Like many people all around the world during lockdown, I spent some quality time with my siblings hunched around a video game. During a standard run through one of Super Mario 3D World’s many colourful levels, my sister asked if it was weird for Mario to be running around and attacking a bunch of cute creatures minding their own business.
I told her that it’s just the art style, and that having a gigantic ghoul coated in the skins of myriad Italian plumbers wouldn’t really fit the tone. But it did get me thinking. Cute enemies aren’t unique to the Mario series, or even Nintendo games – this juxtaposition in design can be found throughout the video game industry, from the early days of arcade and console gaming to the current gaming landscape.
I began wondering about why putting a cute face on the forces of evil was so popular. Is it simply a reflection of art direction, or an insight into our psychology? I looked for a recent game that gives us plenty of adorable monsters to gun down. Enter the Gungeon came to mind, an exciting rogue-like that has the player shoot their way through a randomly generated dungeon and the bullet kin within.
While many of creatures look as menacing as you’d expect, a select few stand out as significantly less threatening as the others. I got in contact with artist Joe Harty of Dodge Roll Games, who designed everything in Enter the Gungeon from the aforementioned monsters to the minute details in each level.
I asked what makes the bullet kin design work. “Well, I think simplicity is really important for readability,” Harty says. “In a pixel game I mean. And for the main ‘grunt’ of the game we wanted it to be essentially just a bullet with a face on it. I think the way that they walk is what sells the humour and fun of it the most.”
While the original bullet kin were designed as a simple grunt enemy, fitting with the ‘gun dungeon’ theme, I was still curious about many of the less imposing enemies which ultimately ended up memorably. I asked Harty if the juxtaposition between the threat of the enemy and an un-threatening appearance, for example bosses like the Blobulord, gave designs another dimension.
“For sure. The Blobulord is inspired by a lot of Yoshi’s Island bosses which were all super cute. I think it’s important to make bosses seem like a threat though, so I try not to get TOO cute. But when the fight begins it becomes a threat no matter what so, gotta dodge.”
After talking to Harty and learning of his inspiration from Yoshi’s Island, I went back to the enormous library of Mario titles and looked through their catalogue of colourful characters. No surprises here, apart from a few enemies (such as Bowser, which makes sense considering his main antagonist status), a large majority of the Mushroom Kingdom’s inhabitants have very cute elements to their design.
Even the skeletal Dry Bones and carnivorous Piranha Plants have a pleasant look. The obvious explanation for this is the general art direction for the Mario series, which is meant to appeal to a younger audience. While it seems like this would be the primary reason for the design, digging through interviews reveals some insights into the creation of certain enemies.
According to the August 1995 issue of Nintendo Power, Shigeru Miyamoto got the idea for Boo from the wife of his co-worker and close friend Takashi Tezuka, as she one day got very angry with him for coming home late from work – which differed greatly from her more usual shy personality. This shift from shyness to anger is reflected in gameplay — the Boos change from a passive enemy to an aggressive one depending on if the player is facing their direction.
This isn’t the only example of Miyamoto taking inspiration from real life, either. The most well-known example being his experience with a vicious dog in his youth, which led to the creation of the ferocious yet child-friendly Chain Chomp. Despite the relatively un-threatening look to these guys, they charge at the player with ravenous intent, only stopped by the chain holding them in place.
There is an interesting situation when placing these placid or even ‘cute’ designs in the sights of the player. To better understand why, I looked into why we find something cute or threatening in the first place, and deviated from video games to look for research into what makes something adorable. The works of ethologist Konrad Lorenz had some answers.
He proposed that certain physical attributes that appear infantile trigger our innate protective characteristics, which stems from the need to ensure children could survive in a time long ago when the biggest threat to children was large animals — rather than a cocktail of mum’s credit card and loot boxes.
Konrad specifically highlighted a selection of features he named ‘Kindchenschema’ which include a large head relative to body size, large eyes, round cheeks as well as a small chin and nose. Looking back at the aforementioned Blobulord, it certainly meets several of these points: its large face takes up a majority of its circular body which clearly shows the lines on his mouth, depicting his large cheeks. Not to mention his large round eyes that act as the sole conveyor of emotion.
On the other hand, defining what makes something appear threatening is easier, as it usually aligns itself with a noticeable action or object that could cause us harm. Within the context of video games, any enemy that can lower your life bar is a threat to your ‘life’ and causes your character harm.
The thing with these is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. As proven by Enter the Gungeon, the initial comfort players feel when confronted with cute enemies makes the threat they pose both surprising and memorable. But this couldn’t be a recent idea, could it?
In fact, this method of creating impactful obstacles for fictional characters to overcome is ancient, as in Greek mythology ancient. While Medusa (famous Gorgon and hair originator of the ‘bad hair day’) was originally depicted as physically monstrous, fifth century artists started redefining her appearance as equally attractive as terrifying. This beauty acted as a veil for the monstrous danger men faced when confronting her, and immediately reminded me of a plethora of game bosses such as Nioh’s Juro-Gumo or Dark Souls’ Chaos Witch Quelaag herself.
So using cute or appealing looks to hide danger is an age-old technique for creating interesting monsters in fiction, but what would really give insight into what extent this can be used in games is an example where the look of enemies intentionally juxtaposes their level of threat.
I can think of no game that exemplifies this more than Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion, a horror game by two-person developer Lag Studios which has the player race through Spooky’s mansion of a thousand floors. Without spoiling anything, the further you get the more horrific the game becomes. What caught my eye, however, was the initial stages of the game, which are filled with these terrifying visages of your demise …
Yes, when first throwing yourself at Spooky’s terrifying domain, you are assailed by cute cardboard cut-outs. Paired with a sharp sound upon their emergence from the walls, the initial response as you’d expect is to jump in shock, as can be assumed from a game with ‘Jumpscare’ in the title.
However, following this spooky experience, you can’t help but come to terms with the absurdity of the situation. I found myself giggling after every appearance of one of these guys, which is certainly a reaction I haven’t felt elsewhere in the horror genre.
I had to get in contact with one of the devs about their use of this juxtaposition in ‘enemy’ designs, and Akuma Kira (CEO, designer and programmer) was kind enough to give me some insight on where this idea came from.
“Well, first I wanted just to make fun of modern indie horror games. Most of the games I saw just boiled down to hallways and jumpscares. So, I thought, ‘they don’t even need to be scary and people will still get scared’.
“So, I was making a mini boss for the game AKDO where a ghost made you walk down the same four hallways with cute cardboard cut-outs that jumped out. The plan was to make it a standalone test project and if it worked then merge it with AKDO. Eventually, AKDO died and it became its own thing.”
I mentioned how the cute enemies brought out a reaction that differs from the latter rooms of the mansion, and wondered if the devs at Lag Studios thought the juxtaposition they represent added something unique to the scares.
“After I finished the initial concept and decided to add more to it, I wanted to mix cute and scary things together and try some inbetween. ‘Creepy’ or ‘eerie’, according to horror authors like Junji Ito or Stephen King, although I can’t seem to find the exact quote, is something that is supposed to be comforting but it’s not.”
It’s true — while reading through the works of authors like Junji Ito, you’re often confronted with many uncomfortable visuals that ooze this ‘creepy factor’. The idea of something (or someone) that was initially normal transforming into a grotesque horror makes his art both deeply compelling and revolting.
“In horror music, the consensus is to have two main instruments. A very low instrument that triggers our fear response because it sounds like a large animal, and a high-pitched instrument that should normally calm us like a music box or lullaby. By mixing cute and scary elements, you trigger a creepy response rather than just a fright response.
“This way players know they should feel safe and be comforted in the cute designs and art style, but at the same time they get tense because they know that there is actually scary stuff ahead of them also.”
I was surprised to find how playing with pre-existing expectations makes certain enemies so memorable. In games, it remains an interesting creative tool artists can use to play tricks with the players assumptions — and if done well, can add an entire new layer to the visual aspect of gameplay.
I asked Joe Harty how he felt as a developer about using appearances to subvert player expectations. “Well, it’s a fun tool for sure and games should be fun, so in that way yes it’s effective. The look of an enemy is really only important in the sense that you know what they’re doing and can distinguish them from the player and environment. Everything else is mostly just flavour.”
For others like the pair at Lag Studios, the unexpected shock that this juxtaposition presents can help the experience stand out from other monsters, and even other horror games.
“I think the cute scares are the aspects that stand out from most other horror games,” says Kira. “I don’t think they are really expected as much as the regular monsters since most of the monsters have a small level made to build up the expectation of them.”
The visual aspects of the creatures we punch, slice and shoot our way have creative possibilities that can mess around with player expectations. We all have our own ideas of what cute is, of course. But next time you come across a pair of doughy checks and big eyes, think twice before cooing: who knows what evil lurks beneath.
This article has been retimed since its original publication.