Lore And Worldbuilding: The Art Of The Bestiary 1

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!

splatoon egyptian

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.

super smash bros bestiary

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.

okami brush gods potential cover

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.

final fantasy XII garif

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 potential cover

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.

monster hunter mizutsune

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.

Ashe Samuels

About Ashe Samuels

Illustrator and writer happily resigned to be forever obsessed with all things fantasy and science-fiction. Trying to make my mark on this world, however small, while I'm still here.

One thought on “Lore And Worldbuilding: The Art Of The Bestiary

  • Michael Hancock

    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.

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