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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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

Campbell’s Universal Mythology

Among the five most important books I’ve ever read was The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. It was assigned to the other section in my high school English class, but my teacher offered me a copy, somehow sensing that I would love it. This book—in fact it is the transcription of a series of interviews Campbell participated in near the end of his life—was my first real glimpse into the all-important notion of the hero’s journey.

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Seriously, you’ve gotta read this book.

Campbell’s main thesis is that all mythologies reflect the same basic storyline, one that is derived from our common evolution and biological life process. This monomyth features familiar tropes such as the call to adventure, the road of trials, the goal, and the return to the ordinary world. At its core, the hero’s journey describes a chosen individual who must face and overcome difficulty, growing in the process. In Campbell’s own words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Many would argue that the quintessential hero’s journey is of course Homer’s Odyssey. Its derivative works, from Keeley’s Ithaka to Tennyson’s Ulysses, have become classics in their own right. The most important aspect of the common storyline, however, is in realizing that it is a metaphor for the human experience of growth. Campbell speaks of the life stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age that we all experience. Desire, weakness, bravery and triumph are tropes of our literature (both sacred and profane) because they exist within ourselves.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the study of the humanities is that the more you learn, the more your classes seem to overlap, telling the same tale in various ways. This Renaissance value of the enlightened person bettering both themselves and others through broad learning is a tradition you and I are carrying on with our decision to major in or study English in any capacity. While the world no longer operates under the notion that there is one universal morality, the utility of our study is rather found in our ability to commiserate with others’ own stories and use the framework of the universal myth to address whatever unknown problems we and humanity in toto will face. In Campbell’s own words:

On this immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.

I should note that many will be familiar with Campbell’s actual magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Power of Myth is simply a shorter and more digestible version, in my opinion, and serves as a fine introduction.

Oh—and if you’re already a fan of Campbell, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is your next required reading. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around the idea of the hero’s journey, the next step is to take on factual relativism.

Story vs. Gameplay

When talking about the role of story in a video game, I think it just depends on the type of person you are. For example, many people just play Halo for the shooting and killing. While this is the primary and most fun part of the game, there is a lot more to the game than that. I actually do sometimes stop and look at the “beautifully-rendered trees” and the wide variety of expansive environments. The story is also a lot more complex and interesting than most other games, but it is up to the gamer how much they want to know about it. For example, in Halo 3 there are numerous hidden “terminals” that the gamer can find. These terminals reveal a lot about what happened before the games, especially about the war between the ancient Forerunners and the Flood parasite thousands of years ago. There are also dozens of Halo books that further explicate the history and legend of Halo. It is not necessary to find these terminals, and many people just skip the terminals and cutscenes to just concentrate on the combat. If a player chooses to ignore the story, the game is just an action-packed alien-killing shooting rampage.

Someone in class also said that “no one plays Grand Theft Auto for the missions”, which I completely disagree with. When I first got Grand Theft Auto IV, the first thing I did was go through the missions, because I was interested in what the protagonist, Niko Bellic, would be like. The evolution of Niko’s character really interested me, along with all the shooting, stealing, and car chases the missions involve. I was emotionally invested in his story, and towards the end of the game, I really wanted him to get revenge on Dmitri. After I had completed all of the missions, killing people just wasn’t as fun anymore. Niko was just killing people because he was bored, not because an Italian mob boss was paying him to do it (as in the missions). Sure, it can be fun to drive expensive cars at over 100 mph while running over the pedestrians, but there aren’t really any repercussions to it, and gets boring after while if it doesn’t advance the story. Although gameplay is important, the story is what sets a game apart from others.

– Kashyap Saxena