Influences and Inspirations
Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
If there’s one question every writer has been asked at least once, it’s: “Where do you get your ideas?” While there’s no shortage of answers, including Neil Gaiman’s pithy ‘Idea-of-the-Month Club,’1 the truth is that writers draw inspiration from countless unique sources. Some ideas result from personal experience, which makes them unique to the author, but other ideas result from more accessible sources: the works of other authors. Artists from every creative field draw inspiration from the artists who came before them, and writing is no exception. Writers from T.S. Eliot to William Faulkner have been credited with saying: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” While the actual source of the quote is debatable2, as is the phrasing, the message endures because it captures an innate truth about creativity. Whether artists draw their inspirations from inside or outside their chosen medium, the most successful can cite a long list of influences for their work—work which may eventually go on to inspire others in turn.
Video game developers are no strangers to drawing inspiration from other artists. Music, movies, and manga have all had an influence on video games narratives, and the medium has matured to the point where games and game developers are influencing other creators. While narrative designers in their forties and fifties grew up in the glow of the earliest arcade cabinets, their counterparts in their twenties and thirties came of age as home consoles were becoming ubiquitous. As these creators develop their skills and progress in their careers, they’re able to draw on video games stories as sources of inspiration, develop their own video games narratives, and inspire the next generation.
Mixed Media: Outside Inspiration
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid (Konami, Series), Donkey Kong (Nintendo, Series), Metroid (Nintendo, Series), Uncharted (Naughty Dog, Series), BioShock (2k Games, Series), Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, Series), Dark Souls (From Software, Series), Street Fighter (Capcom, Series), Persona (Atlus, Series)
When video games were in their infancy as a medium, developers had to draw on other art forms for inspiration. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto famously cribbed the King Kong-concept when creating Donkey Kong, resulting in a lawsuit from MCA Universal3, the presumptive owners of the King Kong intellectual property. When Nintendo ultimately prevailed in court, the victory gave a new generation of developers the confidence to draw from the silver screen. Forty years later, the impact of film on game stories is undeniable. Hideo Kojima’s acclaimed Metal Gear Solid series draws from dozens of films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, and Escape from New York (the latter of which almost got him in his own legal trouble.)4 Other noteworthy Hollywood inspirations include Nintendo’s Metroid series, which has Alien to thank for its premise and protagonist, and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, which owes a similar debt to the Indiana Jones franchise. Without the influences of these films, the beloved games they inspired wouldn’t exist.
Movies aren’t the only outside source of influence for narrative designers in search of new ideas. After forty-plus years of game stories, just about every creative medium has inspired one game or another. Novels have historically been fertile ground, as have short stories. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged led to Bioshock; Alan Wake wouldn’t exist without the works of Stephen King. On a broader scale, H.P. Lovecraft’s shadow looms over the entire horror subgenre, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s creations have had an outsized impact on fantasy. Other common sources of inspiration include television shows, music, and comics, with a particular emphasis on Japanese manga and anime. The long-running shonen manga JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has inspired numerous creators over the years, influencing franchises as varied as Dark Souls, Street Fighter, and Persona. Together, these disparate creative works have been mixed and reimagined in new ways, leading to some of the most popular games we have today.
Searching Within: Inside Inspiration
Game Discussed: Computer Space (Bushnell and Dabney, 1971), Spacewar! (Steve Russell, 1962), Galaxy Game (Pitts and Tuck, 1971), UNDERTALE (Toby Fox, 2015), The Touhou Project (Team Shanghai Alice, 1997), EarthBound (HAL Labs/Nintendo, 1995), Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar, Series), Silent Hill (Konami, Series), Castlevania (Konami, Series), Final Fantasy (Square-Enix, Series)
In 1971—the earliest days of game development—developers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney released a single-player arcade game named Computer Space. Computer Space was noteworthy not only as its own game but also as an outgrowth of a game made ten years prior: Spacewar!.5 Bushnell and Dabney weren’t the only creators influenced by Spacewar!, either; Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck released a similar product that very same year, as they, too, had been inspired by Spacewar!. Game designers have been pilfering ideas from each other ever since, and the list of internal influences has grown as fast as the medium.
In the modern era, most game designers have a long list of games and developers that inspired them. Doom director John Romero6 cites games as different as Pac-Man and Half-Life 2 as influences in his works, while UNDERTALE director Toby Fox credits a similar variety in The Touhou Project and EarthBound. Fox isn’t alone in his EarthBound inspiration, either; so many creators have been inspired by the 1995 RPG that games journalists have begun documenting the phenomenon7,8. This legacy places EarthBound among the ranks of such genre-defining titles as Grand Theft Auto, Silent Hill, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy. These games have all made a substantial impact on the medium, leading to a specific type of inspired work: the spiritual successor.
The Spiritual Successor
Game Discussed: Bravely Default (Silicon Studio/Nintendo/Square-Enix, 2012), Final Fantasy (Square-Enix, Series), Resident Evil (Capcom, Series), Sweet Home (Capcom, 1989), Dark Souls (FromSoftware/BandaiNamco, Series), Demon’s Souls (FromSoftware/Sony, 2009), Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (ArtPlay/505 Games, 2019), Mighty No. 9 (Comcept/Inti Creates/Deep Silver, 2016), Mega Man (Capcom, Series)
Careers in the arts are very rarely linear, and they’re beset by setbacks more often than not. For game developers who find themselves unable (or unwilling) to continue working on the franchises that got them started, they may draw inspiration from their earlier works to create similar yet distinct titles to gain a greater degree of freedom. These titles are known as spiritual successors, and they exist in one form or another in every video game genre. Some well-known spiritual successors include Square-Enix’s Bravely Default (a successor to Square’s Final Fantasy), Capcom’s Resident Evil (successor to Capcom’s Sweet Home), and FromSoftware’s Dark Souls (successor to FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls). Each of these titles borrows aspects of their creators previous works, remixing previous plots, characters, settings, and themes to create something new while remaining faithful to the source material.
Spiritual successors have found new life in the age of the crowd-funded indie game. The rise of crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo made it possible for a new generation of developers to go solo, resulting in games like Yooka-Laylee (successor to Banjo-Kazooie), Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (successor to Castlevania), and Mighty No. 9 (successor to Mega Man.) While some of these games received a better reception than others, their lineage is undeniable. They exist because of the games that came before them, and some may inspire spiritual successors of their own. It’s a cycle of inspiration that moves with the medium, expanding with every new game.
While most artists can’t tell you exactly where they get their ideas, many of them draw inspiration from the artists that have come before them. Video games are no different, as their creators have been influenced by countless works both inside and outside the medium. Movies, books, and music all shaped the earliest video games, and those games have gone on to shape the content we consume today. Writers and developers searching for new ideas can always look to other artists for inspiration, knowing that someday, their works may influence others.
StoryScan: Guilty Gear Strive and Tone
Guilty Gear Strive uses its gleefully absurd tone to illustrate its themes while staying true to both genre and franchise conventions.
StoryScan: Persona 5 and Structure
Persona 5 has all the elements of a strong story, but a bloated third act keeps it from reaching its full potential.
Narrative Analysis: Tropes
Commonly-used narrative devices, also known as tropes, are an essential tool in all forms of storytelling.
1 Gaiman, Neil. “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” NeilGaiman.com, 2021.
2 “Quote Investigator: Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal.” QuoteInvestigator.com, 2013.
3 Hernandez, Pedro. “Nintendo History 101: Donkey Kong vs. King Kong.” Nintendo World Report, 2010.
4 Abramovitch, Seth. “John Carpenter Speaks: Directing Legend on Secrets of ‘Halloween,’ Plagiarism Case Against Luc Besson.” Hollywood Reporter, 2015.
5 “Next Generation Special.” Next Generation, November 1996.
6 Wright, Chris. “The Games that Inspire Video Gaming’s Top Creators.” GearPatrol, 2015.
7 Gailloreto, Coleman. “Computer RPGs Inspired by EarthBound.” ScreenRant, 2021.
8 Oxford, Nadia. “Please Stop Comparing Games to Earthbound.” USGamer, 2019.
* Reference Art (Metal Gear): Gidney, Adam. “Metal Gear.” BoxEqualsArt, 2017.
** Reference Footage (UNDERTALE): Shayy. Undertale Genocide Speedrun in 1:04:21 (Former WR). YouTube, 2021.
*** Reference Footage (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night): CYBER CYCHREUS. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night 100% Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.