Roles of Monsters: Shockers

I did say in the kamikaze article that they can provoke some emotional response (really, just panic or fear) from the player. Shockers are a class of monster dedicated to making the player panic, through some mechanic or because of how it works, or scary to the point where he gets a little afraid from just hearing a sound from one of them. For example, a kind of famous moment from my playthrough of Quake 1, a friend of mine signed in on chat and it played the Doom 2 Archvile’s sight sound (that I set to play when she logs on). Despite that monster not being in the game, I still reacted and immediately dove for cover to avoid it.

Now, this is probably the most subjective article I’ve written on monster roles. How much panic a particular monster inspires widely depends on the player, his skill with the game, and his play style. If you disagree with what I say about a particular monster, I hope you do still see the point that I’m trying to make.

Fiend, from Quake

Quake’s Fiend is the first monster I consider a shocker (and honestly, what prompted me to write this article). It has some of the highest health in the game, and is very quick besides. It attacks by slashing with its claws when up close, and will leap at the player if it’s not quite close enough, doing pretty high damage if it connects. Several times in the game, the player walks through a doorway or opens a door, hears the throaty cry of a fiend and has to react quickly to avoid getting a face- or side-full of spikes and claws.

The player’s first encounter with a Fiend is one of the most frantic spots of the game; it’s leaping everywhere and you’re doing your best to avoid it, but you’ve probably already taken one or two good hits from it. If you’ve fought it enough times before, you know what to expect and how to deal with it, but not that first time. Because it’s so in-your-face with its mobility and damage, and because it won’t die easily, this thing makes the perfect example of a shocker.

Spawn, from Quake
Another example from Quake (seriously, the last episode of the game on Hard mode is one of the most frantic and difficult games I’ve played), the Spawn fits beautifully into this category. It keeps a low profile, and announces its presence with a quiet growl, but then starts bouncing all around trying to crash into you while making a very distinct clicking/slapping sound. It does lower damage than the Fiend, but is harder to avoid, and around the end of the game they appear in high enough numbers that they can be considered swarmers. Its real danger, however, is that it explodes when killed, doing as much damage as if you fired a rocket at your feet. Worse still, because its attack requires that it gets close to you, it’ll probably be right next to you when it explodes.

While the Fiend is shocky by virtue of its mobility and damage, most others are because of some innate mechanic. The Spawn is a great shocker because of a mix of both; it’s so in your face, but also has its kamikaze secondary ability. The best qualities of shockers are either high mobility or some stealth, and usually some high damage that’s tricky to avoid. It’s not an exact science, however; you’ll probably have to play around with a few different designs in order to achieve the desired effect.

Hunter, from Half-Life 2
Like with most dangerous monsters, good introductions are helpful to have. With shockers, it can be helpful to inform the player that this is something that should really be feared. Half-Life 2, famous for introducing its monsters and gimmicks fairly gently, does it very nicely again. In Half-Life 2, Episode 2, towards the beginning of the game, you enter a deserted area and hear odd sounds from an unknown enemy. After looking around for a way to continue, you and your sidekick Alyx are ambushed by a Combine Hunter, which knocks you unconscious and mortally wounds Alyx (Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s ten minutes into the game and you should be playing it anyway). The next part of the game is looking for a way to help her. Later on, about halfway through the game, you’re given another introduction, where you and Alyx hide from a patrol of Hunters, before attacking and killing them. In this way, the game lets you know that this is a monster that should be feared and taken seriously. It can work pretty nicely.

The unfortunate thing is that when you tell the player that this is a monster that’s worth panicking about, you have to make sure that the monster is worth panicking about. While again, this is pretty subjective, I don’t think the Hunter is as much a great a shocker as the Fiend, for example. It takes and deals more damage than most monsters and can be pretty quick, but it’s not as in-your-face as the Fiend or Spawn. It mostly hangs back and fires its flechettes at you. However, while it’s a great monster and another excellent design to come from Half-Life 2, I’m mostly bringing it up as an example of how your game can introduce shockers.

Archvile, from Doom 2
Some shockers just need one particular gimmick. Doom’s Archvile is pretty quick and takes some heavy damage, but also has one very interesting attack. It sets you on fire (just an aesthetic thing; it doesn’t damage you at this point), and after a few seconds of channeling, if there is still a clear line-of-sight between you and the Archvile, it blows you up dealing heavy damage and throwing you in the air. It requires you to stay on your toes. The main gimmick of the Archvile, however, is that it resurrects other monsters. Depending on the arena, all of these factors combined can really make the player panic; especially if it’s an area the player already went through and left some bodies behind.

It can really be considered a support/shocker (though I don’t consider it a support because of how dangerous it is, even when its alone), and is even used as a turret occasionally because of how its attack works. It’s a great example of a monster that can fill several roles depending on how it’s used. Some shockers just need some basic gimmick, however, depending on that gimmick, to be effective. For example, the Poison Headcrab, despite being a hard support. I have no doubt Quake 4’s Teleport Dropper would be a good shocker if it didn’t have those crippling problems it does, but it just wasn’t dangerous enough for that.

In general, effective shockers are ambush monsters. They work a lot better when they get the drop on the player; think of the Fiend, leaping at you from behind doors or from around a corner. Or Poison Headcrabs jumping at you from the shadows. If you design your shocker to be focused on ambushing, loud, distinct sounds and high mobility are really beneficial. If a player’s startled, he’s probably not going to fight back effectively against a monster that’s already in his face. You shouldn’t do this very often, though; Doom 3 is heavily criticized for pulling so many cheap scares throughout the course of the game. Pulling this as few times as Quake did, though, can make for a few memorable fights (Play Quake 1 E1M3 on hard mode, you will know exactly what moment I’m talking about).

Almost by definition, shockers become less shocky as the player gets more familiar with them. People fear what they don’t understand, so as they come to find patters with shockers, they don’t fear them as much. This is why I think the Fiend, Poison Headcrab and Archvile are so great; even when you understand them, they still require quick reaction, so they still startle you and make you scramble to avoid them even if you perfectly understand how they work. The Spawn still feels really random and unpredictable in its movements, so it’s a bit more stressful to fight as well. Always make sure your shocker can hold up after the elements of surprise and mystery are gone, so it can still fulfill its role as a shocker. One great example is the Wraith from Red Faction: Armageddon. Even without any upgrades, you can tag it with the magnet gun, melee it a few times, and it dies without much of a challenge. It just can’t hold up as a challenge once the player knows how it works.

I feel like shockers would do very well in games with a lot of ambiance, that try to draw the player into the world. Doom 3 was one such game, with beautiful ambient sounds and good detail all around; you occasionally heard gunfire from a surviving marine or the distinct growl of some particular monsters. If you have a well-designed shocker in a game like that, you just need to play a sound from it, and the player will react, usually getting more cautious or jumpy. Doom 3 tried to do this with the Commando Zombie, but like Red Faction: Armageddon’s Wraith, the Commando Zombie just couldn’t hold up to being a shocker after you realize you can duck under its tentacle attack and just blow it away with the shotgun. However, the intent was there, and if it was more dangerous, it would have worked beautifully.

In survival-horror games, you should approach shockers through a certain lens. In most games of this genre, most monsters only make you panic because the game itself is built around it. The environment tries to hide the monster, sounds and stingers play when they appear, and the game mechanics are such that you don’t have an easy time reacting to their attack. If you try to decide if a monster in a survival-horror game is a shocker, ask yourself if the monster would have the same effect on the player in a game like Quake, where the player is more capable. For example, in Dead Space, most monsters try to surprise you, but the only one I think of as a shocker is the Twitcher (because it’s so fast and hard to avoid). The Slasher, Leaper or Brute would be perfectly fine to deal with in Quake, but I would consider the Twitcher a shocker because of how difficult it would still be in that other engine. Again, however, it had a problem; if you upgraded a certain weapon’s damage enough, you could literally kill them in one shot with no effort, making it useless as a shocker.

Shockers can work pretty well in main encounters; Quake proved that a shocker (Fiend) combined with a turret for area denial (an Ogre on a high perch) can work pretty nicely, for example. The potential problem is if those monsters can hurt one another (in the case of kamikazes especially), and especially if the game has Doom- and Quake-style infighting, where monsters will fight one another if they take damage. Many shockers that are just all over the place in combat can provoke this a lot. That’s when shockers could work better as lone-wolves because they can wreck encounters if they aren’t used carefully.

One small problem that both turrets and shockers (more than most other roles) run into is that the player can potentially just retreat into an area he’s already cleared out and is more convenient and fight there. The shocker would probably follow along and the turret might not be able to, defeating the purpose of an encounter with both. Quake deals with this by usually locking you into an arena, preventing retreat, and unlocking. Depending on how often this is done, this can work well or be a complete disaster. Quake allowed the player to retreat most of the time, but there were occasions where the player gets locked into a battle; usually for especially difficult battles, so they don’t lose their impact or challenge. However, this is a subject for some other time; I’m just bringing it up here because it affects shockers and turrets quite a bit and needs some thought from the developer when he designs an encounter.

Like fodder, shockers can help the designer dictate the flow of combat and gameplay in general. After lulling the player into some form of security with fodder, you can throw a shocker at him to bring the level of involvement right back up. The main objective is to allow low-energy segments as breaks while keeping the player engaged, and then draw him right back into a high-energy segment; something shockers can really excel at.

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5 responses to “Roles of Monsters: Shockers

  1. You don’t mention my favorite shocker monster, the water serpent creatures from Hexen. I find them bloody brilliant- you can’t deal with them by running away (as they’re only vulnerable when attacking) and they STILL make me jump today, but I can’t think of a monster I have more fun fighting.

    • I actually have no idea how to classify Hexen’s Stalker. It has some shocker elements, some tank elements (sort of), but doesn’t have a lot of health and damage. It’s one of my favourite designs because of that, but I don’t feel like it’s dangerous enough to be a hard shocker.

  2. I should have come back and read this earlier. Stalkers are shockers because of the quick horror shock you get when they pop up in front of you. What helps their low health is the fact you can’t hit them unless they’re attacking. Not many monsters are completely invisible and invincible until they attack and more horror games could use this sort of monster, low health and potentially low threat level unless you get surrounded by em included.

  3. Just reading this post makes me want to create a Doom like FPS so I can design a shocker 🙂 The Archvile however is probably one of my most memorable monsters.

    I remember playing Doom 2 at my friends house and it was a truly terrifying moment when we realised that the already hardcore monster was bringing back Imps, Hell Knights and everything else we spent a tough time killing.

    The perfect monster to fit that role in Doom I think.

    Cheers for the great insight.

    • Well, Doom does have a hell of a modding community, still. I’ve made quite a few interesting monsters if only as resources for other people to use in map packs, so if you want to get started somewhere then that’s a good place to do so. 😀

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