May 17, 2006 - H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, E.E. Smith. This small sampling of influential authors, whose work in the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, has laid the bedrock for some of the best videogames in the business. Rarely, however, will you find them mentioned or credited. They're hardly needed. Their work is so ingrained in Western pop culture, so influential, that saying something is "Tolkien-esque" or "Lovecraftian" is too obvious. These writers' ideas have permeated the landscape to such a degree they influence just about every single game, comic book, movie or novel in their respective genres.

But how exactly have myth and literature shaped the videogames we play today? Why do they matter? For developers, to improve the games of the future, they must understand the right and wrong of the present, and seek lessons from the past. The videogame medium isn't an island unto itself. In fact, it's in a way, it's a symbiotic creature that thrives on other entertainment successes; it's also a shiny junkyard of rehashed, reshaped, and re-invented ideas re-forged for a powerful new medium still going through growing pains. Publishers constantly look to movies, TV, and books to create popular games to sell their products for quick fixes and big bucks. If a movie is popular, bamph! It's a game. If a popular book series becomes a movie, shazam! It's also a game. J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series epitomize what the videogame industry does so well. But while licenses and popular intellectual properties have forged the success of some companies (Electronic Arts has created an empire on big licenses), other companies have failed using the same strategy (Acclaim lived and died by its licenses). Living off other licenses isn't enough to sustain itself. There has to be more.

In Western culture, the influences on videogames are vast. A quick glance at the store shelves in Electronics Boutique displays games based on movies such as The Godfather, Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series. But recently, due in large part to accelerated technology and smarter directors and writers who "get it" (witness the movies Spider-Man, Batman, even Hell Boy), game publishers have grown savvier and more sophisticated about making high quality comic-book videogames. Now, more than ever, videogame designers are searching for more original, unlicensed, and mature stories to tell. Given the broadening and maturation of the videogame audience, we'll get see a greater variety of stories in the next generation, and they will be told in an extraordinary way -- in a way that will ascend beyond TV, movies, and every other storytelling medium.


God of War
Many of the most beloved hardcore videogames aren't based on movies, books or comics. They're more deeply ingrained than that. Recent titles such as Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, and the renewal of the Prince of Persia series have demonstrated deeper, more ancient texts as their sources, sources like Japanese literature, Greek myths, Persian folklore. There is a litany of games -- Half-Life 2, Resident Evil 4, Halo 2, The Legend of Zelda, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion -- that use science fiction, myth and fantasy texts to shape their narratives. Did you know Bungie's Halo series is believed to be influenced by Larry Niven's books Ring World and Known Space? (Or is that too obvious?) Or that much of J.R.R. Tolkien's work is largely influenced by Norse mythology? That novelists T.S. Eliot and James Joyce influenced the direction of Crystal Dynamics' Soul Reaver series?


Too Human
"I would go as far to say that all literature and all entertainment are influenced by myth," said Denis Dyack, head of Silicon Knights, the development team behind the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness, and the upcoming Xbox 360 game, Too Human. "Whether people think so or not, basically, we are immersed in the mythologies in our culture. In some sense, mythology defines culture. It's unavoidable. Any typical storyline almost always falls back to some mythology."

If the videogame industry could be organized into game types, aside from annual standards such as racing games, shooters, and parlor games, the most creative games spring from fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The most obvious example of literature influencing the fantasy genre of videogames is the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (January 3, 1892 to September 2, 1973), the professor of Anglo-Saxon language and English language and literature at Oxford, is widely known as the father of the fantasy genre in all its various forms. Culling from English, Greek, Norse and Germanic cultures, Tolkien created languages and eventually a universe in which mythic archetypes and figures were grounded with histories and lives of their own. Dwarves and elves were part of fairy tales and myths in Western culture prior to Tolkien's days, but in his stories, their histories were intertwined in a newly fashioned history and geography. Their tribes were fleshed out and are made into a bigger, grander fantasy landscape.

Tolkien's work largely inspired the Dungeons and Dragons pen-and-paper role-playing game and the growth of the fantasy genre in books and movies. Starting in 2001 Director Peter Jackson wielded great vision, skill and understanding of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy to create three movies based on the eponymous series to resounding critical and financial success. Jackson understood the core threads in Tolkien's books and treated the material so that both fans and newcomers would understand and enjoy the works. This trio of movies revived mass interest in Tolkien and spawned several EA and Vivendi Universal games based on Tolkien's works.

The real story, however, isn't in the direct licensed games. Developers such as BioWare, Black Isle, Blizzard, Obsidian, and other teams have created entirely original games grown from the culture put forth from Tolkien's works. Baldur's Gate, Everquest, The Elder Scrolls, Neverwinter Nights, World of Warcraft - they're all ground in Tolkien's fantasy.