It seems so very, very long ago that I lamented that there were no true werewolf games on the market.
Now, some might argue Bloodborne is that ideal game; you’re wrong, and I’m saving that particular little nugget of fun for my end-of-the-year rundown (but as a sneak preview; I don’t like it and my anger at Bloodborne only grows deeper with every passing day). Fans of werewolf fiction and movies like myself are still somewhat waiting for that game which encapsulates the unpredictable aesthetic body-horror that comes from the ideal of a bestial metamorphosis.
Instead of ranting for thousands of words, however, on the “ideal” werewolf game – because there is no such thing and I’d actually prefer developers at least attempted to surprise fans like myself with an interesting take on the mythos – I thought instead, I’d mention five key points which I think would be important to any major developer thinking of making a game grounded in this vastly underutilised literary staple.
Oh, and some movie/game spoilers will be dropped.
Got that? Let’s begin.
Let’s start at the top; the titular beast in question.
Werewolves, like most good horror staples, have a rather fluid design ethos. There is rarely one precise canonical design that must be adhered to, and in part this is the first hurdle for anyone who wants to make a horror game circling this little niche. Nailing down what your “beast” is going to be like.
It’s not as simple as it sounds; a humanoid creature would obviously have a more troubling gait, for sure, but they could in theory retain some basic capacity to interact with the world in a human way, such as opening doors or picking things up. On the flip-side, a more wolf-like transition would remove that possibility of interaction, but in turn it is more likely that the beast in question would possess far more nimble, agile, wolf-like properties. And there are plenty of interesting and fertile grounds between these two extremes.
Nailing down your beast would go some way to pointing you in the direction the game should be taking; it could be a cursed soul seeking a cure at the far reaches of the world (a Dark Souls-like RPG Adventure), it could be a creature seeking redemption or revenge in an action-packed brawler in the vein of Bayonetta, it could be a creature coming to terms with their curse in a first-person narrative-driven experience. Each of these examples would require a different kind of beast, with different qualities and different body-types. But it begins with coming up with your perfect beast. If a character is to be a werewolf, then that werewolf should be reflective of your games design. Hyper-realistic or anime in style, cel-shaded or even two-dimensional, the challenge is to come up with a beast that is visually striking enough to appeal.
Werewolves are not your typical horror cliché; they’re designed to be looked at. They are impressive, dark representations of the possibility of losing ones humanity and becoming little more than an animal acting on instinct and impulse. But there’s another reason we like werewolves…
Make no mistake about it; as much as we like to see the beast, most of us as fans of a good werewolf story would feel cheated somewhat if they skipped on the transformation.
Video games should provide a fertile ground for this, and they have done. Take, for example, the Worgen in World of Warcraft. It wasn’t enough to just have ‘worgen’ running around on the side of the Alliance; there had to be more, and that ‘more’ came in the form of the transformation and the story leading up to that transformation. From being initially bitten, to the debuff which alarmingly kept reminding you that something really wasn’t quite right to that terrible moment where your character finally succumbs to the initial transition, Blizzard did a commendable job in realising the necessity of the transformation, even going as far as allowing Worgen players to transform at will from their bestial form to their human form, and vice versa.
Transformations of this kind are not unique in video games either; Primal, a game Sony Cambridge released waaaaaay back in 2003, had four “primal” forms that the main character Jen would eventually be saddled with and transform between. Whilst not strictly speaking involving werewolves, it was another title which remembered the importance and the visual shock that comes with each successive new transformation; caught between that sensation of being both surprised, intrigued and in some sense also vaguely repulsed by each form and its effect on Jen’s personality, it wasn’t shy about showing us the initial transformation – or reminding us that this isn’t a natural occurrence, and that Jen was suffering through each respective change.
We have come a long way since that iconic transformation in An American Werewolf In London; but it remains one of the most memorable transformations because it unflinchingly detailed the process in question. Back then, they had to make do with latex moulds which could be warped to give the impression of skin and bone being ripped asunder under the tremendous strain of the transformation. It was no less effective in spite of its now quaint, low-budget ethos.
It remains a terrific example of how to do it. It doesn’t have to be that visceral; heck, World of Warcraft didn’t have the engine to render such a transformation in detail. But we are still there to experience the thrill, excitement and horror of an individual succumbing to their dark, primal curse. The beast matters, but the process of getting there is just as important.
Another thing An American Werewolf In London kicked off was the unique psychology that comes with being a werewolf.
In the movie in question, in human form the cursed focus of the tale was haunted by the ghosts of his prey; they could not move on into an afterlife until he was dead, and that offered a tantalising glimpse into the idea that such a curse isn’t without its own set of individual issues. To be haunted and followed around by the gory, decomposing remnants of those whom you have killed in your beast form is a psychological torture that was pretty damned ballsy and clever for its time. It suggested that, ultimately, the werewolf was doomed to insanity – either by capitulating to their bestial nature, or from the constant guilt of being confronted and constantly reminded of your crimes.
To reach for another game series that did this well, I will bring forth Silent Hill – or, in this instance, Silent Hill 3.
You see, Silent Hill 3’s Vincent Smith dropped a clever, easily-missed line on the protagonist Heather Mason towards the end of the game. Having fought through some of the most grotesque monsters the imagination could dream up, the cool Vincent simply turned to Heather on commenting about the danger of the monsters and said, bluntly, “They look like monsters to you?”
This can be taken one of two ways; either Vincent, who is in basic terms ‘the enemy’ doesn’t see them as monsters but empathises with them to a degree, or – as is the more widely-held assertion – that Heather Mason is genuinely psychotic and has spent the majority of the game actually fighting her way through monsters who, in this new perspective, are actually normal people. And this isn’t some quaint little notion; in traditional Silent Hill progression, the tale takes you through areas which would ordinarily be filled with people. Heather Mason, in such a light, isn’t simply a hero fighting against the dark forces that pervade the world; she’s a tool of those dark forces as well, corrupting her and putting blood on her hands so when finally confronted with the realities of her actions, she would have a mental and emotional break-down.
I mention this for a reason; who knows what a werewolf actually sees, or how a werewolves perceives the world around us? Horror isn’t simply from the gore, the violence or indeed the transformation. True horror is the uncomfortable conclusion from being made to look at what you have done. Video games do struggle with this from time to time, but no other medium has the scope that video games do to truly get inside the head of a werewolf, and really shock us with such a warped perspective on the world around us. By interacting and experiencing it first-hand, there is far more horror value in asking the player to get their hands well and truly bloodied.
We talk sometimes about “psychological horror”; all good horror is, in some form, psychological. To get inside the head of the reader, the viewer or the player and thrill, excite and terrify; but equally, also present them with decisions, and the repercussions of those decisions. It is why Resident Evil through to Resident Evil 3 have a strong fan-base; multiple paths, multiple events, multiple choices to be made which all impact on the story and the landscape you see and interact with. And there’s no better design philosophy than to get a player to play through the game again in order to make different, more informed choices.
Any good video game needs a good structure.
The wasteland of video games is littered with the remnants of those who aspired to noble goals without taking the necessary steps to attain those noble goals; the road to hell is so often paved with good intentions, after all. Even today, one casual glance at many Early Access games on Steam will tell you that this essential process is clearly not as readily obvious as one would presume it to be. And I say this as someone who used to write short stories.
Here was my process – we’ll ignore the end-state, because that’s the final point, but anyway. I would begin with a basic concept – as many times I wrote romantic fiction, you needed something that had emotional connotations; betrayal, forgiveness, secrets, lies, painful home truths. You then created a basic structure on that idea, summing up a beginning, a middle (usually the catalyst or turning point in the story) and an ending. From there, you could then sketch out in words some basic lines to explain the process of getting from that beginning to that ending via that middle point. And then you’d interject events or ideas that could create peaks and troughs that narratively make for a more compelling read – after all, if you’re ending on a sappy note, you need the characters to hit rock-bottom in order to utilise that ending as vindication. Similarly, if the ending is sad or wistful, you’ll likely want the characters to have been riding high at some point, or to have achieved some emotional climax in order to make the schadenfreude more cathartic.
In horror, it is all the more important for structure; classic horror tends to also have blackly comedic elements within the confines of the story because it contrasts with the horror so well. There is a reason why “Jill Sandwich” is so memorable from the original Resident Evil – the thrilling event that precedes it is punctuated with a corny piece of dialogue that sits in stark opposition to that thrill. It’s a bad, ill-timed, misjudged joke but it is because of ALL of those things that it absolutely works in that context. Bosses and change of scenery are all key points of a games structure, but the narrative needs to also have some life to it as well.
Too much of any one thing can breed apathy; if you have a game about simply slaughtering down people for no actual reason, then at some point it feels like rather than flowing in appreciative wavelengths you’ll have hit nothing more than a flatline. We all know I’m talking about Hatred here, so I won’t beat about the bush on that front. There’s such a thing as being “One-Note”; such experiences tend to feel repetitive and laboured, creating boredom and ultimately apathy. And, to pinch another games line, “Apathy Is Death”. A game is interactive, and the player needs to feel engaged; more than that, they need to be offered the chance to give a damn.
How will the game play out? Where does it begin? Where would the transformation happen? Will something else happen to give the werewolf pause for thought? Will another person need to interject in some way? And then there’s the final point…
THE END-GAME AND FAIL STATES
Video games are unique in that they offer the possibility of a fail-state; a “Game Over” screen, or a “You Died!” transition back to your last checkpoint. Not all games need or warrant a fail-state, of course, but it’s certainly something to consider especially if the game has any actual action. Immortality is great, but again, repercussions for ones failure can provide ample motivation. Dark Souls has a light overarching story, for example, but dying compels the player to do better next time.
Even if your game has no fail-state, it’s worth finally considering how it ends. This needs to be clearly defined in the story; if the werewolves are the enemy, then obviously the end-game objective is to kill them all. But in this instance, as the titular werewolf in question, it is important to define what exactly the motivation is, and to some extent, know how to similarly end the experience as well.
Is our werewolf seeking a cure? Redemption? Acceptance? Have they broken free of the control of the beast, or are they still in the thrall of the primal urge to hunt? This similarly defines the tone, and how the game ultimately unfolds. It’s not simply enough to go, “Oh, isn’t this cool?” – survival games are ten a penny these days, as are horror games with basic walking and monsters to throw yourself at/run away from. There needs to be an objective; people who play games like an objective as much as the process of accomplishing that objective.
At some point, you need to reach a point narratively where the player can finally disengage. That’s not a bad thing; to reach an ending is a reward for the player, but in similar fashion it is also vindication for the developers and designers that a player took the time and effort to reach that point as well.
Is our hero/villain going to die? Are they going to be redeemed? Lost to the curse for all eternity? Will they find a cure – is there even a cure to be found at the end of it all? You look at a movie like Wolf (a classic Jack Nicholson movie), where the climax is a fight with a younger male werewolf for the affections of a female, and where even though Jack’s character is doomed to the guise of a wolf, the end suggestion is that ultimately, for all that, he won’t be alone either.
Getting to this point means you’d have a good structural framework for any attempt at making a video game based on a werewolf.
Of course, these are just things I’d consider important in the design process of a werewolf video game. I think all five points would be what I ultimately look for in a good werewolf story; but more than that, I’d consider these key components of video games in general. A transformation doesn’t always need to be bestial, of course – it could be much more benign, such as becoming a superhero, or first picking up a weapon to fight back against something.
Also, it must be pointed out that werewolves are not the only lycanthropic form we have; take The Elder Scrolls, which has Werehawks, Werebears, Wereboars and – even if M’aiq the Liar isn’t the most reputable source of information – the odd tantalising ridiculousness of a Wereshark. Yeah. Actually, I’d love to see Bethesda work that one into an Elder Scrolls game, if only for the comedic value that comes with an arguably useless end-form. Another classic game is Bloody Roar; a fighting game with “Xoanthropes”, werecreatures from cats to bunnies. Yep, big white fluffy werebunny.
Whether it’s a big triple-A blockbuster or a small 2D indie side-scrolling brawler, I do believe all these points will be important. Maybe this is why werewolves rarely get such full attention; even pointing out the demands that a horror fan would put on such a game seems like a lot of work and effort, and let us be honest – even if a game hit all five points, the game still needs to be good. And “good” is a difficult objective for developers. We all aspire to “good”, but often get mired in “mediocre” through no fault of our own.
But, to end this post on; werewolves are cool. In an era of overexposure to zombies and vampires and aliens, it remains one of the most curious of situations that the werewolf is rarely shown the same care and attention of other horror staples. It is arguably also this which makes me love a good werewolf story more; they’re rare, and so each good one that I come across is cherished for its rarity.
I’m never going to ask for werewolves to enjoy the same stature that other horror staples like the humdrum zombie apocalypse have. I’m terribly, terribly bored of zombies these days. Over-exposure is a terrible fate, and a good subversive alternative is therefore all the more distinct because it ISN’T the norm. Bloodborne almost made me never want a werewolf game again… until I came to the acceptance it’s more a Lovecraftian horror, and not actually about werewolves.
But most of all… surprise me! Video games are an artform which encourages imagination and experimentation. Not all games will succeed.
That said, anything at all has got to be better than another damned zombie survival simulation…
Header image a screengrab from “The Wolfman”
Tooth and Claw, my friend. Tooth and claw.