“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”
One great thing about video games is it affords anybody the ability to be anything and do anything free from the consequences and hassles of harsh reality. You can be an invincible hero saving the world while romancing sexy aliens, you can enter fighting tournaments to throw fireballs at people and rip them limb from limb when you’re done, you can gamble without losing your life savings, or just chill out and solve some puzzles with no clean up. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a game about it.
Well, you know what I like? Monsters. It’s been true since I was old enough to watch Universal horror and kaiju flicks on Saturday afternoon matinees and worry my parents by finding every last book about monster folklore in the library and refusing to leave until the let me check it out. I’ve also been obsessed with the idea of being one of those monsters; some misunderstood abomination doomed to hunt and destroy to survive in a world and society made exclusively for humans.
The above quote is from “The Outsider”, a story where a lost and confused protagonist seeks connection only to see every human run away from him before finally happening upon a mirror and realizing he’s the embodiment of human nightmares. I wonder if a monster ever really knows it’s a monster. It’s something I’ve always sought to experience in a video game, but the industry has been shockingly uncooperative when it comes to letting gamers experience life as a creature of darkness. At best, you can be a monster fighting other monsters, but that’s just not the same. Here are five games that are exceptions to the rule and let the player really get in character as a monster facing off with the most dangerous game.
Left 4 Dead
One of the best co-op titles of all time, this zombie apocalypse shooter game really sang for me with its PvP Versus mode, which took the four-player campaign levels and then pitted four players against them controlling the “special infected” alongside the typical runners.
The special infected are mutated with special predatory abilities which, used strategically, give human players fits. For instance smokers have insanely long tongues they can use to snag players and drag them away from the group, boomers can spew bile all over them that immediately attracts a horde of runners, and the tank was just a massive moving wall of death.
Left 4 Dead’s focus on strategy and balance as well as its AI-governed procedural level augmentation made every game a surprise and a challenge, whether you were an infected looking for an opening against well-armed opponents on their guards, or a human just trying to make it to the end of the stage against all odds.
Playing as the monster was a big part of what made it one of my favorite shooter experiences ever. Shooting zombies is always fun, but we can do that any old time. Being the zombie avoiding the bullets and sneaking up on other players to ruin their night by puking on them or slicing them to ribbons while their buddies panic around the corner is so much more satisfying.
Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror
Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is play as a ghost scaring virtual people. This has been done in the past with Haunting Starring Polterguy for the Sega Genesis, but I had a SNES so boo. Beyond: Two Souls gave us a little taste last gen, but it was far more focused on interactive human drama than on the awesome possibilities of playing as a spirit. Last year, a retro indie title brought the concept back as a charming horror-themed puzzle game so I finally got my ghostly fun fix.
Poltergeist puts the player in the shoes of a spirit with some territorial issues, making it his business to expel any and all residents throughout various eras. Each level is essentially a puzzle where you use your limited allocated abilities to maximum effect and frighten every living thing out of there.
Everything from tossing appliances around to manifesting spectres, demonic possession, chasing people around with summoned hellhounds, and sucking them into alternate dimensions is possible, but the humans can fight back with ghostbusters, priests, mediums, and bosses to neutralize your fear-inducing powers. Finding the solutions is a good time and the 16-bit style makes it both cute and affordable. For right now it’s the best ghost simulator we’ve got.
Gears of War: Judgment
Gears is a series defined by massive marines chainsawing and shotgunning through monster guts. In multiplayer, one team gets to play as the Locusts, but since the two sides play exactly the same, it doesn’t make a difference. The third game introduced Beast Mode, which allowed players to play as some of the other creatures from the campaign against human AI bots, but it was shallow and brief.
The post-trilogy prequel game, Judgment, did it several times better with its multiplayer Overrun game, which took a page from L4D and pitted player-controlled humans defending a base against player-controlled monsters attempting to destroy it. The result was a massive bright spot in what was otherwise a disappointing misstep that took the game away from its roots and eliminated the beloved cooperative masterpiece Horde mode.
While humans had different classes to choose from, the real fun was, of course, in playing as the various monsters, with stronger breeds becoming available the more damage you do. Sure, boring old Locusts with guns were available, but wouldn’t you rather be a burrowing corpser spider, an unstoppable berserker, or an acid-spitting serapede? Hell yeah, you would. Or I would anyway. I played a ton of every kind of Gears online ever since the franchise’s inception and I have to say that 90% of my time with Judgment was spent in this one facet of the game’s multiplayer. Strategizing and cooperating to use your monstrous abilities to take down heavily armed and fortified humans was the only thing that made this game great.
Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
I may be stretching the definition of “modern” a little here since this originally came out on the original Xbox, but it’s only been ten years and any excuse to point out how awesome this game is and lament the lack of a sequel or spiritual successor is a good one. Stubbs the Zombie is a game where you play as the titular shambling zombie, and it’s the only proper undead plague simulator I’ve ever played.
The name of the game is eating people’s brains as you go full Romero rampaging through country farmhouses and taking on the American military with the occasional 60’s pop dance-off. Every human you bite rises again as your minion and as you evolve, you gain a variety of helpful abilities like using your internal organs as infectious hand grenades and detaching your hand to skitter behind enemy lines and take control of enemies’ minds.
Needless to say the game is fun as hell. It’s pretty cartoonish and filled with humor (although still somehow controversial), but at the same time it does a great job of letting you experience life as a zombie bent on spreading your plague. The creativity inspired by Stubbs’ abilities and the level designs alone made Rebel Without a Pulse a must for any gamer, and doubly for anyone who’s ever felt a desire to kill all humans.
When Left 4 Dead co-developers Turtle Rock Studios split from Valve and abandoned the franchise after two games in one year, what they came up with next was essentially the ultimate monster versus human simulator. Like the zombie co-op title, the gameplay revolves around a team of players facing off against a player-controlled menace, but this time it’s four against one.
Evolve puts pressure on both teams with human classes relying on each other to stand a chance against the monster’s overwhelming power and the monster usually being forced to flee in early stages of the match to consume enough wildlife to evolve to higher levels while being hunted by a team whose only goal is to track and kill them. It’s a very different experience from…well anything else.
I have to admit that I really loved playing as various classes in this game. Whereas L4D was more of a “go through the motions until I get to be a monster again” experience online after a certain point since every human character was the same, in Evolve it was not only fun to evade and trick puny humans while stuffing my ugly face and circling around to slip past my pursuers, but it was also really fun and rewarding to play as a tracker using different abilities and signs to ferret out and trap the fleeing beast, manage healing, buffs, and debuffs, call in airstrikes, or just fill that oversized freak with lead while evading with your jetpack or active camouflage.
That said, it was still cooler to be the monster at the end of the day. Leveling up your various abilities and devising strategies using them to take the team down one by one or all at once with your beast of choice was as fun as it was challenging. With multiple monsters possessing abilities like flight, teleportation, and projectile attacks as well as heavy durability going for you, it’s hard not to feel like a badass as the hunters scurry from your assault like so many rats. It’s less badass when they successfully cooperate to frustrate and take you down, but still a good time.