Stupid monsters

January 14, 2014

Today I was finishing up the second season of Freezing, and a thought occurred to me – the Nova, the series’ big world-destroying monsters, are the most uninteresting part of the show, which is probably why they’ve been marginalized since the beginning, or taken on human minds or bodies. I think this was a smart move.

We saw the exact same thing happen with Shingeki no Kyojin, where (spoiler alert) the titans were quickly supplanted by more human-like antagonists. Not because the titans weren’t frightening, because they were. It happened because big, slavering monsters are only interesting for so long.

Giant monsters are stupid, and stupid is boring. Mankind figured out how to dominate stupid beasts millennia ago, so seeing it done again on a larger scale only provides so much entertainment. An intelligent antagonist, though…

Intelligent antagonists simply have a lot more potential. They don’t have to be human, or even humanoid, they just have to be intelligent like one. They don’t even have to be that smart, just smarter than a beast. What they need is the potential for trickery, strategy, vindictiveness, surprise, and guile that human beings have. That’s why Freezing’s Pandoras spend most of their time fighting other Pandora, and why the protagonists of Shingeki are more concerned with the monsters among mankind.

Monsters can be scary, but they’re stupid, and we know how to deal with stupid. It’s the monsters who are just smart enough to be truly dangerous that are far more interesting to watch.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


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    I think there is still special appeal for giant monsters though. In the age when mankind thought they have conquest everything, the monsters are the unstoppable force that are (literally) too big for us to fathom. We can’t understand them. We can’t stop them. We realise how small and human we truly are. They are like natural disaster. Force and destruction, plain and simple. It is almost somewhat elegant. That’s what is charming about giant monsters although the potential is often unrealised in a lot of them featuring them.

    Also, they gave human damn good reasons to make giant robots.

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      I agree, but my point was never that giant monsters didn’t have a place. My point is they don’t last. It’s hard to hinge a plot on stupid, and you don’t get much more dumb than (most) giant monsters.

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        I see your point. They are definitely better suit for a shorter format of storytelling.

        I guess something like zombies also fall into similar category. Unless you pull a non-traditional zombie (a la Warm Bodies), the plot of a longer format zombie media tends to fall back to the human side as there is only so much the writer could tell about unthinking antagonists.

        However, I have a small pet peeve with the ‘Humans are the real monsters’ plots though. They are reasonable development for this kind of stories, but they end up being used frequently enough that I usually expect to see the trope eventually in any monster-ish story. I don’t know if there is a better way to develop the story after the audiences (and the writers) start to get bored with the monsters though.

        (I tried writing a long monster story once with no really no other antagonist other than the monsters, but the later half of the story ends up having one of the main characters’ body slowly transform into something far worse than the original monsters. So I guess I end up using ‘Humans are monsters’ trope to shift the plot ahead too although it was more literal.)

        1. Stilts

          You already hit upon the solution – if you’re going to write about mindless monsters, write shorter stories.

          I wrote a zombie story as part of a bet (because yes, my friends and I are THAT weird) a while ago, and it turned out really well at 3,000 words. I can’t carry it much past maybe 5,000 though, because the story I wanted to tell has already been told, and my “antagonists” are all mindless beasts who can’t carry the plot. I’d have to dive more into the human side…and you see the problem.

          These stories can very much work. Take Zombieland, which I very much enjoyed. Yes it was mainly about the interaction between the characters, family, trust, etc., but the zombies worked for as long as the story needed them to. If they tried to write a sequel? Perhaps, perhaps. I’m not so sure, though.

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    Phew, I thought I was the only one.

    I remember cringing when people complained about SnK turning into Humans vs. Humans instead of Humans vs. Titans.

    Personally I think Humans vs. Humans conflict is the best.
    It has the greatest potential for plot developments, drama and characterization.

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    Yay, first post on Stilts’ site. 😀

    Throwing my 2 cents in here. I’ve read Freezing since it was first scanned though lately I haven’t been keeping up with the series on a per release basis (probably 10 chaps behind now). FYI – they tried to cover a LOT of material in Season Two’s one-cour which resulted in quite a bit of re-arrangement, cut material and other changes. Personally, another case of source > adaptation.

    Back on point, I agree partly with your premise. IMO giant monsters represent a huge, seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome. On a tactical/strategic level it’s overwhelming brute force vs. clever planning. Either can work and create tension. I guess in RPG terms, giant monsters are like huge, swarming mobs. Stupid or not, by numbers alone they can be dangerous. That’s how zombie movies work. The tension is created by the fact you have a foe which can “reproduce” in almost unlimited quantities (theoretically every person) and is damn hard to kill.

    “Mankind figured out how to dominate stupid beasts millennia ago, so seeing it done again on a larger scale only provides so much entertainment. An intelligent antagonist, though…” [OT @ Stilts – what tags work on this site?]

    O.o… umm not so sure about the analogy here. Taming “monsters” (whether giant or not) are not exactly the same as domesticating wild dogs or killing an elephant. What makes the titans almost invincible is there “Achilles” neck invulnerability combined with almost limitless regenerative capability. Take those two “monster” aspects away and make them “just” giant humanoids. Now they are not nearly as scary/dominating. They would fall in bunches to concentrated cannon fire – even bolts/arrows if you stick enough in them.

    A lot depends upon the “timeline” for the story. With today’s technology, handling titans wouldn’t be an issue. Send a few nukes where distance from human settlement allows and target the rest via MG, auto-cannon and laser guided munitions. (If you haven’t read “Gate – Thus the JSDF Fought There” manga, you might want to give it a shot), but go back a few hundred years… “Typical” zombies have a plague element (infectious bite). Today’s technology has eliminated threat of the “Black Plague”, but that sure wasn’t true for the 15th-16th century (pretty sure it took place in the latter). In short, IMO, “stupid big monsters” are not unfeasible as a way to create tension. A great deal depends upon the story’s setting.

    Interesting that you suggest Shingeki in this discussion. My one posted criticisms on RC (which was not well received) of the series concerns exactly what you suggest above – i.e. mankind’s intelligence “overcoming stupid large creatures.” The humans in Shingeki had 100 years interlude (IIRC) and the best they could come up with was 3D gear (no technological advancements in firearms, cannon, or grenade weaponry) with little coordinating tactics to go with that. In short, they were still getting their ass kicked by the “stupid” titans, so why was there a need to take things to the next level – apart from a Deus ex Eren way to “legitimately” fight back? IMO a compelling, taught “life or death” struggle could have been portrayed without the “human-titan” power-up.

    So why partly rather than fully disagree? Because I for one definitely like the “mental chess match” situation. Best example I can think of right now is Mondaiji-tachi. The anime showed some of that in the 2nd half “Black Percher/Pest” arc. To win the Gift Game, you had to solve a riddle as well as fight. LN translation has been sporadic (though recently someone has been very industrious on that front :D), but one translated part actually states that you can’t win Gift Games by brute force alone. Clever tactics and outwitting your opponent is something I definitely find more interesting. Certainly, it enables the story to expand to greater length (at least credibly so).

    But it’s not absolutely required IMO that the story’s be kept “short” (shortER, yes). Going back to the zombie example, consider them as a type of pandemic. Certainly possible to write a reasonably long story about battling some out of control disease. Taking the Shingeki story, you can make it work with “stupid” titans but focusing on the humans trying out various ways to overcome these almost invincible foes. Focus on the sacrifices made, the heartache of lives lost, the moments of self-doubt, depression and desperation that comes with each failed attempt which ultimately moves forward to victory though in frustratingly slow and small increments. Perhaps a good way to put it is that you make the story one of human struggle rather than “stupid monster combat”.

    A good example IMO is High School of the Dead. People derided the anime (why the style is so objectionable compared to something like KLK I’ll never understand), but I think the manga is quite good. Shame that there wasn’t enough material for a season two (bigger shame the series has been on hold FOREVER :<). The "shopping mall" arc which takes place right after the anime ended has some very interesting moments regarding the various ways people "adapt" (or don't) to the situation. There's even a nice "feels" moment along with some good character development.

    tl:dr = I agree that "stupid monsters" is a limited vehicle for creating tension compared to "smart monsters", but I do think it's possible to use that plot line even at length as long as one ensures the right setting and focuses on all aspects of the "human struggle" as much, or perhaps even more so, than the battles themselves.

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    @ Stilts: O.O… sorry. That ended up WAAAAY longer than I thought it would when posted. At least I gave your post a lot of serious thought 😀

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      No biggie : )

      And as for tags, this site uses basic html. Italics, bold, blockquotes…enclose em in those <>!

      Perhaps a good way to put it is that you make the story one of human struggle rather than “stupid monster combat”.

      That’s a good way to do it. When the stupid monsters are the antagonists per say, they don’t work as well. When they’re portrayed as a force of nature and the focus is on humanity’s reaction to them – exactly in the same way as a traditional pandemic story might work, as you suggested – then they work, and can work well. It’s only when they are actual antagonists – when it becomes a “stupid monster combat” story, that they don’t work so well.

      And on my point about the beasts, I see stupid monsters as merely a blown up version of facing off against an angry tiger or bear. I’m not talking about cows or pigs here – in the Shingeki world, the cows and pigs would be the humans. No, I’m thinking of facing off against a titan with 3D maneuver gear or Godzilla with guns and missiles is just a blown up version of fighting a tiger with a spear. And like I said, we figured out how to deal with those long ago.

      By innovating. Too bad humanity sat around for 100 years, like you said…

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    Hmmm, I think I have to disagree. The problem with Shingeki is not that they’re giant stupid monsters, but that the humans are unable to cope with them at all. Even in zombie pictures they can be stopped, just not easily. Titans just keep coming and killing. If they can’t be beaten, there is no conflict. Just a question of how long it will take before you lose. That’s why, AYS a shorter story works best in that situation. The story stops having a conflict when the antagonist is identified as being unstoppable. Shingeki, got out of that trap by changing the game with Eren able to transform (though it appears the situation is more complex than that in later manga chapters) and there is a human conflict to replace the human-Titan one. If humans had developed tactics that actually worked besides the 3DMG (which tends to get anyone killed except a select few), a story could have been told without resorting to making it human on human.

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      True, true. I think my point is still valid even if my example wasn’t airtight. More than that though, I agree with what daikama said – that it can work if the stupid monsters are a “force of nature” (and the technological advances/tactics you mentioned would have allowed that to continue working), but since they didn’t do that the balance was all off. Destined to lose can be as boring as destined to win, so they had to shake things up. And they did, it just pulled the focus away from monsters vs man into more of a monstrous-men vs man situation.

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