Villains That Are Fun To Fight

The most intricate, well-developed, and interesting villains of all time are not really worth much if you never have engaging conflict with them. In fact, an amazing showdown can make up for a lot when it comes to villains. I could explore that concept in a lot of ways, but right now I’m going to explore how Paper Mario (and in many ways, any game using a similar “Action Command” combat system) encapsulates the concept of a villain that is actually fun to do battle with.

Before I go into my points, I’ll summarize how that combat system works for those unfamiliar. Essentially, it functions like ordinary turn-based rpg combat with one key difference: every action in the game has some kind of quick-time event associated with it, usually some kind of timing mini-game. The events are unique to each of your own moves, as well as your enemy’s moves, and succeeding at them increases or decreases the damage they deal, respectively. As an example, once you’ve selected a power strike with one character, you might have to hold and then let go of a button at the right time to get its maximum damage. Enemy attacks are generally blocked by pressing a button just before they strike you, mitigating or entirely negating their damage.
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The enemies of Paper Mario are, from a purely narrative perspective, not interesting. These are basically the same Goombas and Koopas you’ve been stomping on for decades now, even the bosses are generally just more colorful variations on old standbys. And there was never any incredibly engaging backstory for Piranha Plants or anything. And as before, you have a fairly straightforward set of commands with which to deal with them. There are more than the original game (Hop, Don’t Hop, and Throw Fireball) but still. You and your party members each have about 4-5 meaningfully different actions you can take at any one time.

But where it gets interesting is in the depth that is still contained within this simplicity. With so few variables, your strategy is going to change a lot based on minor alterations in the enemy. Oh no, this Goomba has a pointy hat, now he deals extra damage and we can’t jump on him. But, unless we spend some special points to use a ranged attack, we won’t be able to hammer him until we get rid of the other Goombas in front of him. However, we might need those points for a later fight, so is it better to take some extra damage or spend some of our extra points? And how is your decision effected if you’re better at the minigame for executing the ranged attack than for blocking the Goomba’s spikey headbutt? It’s not exactly a mind-bending paradox, but that’s a good bit of strategy that comes into play just because a Goomba in the enemy’s back row has a hat on.

And that’s just one tiny possible variable. The game can give all sorts of twists and bonuses to the enemies you’ll be fighting (wings, life-draining attacks, defensive options, charge-up attacks) that give you a lot more to think about in any given fight than your average “hit the slimes with the swords until they fall down” random encounter in an rpg. Stacking multiple boosts on individual enemies and diversifying their groups forces you to approach them in different strategic ways and always be ready to develop new tactics for new opponents.
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So, as you’re wandering around the Mushroom Hills or wherever, and you see some turtles coming at you, you don’t sigh as you reach for your hammer to take down another mob of featureless creatures. You can’t just throw your higher health and attack power and assume that, so long as you remember to make your warrior attack and your caster throw spells, you’re going to come out on top. The battles demand attention, and the enemies demand your respect. This makes them feel important, like they are meaningful obstacles in your quest, rather than some randomly generated mob of semi-diverse roadblocks waiting for your to annihilate them.

Each enemy encounter becomes something more like a puzzle, an assortment of interesting pieces that you can solve in different ways. To keep the bosses raised on a higher standard, each one has a gimmick completely unique to it that forces you to change how you might normally address it or make interesting decisions in your tactical approach. One boss takes less damage from hammer attacks, but multiple hammer attacks in a row can disable it for a turn. Another spawns additional enemies each time is attacked, and at the end of a round will consume any that you don’t defeat in order to regenerate its health.
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Now, all of this is not a substitute for creating villains with amazing motivations, personalities, ect. But, the format of certain stories, particularly those told in rpgs, tend towards having a lot of villainous bosses that simply don’t get enough screen time to be well-developed. Robot tanks, giant spiders, workaday dragons, all make decently attractive foes but aren’t going to be incredibly interesting, as far as their character goes. However, you can make them very interesting mechanically, with a tactically diverse combat system and interesting innovations (or “gimmicks”). And obviously, the more engaged you are with a villain the more engaged you are with the hero’s quest to defeat them, with the narrative they are embroiled in, and with the consequences of the story.

Even if the villain looks like this:

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The Evil in the Museum

Hey everyone, I made a kind of choose-your-own-adventure, point-and-click adventure-inspired interactive story about poking around in a haunted museum! I think it’s pretty cool, it has a lot of possible endings and decisions to make, a mystery to solve, and I think it’s got a fairly cool antagonistic force as well. Please check it out, and let me know what you think! (particularly if you find any broken pieces, I think I got them all but I am not a programmer.) I hope you enjoy.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/9080962/The%20Evil%20in%20the%20Museum%20%282%29.html

The True Self as a Villain in Persona 4

Many JRPGs subscribe to the notion that in order to be a cool boss, all you really need is a crazy-looking monster with an interesting gimmick. Here’s a robot tank that has different moves as you blow pieces of him off, there’s a shape-shifting ooze that changes its elemental affinities, we’ve got a huge dragon that telegraphs its devastating cinematic moves, ect. Rarely do these bosses have much significant grounding in the game world proper. Oh, well, the villains of course have a giant robot tank, they’re villains and they’re advanced so…yeah, robot tank!

Why. No, why though.

How did they build it/why did they build it/what time period is this in/do we even have access to electricity? These are all questions posed within even five seconds of consideration. Of course, they’re incidental to the story; the robot tank has to be there because there had to be a cool boss for this part in the story. This is a fantasy game, the JRPG says.

It is fantastical.

Persona 4 goes in a radically different direction. Every boss is a Shadow, a self-proclaimed manifestation of an important character’s “True Self” or Id. They are the character’s most personal and most repressed feelings, given form in the parallel dreamworld where much of the game takes place. As such, they have an impressively deep connection to the game’s story and straightforwardly pose one of the game’s harrowing themes: that mankind’s true desires are inherently twisted because of the world around theme. They also make things really awkward for a lot of your party members (though not as much as they should, but we’ll get to that later).

For those unfamiliar, much of the Persona videogame takes place in an alternate reality that is shaped by the dreams and desires of all mankind’s unconsciousness. This is important for a lot of reasons, but the two that are crucial for this discussions are that:
*It makes it so that the heroes have superpowers based off their inner strength when they are in the other world.
*It provides a reason for why the other world is populated by monsters that are metaphors for various flavors of human suffering.
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The latter is particularly important for discussing the shadow selves of the main and supporting characters that serve as the game’s bosses. Each character’s Shadow takes on a form meant to symbolize that character’s inner turmoil. Some of these forms are not terribly subtle; such as the giant bird stuck within a golden cage. Others have slightly more nuance hidden in their strangeness, such as the young effeminate man stuck inside the torso of musclebound giant. Many people have written plenty on how each shadow connects to their respective characters; I have no intention of delving into them all in detail here.

But it is important to point out how much you learn about these characters when you face their Shadows in battle during the game. You always fight them before you’ve had much meaningful interaction with the original character, and in seeing their Id laid bare you learn a lot about them without having had much dialogue or a bunch of cutscenes devoted to them. As is standard for these games, the Shadow will give a speech before you battle it, but these speeches serve a dual purpose. They explain why the villain is behaving how it is, as in any JRPG story, but they also reveal a lot about the character. In a brief cutscene followed by a battle, you are treated to plot progression and character development with every single boss. A lot of narrative development occurs during every one of these fights, which stands in stark contrast to standard games of this genre.

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Hey! I asked you a question!

For all it does right in tying its bosses directly to narrative progression, though, Persona 4 doesn’t go as far as it could. After a battle, the protagonist and his friends end up accepting the “shadow side” of whoever they defeated, vowing it won’t get in the way of their relationship. And then it is rarely brought up again, save in conversations with those particular characters as part of sidequests specific to them. This strikes me as unbelievable; unless the protagonist genuinely doesn’t care that much about his entourage one way or the other, I think that his feelings would be more complex than instantaneous acceptance. Maybe he wouldn’t trust his fellows as much for a while, or maybe he would be extremely concerned about them. After seeing a very personal and secret side of them laid bare, you’d think there would be more drama in the group.

Especially since the primary cast are all highschool students, a class of human being not exactly known for their tolerance of others.

Still, Persona 4 goes above and beyond what’s expected of its genre when it comes to bosses. Each one is designed with the intention of making sure it relates directly to the story and develops the core themes of the game. None of them are powerful and intimidating just for their own sake, they are powerful and intimidating in a precise way that communicates something about their associated character. When people talk about “next generation” gaming they are often referencing updated graphics or innovative mechanics, but to me Persona 4’s Shadow villains represents a next-gen way of approaching narrative development. They are villains that will make you forget that you are playing a videogame.

The Authorities as Opposition in Role-Playing Games

This blog post is mostly an excuse to talk about this totally awesome mechanic from “Night’s Black Agents” by Pelgrane Press that can easily be put in any tabletop adventure. It’s called “Heat” and it’s perfect for any group whose players have some omnipresent organization after them, be they the police, the government, or a criminal conspiracy.

The premise is insanely simple. Each time the players do something that would attract the attention of whatever authorities are after them, they gain some number of Heat markers. One for a relatively minor offense, such as tripping an alarm, more for something more serious like causing an explosion, and the maximum for a public assassination of an important figure. A chart breaks down the potential values for different incidents, from 1-5, but you can make up your own for your own setting fairly easily.

Once per mission/quest/whatever, the GM can call for a Heat roll. This is a flat roll against the number of Heat markers the players have accrued. The players may get a bonus to the roll for every advantage they can reasonably think to add, such as having covered their tracks in an area, or disposed of witnesses. The GM shouldn’t let this go on too long though, or the game will slow down into a debate between which minor boosts are worth noting. Give the players a little time to apply what they can think of and then force the roll; if they left anything out it’s too bad, time is of the essence!

If the roll fails to equal or exceed the amount of Heat the players have accrued, then at any point during that session the GM is free to insert the authorities hounding the players into the scene at an unexpected and unlikely interval. This could be anywhere between their arrival at a new location to in the middle of a combat encounter, and could take the form of anything from a fully decked out assault team to a paid-off official with power over the players.

Another interesting thing about Heat is that it doesn’t dissipate after the authorities are triggered that way. The players lose 1 Heat after the first 72 hours of laying low, then another after a week, then another after a month. Beyond that, the only way to remove Heat is to either destroy any evidence linking you to the incident that gained it, or to frame someone else for the incident. Doing so subtracts 1 Heat as well. So, obviously, Heat is much harder to get rid of than it is to gain.

What I love about this mechanic is not only that it’s a nice simple way of tracking a large, overshadowing presence in a game, it also makes sure the players are always aware of it. It’s one thing to tell the players that the are fighting a massive evil conspiracy that is always watching them and has agents everywhere. It’s another thing entirely to let them see, right on the table, the shadow organization taking increasing notice of them, getting ready to strike at any time.

But this doesn’t just let the GM maintain a healthy level of paranoia in their game. It also gives the player a direct (albeit limited) agency over the pressure kept on them. By making their overwatch a mechanic and not just a facet of the narrative, it lets the players feel as if they have more control over their situation, and keeps both the players and GM honest about the threat posed to them.

I can think of all kinds of ways this Heat system could be used to simulate the threat of some interesting and constantly watching opposition in a tabletop game. Hopefully it’ll give inspiration to some of you also!

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The Ancient Ones of the Lovecraft Mythos Pt. 2

Alright now that those guys are outta the way here are my favorite less commonly referenced Ancient Ones and a brief introduction to them. Since these ones are rarely represented in common media and have a slight handful of appearances in the stories I won’t bother giving the sectioned breakdown like I did last time. Instead I’m just going to rattle off all my thoughts on each one.

Tsathoggua

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This Ancient One was actually originally created by Clark Ashton Smith, a friend of Lovecraft, and incorporated into the mythos through references. A slothful, gluttonous deity, Tsathoggua dwells in a cave somewhere in Hyperborea awaiting sacrifice. He can also transmit avatars of himself through shapeshifting black ooze creatures known as Formless Spawn, which can accept sacrifice or perform tasks on Tsathoggua’s behalf. In exchange for these sacrifices, Tsathoggua teaches secrets of magic.

I like this guy for a lot of reasons. For one, he is incredibly lazy. He very clearly does not have any kind of larger scale plan beyond accepting sacrifices and wallowing in his own laziness forever. He may not even be capable of doing much else due to some kind of limitations on his power. He’s the closest thing to a “god of man” that the mythos has, which makes him strangely relatable. Of course the slacker Ancient One is also the one closest to being able to form a workable relationship with human beings. Then again, perhaps his plot was insidious infiltration all along…though if that’s the case it didn’t work, since by the modern era he is noticeably lacking in worshippers (Smith’s Ancient Ones are all introduced in a medieval era).

Abhoth

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Another Smith Ancient One, Abhoth is essentially a personification (as much as a pool of sentient slime can be considered personified) of the primordial ooze. It constantly spawns abominable offspring in all manner of forms from its massive, lake-like body, many of which are almost immediately reabsorbed by it or devoured by other, stronger spawn. Limitless combinations of limbs, tissue, and intellects are created in this way, creating all manner of grotesque creatures like a gruesome microcosm of evolution at hyperspeed.

I think the idea of a bizarre, alien deity representing the concept of evolution. Despite being a fairly important natural force, it wasn’t known long enough ago to have had gods attributed to it like storms, or the ocean. It’s interesting to see a completely new archetype of god, and it makes me wonder about what deities for other, less ancient concepts would be like. A god of television, for example, or digital credit, or social media.

Chaugnar Faugn

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Physically, he resembles a sinister Ganesh. Outside of that he’s considerably more complicated. His cult believes that he is responsible for the creation of the world, and will also be responsible for its destruction, once he has fed on enough human beings. Oddly, the cult considers it their duty to provide him with victims, either out of gratitude for at least being created in the first place or out of a belief that this inevitable destruction must come to pass anyways. “Great Chaugnar” has the ability to inhabit idols made in his likeness, so the cult distributes these in order to further his feeding upon the human race.

Chaugnar is fairly well-defined (which, as you might’ve guessed, means that he’s the creation of another author other than Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long) but this doesn’t make him any less mysterious and strange because everything that is known about him is so odd. Why does his cult so gladly serve him and hasten the end of the world? Why would Chaugnar seek to end his creation? What use does such a powerful being have for feeding on human flesh anyways? These questions, coupled with the fact that Chaugnar is probably the closest analogue to more “realistic” deities in the mythos in terms of the ritual and worship associated with him, serves to keep him unknowable (a key feature for good horror) even after so many specifics about him are laid out.

Y’golonac

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A Ramsey Campbell god (huh, it’s starting to look like I don’t actually have a strong affection for a lot of the Lovecraft in this Lovecraft mythos…) who lords over perversion, carnal lust, and forbidden knowledge. He is said to be able to possess any whose appetites for perverse and disgusting acts reach truly inhuman heights, and his name is said to be such a perversion in and of itself that just thinking it may conjure him. Once possesses a victim bloats horribly, grows gaping, lipless mouths in its palms, turns a yellow jaundiced color, and their head falls clean off. It is unknown whether this is to mimic the appearance of the Old One or simply its preferred form.

To what end this delightfully creepy Ancient One possesses others is unknown. One fan interpretation I read (provided by the fascinating Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game) suggests that Y’golonac is in fact an advanced alien STD, transmittable simply through desire and lust after particularly gross sex without needing the act itself. I prefer a similar interpretation, in that I don’t believe Y’golonac to have any aspirations of world takeover or other such sinister schemes, as many of the other Old Ones are suggested to have. I think that he is somewhat mindless in a sense; he is a byproduct of the grotesqueness in the universe, created and summoned by the foulest of thoughts the same way alcohol is manufactured through fermentation. A naturally occurring eldritch horror. It’s not a bad guess at what many of the other Ancient Ones might be as well, actually.

The Ancient Ones of the Lovecraft Mythos, Part 1

I’m actually somewhat philosophically opposed to codifying these unknowable forces in this way but at the same time I think part of the fun of the mythos is trying to piece together all the little details you can’t possibly know for sure into a coherent framework. Also maybe this will get some of you to read the damn stories.

There are too many Ancient Ones to really get in-depth with in a single post, particularly if ones by other authors are included. Consequently I’m going to focus on the ones that I think are particularly prolific in popular references to the mythos in this post. Next time I’m going to pick all of my favorite obscure ones that generally even less is known for sure about.

I mention this every time I talk about Lovecraft, but it’s important to remember that he purposefully left out a lot of details about the Ancient One’s motives, descriptions, goals, and abilities. You cannot have a meaningful conversation about the mythos without speculation. So my little introductions of these different ancient ones are going to be separated into three categories as follows:
1) What is absolutely known about them from the stories
2) How they tend to be portrayed and what knowledge is now popularly ascribed to them
3) How my interpretation varies from these two.

Cthulhu

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  1. Cthulhu is by far the most defined ancient one in the mythos, which is why he’s the most iconic and often used to represent the mythos as a whole. However, it should be noted that that doesn’t mean he has any connection to most other forces in the mythos. He is worshipped by a race of fish-people called the Deep Ones, who slowly try to infiltrate the human race by breeding with them and creating more Cthulhu-worshipping hybrids.
    Cthulhu himself is dead/dreaming in a hidden city/parallel dimension called R’lyeh. It is unknown what will happen when he awakens, but this is what his worshippers seek to facilitate. How they intend to accomplish this is unknown. Additionally, in his slumber Cthulhu appears to be capable of forming some kind of mental connection with human beings in his dreams. The exact nature of this connection and whether it’s even on purpose is unclear.
  2. Since Cthulhu is the most well-defined, his popular representations have the least expounded upon. However, one interesting note is that in what appears to be every instance, his awakening is interpreted the same way: when he wakes he will devour the world. As far as I’m aware there’s no actual definitive basis for this in the stories. It would certainly fit with the overarching theme of the ancient ones being horrible forces, given that total destruction is really scary, however…
  3. I’ve always been a firm believer, and I think a lot of the best horror stories will back me up on this, that there are way worse things than death. I can understand why Cthulhu’s awakening would be commonly associated with apocalyptic destruction. But given the spirit of horror that I think the mythos is supposed to convey, I feel like it should be something way worse than annihilation. For example, some of Cthulhu’s worshippers might be under the impression that Cthulhu will use his power to actually conquer the world, and reward them with dominion for their service. I think enslavement under a potentially omnipotent alien squid dragon is waaaaay worse a fate.

Nyarlathotep

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  1. Nyarlathotep is an entity, or the name for a collection of entities, represented by a thousand different avatars, most of which take the guise of deities. For some reason worship appears to be important to it, and it is deeply involved in manipulating humans. He is seen coercing mortals into worshiping either aspects of himself or, interestingly, other particular gods.
  2. The primary addition to Nyarlathotep in additional work is simply more avatars. Since it actively interferes with the workings of humans for mysterious purposes, and he supposedly has a thousand different forms (only four of which are defined in the stories) he’s really the perfect one to extrapolate all kinds of additional content for.
  3. There’s actually really no way in which my thinkings on Nyarlathotep differ from the norm. Though I do wonder if its apparent desire to manipulate humans through cults and worship (as opposed to any myriad other number of possible ways for something with a thousand supernatural forms) does make me wonder if perhaps deification, prayer, and ritual are important to the ancient ones in some capacity, alien monsters though they may be and not “gods” in the truest sense.

Yog-Sothoth

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  1. Yog-Sothoth is a being described as having control over interdimensional travel, but is also implied to be locked outside our particular dimension. It, or aspects of it, can cross over temporarily under certain conditions, and whatever barrier prevents its entry can be broken entirely. This is a goal that it works towards through means unknown. Additionally, Yog-Sothoth is capable of bestowing lessons of magic and other worlds on those who worship it, seemingly with need for little sacrifice. Physically, it appears as a collection of glowing orbs, though it has at least one other form or avatar that is an enormous cloaked figure.
  2. Yog-Sothoth frequently is used as a representative of “devil’s bargains”; it will bestow magical power and otherworldly secrets, but at a price, usually one obscured from whoever it makes deals with. It also is demonstrated as having more direct control over the boundaries of our dimensions, being able to open rifts in time and space, thereby weakening the barrier between our dimension and it.
  3. Personally, I think that the reason the stories portray Yog-Sothoth as giving away magic seemingly for free is because the use of spellcasting is what weakens our world’s barriers. Magic in the Lovecraft universe is ill-defined, but I envision it working somewhat similar to the sorcery in the Dark Sun D&D setting, where every spell bends and tears at the very fabric of reality, creating strain that takes time to repair if it even repairs at all. By propagating sorcery, Yog-Sothoth hopes to create enough magically endowed followers that they will inadvertently blow open the dimensional gates for him.

Hastur

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  1. A particularly interesting ancient one because its concept is not originally with Lovecraft; he is from a concept developed by a predecessor horror writer, Robert Chambers. If those stories are to be taken as the model, Hastur is a figure in a cursed play which brings madness to all who read it, via hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, mania, paranoia, or any number of other potential varieties of insanity. He is also demonstrated as having some degree of control over the undead.
  2. In extrapolations, this effect is seen as a purposeful part of Hastur’s scheme to essentially invade and potentially destroy our world by corrupting us enough to either become or welcome into existence his servants. The lunatics who worship him and the psychotic plans they carry out are all in fact part of some greater scheme to allow him to extend greater influence over our world. However, another fairly common interpretation is that Hastur is not exactly an ancient one itself, but a representative of a particular kind of obsessive madness. He is a personified concept, the true comprehension of which induces insanity, but who does not really exist outside of metaphor.
  3. I love Hastur the most out of all the ancient ones, and one of the things I love most about him is how creepy and mysterious all the different variations still are. There are a lot of ways Cthulhu has been portrayed that I don’t find terribly threatening, there is no way Hastur is not scary. I purposefully don’t tie myself down to any one with him; all the pieces of information I gather from the stories I assemble into many possible interpretations instead of trying to focus into just one because they all make sense and are delightful to me.

The Alien vs The Thing

Battle of the generically named masterpiece monsters!

First off the title is misleading clickbait for my amusement. Both of these creatures are pinnacles of horror, neither particularly better than the other. Also nobody should care which would win in a fight. What I’m actually going to talk about is why they are so awesome.

Though honestly they don’t even fall under the primary purview of this site, seeing as how they’re not villains in the strictest sense. They are certainly the antagonists of their respective films, but they are also reactively antagonistic towards the protagonists. The Alien is just a wild predator introduced onto a (to it) alien vessel, searching for prey. The Thing may be sentient or it may not be; either way it crashed in a frozen wasteland and was ressurected admidst a bunch of aliens it undoubtedly did not understand and may have even feared.

Not that they’re without their advantages, of course. Indeed, both the Alien and The Thing have enough abilities that they are able to strongly adhere to one of the great tenants of horror monster design; they are different or have different capability every time you see them. Well, almost: once the Alien reaches its final form (after proceeding from egg, facehugger, larval stage) it doesn’t change again for the rest of the film. The Thing has a completely different form every time you see it. In addition to making them more interesting, this also allows them to remain scary even after you’ve seen them (which is not something every monster can say). Generally the audience’s imagination of a creature is actually scarier than the thing itself, but by always evolving, learning, and demonstrating new abilities, a monster can maintain that unknown quality even after it has been revealed.

Being a force of the unknown is an important element in a monster, but what’s also important is that they act as forces of something else. Monsters that represent our more primal fears make them frightening in ways simply being gruesome cannot. The Thing can imitate other lifeforms near perfectly, can perfectly assume another being’s identity. It is an avatar of paranoia, quickly causing the members of the research station to turn on each other and even kill each other. And the Alien is described as being the perfect organism. It is the ultimate predator, the descendant of every vicious animal humankind has ever had to survive in the wild against.

And yet, they both have distinct vulnerabilities. Because the Alien is fought in space, it can still be jettisoned out an airlock, or incinerated by a jet engine. Additionally, it can be harmed by extreme heat and cooked inside its natural armor. The thing is also vulnerable to fire, and it can be discovered through various means even after it’s been disguised. Additonally, the heroes could’ve avoided confronting both altogether. Ripley specifically orders her team not to bring the Alien aboard the ship, and had her team listened to her everyone would’ve been fine save the initial victim. The Norwegian scientists nearly destroy it at the beggining with a grenade.

To me this is actually the scariest thing about them: the fact that they are beatable means that your failure to do so is no one’s fault but yours. What allows them to wreck the havoc and carnage that they do is not as much their own capability but the weakness of the humans facing them. Both teams of protagonists are brought down by their own selfishness and skepticism, turning against their allies or failing to make crucial realizations in time to prevent disaster. The monsters’ weaknesses simaltaneously demonstrate the powerful potential humans have, and their capacity to squander it.