Hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think!
Worldview: A magical world of whimsy
Theme: Rushing and resting
Frantic, chaotic gameplay can be one of the greatest sources of silliness. Just imagine playing Super Mario Bros Wii U with friends – things are flying around, you don’t know what’s happening or why you just died, but you can’t stop laughing.
Wiz ‘n’ Liz, released for the Sega Genesis in 1993, alternates periods of this kind of high-stakes frenzy with those of relaxed experimentation, in the process creating an off-the-wall world of whimsy and surprise.
In each level the player saves “wabbits” and collects letters that float up from saved wabbits to spell a magic word and open an exit from the level before time runs out.
“Wood Land,” with pumpkins afloat and ready to be collected.
Unlike the typical platformer, levels don’t have enemies, pits to fall in, or even a physical end – they loop left-to-right with the player literally running in circles.
There’s always something to gather until the very last second, whether its fruits for spells, timers to gain more time for the next level, or stars that can be used to buy fruit.
Since timers and stars appear only after you’ve gathered enough fruit to take one home – ie. when you’re likely very low on time – they feel like rare and special treasures.
And, whenever you’re down to the last ten seconds there’s a chance you’ll find a glowing circle worth an extra 30 seconds – huge in Wiz n Liz time. This sets the stage for epic wins, such as the time I died when the clock hit zero, but as my character evaporated into nothingness as per the game’s death animation it came in contact with the 30 second boost and put me back in the game!
Out of time!
In between levels the player goes back to their home, where they can mix any fruits they successfully gathered to cast spells. This break times gives the player a chance to catch their breath and usually rewards them with something useful or at least fun.
The player’s home base, with the fruit-mixing cauldron on the left.
Spells’ effects include straightforward bonuses like more stars, mini-games to get extra lives, more neutral effects like randomly changing all your fruit to another type, and downright mean things like re-opening completed levels. In any case, the spells’ variety keeps the player guessing what curveball will be thrown next, and with 14 fruit it takes awhile to try all 196 combinations.
Ye Olde Magic Shoppe sells all the fruit (and time and lives).
When a certain number of rounds in each “Land” have been completed the player faces a boss.However, there’s no targeting or shooting, you simply hold down a button to continue “zapping” the boss while moving to avoid them. These boss battles are mostly a matter of following a hypnotic pattern and surviving long enough to win.
The bosses tend to have disturbingly detailed faces.
The visual style is what can only be described euphemistically as “90’s PC game” and may not hold up to the modern eye. But there’s no denying that the graphics are detailed and the animations smooth, especially for the era.
Naturally, a major visual focus of the game is the fruits (and vegetables, technically speaking, but the game calls them all “fruits”) used in spells. If you gather enough of the type of fruit that appears in a given level, one will float behind the player in a sparkly trail of magic, signifying that they can take it home. In addition to giving the player a sense of accomplishment, it also accentuates their movement and momentum.
A banana follows Wiz in a sparkly trail.
Afterwards the fruit appears back in home base hanging in the trees. Here it will follow behind the player just like in the levels if touched, and then can brought to the cauldron to mix a spell. The catch is that fruit only lasts for three levels, spinning faster at each stage of decay until it’s gone for good.
Being one of the only things that appears both in levels and the home base, fruit connects these two worlds of frantic frenzy and chill experimentation. It gives the player something extra to work for during levels and, if you succeed, something fun to play with during break time.
Frozen trolls and giant iguanas (???) mysteriously decorate the levels.
The fairy tale-like style of the witch and wizard couple and their cute wabbits is offset by the unexplained creepiness of secondary elements throughout the game, like the moon’s face, strange monolithic objects littered throughout levels, and the bosses’ designs. (Bosses’ faces are creepy enough to begin with, but their facial features also turn into hollow holes as you damage them, making them even more disturbing.)
This creepiness is just kinda there without any explanation, making the otherwise cute atmosphere a little unsettling.
Comic book sound effects like “BOP!” and “ZIP!” appear whenever you rescue a wabbit, while the magic words needed to open exits are various gibberish words.
The main source of text is in the game’s commands. When arriving home after a level, for example, you’re instructed to “Mix that fruit!” while mini-games give you instructions like “Splat those dudes!” (which means launch tomatoes in the faces of two caricatures of the developers).
“Pings,” “pows” and other audio flourishes accompany your actions, which, together with the juicy visual touches, keep things dynamic and silly.
While most of the music is upbeat and fun, boss battles use low-key tracks that suits their hypnotic nature.
The only actions the player can take are running and jumping, which are used for everything from selecting levels to mixing fruit. It’s a simple but effective recipe, and whether you’re flying through a pack of wabbits or picking fruit from the trees, the controls are tight and responsive. The swerving inertia whenever you change direction also adds to the sense of urgency as you race around each level.
The mini-games unlocked with spells vary from a clone of the games “Snake” to object-collecting and obstacle-dodging games. Considering their variety it’s impressive that they all play surprisingly well.
A mini-game unlocked with a spell.
The game’s frantic levels offer as much excitement as you can snatch up, while the breaks in between at your home let you relax and enjoy whatever you managed to gather. The whimsical attention to detail that permeates both sections of the game keeps it fresh and engaging despite the repetitive nature of levels.
Although the wide variety of spell effects helps make it feel like anything could happen, the negative ones can leave you feeling punished for experimenting. With all the imagination and care the developers put into the game, I think they could have come up with a wider variety of helpful and or at least funny spells.
Personally, I loved collecting and combining fruit in Wiz ‘n’ Liz to see what might happen. I tried to capture this feeling in my game “Monster Garden” by having each monster character unlock different ways of interacting with the world and other characters.
Like Wiz ‘n’ Liz, Monster Garden alternates between levels (called “seedlings” in my game) that are more intimidating but also give you the chance to bring some excitement and fun back to your home base (in the form of new monster friends, in my game’s case).
The monster garden, your “home base” for the game.
Unlike Wiz n Liz, however, I wanted to provide surprise without random punishment. That’s why Monster Garden has no “game over.” Even if you fail to complete a seedling, you can always move on to the next, and you’ll never “lose” the game.
I also enjoyed the subtle creepiness throughout Wiz n Liz, especially in the boss designs. I tried to evoke this slightly off-putting atmosphere in Monster Garden, including in my own bosses.
My favorite Wiz ‘n’ Liz boss.
If you’re in the mood to explore a creepy world of whimsy and magic, then either of these games might be just what you need! There is a short demo and details about Monster Garden here on itch.io.
This is the first in a series of posts about games that inspired Monster Garden.
Monster love has to do with the role of monsters and how they’re treated in games, but it’s also about more than just monsters. It’s about how we deal with the unknown in general, which monsters often represent.
Monsters are usually either a threat that must be eliminated to protect the familiar human world (ex. most RPGs) or else wild creatures that must be captured and controlled (ex. Pokemon). Even if they have cool designs or powerful abilities, monsters aren’t often treated with much respect or, well, love.
You may not have heard of The Spirit Engine 2, but it’s an indie cult classic from 2007 with incredible characters and writing. It also has a lot of original monster designs – no dragons, for example, which at this point are so common that it’s tough for them to evoke any sense of mystery or monster love.
But what’s really nice about SE2’s monsters is that, while powerful and beyond the realm of human knowledge, they’re also kinda just there, doing their thing in the background and not a big deal.
Take, for example, the cloud children. Your party watches and admires them from afar in one scene as a character explains their migration patterns. This frank acceptance of the creatures and appreciation of their beauty is key to understanding monster love.
Denver explains the “cloud children” as the party admires them from the airship.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn, on the other hand, is technically a standard platformer where you advance through each level eliminating enemies in your way, and yet the game manages to evoke so much monster love. I think a big part of this is the atmosphere of safety and warmth, which I wrote about in more detail here.
You don’t kill enemies in this game, you unravel them into a roll of yarn that can be thrown or simply set down. Considering that the environment itself is constantly coming apart and being woven back together, getting rid of enemies in this way hardly feels violent at all.
And just look at the Waddle Dees – stumbling along, endearingly unaware and basically harmless. It’s like they’re just hanging around, inviting you to play if you happen to feel like it.
A Waddle Dee gets sucked up by Kirby in UFO form!
You may be starting to notice some common themes about monster love, but get ready for a surprise, because monster love doesn’t apply only to monsters!
That’s right, the human characters of Romancing SaGa 3 filled me with monster love, thanks to the delightful lightbulb system (which I wrote about in a longer post here).
The game is low on dialogue, with some characters scarcely uttering more than a single sentence, so it feels all the more special when a character gets an idea in the middle of battle (represented by a light bulb over their head) and shouts out the name of a new move. It ends up feeling like a special part of the character’s personality has just been revealed, even if the moves themselves are generic and available to all characters.
LIGHTBULB SO EXCITING WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN!!!
The characters’ simplicity combined with these bursts of inspiration gives them a surprising sense of autonomy, as if they have their own ideas and goals beyond the player’s understanding or control.
Now, maybe it sounds like I’m dressing up what is essentially a randomized skill triggering system – but I can’t deny that it triggers monster love.
There was also a moment in Gladius when a simple idle animation sparked monster love for me. Characters tend to twist around dramatically when idle, which I imagine was meant to look like scanning the area for danger. However, they end up looking oddly unaware and vulnerable, glancing to the sides even as an enemy charges straight at them.
This was especially amusing with the Samnites, one of the largest and most powerful units in the game. Once, I was on the verge of losing a battle, but as a last ditch effort I had my hulking Samnite use an ability called “Befoul Area,” which hurts enemies and makes them run away by farting. She proceeded to glance around innocently as per her idle animation and release a cloud of bright green poot gas that sent enemies running in all directions and effectively enabled me to win the battle.
Monster love in this case has to do with the combination of power and lack of self-awareness; the character behaves with the same vulnerability whether being rushed by an enemy or turning the tide of battle with a poot.
Treating bizarre creatures with casual frankness, playing around in a safe, warm world, following mysterious rules, and having an endearing lack of self-awareness… All of these reflect different aspects of monster love, but at its core it’s about treating the unknown with curiosity and respect instead of the desire to destroy it in the name of protecting what’s familiar.
“Liking and loving the unknown is an act of loving yourself. Of accepting that part of you which has doubt, which has fear, anger, sadness, jealousy.
See, monsters and demons exist as representations and manifestations of those feelings, from giant beasts who express our anxiety about our small place in the universe, to tiny and cute critters who, like us, get angry or sad about small things, to the frightening mirror images of us who represent the hatred or evil inside us.
Monster love, then, is an act of self-love in that you can have empathy and care for these creatures; for a small beast who is misguided, a big one who is proud but lonely, a creature who is hurting, who is angry, who is afraid or lost, a ghost who is bearing a deep grudge.”
I think there’s a lot of area to be explore here, and I hope more games will try treating monsters with the love and respect they deserve. In fact, I just so happen to be working on such a game, appropriately titled Monster Garden. It’s a short, simple adventure through strange worlds to find monster friends to join you in your monster garden – and create a lot of monster love in the process.
Exploring the world of the second “seedling” in Monster Garden.
As a final note, here are a few more brief examples from some of my favorite games.
・Harvest Moon 64: For me, the poorly translated dialogue of Harvest Moon, combined with the game’s cheerful tone, was very monster lovable. There’s something to be said about the way “unnatural” writing can make you feel like you’re in an new world, adding excitement and mystery and laying the groundwork for monster love.
I love the “Gourmet man” from Harvest Moon 64!
・Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song: The bizarre uncanny valley-ness of the character models, which have huge “chibi” heads but are rendered in smooth realism, struck a chord of monster love, especially combined with their overly elaborate attacks and cute post-battle poses.
・Goddess Reborn: As I wrote in another post, the majority of the game involves ham-fistedly steamrolling through a world of mystery and intrigue, which may not sound very monster loving at first. But, the main character’s frank acceptance of the strange things she encounters combined with the novelty of the world and character design filled my heart with monster love.
And, one word: Morbazan. I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve played the game, you know what I mean.
If you’re interested in this monster love thing, too, I’d love to hear your thoughts – feel free to contact me on Twitter at @williamzwood or in the comments. Monster Garden is currently on Steam Greenlight, with a demo and pre-ordering on itch.io.
I know I haven’t been posting much, but I’m excited to announce that I’ll be liveblogging an “unconference” about play, games and work that’s happening in Berlin this Saturday called LABOURGAMES.
I also have some ideas for game design blog posts that I think I’ll do in a series called “games that inspired Monster Garden,” starting next year. So there should be some more activity here in the near future. 🙂
Thanks to everyone who has been checking out the blog in the meantime over the past few months despite the lack of activity! (I can see that you exist thanks to Google Analytics, mwahaha.)