9 Surprising Literary References In Videogames

Monday, January 23, 2012 at 8:05 am
Let me know if this sounds familiar: you're deep into a videogame, seriously engaged, hunched over your controller. Maybe it's a Japanese port or something European or a big American blockbuster you've been hooked on for weeks. No matter what its origin or title, you'll be there deep in the thick of it, and all of a sudden a message screen or a dialogue box or some little piece of scenery will appear, and you'll notice that it's actually from a book, of all things. And not just something easy like The Bible; we're talking a surprising-ass allusion to To the Lighthouse or some other text you would never have guessed would ever in any number of alternate realities be associated with whatever it is your playing. Hopefully this is something other people have experienced, and not just the sort of thing that happens to bored, underemployed English majors.

Now, we're not talking about just any literary references in games, because otherwise this list would easily be over eleven pages long and probably a lot more like an encyclopedia entry than a humorous article on a nerd blog. Besides, videogame programmers are usually nerds that read a lot and there's a high probability of lit references in any title. I'm more interested in those moments when a name or line is dropped in an unusual context (or without much apparent attention to context at all).

9) Gulliver, Animal Crossing

Let's start with an easy one. In the first Animal Crossing game, Gulliver was the name of a seagull sailor whom the player could find washed ashore, presumably after going overboard. This makes a little sense; aside from being a groan-inducing pun, the original Lemmy Gulliver from Jonathan Swift's not-at-all children's book was indeed a sailor who often found himself stranded in strange lands (including such mythical places as "Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan"). But in later entries of the series, specifically Animal Crossing: City Folk, he's an astronaut in a UFO you can shoot down with a slingshot. A seagull in a cute little sailor's cap is one thing, but seeing him in a space suit puts him one more degree away from the original. Once we start down this road eventually he'll be dressed as a nun or something just because and the WTF-ization will be complete. At least he's not a busty anime schoolgirl, although let's not count our chickens before they hatch here.

8) High Hrothgar, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
As you may recall from high school English class (or at least from the wacky motion-capture antics of the 2007 movie), Hrothgar is the name of the Danish king in the classic Old English epic poem, Beowulf. This may seem a little odd at first, but Skyrim generally draws from Scandinavian and Norse mythology (in case this wasn't super-obvious, the indigenous people of Skyrim are called, uh, Nords). Also, dragon slaying plays something of a role in this game, and I hear Beowulf has something to do with dragons, so the addition of this reference isn't too inappropriate. It's just kind of weird that it's the name of the sanctuary of the sagacious Graybeards. Why not a mead hall, or a castle, or the mountain itself? Moreover, why is there only a High and not a Low or Middle Hrothgar to complete the sequence? I tend to believe that Bethesda was sending us a coded message that Anthony Hopkins was blazed throughout the filming of the Zemeckis picture, which is why they had to use computer animation to cover the coughing fits. While Hrothgar is a fine, strong name, it's a little too mainstream for a master's level English scholar such as I. As such I'm profoundly disappointed they didn't go with some of the deep cuts of the poem, like Hyglac or Modthryth or Ecgtheow. "High Ecgtheow" just rolls off of your Anglo-Saxon tongue, doesn't it?

7) "There Will Come Soft Rains," Fallout 3

If you're a fan of Ray Bradbury who spent hours upon hours roaming the Capital Wastelands in the third Fallout game then you probably shot your metaphorical (or non-metaphorical) wad upon discovering a certain abandoned townhouse. This particular dwelling is revealed to have once belonged to the McLellan family, and doesn't contain much of interest except for a terminal and a functioning Mister Handy robot. Said robot can be given a few different commands, the most interesting of which is to read a poem to "the children," whereupon it will recite "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale. All of this is a hugely geeky homage to the post-apocalyptic Bradbury short story by the same name, and kudos to the designers for making it a completely non-essential little pocket of Nerd love, relevant to no quests and simply lying there to be stumbled upon by the especially literate Wastelander. Of course, I could gripe that in the original story the poem is read from a terminal in a wall, and the house is supposed to be mostly burnt and yada yada, but I'm just glad these developer guys are readers. There were a lot of these kinds of things in this game (the Fallout series is no stranger to pop culture references, but this was one of the most explicit and there should have been even more: how about an especially creepy lost Vault called Farnham's Freehold? Or an encounter with a certain particularly antagonistic Allied Mastercomputer in an underground complex? Please tell me somebody knows what I'm talking about...

6) Gilgamesh, Final Fantasy V

The Final Fantasy series is famous for its large cross-mythological cast of characters and ideas, especially when it comes to the summons creatures. You could do a whole list just focusing on the stories behind those guys, especially Shiva (Hinduism, maybe) Leviathan (the Bible, definitely) and Knights of the Round (take a guess). But this example seems especially odd to me. The villain of the fifth Final Fantasy, named after the mythohistorical hero-king of Uruk? Like a lot of these references, it seems to be really just a case of the Japanese developers thinking "Hey, this sounds cool. Let's put it in our game." Perhaps this isn't as strange to most people as naming a floating ethereal ice goddess after a Hindu deity. At least they kept Gilgamesh's gender, and they made him not entirely unsympathetic. Interestingly enough, he's not only one of the few Final Fantasy characters to appear in multiple games, he may be the only one to appear as the same character in all these games (if you believe Dissidia.). For the record, the storyline of any of the Final Fantasies is the one thing I would love to hear Patrick Stewart explain to the dying Tamarian captain even more than the epic of Gilgamesh.

5) Zelda, The Legend of Zelda
legend of zeldas.jpg
Here's something you may or may not know: Zelda (princess, sage, and occasional opportunistic cross-dresser)? Named after the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Miyamoto has said that he read accounts of the real Zelda being beautiful and famous and simply thought the name fit well; it's a good thing he didn't apparently hear about her tempestuous later life, breakdown, and tragic death. Actually, the model for Twilight Princess was meant to convey some sense of "hopelessness or anxiousness" according to one of the illustrators, Yusuke Nakano, so a little of the source does seem to have leaked in as the series has grown (Princess Zelda's occasional proclivity for alternate identities certainly takes on a different light when one considers the original's history of mental illness). But she's still an odd choice, though definitely not as odd as Peach or Toadstool. And who knows? Maybe generations from now after the robot apocalypse forces humanity to start civilization again and all reliable forms of history are lost, the story will change and people will think the princess was named after Robin Williams' daughter.

4) Titania and MacBeth, Starfox, Starfox 2 and Starfox 64

Titania was of course the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (and later works), so that at least sounds mythological and vaguely planet-y, but MacBeth? Are we really to believe the astronomers of the Lylat system are that strapped for names? The former is the desert world that was once a lush paradise home to a complex peaceful civilization (of course it has become your standard post-apocalyptic desert shithole by the time Fox and Friends pay a visit). The latter is remembered fondly in my generation for being a fun if difficult tank level in Starfox 64, and the Scottish play gets a second tip of the hat with Mechbeth, that planet's mechazoid final boss. I can't shake the feeling that Banquo would have been a much better name, though if any Shakespeare characters are up for grabs you might as well go whole hog and christen a planet Toby Belch or something.

3) Cervantes, Soul Calibur

I suppose it doesn't really bother me that much that the guy who wrote Don Quixote, Miguel DeCervantes, is half of the name of a villainous ghost pirate (the other half, "DeLeon" belongs to the guy who didn't actually search for the Fountain of Youth but is famous for it anyway). Both characters are Spanish, and seem to have been born within a few centuries of each other. It's just that Cervantes isn't usually a first name, as far as I know. Not that it could never be, of course, but doesn't it seem a little bit like calling someone Smith McJohnson? In any event, Ponce DeLeon was at least a sailor but DeCervantes was, as far as we know, never a pirate, although there's no telling what his ghost has been up to. I know, I know: in the world of fighting games, all things are possible. There's a character in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance named Mokap who's a motion-capture actor so I suppose I should just shut the fuck up.

2) Kilgore and Trout, Breath of Fire 2

I don't think Kurt Vonnegut would be surprised or bat an eye at all at the knowledge that two minor characters in the second Breath of Fire game are named after one of his most famous creations, cantankerous science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. It'd be one thing if Breath of Fire took place on the planet Tralfamadore (I would pre-order a Vonnegut-themed RPG like woah) but as far as I can tell the names of these two were just an excuse to brag to audiences that the creators/translators had read books. Not even Frank Zappa would name their child Trout, even in a fantasy world. Just for that, if I ever get to design a videogame every character in it will be named after characters from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and everyone will speak in Petrarchan sonnets. And it will be called I Read Books, Seriously the RPG. Actually, the more I think about it, this is the same game in which an anthropomorphic dog is named Bow (as in "bow wow" and not, I presume, "bow tie"). So never mind. Shutting the fuck up.

1) The Entirety of Drowned God

Most gamers today know, at least in a vague way, that Myst was a revolutionary title that inspired waves of imitators in the adventure genre. Its influence was so large that it can be seen in multiple levels of the industry: the mainstream borrowed its gameplay ideas for Lighthouse, Schizm, and others, essentially using the same format to tell a different story. But on the fringes, we got more hallucinatory titles geared by experimental alt-media visionaries like Laurie Anderson's Puppet Motel¸ The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway, and Harry Horse's infamous Drowned God, one of those classic adventure games you can play to completion without having any idea what the hell's going on, only weirder. Something about a quest to recover ancient artifacts like the Holy Grail and the Philosopher's Stone, which are really pieces of alien technology (Drowned God takes the idea that aliens jump-started human civilization as its premise and only gets crazier from there). Naturally this involves the Tarot, Egyptian mythology, Arthurian legends, The Man in the Iron Mask, genetic manipulation, and the Bermuda Triangle as well as encounters with the severed heads/voices of Isaac Newton, Einstein, Jung and Aleister Crowley, among others. That's enough to put it at the top of any kind of random references list, nevermind the otherworldly Edgar Cayce cameo. Although I suppose it's hard to say anything appears "out of context" when the context itself is so convoluted. Say what you will about the ponderous, tedious, pace and puzzles: at least this thing had ambition out the genetically modified ears.

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