Mythology and gaming are as drawn to one another even as the moth succumbs to the allure of the flame. That is to say, often meeting with the same untimely end. At least, so were my thoughts at an early age playing Archon: The Light and the Dark, on the Nintendo Entertainment System, for the first time. “What!?” as I began to list my grievances, “Manticores don’t look anything like that! They’re not lizards! They don’t have a three-pronged tails! Errrrr!” Now for those of you whose introduction to legendary creatures was spurred by movies, MTG, Warcraft or based on other popular media, rather than by the books, you probably don’t share similar sentiments. Likewise, you may be at a loss to understand the bewildered frustrations that mythology fans have in this genre of video games. In either case, I offer the following for your consideration.
Imagine someone took a classic game, say Pac-Man, only instead of a yellow, glutinous orb they’ve substituted him for a lizard, a lizard with a three-pronged tail, but much to your confusion he’s still called Pac-Man and everyone seems okay with it. Check? Okay, so as an added bonus instead of four ghost he’s chased by sharks that shoot laser beams from their heads. Their names? Rest assured, they’ve kept those too. Yep, Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, just so you have a bit of salt to go with that wound.
The list of issues goes on, but the point is if one has no intention of remotely sticking to the source material, why even bother keeping the same name in the first place? Surely, couldn’t one think up a better name than, “manticore?” It’s the kind of word, let's be honest, most of you had to look up just to make sure that I wasn’t talking about a, “manical unicorn.” Oh, by the way, a manticore is a creature with a red lion's body, human face, razor-sharp teeth and giant scorpion's tail. Pretty awesome, right?
Naturally! But is that what got when I pluged in my Archon cartridge? Nay, I got something that vaguely resembled a spikeless hodag [SEE hodag, yea it’s a thing, just trust me]. However, and this is the real heart of the issue, it's not that game developers don’t get mythology fanatics inasmuch it is that both parties don’t really understand each other. Work on both sides each comes with its own unique set of challenges and often people cast judgement based solely on one half of the spectrum.
I’ve long since found out that Archon, with its checkered gameplay, was originally developed for the Atari 8-bit series of home computers. In fact, the original, albeit pixelated, approach to the manticore was actually pretty faithful considering technological limitations. The Archon characters that I grew up with weren’t based off mythology nor the designer's original intentions. Rather, they were attempts to simply update the pixel characters by later developers who weren’t entirely sure what they were supposed to represent in the first place. Truth is Archon is a really spectacular game. Even if I was awful at it, it unexpectedly furthered my enthusiasm for mythology nonetheless. Moreover, I did not take an issue with every game I played based on folklore or legend. I recall not harboring any ill will to Shadow Gate nor did I ever feel that Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse disappointed me in a similar degree. However, this could be more due to me associating such hack-and-slash games with gothic literature rather than treating them as realistic adaptations of mythology.
But for all the things games got wrong I will say that more often than none they seemed to make up for it. PC games like Heroes of Might and Magic were so strategically filled with all manners of legendary creatures that its impressive dynamic of playable characters alone overshadowed how much they differed from classic mythology. Some games I felt even improved on well established myths precisely because they added something different. When in Myth II: Soulblighter it declared, "This is a dwarf, dwarves like to blow things up!” Instantly, I thought about how cool this game was going to be, even if pyromaniac dwarves are virtually unheard of in traditional legend.
These are just some of the games I grew up with as a kid. Now there are, of course, endless others and I could probably go at lengths discussing mythology in World or Warcraft, Magic: The Gathering Online or other MMOGs but perhaps another time. I would, however, like to conclude with this following note. As someone who has had the opportunity to thoroughly investigate a relatively new sort of mythology, I have found that universal agreement of mythology, at its inception, was virtual nonexistence. It is clear that even those who created myths didn’t always agree on every detail and often times the stories themselves were ever-changing, greatly reworked with each retelling.
Take a look at the myth of the splintercat for example, one of many “fearsome critters” that abound in North America’s forgotten lore. The splintercat is known for ramming trees, pulverizing them to pieces, in order to secure its food. While all splintercat stories have their consistencies, they also differ in other details. Forester William T. Cox tells that the splintercat rams trees with its “hard face” and eats raccoons and bees. While logger Henry H. Tryon declares it possess a “wedge-shaped nose” for that purpose and adds honey to the splintercat’s dinner list. Even still, veteran guide Art Childs’ boldly asserts that the cat uses its “stone head” and lives off neither honey nor racoons, but the splinters of the demolished trees themselves!
The point to be made is simply that there never can really be a faithful adaptation of mythology in gaming, because mythology in itself is inherently inconsistent. What we think of as “true mythology” is really simply a story-within-a-story, the most popularized account rather than the whole picture. Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of the same stories have fallen through the cracks of time leaving behind only a few surviving tales. It is really only those remaining few that shape all opinions concerning any given legend. Therefore, video games really aren’t doing anything new when they take liberties with traditional mythology. Storytellers have been doing that for centuries and it was only until their stories made their way into print that they became solidified as cannon.
And so we must treat each new interpretation of mythology and every added detail not as a challenge to tradition, but as rebirth of it. Because unlike books that cement mythology in a changeless set of words, videos games have grown much more like the old form of oral storytelling that not only carries on tradition, but adds much original imagination to it. Whatever the case, wherever this growing medium may take these old legends, one can only help but bear in mind that in the end, “hey, it's only a game.”
Texas Siftings. Bookbinder's Expression: “Bound in Russia”. March, 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, Washington. The Princeton Union. Princeton, MN: The Princeton Union., 1896.
Stein, Modest. If You Can Free My Well from Dirt I Will Give You My Three Daughters. September, 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, Washington. The San Francisco Call. San Francisco: The San Francisco Call, 1910.
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Created 01/21/2016, Last updated on 01/24/2016