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

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Back to Books

The fog rolled across the desolate fields, consuming everything in its path. It brought with it the smell of burnt flesh, gunpowder, and sweat. The screams could be heard through the mist, familiar screams of humans in pain, dying, mixed with the screams of the aliens, their bloodcurdling hoots ricocheting off the eardrums with a sharp pang. His heartbeat quickened, and the blood began to course through his veins as he approached the cacophony of misery that was the fog. He steeled his nerves, kissed the cross hanging from his neck, and sprinted in.

Am I the only one who wants to know what happens next and what was happening in the first place? The narrative is the ultimate captivating medium to transmit a story.  Reading is universally fascinating (specifically fiction) because it essentially introduces a whole new world to the reader. The reader is introduced to the story but not spoon-fed the details, enabling the reader to engage his/her imagination. This engagement of imagination translates into a captivation with the world that the mind inevitably creates when reading. This imaginary sanctuary takes the mind on new adventures allowing him/her to truly immerse his/her self in the hybrid book/imagination world that has been created.

Videogames and movies are much less effective in engaging and holding the observer. The observer is shown what the world looks like and who the characters are. This diluted version of a book disengages the imagination and helps cultivate a mind accustomed to reduced stimulation.  This is not the way to develop creators, thinker, writers, and other members of the creative community, yet the trend in society seems to be heading towards a lower level brain function at an alarming rate.

Reading cultivates the mind and I hope that it does not die out, to be replaced by the likes of movies and videogames as substitutes. Although they have their place, there is nothing that cultivates the mind better than a good book.

By Aneel Henry