A few years ago I was at my in laws house for a Saturday night dinner. It was a totally spontaneous evening, completely last minute, so we all agreed that a takeaway was the most appropriate means of sustenance, as opposed to cooking. Once we’d finished our meal, Chinese if I recall everyone convened in the living room to stifle our collective intellect by watching some banal television show that exploited the mentally deficient for the purposes of entertainment. You know, “Talent shows”. As you can imagine I’m not particularly fond of modern terrestrial programming, so I instead neglected my social insertions by playing a game on my phone, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend who indicated that my misanthropic state was a rude deterrent to the inclusive, family orientated tone of the evening. Basically she insinuated that she would deny intimacy with me if I didn’t at least attempt to embrace some communal interaction. Out of fear of having celibacy thrust upon me I complied, as if I had any alternative, but with the proposed caveat that we had to at least change the channel to something other than the decorated irrelevance of wannabe singers. This concession to stimulate a much more congenial viewing experience was inexplicably accepted, presumably because the morally repressed talent show had concluded anyway. As a result of my incredible negotiating skills we changed the channel to some trivial game show, some derivative of “The National Lottery”, hosted by the perennial tangerine Dale Winton. The premise of the show was simple; contestants competed against one another by answering a series of general knowledge questions until only one is left. A question concerning Greek mythology cropped up. Dale, with his ever evanescent glow asked “In Greek mythology, Cerberus was a 3 headed what?” The contestant, suitably confused by the word “mythology” stammered and delayed his response, allowing me to exhibit my own profound public school education by responding “dog”. My girlfriend couldn’t contain a fleeting chuckle, discerning that my reaction was obviously a joke. “No really” I countered, “It’s a dog. The original hound from hell?!”. She, along with the rest of her family were astounded by this sudden affinity with Greek mythology, yet more shocked when they discovered I was right.
Did I obtain this knowledge through years of academic study? Perhaps through an extensive affinity with the region and ancient culture? No. It’s because I’d played Devil May Cry 3. Cerberus happened to be a boss, a snarling 3 headed dog no less that Dante intentionally provokes into an intense confrontation. I didn’t tell her this of course, as I wanted to preserve the illusion that I was studied in the ways of Grecian myth. You can’t begrudge me for perpetuating my limited knowledge of the subject to ensure I gained momentary recognition and to astound people with my superior intellect, however briefly. Yet it’s staggering just how much knowledge you can attain through games really. Just how often they impart knowledge, even if the reality of these truths are inverted or embellished for a more theatrical representation, with many replete in culturally significant mythology such as Greek, Norse and Egyptian. Many game concepts are derived from some form of ancient mythology. Just look at the Twelve Labour’s of Hercules, what he was tasked with reconciling and tell me that this doesn’t sound like a concept for an open world Rpg:
1. Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin. (An invulnerable Lion that could not be killed by traditional methods).
2. Slay the Lernaean Hydra. (An immortal serpent with nine heads, that could regenerate two new heads if one were removed).
3. Capture the Ceryneian Hind. (A female red deer that required a years worth of tracking to capture).
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar. (Weird conclusion to this. Hercules coerced and harried the exhausted creature into a bush and caught it in a net. Killed a number of centaurs beforehand though?).
5. Clean the Augean stables in one day. (A stable occupied by immortal cattle that hadn’t had their residence cleansed of their excretions for over 30 years).
6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds. (Large predatory birds that required “Clappers” forged by an immortal to scare away and kill).
7. Capture the Cretan Bull. (By all accounts this guy was as difficult to catch as herpes from Katie Price).
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes. (Man eating horses?!).
9. Obtain the Girdle (Belt)of Hippolyte. (This belt belonged to the Queen of a female tribe called the Amazon’s. Which has nothing to do with South America. Amazon is in fact Greek for, and I’m not joking here “missing one breast”).
10. Obtain the Cows of Geryon. (This feat required Hercules to travel to the “end of the world”).
11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides. (Golden apples that belonged to the God Zeus. A wedding gift no less!).
12. Capture Cerberus. (The most dangerous task of all! Cerberus was the guardian of the underworld appointed by Hades to prevent the living from entering the underworld).
They read like errands in an Rpg. He even had side quests and was constantly challenged to feats of physical labour. I’m sure if you read through enough parchments, ornate pottery or even the bio tapestry there’d be an engraving depicting a wounded solider clutching an arrow that had pierced his knee.
There’s an incredibly liberating rapport when it comes to interpreting myth into a cogent narrative. If you think about it most myths are fictionalised, or at least embellishments of a less glamorous truth. The ancient equivalent to comic books really. Fanciful tales written to amuse and delight children. So it’s only natural for games to take rigorous liberties with the original text. It’s not just legends and parables either. “Eternal Sonata”, a Jrpg is a very liberal interpretation of the death of famed French composer Frederic Chopin. Specifically events that’s transpired in Chopin’s unconscious mind after slipping into a coma, having suffered a debilitating illness. As well as Chopin, traversing an imaginary world inspired by his own work, the characters he comes across on his expedition through the subconscious possess many musical connotations. You have names like Beat, Viola and Polka, all musical notations or instruments. In Tales of Symphonia “Yggdrasil” is an egocentric deity that preserves the life of a great tree. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil is the fabled tree of life.
I’m sure there are other notable examples that demonstrate just how significant historical or cultural events inspire the concepts of computer game development. Yet its fair to say you aren’t going to write a detailed thesis or graduate University with a diploma in Ancient mythology and history by simply playing God Of War, sadly. But that shouldn’t imply that games are totally devoid of any academic nourishment. How else could any of us win a physical altercation without the invaluable knowledge provided by Street Fighter. Hadouken!