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Where are All the Giant Monster Games?

Let’s call them empowerment simulators: games that take avatar strength to a whole new scale. The revenge of the giant monster movie hasn’t inspired its equivalent in video games. Only a few exist, and when they come out they’re usually shunned by the developer. That sluggish single-player 2014 Godzilla says it all – given the giant monster’s most lucrative IP, Bandai Namco couldn’t scrape together a decent game of any kind, much less one that does an undervalued genre a bit of justice.

But they’re still trying. A game called City Shrouded in Shadow will be coming out October 2017 for PS4 in Japan. In it you play as a bystander weaving in and out of destruction, handholding, screaming, but not fighting. Though the addition of a whole cadre of licensed monsters (from Ultraman to Gamera to Godzilla) certainly sweetens the deal, it doesn’t look a lot different from the PS2 survival game Disaster Report, in which the threats were more terrestrial, but looked about the same from the ground.

Developers have trouble coming up with objectives for giant monster games, and there’s a good reason for that. Setting everything in a game to the same scale is a staple of spritework – it used to be impossible to create anything bigger. This means that there’s no real template for how your character behaves or how objectives work when the protagonist (or the enemy) towers over the world.

So most games that feature kaiju properties become fighting games, where everyone can be the same size so design can remain business as usual. This goes back to Godzilla: Monster of Monsters on the NES, all the way to Godzilla Unleashed on the Wii. These are technically giant monster games, but nothing in them communicates scale (besides backdrops) – they are essentially kaiju-themed only, with gameplay that would not be different in Soul Calibur.

Godzilla Generations on Dreamcast and Godzilla on PS4 try to fix this, at the cost of everything else. These games are obsessed with size to the point that there are no objectives – fun, and the player, are cursory to them. These are all in a sense based on Rampage from the arcade, which was saved by short playtime and a board-based design. But in three dimensions, in a ten-hour campaign, on a modern console, the design just doesn’t work.

Omnipotence is cathartic, but does no favors to objective-based game design (Superman games have a similar problem). Looking through my headspace for the best giant monster games I’ve ever played, I could only come up with one that solves the size problem, by finding giant-sized goals for a perfectly empowered player.

Katamari Damacy doesn’t seem like a kaiju game, but the cutesy art style tricks the genre into believing in itself. In every sense it is a monster rampage game the likes of Godzilla on PS4, but the difference is in its goal-setting and its rhythm. The game is fast and Godzilla is not. It’s based on projection and progress: a daikaiju experience is its goal. You ache to be big enough to destroy the world, and Katamari bases every aspect of its addicting gameplay on micro-rewarding your ache.

As a result, it’s one of gaming’s most empowering experiences. It captures the essence of city-stomping, speeds it up, gives it goals. It’s the full campaign of which other efforts like Destroy All Humans are barely a mission.

Your only other option for a well-crafted experience with monsters is in grappling with them. By far the most renowned is Shadow of the Colossus, a game in which size is a canvas for monsters designed more like architecture than traditional kaiju. There is a fraction of this experience in hack n’ slash games, in God of War and Bayonetta for instance, which show off their giant children like exhibits to be exploited and discarded after their battle sequence. None make it so central as Team Ico’s boss-obsessed adventure, and none capture the same sense of unnerving scale. Monsters in Shadow must be traversed before you can kill them: you connect with them on a higher emotional level than with a video game enemy. You feel no remorse for the dinosaurs slaughtered in their own nests in Monster Hunter. But the colossi fall like the passing of a great myth into memory. You feel like you’ve taken something from the world.

This mental-emotional connection to monster mayhem is central to the genre. There’s a reason so many Godzilla films feature telepaths and children – there’s a secret allure to being connected to and empowered by gigantic things, one that games should easily be able to capture within its medium. But attention to scale and experimentation with devices of control and artificial response just aren’t explored enough to be proven: The Last Guardian imploded on its own experimental nature, and Scalebound was cancelled, perhaps because of it.

The AAA industry is facing pressure from the Indie scene in that it’s far less flexible. Its productions drive out simple intuition for guaranteed gain and predictable genre work. But since it owns the realm of graphics and particle-tracking and map generation, it would do well to wonder about the kinds of games people dream of playing.

There was a PS2 game called Robot Alchemic Drive, a flawed game but the perfect kaiju concept, in which you played a person on the ground controlling a city-sized robot in Pacific Rim-style skirmishes in the clouds. I still dream about it, though it doesn’t look like it used to in my mind. I’m sore for that kind of pleasure in a games industry that’s capable of it. I hope City Shrouded in Shadow awakens the sleeping beast of this genre, but that would require budgetary risks and player-centric decision-makers. Even if it’s great it’s 50/50 whether it will make to the States. This is why people buy consoles region unlocked.

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