturbing creatures that strike at the sanity of the characters encountering them. It was blending with (one of) their overall theme of dealing with human fear and overcoming it. They ended up with two variants on effectively the same issue: Not having sanity checks.

The first issue they had was their art direction was often followed without stepping back and remembering the original purpose of monsters: To be fearsome in some manner when you're fighting them. They certainly accomplished making plenty of horrific creatures. But along the line, they forgot you were supposed to be fighting these creatures and feel threatened by them. It may be disgusting to encounter a gigantic dog with their skin all stripped off, but it makes one feel as if one is doing an act of mercy killing it rather than fighting something that's going to kill you. Having a headless gaunt humanoid on all fours may be different and not within a 'sane' paradigm, but it is more likely to inspire queasiness than any sense that the characters should be driven out of their mind. This is subtle, but forgetting to step back on the art direction and have sanity checks to make sure that it's still fulfilling it's primary goals in the game can make the difference between having a coherent set of monsters along a powerful overlying theme and having a few that just went so far down the obvious track that they lost sight of the main goal.

The second issue was logically linking the monsters into the game. I understand we've gotten to a point where we try and have everything and its third cousin have a transforming uberizing sequence because their initial state isn't cool enough. It's in genre pretty much. "Oh yeah, boss? But does he TRANSFORM?" Shadow Hearts had a scene in it with a modern day inquisitor in one of its levels. He provides the last challenge as you are seeking to rescue a character from an Asylum. Now the enemies in this Asylum to this point were pretty uninspired, not a high point in what their designers produced. This guy though, took the cake. He'll probably go down in my memory as the most inappropriate boss transformation I've ever encountered. You see, this man, blonde of hair, broad of shoulder, well dressed and militant of demeanor... transformed into a pink pregnant ghost/monster woman. I mean, absolutely horrible. There's no defense of that. What's worse is that in a sane environment, that should've gotten caught. Someone should've pointed out: "Hey, you're having your towering overstuffed masculine inquisitor turn into a pregnant woman. Doesn't that strike you as wrong?"

This game, for all intents and purposes, failed to keep sanity checks in its design process. Whether it was from the inability to model stuff twice and the need to use old models, poor early designs, or just random thought, they let stuff get into their game that should've gotten caught easily for just being inappropriate. It wasn't that their artists were bad or untalented or even uninspired (though a case could be made for the last one), it was instead that the game simply didn't get any sanity check on what was going in as content, particularly with monster design. This is sort of a plea to designers out there. Keep sanity checks in play. Keep something in play to catch decisions that may seem cool at the moment but shatter the coherency of the game.

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