Under the Influence: How Books, Movies, and Music Inspired Recent Games

We ask a handful of developers to explain how their games were inspired by material outside the world of video games.

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A few weeks back, I was talking to some folks from Irrational Games when they told me that one of the biggest sources of inspiration for BioShock Infinite was Erik Larson's book The Devil in the White City. At first, I was surprised. How could a book about the Chicago World's Fair shape a video game about a fictional city in the sky? But as lead artist Shawn Robertson described it, Irrational was more interested in tapping into those themes of emerging technologies and engineering power rather than the more literal tale of Chicago's quest for escaping its status as a backwater meatpacking town. This got me thinking: how have other game creators been inspired by pieces of media--books, movies, music--outside the world of video games? To find out, I asked a few developers to answer that question in their own words.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Jake Solomon, Lead Designer

When it comes to XCOM, I didn't draw much inspiration from books, movies, or TV shows. Most of my external inspiration came from music. If I was ever designing a new system, I made sure to have Tangerine Dream coming out of my speakers. More than any other game, the original X-Com had a soul. It had a dark, spooky mood that really got under your skin. The music of Tangerine Dream evokes the exact same mood, and that drops me right back into 1994, hunched over my tiny 15-inch monitor playing X-Com late, late into the night. The lonely, haunting synth sounds of Tangerine Dream keep me tied to the spirit of the original game, even when I'm dreaming up new mechanics.

Tomb Raider - Darrell Gallagher, Crystal Dynamics Studio Head

There were a number of influences outside of games that we took inspiration from when making the Tomb Raider reboot. From a character perspective, Ripley from the Alien series has always been a great inspiration to us. John McClane from Die Hard is referenced as a grounded action hero, and The Descent provided inspiration for some of the darker tones in the game. The first Rambo was a classic source of survival inspiration, but probably the most significant influences were real-world stories of survival. Stories like Aron Ralston's moving tale as represented in 127 Hours, or the ordeal of the Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the Andes as portrayed in Alive. These stories captured the strength of the human spirit and a will to survive that reminded us of Lara Croft.

Bastion - Greg Kasavin, Creative Director

Bastion is one of those games that's inspired by so many different things, I can barely mention them all. There is one in particular, though, that stands out to me as being highly influential to the tone and atmosphere. When thinking about the world design at the outset of the project, we wanted to come up with something that felt different and exciting to us. We knew we were going to make an action role-playing game, but didn't want to set it in a conventional fantasy world since that's already been done well many other times.

[Cormac McCarthy's] minimal hard-edged dialogue and lush, efficient prose were great references for how we ended up handling the narration in our game.

Supergiant's studio director, Amir Rao, and I are both English majors, so we started thinking about writers with distinctive styles. That's when Cormac McCarthy's name came up. Our joke was, what if instead of being a great American author, McCarthy wrote little Diablo-style games? What would they sound like? We wanted to find out. So we chased this idea of a Western-tinged, old-time-American-feeling fantasy world, inspired in part by McCarthy's novels such as All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. His minimal hard-edged dialogue and lush, efficient prose were great references for how we ended up handling the narration in our game.

BioShock Infinite - Shawn Robertson, Lead Artist

Devil in the White City was a huge inspiration to us. It's obviously a story about a serial killer during the Chicago World's Fair, but what we got out of it as a team was this age of enlightenment and how much technology was introduced at that time. I didn't even know Tesla and Edison had a rivalry where one was promoting AC and one was promoting DC! That [emerging technology] starts informing possible scenarios, things bubbling up to the surface that you want to latch onto, things for writers to start writing about or things that inspire the art team in general to start making.

Dishonored - Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith, Co-Creative Directors

To be honest, this is hard to answer because the biggest media influence on Dishonored was probably the video game Thief. Thief presented a dark, corrupt world full of secret factions, with its own history. Everything in the environment felt cohesively tied together in an organic way. But to the heart of your question, we would cite additional literary influences like H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Neil Gaiman, or Michael Moorcock. We were also guided by films like Gangs of New York and television series like Deadwood.

Mark of the Ninja - Nels Anderson, Lead Designer

Finding good inspiration for Mark of the Ninja in fiction was certainly a challenge. Unlike spy fiction (probably the closest analog to ninja), nearly all ninja fiction is, at best, an over-the-top gorefest. At worst, it's some of the corniest, campiest stuff you'll ever hope to find (for example, Miami Connection).

There is a series of Japanese films from the '60s called Shinobi no Mono, which, although obviously from the '60s, are otherwise pretty good. They tell the highly stylized story of Goemon Ishikawa, a famous ninja from Japanese history. He's something of a Robin Hood figure, but is most famous for attempting to assassinate one of Japan's greatest warlords, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was executed by being boiled alive after the attempt failed. Even today in Japan, large iron bathtubs are called a "Goemon bath." Coincidentally, Goemon was actually the protagonist in the SNES game Legend of the Mystical Ninja, although he was renamed "Kid Yang," and the game has nothing else to do with his life. So stories about actual ninja were probably the biggest inspiration as far as the ninja fiction actually goes. Several of the game's backstory scrolls refer to actual events and broader changes that took place in history.

Discussion

146 comments
epic542
epic542

I often want Games made into movies. Sadly, no game that has been made into a movie was made very well, (i.e: Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, etc). But People will still wish for a Zelda Movie, a Halo movie or a WOW movie. I just hope they get made finally, and made good.

Devil_78
Devil_78

Im a huge fan of movies but you know what ? I found many games better than movies !!! games like mass effect and dragon age series which have a very well done story and YOU are the hero that can shape the game are more fun than seeing a good movie for 1 hour and half !! .

RobGrizz
RobGrizz

Interesting subject for an article. I wish it covered more games.

Zulzon
Zulzon

Awesome article.

Col_Kilgore
Col_Kilgore

This has been happening forever. Look at old Nintendo and arcade games. Ikari Warriors = Rambo. Bayou Billy = Crocodile Dundee. Cover of Metal Gear = Reese from Terminator. Etc.

TheEveryMan
TheEveryMan

I just love the fact that the lead designers of Dishonored haven't pointed out V For Vendetta as an influence.

Poodlejumper
Poodlejumper

Halflife was inspired by (the short story not the movie) Steven King's "The Mist"

Shinobi-Neo
Shinobi-Neo

yeah Rambo was the inspiration for Solid Snake!!! XD

theoasis77
theoasis77

The next TR won't be about survival... This is the intro... Game is amazing from a to z, no game comes close this gen for single player experience. Next one needs to be more open world and huge tombs, scary things also in them, puzzles too.

DrKill09
DrKill09

Dear Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider has nothing to do with Die Hard or The Descent.  Please STFU, you have no idea what Tomb Raider should be like, and your new game looks awful.

The only half decent one you did was Legend.

Core knew what they were doing, and gave us three classic games... then they just made too damn many of them.

LesserAngel
LesserAngel

'Escape from New York' to 'Metal Gear', though that was an obvious one.

SlaviksG
SlaviksG

Brutal LEGEND METAAAALLLLL YEA !!!! :D

ExtremePhobia
ExtremePhobia

Shawn Robertson loses some major geek points here... Did you not play Red Alert? Tesla Coils? How could you not be inspired to figure out who this Tesla guy was?

Anyway, fantastic article =) I particularly like the Bastion one. When they were explaining the inspiration for the game, I could just hear the narrator talking.

DarkFrankhs
DarkFrankhs

Great article - really interesting read. 

Prats1993
Prats1993

I think the problem with the gaming industry today is that devs have become too influenced by Hollywood and movies. Books and real literature with proper storytelling are fine, but most games have since tried to become overly cinematic whilst trying to emulate these "larger than life" hollywood experiences. If u look at games like the recent Tomb Raider or Uncharted, Heavy Rain and lets say COD, they focus more on QTE's, cutscenes and scripted set pieces which is why the actual gameplay ends up being watered down and generic. Red Dead Redemption is one of the few games in recent memory that nailed both gameplay and storytelling.

franzito
franzito

Don't forget to mention that the good old Resident Evil games (1, 2, 3 and Code Veronica) got most of its inspiration from zombie movies of 70's and 80's

brok
brok

"Goemon was actually the protagonist in the SNES game Legend of the Mystical Ninja, although he was renamed "Kid Yang," and the game has nothing else to do with his life."

Hahahaha OK so the game has him in it, but doesn't use his name or anything else from his life whatsoever? Riiiiiiiight...

wondernova
wondernova

I knew it! There was just something about seeing Lara screaming, distraught and covered in crap that reminded me of The Descent. A brilliant horror film.

evil_m3nace
evil_m3nace

Tesla(AC) vs Edison(DC) is a common thing taught in schools in South America, Asia, and Europe....

edgewalker16
edgewalker16

Devil in the White City was a phenomenal book, but I read it for the background to the World's Fair and not the serial killer...so Infinite is right down my alley.

justinka777
justinka777

when you stop looking for new ways to inovate, your games start to contain "Call of Duty" in the title.

zackcurl
zackcurl

also, can i say that Miami Connection is a fantastic movie, just not to be taken too seriously.

Ricardo Martin
Ricardo Martin

I prefer the lighthearted 80s influences of Indiana Jones and Roger Moore's James Bond in the previous games.

Ricardo Martin
Ricardo Martin

Usually story spoilers (which are apparently a big no-no in the gaming world) don't ruin a game purchase for me. But after reading the proof from people that this game IS darker and more emotional than the previous iteration as developer leads have stated, this is definitely on my avoid list.

sam441
sam441

and that's why none of these games became a classic

TheEveryMan
TheEveryMan

@Poodlejumper 

There are plenty of obvious literary influences on the Half-Life series, some can seen from a distance whereas others have to be examined close up.

MKrutko
MKrutko

@Shinobi-Neo 

Actually your both right and then some. Solid Snake is also inspired by the Stallone's "Judge Dredd", the whole test tube, clone baby, twin brother, thing. Also "Snake Plissken" (not Solid Snake) was inspired by Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" from the "Dollars Trilogy".

niv0070
niv0070

@DrKill09 

Well you sir, are awfully stupid, so I guess you didn't play the new Tomb Raider, its one of the best games I've played for a long period of time. The game is simply awesome.

FrostedKibbles
FrostedKibbles

@DrKill09 Who are you to know what influenced Crystal Dynamics, during the process of making Tomb Raider? Keep your pretentious opinion to yourself. 

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

Dear Crystal Dynamics,

Your game has sold over a million copies in 2 days, making it the best selling video game of the year and generally loved by most gamers who have played it as well as the majority of critics. DrKill09 however has not been pleased with your efforts and would like to see the graphics take a giant step backward to resemble Tomb Raider Legend. Also, do not compare your game with The Descent, a movie about a group of young girls with climbing gear that get stuck in a dangerous underground cave with Tomb Raider, a game that features a young girl with climbing gear that has to escape underground tombs. They are nothing alike!

Devils-DIVISION
Devils-DIVISION

@DrKill09 

The 'core' had their time with the classic Raiders; a reboot by definition means that the game has to be different.

I'm partially through the game, and it's good. I can also see the connection with Die Hard (McClane being punished for every step forward). This is just me, and I know I shouldn't be comparing the two as the only thing they have in common is platforming, but I had MUCH more fun with Uncharted.

vunacar
vunacar

@ExtremePhobia So you found out about Tesla by playing Red Alert? If you did not know who Tesla was before that you failed at life. It is the same thing as not knowing who Einstein is, even worse. The guy invented most of the modern world, and life as we know it would be impossible without him.

metalgrinch
metalgrinch

Def true. But games have been trying to emulate movies for a very long time before modern QTE's. Like, the original Resident Evil was as cinematic as a game tried to get, but since the technology wasn't really there for QTE's, it couldn't realy be done or thought of at the time. Goldeneye 007 for the N64 tried it too, but the technology was holding it back. Also, QTE's are also there to appeal to a more mature audience.

Prats1993
Prats1993

@franzito Gotta love the Japanese with their terrible western impressions, they should stick to their own culture when trying to find inspiration. I guess thats why Silent Hill 2 conpletely trumped the terrible Re 1 & 2

Kickable
Kickable

@sam441 this comment caused the Japanese earthquake of 2011

Zeeksie
Zeeksie

@sam441 People like you remind me how much I miss the "dislike" option we had for comments a while back.

zackcurl
zackcurl

@sam441 says the guy with the Solid Snake picture as his icon; Metal Gear wears more influences on it's sleeve than almost any game series out there, and whether you like it or not, it's one of the most prolific series in the history of videogames.

fillup0
fillup0

@sam441 Because they had influences? Everyone has influences. Halo is very heavily influenced by Starship Troopers and Alien, for example.

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

@sam441 You have strange ideas about things. 

Leboyo56
Leboyo56

@sam441 Bastion is already considered an indie classic. And I assume most of the rest of these will become classics too, more specifically DisHonored, Bioshock Infinite, Xcom Enemy Unknown, and Mark of the Ninja.

Poodlejumper
Poodlejumper

@vadagar1 Yeah but usually you say that when it's something that most people know and/or is blatantly obvious.


Most don't know that.  If you do then consider yourself lucky.

s_h_a_d_o
s_h_a_d_o

@MKrutko@Shinobi-Neo 

'Also "Snake Plissken" (not Solid Snake) was inspired by Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" from the "Dollars Trilogy".'

And therefore, the protagonist from Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

There's nothing new under the Sun.

vunacar
vunacar

@Devils-DIVISION @DrKill09 This is where we differ. I played all the Uncharted games, and consider them all good, if not great (second one) but I preferred Tomb Raider over all of them, even tough I never liked TR games, because I did not like the puzzles and shooting was too generic.

I like TR better because it feels less on rails than Uncharted, and generally has more stuff in it to do, and has more believable main character. Drake is cool, don't get me wrong, but he is not Lara.

metalgrinch
metalgrinch

Uh, that's where you're wrong actually. RE1 &2 may not seem like much now, but were incredible and groundbreaking when they were released back in the late 90s. In terms of cinematic storytelling and survival horror the genre would not be as much (if anything) without the influence of these games).

OldKye
OldKye

@Zeeksie @sam441 So many forums and comment sections have deprived me of my beloved dislike button, gone are the days when posters would fear knowing what people really though of their outlandish ideas.

 Like a parent of a student driver trying to slam the invisible break in the passenger seat of the car i click the empty space that was my dislike button hoping to help them stop in time.

sam441
sam441

@Leboyo56 @sam441Wow I did not think my comment is gonna be that offensive

Now if I may I would like to defend my opinion,
first of all what makes a game a classic ?

- did any of theses games listed above rewrote the standards of it’s genre (see the tomb raider video review they say the exact same words it’s an opinion shared by gamespot editors) or even created it’s own unique genre like metal gear (combining stealth with action for the very first time I am talking mgs1 the ps version
- did any of these games had a revolutionary graphics or physics engine like half life in the past or more recent crysis 1 and off course doom 3 which is the father of the current generation
of course there are other factors but I really don't feel like writing an article now so perhaps some expert opinion might shed some light on my thoughts
http://voices.yahoo.com/what-makes-game-classic-8781769.html?cat=15

a creative mind create revolutionary ideas not copy others I am not saying these games are bad in fact I just finished tomb raider and I think it’s quite good but not memorable and definitely not classic.
@shaunmc @fillup0 @zackcurl @Zeeksie @OldKye @Kickable

wazupnigz
wazupnigz

@Devils-DIVISION @zombiedriveby Yeah he gives the name Iroquois Plissken

Devils-DIVISION
Devils-DIVISION

@zombiedriveby

Been a while since I've played it, I believe you're right though. I think it was his code name or something.

Devils-DIVISION
Devils-DIVISION

@vunacar

That's fair enough. For me though, there is no issue with the believability of Drake's character, it's the atmosphere he creates, along with the cast that make Uncharted more 'fun'--fun being the key word. The different theme in TR requires it to have a more believable protagonist, however, I find walking away from a game and saying "that was fun", most important, not that I'm not enjoying TR. I didn't wish to compare TR with Uncharted, but one can't help oneself; that said it is a great game its own right.

zombiedriveby
zombiedriveby

@metalgrinch extremely groundbreaking , I remember being blown away at the time...BUT..."you were almost a Jill sandwich"

zombiedriveby
zombiedriveby

@sam441 @Leboyo56 I think what makes a game a classic is the effect on the masses ...I mean ...look at "classic" movies ...did dawn of the dead do anything horribly original ? not really ...but it is loved by a lot of horror fans...