It's easy enough to build a hero. Design some armor, a few weapons, maybe a personality quirk or two. In most games, you never even see the protagonist you steer. In many RPGs, the design of your avatar is largely up to you. Designing a character that the player can relate to and get behind isn't hard. But designing creatures so repulsive, so terrifying, and simultaneously so interesting that it's an absolute thrill to destroy them? That takes talent.
Many games take the easy route of introducing alien enemies that are generically gross. Big, slimy humanoids have battled the human race in games for years. But certain games have employed some delightfully sick minds to come up with their antagonists. The best, most fascinating, and most gruesome monsters stick in the player's mind far longer than any protagonist. Here's a list of those special creatures whose design elevates a game from a straight shooter to a captivating experience.
Headcrab Zombies (Half Life 2)
More specifically, the zombies created by the fast and poison headcrabs. The first Half Life introduced the horror of headcrabs to earth as they preyed upon hapless scientists and made them their zombie-slaves. These alien bugs will swallow your entire head, devour a good portion of your innards, and turn you into a hybrid killing machine. All Half Life 2 fans reflexively flinch whenever they hear that horrible noise the poison headcrabs make. You know the one. It means you're about to get pounced by an arachnophobe's worst nightmare as a mutated humanoid flings a dog-sized spiderbeast at you.
Gatherers (Amnesia: The Dark Descent)
The actual body design of these guys is impressive, but more so is how they're revealed to you over the course of playing the game. For those of you who don't know it, Amnesia is probably the scariest thing to happen to gaming in a really long time. The pacing, the suspended dread, the helplessness of your character all combine for one freaky time. And then there's the monsters. At first, they appear just as naked, lumbering humanoids creeping around the shadows. Sure, you're weaponless, but you've seen zombies before, right? And then there comes the moment in Amnesia when you first look one straight in the face. Or what's left of the face. And you run, screaming, to hide in a closet like a child. These are no ordinary zombies. They are fast, they have big claws, and they disappear and reappear at a moment's notice. And their faces are really, really hard to look at.
Pyramid Head (Silent Hill 2)
Really, the whole Silent Hill roster could be added to this list, but no one has stuck out in common memory quite so much as Pyramid Head. This huge, hulking beast and his enormous head and his enormous sword are all enough to strike fear into even the most intrepid horror gamer. He's the physical manifestation of pure masculine aggression, dragging his phallic weapon around and rampantly assaulting female monsters. Sometimes all you need to do is change one feature from human to non-human and you've got yourself a terrifying creature. Pyramid Head is the perfect example of monster design at its most efficient.
Anima (Final Fantasy X)
Anima is so powerful she has to be locked up in order to fight. Her abilities are astounding, and the level of detail in her character design is even more so. She's about the size of a hill, with two heads, huge tusks, and terrible wings. She taunts your imagination with thoughts of what it would look like were those chains to break. She's the psychic projection of the mother of the game's archvillain, representing enormous maternal guilt and barely contained suffering.
The Brothers (The Void)
This sleeper hit from Russia took horror games to a new level when it was released a couple years back. Slow, subtle, and achingly gorgeous, The Void focused more on moral decisions and trust dilemmas than killing monsters. But monsters there were--only this time, they weren't mindless beasts to mow down in a panic. They were fully-fledged characters capable of very intelligent speech and reasoning. And their design is probably the most brilliant in recent memory. The Brothers are the horrific results of a tangled industrial nightmare: part human and part machine, they're all unique and stunning to look at. I want to tell you not to search for pictures until you've played the game, which available on Steam, because the way these guys are revealed in-game is just so cool. But it's a hard, slow game, and it'll take you lots of trial and error to get to them. So if you want to cheat and peek, take a look on YouTube, where you can see the ingenious way these guys move their bodies around.