Same Old, Same Old?

Throughout this course we have gone over the influential nature of literature movements on newer forms of media and how varied—but sometimes similar—themes are evoked through different mediums. Specifically, we have studied the effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on the evolving media landscape. To credit Tolkien and his legendarium, it’s easy to say that his work inspired Dungeons & Dragons and other pen and paper role playing games, helped grow the fantasy genre’s books and movies, and effectively made video games in that genre more popular. If we look at publishers like BioWare, Blizzard, Bethesda and more, we can highlight games such as Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. that are all grounded in Tolkien fantasy.

Image result for lord of the rings shadow of mordor
Screenshot from Shadow of Mordor, one of the many games that take place directly in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

As an avid Tolkien fan, I love that he gets the praise for his vast influence. However, I think it is unfair to not credit the myriad of literary legends that helped pave the same path. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Robert Bloch, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and so many more fleshed out the iconic nature of science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres (which combined are called speculative fiction) that laid the foundation for many of the best videogames in existence.

To highlight a few of these examples we can inspect Lovecraft who’s mastery of macabre literature aided the popularity of sci-fi and horror style games like Eternal Darkness, Alone, and Bethesda’s direct adaption of Call of Cthulhu. Robert E. Howard illustrated worlds around characters like Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian which influenced games like Thief, Rune, Gauntlet, and Dishonored. I could highlight even more specific examples about the direct impact of literature on the speculative fiction genre and its growth into the digital media age, but the overwhelming amount of connections led me to ask the question: “where did these authors find their influence from and are they connected?”

conan pic
Left – comic book cover for Conan the Barbarian. Right – cover art for the 1985 hit game Gauntlet. Eerily similar?

With some minor digging and some understanding of the history of literary trends, it is easy to see that many of the most popular games, and more importantly their literature influencers, can be linked back to ancient mythology. At the heart of these classic, successful stories and games lies the interaction with worlds that are timeless and universal…perhaps so ubiquitously because these worlds and myths reflect something deep within a set of collective human themes.

In less words, I venture to say that if literature is the groundwork for which a large collection of the world’s creative minds turn to for modern inspiration, then ancient myth and folklore are the foundational roots that lie even deeper. Additionally, I think that at the end of the day, it is noteworthy that every author that has ever lived can only pull inspiration off of their own experiences which includes the literature and storytelling that they’ve been exposed to. This is not to say that the world is devoid of original thought, but instead that every creative output is at least slightly meta-referential, and usually that reference is inlaid with ancient mythological tales.

To support this point regarding the importance of mythology, I want to take a quick look at some of the most successful, acclaimed, and lucrative games in memory. One of the most successful game series of all time, Tomb Raider, has over 30 video games and 3 feature length films in the franchise. Additionally, the entire series is based heavily on the use of mythological narratives originating from the Mayans, Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, and more. The hit franchise Turok: Dinosaur Hunter directly rips off of Native American mythology, and the 8 prosperous games in that series would say that clearly this type of story works in the gaming world. All-time acclaimed RPG Shadow of the Colossus is based entirely on Japanese myths. Household name franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Assassin’s Creed, and Prince of Persia all rip off of popular mythic characters and universally the mythological theme of the monomyth or hero’s journey (think Homer’s Odyssey). It’s mind-blowing to think that some of the most iconic, foundation-breaking releases in gaming history all stem from the collective themes of mythic folklore.

Image result for tomb raider greek
Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft exploring puzzles and finding treasure related to the Greek myths.

However, there might be no game that integrates mythology better than the God of War series. Besides the fact that it has reached astounding commercial success, the newest installment solidified the franchises legacy through flipping the traditional hack & slash nature of the games on its head while still keeping mythology at its core in the best of ways. The 2018 God of War brings about the best of the past, the present, and the future of speculative fiction. The game ties in great storylines and characters from mythic pasts in a stunningly beautiful form. It synthesizes pantheons from the Greek, Nordic, and Egyptian traditions which creates a new yet seemingly classic world. It triumphantly tackles combining successful game interfaces like The Last of Us, The Witcher, and Skyrim. In a time where online games, shooters, and battle royales dominate the market, God of War uses these classic stories to showcase that the traditional immersive third-person RPG is here to stay, iterate, improve, and succeed as long as the genre garners influence from the right type of relatable storytelling.

Image result for god of war 2018
God of War (2018)

So I’m curious, what do you think? Do you see the commonality of these themes in popular games? Do you think I am completely off my rocker? Do you agree that the blanket of myth lore when applied to games has made your gaming experiences most enjoyable? Or do you think that the application of the more refined story-crafting nature of referential literature has brought you your best gaming memories? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Root

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Same Old, Same Old?”

  1. This is great! As a fan of one of BioWare’s most popular game series, Dragon Age, I can definitely see the influence of Tolkien on the world building and lore surrounding the series that makes it so immersive. I also think that fantasy writers carry a lot of responsibility for the worlds they create, and what they do to appeal to their audiences. In my opinion, people like JK Rowling have become too close-minded for the big world she created often going out of her way to explain details about characters that she didn’t include in the Harry Potter series often angering fans and bordering on racism and homophobia in order to stay relevant (saying that Dumbledore was gay after the fact, or just recently explaining that Nagini was a cursed South Korean woman, but being culturally insensitive when explaining the mythology behind it). And I also don’t deny the influence H.P Lovecraft had on the fantasy/horror/sci-fi genre, but his writing was very much tied to his racism and ignorance and has since outgrown him to include many varied and inclusive themes like you’ve illustrated.

  2. While I definitely agree that a lot of themes from gaming do come from mythology, I would also like to note that there are some games that are simply just there own creation. Games such as Tetris, Pong, and even some sports games do not really have a relation to something such as mythology, but are just created in order to be entertainment for the viewer. With that being said however, I believe that the games that do have a background taken from something else such as mythology are truly a more immersive experience and therefore a lot more fun to play.

    1. With all the amazing stories that we get from games today, looking back and seeing where these stories were inspired from is something I think is very important, as we can see not only the things these new stories take from the old, but the new things they incorporate as well. With new mediums comes more ways to tell stories, and the way you depicted this with the use of mythology was truly amazing. Being able to relate back to something that you know lets you dive into the game a little deeper, and things like this let us be able get closer to the stories we hear more and more.

  3. Relying on mythology might not be something exclusive to games; across different media, from novels to movies, there has been a recurring adaptation of ancient myths, ranging from a meaningful name reminiscent of a mythological character’s, to entire series based off of myths brought to life (a prominent example being Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novel series). Thus, it makes sense that games would follow the trend to rely on well-known, culturally embedded ideas such as the gods and monsters of ancient mythology to develop context without having to spend time to introduce them to the player. Ultimately, the purpose of games is to deliver entertainment; whether this entertainment based on completely original ideas, or the adaptation of ancient ideas.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s