In this weekly series, writer Pete Lines takes a look at the inspiration behind video games and lists the best examples of that inspiration.
Mythology has been an inspiration for art and literature since the dawn of the written word, with many of the very first examples of written stories we have deriving from it, from the works of Homer or ancient Sanskrit epics such as the Ramayana .
Video games are no different within their creative inspiration and have turned to the wealth of mythology to enrich their narratives and worlds. They are such a good source to draw upon as they’re culturally recognizable and this is no less true now than it was at the time of Homer.
We as an audience just like the ancients as an audience had all heard of these myths but love to see them retold in different ways. Here’s some of the games that make use of that inspiration and how they do so.
Too Human turns the Norse gods into cyberneticaly enhanced humans who are tasked with defending humanity from Loki’s army of machines. Being superhuman makes them revered as gods by the populace. You play as Baldur, a favoured son of Odin who doesn’t have the same extensive cybernetics as the other gods and hence is ‘too human.’
This is interesting as many epic heroes such as Odysseus are portrayed as very much mortal and deny the gift of godhood when it is offered to them, as they know the dangers being a god would bring. The pagan pantheons such as the Norse and Greek themselves are more like super-humans with flaws, weaknesses and emotions rather than the omnipotent ‘God’ of the Abrahamic faith.
Unfortunately the execution of Too Human did fall apart but the premise is very much an interesting one that explores the nature of mythology and what being a ‘god’ really means.
The word ‘epic’ is rather annoyingly overused these days but perfectly accurate when describing the inspiration behind Enslaved – it’s based on the actual Chinese epic novel Journey to the West. The novel is about the pilgrimage to India of a Buddhist monk Tripitaka who is joined by a violent untamed figure named ‘Monkey’ who can be controlled by a magic ring that causes him immense pain.
The game depicts an untamed, violent man named ‘Monkey’ who ends up under the power of a young girl named ‘Trip’ journeying towards West. She controls him through a slave headband which causes him immense pain should he disobey her.
Although the setting is futuristic, the small scattered settlements resemble that of the rural setting of the original epic.
This is Diablo meets mythological epics. Unsurprisingly, one of the creators is Brian Sullivan who was also behind Age of Mythology, and much like AoM the game spans Greek, Egyptian and Asian mythology throughout the course of its adventure.
You control a hero who has to fight his or her way through hordes of centaurs, undead, and alligator people in order to restore balance to a world seemingly abandoned by the gods. Random historical figures pop up as well such as Leonidas, who gives you your main quest.
The world is brightly and beautifully realized and great effort has been taken to bring the mythology within the setting to life.
The book of revelations – which almost didn’t make the final cut of the Bible due to its very bizarre nature – has been ripe picking for all forms of media. You play as War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse discussed by John the Baptist as appearing during the end of the world.
The game takes place within an apocalyptic world where the forces of Hell have overcome the armies of Heaven. The world is a land of despair where the vast majority of humanity are zombies except for a tiny resistance led by the angel Uriel.
The Bible really is ripe for these types of action fantasy epics due the imagery it creates. Revelation 12:3-4:”Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.” Darksiders takes this mythology and forms it into its own narrative.
Dante’s Inferno does for Christian mythology what God of War does for Greek. It takes the setting of Dante’s nine circles of hell and turns each of those concepts into its own fully visualized world, allowing the player to do battle with vaginal lust monsters and bloated, gluttonous beasts dripping with bile and excrement.
It doesn’t leave much to the imagination that’s for sure. It’s also another title we can actually say is ‘epic’ in that it was inspired by Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic poem. You play as Dante himself, but rather than a slightly over-imaginative scholar you’re a crusader on a mission to hell to save the soul of his beloved from the devil.
The game is a silly and over the top action affair that doesn’t exactly make subtle use of its subject matter, but the mythological inspiration is splattered all over it like succubus vaginal discharge.
God of War
From the explosive first boss battle with the Hydra culminating in a gory skewering and decapitation to ripping the head off of Apollo and using it as a torch for the rest of the game, it doesn’t ever shy away from its premise. I still found myself wincing every time I clambered over a Cyclops and ripped its eye from its socket, severing the bloody entrails.
It’s brilliantly refreshing to play a character so single mindedly prone towards death who carves through an entire army of gods and monsters like an angry child ripping the legs off a spider.
There’s a wealth of nods towards Japanese and Indo-European mythology within Zelda. The Keaton race are based around the Kitsune creatures of myth. Link’s fiery form at the end of Majora’s Mask is called ‘Oni Link,’ a reference to devils within Japanese folklore. The Master Sword is pulled out of the stone by a chosen boy, mirroring the King Arthur legends equally he fights in the name of a lady ‘Zelda’.
The three goddesses who create Hyrule are similar to the multiple creation myths involving a trio of goddesses such as the 3 norns within Norse mythology or the three goddesses Mago, Gung-hee and So-Hee within Korean myths. The wind fish is a deity responsible for creating Koholint island, the setting Link’s Awakening, within its dreams. This resembles creation myths such as the long fish Ikaroa that gives birth to the milky way in Maori mythology.
The entire story itself originates with the mythical character of Link who one boy from every generation is chosen to become and fight against evil.
Age of Mythology
Whoever it was at Microsoft Studios who decided what the Age of Empires series really needed was huge battles involving Minotaurs, Chimeras, and Fire Giants is simply a genius. Who wants to fight with boring spearmen when you can control a Hydra supported by a flank guard of Centaurs?
Three races are represented in the game – Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse – all of which have their famous human units such as the Greek Hoplites and mythological units such as the Norse Valkyrie.
The campaign merges all three beliefs within its story starting with Trojan War and culminating with the fall of Atlantis with heroes and gods such as Odysseus, Achilles, Loki and Osiris.
The stunning cell shaded visuals perfectly bring to life the Japanese artistic style that so much of their culture and mythology is depicted in. Indeed, the visual style has gone a long way towards helping make the game itself timeless.
The main villain is a demonic Orochi, which are 8-headed and 8-tailed dragons within Japanese legend. A recurring ally is depicted as a Tengu, which were supernatural bird-like creatures known as dangerous but protective spirits within Buddhism.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Hrothgar, where the Greybeards reside in Skyrim, is the name of a legendary 6th century Danish king. The Nords are a brutal warrior-like culture much like the Norse, and they believe they go to Sovngarde upon death just as the Norse believe they are destined for Valhalla. In the quest “Promises to Keep,” you are able to find a birth certificate of Sleipnir, great grandsire of Frost who is Odin’s horse within Norse legend. In a quest within the bard college you must find an excerpt from the “poetic Edda,” which was a collection of Norse poems preserved within the Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius.
Dragons feature as antagonists within Norse mythology as well. Nidhogg is a great dragon who gnaws at the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil and threatens the entire world, while Thor is destined to meet the great serpent Jormungandr in battle at Ragnarok.