Thursday, January 11, 2024

Mundaun's monsters are really cool

I play a lot of random, shitty little indie games you've never heard of. Don't take that first sentence too literally; I actually think of most of them are quite good. I'm fond of small projects made with a lot of heart- anything unique and interesting. One such game I played last year was Mundaun, which I heard about and thought (incorrectly) it was a survival horror game in the same style as Darkwood or Nightmare of Decay, some other small indie survival horrors- but Mundaun is quite a bit different. Not necessarily in a bad way either- and it gave me a decent bit of inspiration. The following article contains spoilers.

Mundaun is set in a very isolated region of the Alps- representing a very genuine and faithful recreation of a very small and isolated culture. The entire game uses pencil-drawn textures, and all of the in-game narration is done in the region's obscure dialect with English subtitles. It's more of a "Folkloric" type of horror, with the monsters and threats of the game being very specific to the game world itself. This is probably the best part of the game; and what inspired the creation of this blogpost.

Now to preface this; I should mention that I am obviously not a member of this culture or community this game is based off of- I think it's extremely idyllic and feels very genuine, but I am not one of them. The reason why I preface it like this is because of a concept that came out to me when playing the game; which is that the monsters and enemies of the game feel like something the people in this region of the world may have actually believed in in some way or another- a mixture of folklore and common-sense sort of stuff. I don't know if this is actually true; but it gave me a deeper appreciation for both the game's monsters and, more importantly, the concept of a "monster" in and of itself. I think the real value of the game to me was the refreshing and greater clarity over the concept of how folklore, something intrinsically based on TTRPG and fantasy-fiction writing, creates the secondary or fictional universe which we immerse ourselves in when we play games. In other words, Mundaun's monsters felt to the player and world of the game the same way werewolves, vampires, and goblins must have felt to the medieval European people that we base our fantasy fiction games on; something present and, while not insurmountable if you know what you're doing, still a danger and a threat.

In Mundaun, there are only really 3-4 monsters you encounter through the game, plus the final boss or encounter. The first are the hay monsters, slow with ranged attacks, but common and high in numbers. The second are the bee-keeper monsters, attacking you with a swarm of bees if you get too close. The third are the soldiers who can shoot you if you enter their illuminated area, the fourth are the snow beasts, who summon avalanches of snow and are more of a puzzle to avoid- considering you can't kill them in any way. Finally is the devil himself, who is more of an end-game boss in a few scripted sequences, which you can only deal with by the magic/holy lantern you get early in the game and whose importance is only revealed after piecing together a puzzle.

Now its important to remember that you don't encounter more then one type of monster at once at any point in the game. Monsters can come in groups but are usually fought solo, and you don't get anything for defeating a monster other then breathing space. It is much better to avoid them. I played this game incorrectly the first time, falsely thinking it was a survival horror game, trying to run over every hay-man with the Muvel truck to try and save up on ammo- but it's not really that kind of game. After taking the game at face value and playing it the way it was intended, these monsters really stuck out at me.

Why? Because of the thematic weaknesses and resources used to defeat them. Each monster can be fought or avoided by the player- but the method you fight each is somewhat specific to each monster. Because of their skills, location in the game world, or just general position of the player-character at the time when you fight them, you'll have different tools. What makes this so good is the realization of what is going on. The monsters are related to the life and folklore of the people who live in the region.

How do you deal with hay? You stick it with a fork or burn it- same as you deal with the hay men.
How do you deal with bees? Blow smoke at them, or put on a bee-suit.
How do you deal with enemy soldiers? Shoot them with your gun.
How do you deal with the Devil? Well- you can't directly. You'll need magic- or a little help from someone upstairs.

The monsters in Mundaun are not video game or RPG enemies to be defeated or surmounted, but a part of life, each with its own understood time and place, method, and level of danger. By the above metrics; it would seem that the snow beast is the strongest monster of all- the iconic monster of the game that can't be hurt by any weapons. Does that means cosmological the snow beast is stronger then the devil? Not really- it's a force of nature. It's the avalanche. You avoid it by staying out of the way. They even illustrate this by putting a gun and ammo at a vantage point above a snow beast and, upon shooting it, it simply gets mad and charges at you since bullets don't do anything. Why would a gun do anything against the dangers of a mountain?

You become immersed in and appreciative towards the culture and people portrayed in the game. By doing so- you understand that these monsters are not made up fantasy creatures as a bundle of stats and abilities but a reflection in part by the culture that made them. This, I think, is helpful in understanding fantasy world creatures and how people deal with or interpret them. We in the modern day are so far removed from this mythology and the cultural context that spawned it that we simply associate the monsters and their counters as being made up- silver counters werewolves because it's silver. Not because silver is a metal with many properties associated with purity, showing if food is spoiled, being used in medicine, and so on- the opposite of the danger and corruption/madness associated with someone becoming a wolf. Once again- even this isn't significant to a modern person- where as a medieval person would attribute a wolf to being a real threat, not some animal that's in constant danger of going extinct.

While it goes beyond the scale of this blogpost- I wanted to briefly mention the potential in using this style of monster and story-telling to enhance and improve TTRPGs and immersion in a fantasy settings. The idea of taking the real world thing, situation, or common fear and applying it to fantasy monsters as though they are projections are exaggerated/empowered versions of those fears and situations- even though no real world culture has to fear giant were-rats in the sewers, a fantasy culture might. And how does a fantasy culture deal with rat men? Well- they'd probably use wizards and fighters with armor and weapons- but what if instead a were-rat could be repelled by a regular sized mouse trap? It can't possibly hurt it, but it scares it and drives it away- the exact same way someone would deal with a regular rat.

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