A strong world needs a strong structure. If characters form the head and the plot the legs, lore would have to be the backbone from which everything springs forth.
This creature, built of characters, plot and lore, has breathed life into many a tabletop franchise and videogame, supplementing some of the most famous titles of all time (just ask the average nerd their thoughts on the recent Star Wars spin-off). The bestiary, in particular, is a subset of worldbuilding — the detailed facts, tantalizing snippets and lengthy essays on creatures and their surrounding environment in the fictional world you’re partaking in. Without any lore the foundation that supports science-fiction and fantasy worlds would be weak and fragile at best — you don’t need an excess of worldbuilding for slice-of-life settings, as we’re fairly familiar with our day-to-day reality. The bestiary is used as a tool to carve an identity into your imagination and add a tangibility to the decidedly intangible. While not all worldbuilding includes a bestiary, a bestiary only stands to improve the world it exists in. A good one, anyway!
Go all the way back to ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs and Greece’s statues. Hell, let’s go even further back, to paleolithic art: pottery, cave paintings. Documenting the world around us through sculpture and illustration has always been a key pillar of human creativity and curiosity. Ancient mythologies, for one, attempted to explain incredible feats of nature through a filter of imagination, hubris and the relevant aspirations or anxieties of the time. As a child, my creative sphere was hounded by the fascinating politics and poetics of Greek gods and monsters, acting as a way to explain my sense of self in relation to the world around me. It wasn’t until I picked up Pokémon, though, that I learned a whole new way of looking at the bestiary, reaffirming what I already loved about Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel with the bonus of being able to go and cultivate my own personal fantasy. The creatures I latched onto and spent my time with reflected my personality more accurately than any online quiz or psychological dissection ever could.
Even the mundane act of breeding dogs, cats and horses can be attributed to a partial desire to create our very own bestiary. Is it a wish to play God and exert control over our surroundings? Is it yet another manifestation of the boundless nature of human ingenuity? While each may hold a grain of truth, for me it’s just being a kid again. Bestiaries are chasing frogs and collecting rocks during the hot summer months, a supremely healthy addiction that knows no bounds and certainly no century. From cultivating eclectic appearances to unique physical traits and personality quirks, the sheer delight that accompanies bestiaries is a trick that has never lost its edge. But what, exactly, makes an effective game bestiary? Likewise, which specific elements derail the formula of a fantastic creature repository and send it crashing into an unnecessary or uninteresting pit?
It’s far easier to start off with what they shouldn’t be rather than what they should, and what bestiaries shouldn’t be is homework. The death knell for any fantastic setting is inspiring apathy instead of wonder. Learning about cool monsters should never feel like a chore — if a game presents a giant gold moth monster that spews stars from its eyes and somehow doesn’t capture the player’s imagination, you know something’s wrong! With the unique, fabricated rulesets that govern individual science-fiction and fantasy spaces, expecting even the most battle-hardened and trope-savvy geek to always follow your logic train is a messy derail waiting to happen. Just like all skeletons have a similar structure that are set apart with particular differences, so does properly weaving information in and out of the flow of the gameplay one that can be done in a variety of effective ways.
Many games revolve around the art of the bestiary, with Pokémon and Monster Hunter arguably some of the most famous in the videogame industry, and recent titles like Yo-Kai Watch and Moco Moco Friends rising to the forefront as new competitors. Crafting a bestiary in a game environment takes effort not just to reinforce your everyday rules with a mystical twist, but to make them just consistent enough in the gameplay to feel believable and consequential. A gaggle of interesting monsters with enough variety to appeal to many different kinds of people is a good start, particularly if a franchise is due in the future. Following up with a concrete theme, be it conventional or off-the-wall, helps as a launchpad for worldbuilding — the theme could be medieval Germanic fables, modern Japanese folklore or a hodgepodge of varied influences. But to stand out from the pack? You have to go the extra mile.
Some titles choose to make their bestiaries unlockable, rewarding your hard work and curiosity both with fun little tidbits. Super Smash Bros., existing as one giant shout-out to videogame history and prestige, featurs both legendary and obscure videogame protagonists and supporting characters in its fighting roster. Its trophy system acts both the part of a bestiary and a history lesson of sorts, presenting you with in-game figurines of everything from the playable characters to additional creatures in their respective titles to items or power-ups. Each one comes with a detailed account of the game-making process, the particular character/item/power-up’s unique traits and fun facts you might not know. Splatoon, another Nintendo title, keeps much of its worldbuilding to little historical scrolls you pick up during the main story quest, making its lore more a scavenger hunt than anything. If bestiaries were food, you could say Nintendo keeps its fanbase pretty well-fed.
Other games incorporate their bestiaries throughout the battle system, with a particular emphasis on history and culture. Ōkami , an action-adventure title originally released for the Playstation 2 and later adapted for the Wii, became a cult classic both for its cel-shaded graphics and its rich recreation of Japanese mythology. Like many fantasy games, it rewards the player with additional information about creatures and bosses slain — what makes this title so special, though, was the execution. With additional information about both creatures and bosses slain, it took it a step further and gave every monster, boss and character an original ukiyo‑e painting. It’s like having an art book in your back pocket, proving particularly wonderful for artists and historians alike. I often found myself flipping through Ōkami’s visual presentation with a sense of wonder, its style feeling timeless in a relatively modern game.
Even now Final Fantasy XII boasts one of the strongest and most thorough forms of videogame bestiaries, even as it seems pretty run-of-the-mill at a glance. Throughout the game it fills up your book with information about the creatures you’ve defeated, from everyday monsters to plot-related bosses to special marks you have the option of hunting down. Yadda yadda, right? However, its biggest strength lies in its stunning art direction — circumventing generic dragons and orcs in favor of colorful sphinx-birds and octopus-panther hybrids. Every inch of detail on every unique creature in this game is choking with intrigue. My long-standing rule concerning a good design is whether or not it makes me ask questions, and Final Fantasy XII’s entire visual repertoire has me acting like I was born yesterday. Thankfully, the writing and translation efforts on the part of the English localization team did a fantastic job of expanding upon the unpredictable nature of the information you expose. One unlocked chapter might be an excerpt from an in-game biologist, musing on the mysterious traits of the creature you’ve recently slain. Another chapter might not be information about the monster, but the history of the castle in which you discovered it.
Let’s move to what not to do with a game that came right after — Final Fantasy XIII. Although it follows a similar format of supplementing gameplay with an optional lore book, it severely stumbles in actually weaving lore throughout the narrative. Where Final Fantasy XII has an evocative bestiary and lore book balanced with a subtle and understated approach to the main plot, Final Fantasy XIII opts for another extreme — using a blunt (and many would say downright amateurish) approach: dropping term after term with little explanation. This is an incredibly delicate balance that can be very natural (there’s no need to stop the plot to pull out the fantasy dictionary, after all) or incredibly confusing and off-putting. Considering how essential it is to understanding the nature of the god-like creatures that screwed over the Final Fantasy XIII cast compared to Final Fantasy XII’s more political plot, this seemingly small thorn hampers the game more and more as it goes on.
Mass Effect’s codex (a term originally referring to the replacement of scrolls to wooden tablets in ancient times) supports an already rich and ever-expanding world teeming with multiple planets, alien species and intermingling histories. Although the game takes care to elaborate on its complex intergalactic politics with extensive dialogue choices and optional side missions, the codex offers you tasty little morsels of information on smaller details that may interest you. Didn’t know that quarians are all vegetarians due to their demanding lifestyle and limited resources? You do now! Curious about turian art or krogan battle songs? Dig around and an already expansive world will seem that much larger. Information isn’t limited to alien species or monsters you tangle with, either, and you can pry apart information about distant planets, technology and weapon upgrades alike.
The best for last: games that are all about the bestiary. Yo-Kai Watch, a Japanese mythology and culture repository much like Ōkami, is a modern, family-friendly take on the adventure RPG — it updates Japanese folklore without a hint of cynicism and instead embraces its source material with humor, warmth and more than a little creativity. In a welcome twist, you don’t capture monsters so much as strike a bargain with them to work alongside you — battles are more suggestions than outright commands, with your companions sometimes falling asleep or becoming distracted during a fight. Basically, Yo-Kai Watch addressed what Pokémon is still wrestling with in sequels, fanfictions and game theory speculations.
Monster Hunter begins and ends with legendary creatures, its gameplay revolving around the mundane acts that lead to the slaying and capturing of massive and powerful beasts. It’s a series I’ve only recently gotten into, but better late than never — its careful and loving implementation of studying, tracking and influencing monsters just as much as fighting them is incredibly refreshing and leads to some interesting design choices. The recent and highly acclaimed Fallout 4 has more than a few neat tidbits in its games, such as delivering the egg of a Deathclaw back to its mother, casting one of the game’s scariest enemies in a softer light. MMOs, due to their nature as a continuous digital entity, have an organic relationship with bestiaries through updating and refining pre-existing knowledge. It’s like everyday zoology and biology, but with more werewolves and selkies.
Art design is the lifeblood of any interesting world, and videogames, being the visual medium they are, are no exception. Even the most thorough and curious bestiary would have a hard time gripping me if the designs weren’t compelling or at least consistent. I’ve perused Kickstarters with promising ideas and expensive AAA titles alike only to find my attention span wavering when faced with lackluster concept art or ideas lifted from the ‘I Want To Be The Next J.R.R. Tolkien’ handbook. In a genre downright saturated with impressive examples, standing out takes a mixture of technical expertise and emotional panache. A good rule of thumb to follow is that, if I can find something better elsewhere, you’re likely on the wrong track. I’d rather see technically average art with a strong design than the other way around.
I love bestiaries in my games because I love more. More about these characters I’ve fallen in love with. More about these cool-as-hell creatures. More of that magic trick that has me believing, for days, that I’m truly somewhere else entirely. A strong codex or cleverly placed lorebook contributes to the overall effort of stretching our imagination through an interactive medium — while true flexibility in gameplay is an illusion (programming can only go so far), a bestiary is an incredibly effective way of achieving immersion.
Bestiaries do their job best when they reignite child-like yearning or remind us of our humanity. One of the quickest ways to pique my interest in a videogame or any sort of media is to give me an entire fictional zoology to pour my heart and soul into, with bonus points if I can interact with them outside of violence or forced capture. Finding out that the stud of armored horses you’ve been following around are part of a breed of warbeasts that were eventually set free into the wild due to their temperamental personality and shifting technological standards? Facing up to a fearsome dragon only to have it shoot poisonous bubbles at you instead of fire? Discovering that the creature you teamed up with really likes to eat bamboo shoots? Awesome.
Given that your choice of Pokémon starter is akin to a Zodiac reading, it stands to reason bestiaries say a lot about our own inner workings.
Great article. A lot of games keep a tally of whether the player has encountered all the enemy types, but it often comes down to a quality beastiary as to whether that feels like exploration, or just a chore.
One of my favorites is the bestiary for Dragon Quest IX, where the low key double alliteration fits the game’s playful tone (as well as being a masterful act of translation.)
ex) “Slime: Common monsters that are found all over the world.Their simple yet lovable form attracts many admirers. They’re unimpressive alone, but if a few of them focus the force of friendship, they can make a miraculous metamorphosis.”
“Funghoul: Flambé these foul funghi to stop them sending you to sleep with their sickly Sweet Breath. Mushroom-like monsters who love musty, manky places, and relish rolling around in freshly fallen leaves.”
“Canibelle: They wander the world searching for souls to consume, believing that each victim’s cry of despair makes them ever more beautiful. Made when misunderstood maidens, bitter at being badly treated, sell their souls to become beautiful beasts.”
If you have a high pun tolerance, they’re a lot of fun.