Since the dawn of time, humanity has been fascinated with myths, legends and lore, we’re social animals and some of our oldest stories can be traced back to thousands of years. Whether through religious superstition, oral tradition, stories and songs passed down through centuries, written accounts, fictitious embellishments describing strange mythical creatures and legendary protagonists, there’s no doubting humankind loves a good story.
It’s no surprise then, that one of our most popular forms of entertainment has oft looked to myth and legend for inspiration, I want to explore some of the video game characters that are imbued with mythical history or inspired by tales of old.
I’ll begin with an obvious game, one that probably came to mind while you were reading the previous two paragraphs, Pokémon. While not all pocket monsters are based on mythical beasts or creatures, this game series possesses multiple examples. It’s true that the majority of Pokémon stem from Japanese folktales however there are some that find their origins elsewhere.
For instance, Zapdos, the flying bird that can summon lightning shares an uncanny similarity with a mythical bird found in Native American lore. Many tribes along the Pacific North West believed that there was a bird that brought with it, thunder, rain and lightning. These birds were said to have made a thunderous sound overhead as they flapped their wings, the Native Americans called these spirits, thunderbirds and they often adorned the tops of totems.
Sableye is another Pokémon that shares its origin somewhere other than Japanese folklore (I have plenty of examples of mythical game characters that relate to Japan, which I will get to later). In the late 20th century, there were multiple eyewitness accounts of a small extra terrestrial creature with bright glowing eyes, pointy ears and a slender frame (fun fact, the film Critters was also apparently based on these accounts).
The sightings were contained to Kentucky and the whole occurrence has since become referred to as the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter giving the critters in question the imaginative nickname of Hopkinsville Goblins.
Another small goblin-like character is Kapp’n from Animal Crossing. In the game, he’s a green sea turtle however, he is actually based on a mischievous water spirit called a kappa. In Japanese folk tales, kappas haunt lakes, rivers and ponds and people often blamed them for drowning horses or… children. This extremely dark tale unnerved people so much that the superstition arose that you could appease kappas by throwing cucumbers into the water in order to swim unaffected. Why cucumbers, you ask? Well, cucumbers are a kappas favourite food and Animal Crossing writers even felt it necessary for Kapp’n to share this love of long, green vegetables made of up of 97% water too.
Of course, another well known Japanese folktale can be found in the game Okami. It’s a direct interpretation of the story of Amaterasu from the Japanese Shinto religion. Amaterasu (or Ammy) is the Japanese sun goddess who inhabits the body of white wolf, Shiranui. In the Shinto historical texts there’s no mention made of a wolf but the game tells the story in such a beautiful way and includes other iconography that are true to the tale. What’s more, this game adopts the traditional Japanese sumi-e ink art style, making it so breathtaking to look at that you can almost forgive the inclusion of a wolf. She’s pretty cute too..who’s a good girl? Yes, you are Ammy! Yes you are!
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It’s not just mythical creatures and animals that inspire our games, more often than not mythology from all over the world presents us with stories of brave warriors and heroic protagonists overcoming fearless foes or supernatural enemies. Greek mythology is rife with these tales and you only need to look at the God of War series, Kid Icarus, Wrath of the Gods or Battle Of Olympus to see direct reiterations of these characters and stories.
Greece doesn’t get all the good stories though, various mythology informs the groundwork of some of the most popular games, MMORPG Dark Ages was based on Celtic mythology and the shape shifting character from Dragon Age: Origins, Morrigan, has her roots Irish mythology. Not to mention that there’s usually a Cait Sith (or Cat Sidhe) in every iteration of Final Fantasy. In Celtic mythology this legendary creature is a phantom cat that could steal a human souls.
Nearly everything in the Turok games comes from Native Amercian mythology and the Prince of Persia games took their inspiration from Arabian Nights and other folk tales in and around Persia. Perhaps a more recent character based on myth is Mercy from Overwatch, who is literally a Valkyrie from Norse mythology. Valkyries choose who live and die on the battlefield, much in the same way that in Overwatch, Mercy is a healer, choosing to keeping her teammates alive.
Valkyries are often depicted with wings, again…like Mercy, who even has a skin called Valkyrie and a recolour of it, called Sigrún, both of which are directly linked to accounts in the Prose Edda, the main literature that informs most of Norse mythology, written in 13th century.
There’s an interesting mythic concept called the monomyth, the idea that all cultures and religions have recurring ideas within their mythologies. English literature graduates will know the name Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote about monomyths and how regardless of culture or religion, certain stories appear, the most popular theme being the hero’s journey. He splits this myth up into three parts, departure, initiation and return.
If you look at video games with a sole hero, such as The Legend of Zelda games, you can see this pattern emerge. They follow the hero’s journey almost identically. The ‘departure’ sees the hero set out on a quest upon finding out they are special or have greater power than they realise, the reason for setting out is a disruption the status quo which needs to be put right. Link often discovers his power in each game and is almost always contacted by Princess Zelda who asks for his help to fight off evil forces that have invaded Hyrule or threaten its existence.
The second part of any hero’s journey is ‘initiation’ which focuses on the struggles and encounters along the way that make up the majority of the characters adventure. This could easily be applied to Zelda games (or most RPG-based adventures) where this part of the adventure takes up the bulk of the game. Lastly, the ‘return’ is the part where the hero returns, full of knowledge and experience, status quo is resumed and the cycle can begin anew again, that might explain why we’ve had quite so many games in the franchise!
The myths of the past were characters and stories that have changed with us, guided us and inspired us, in that sense, the stories and characters that grace our video games today could one day be the myths of the future. I mean, imagine a dystopian future, a time without electricity or technology, an old man sits around a fire telling stories of old, “Come children, let me tell you the tale of Mario the Brave and his Courageous Brother, Luigi…”