“Some writers are only born to help another writer to write one sentence,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. The gist of that idea can be applied to modern video games and their influences. The relatively young medium swirls with some new ideas and plenty borne of past works, found in places both ambiguous and subtle, from gameplay to aesthetics to those things as nebulous as spirit, feel and tone. In an industry that is both hugely profitable and undergoing a creative renaissance, titles are plentiful, newcomers are many, and competition is ever growing, resulting in a huge push to be new, different, or simply the next link in the evolution of gaming. That almost always involves taking a look over one’s shoulder at what came before.
Amid the splintering of genres into specific subgenres aimed at specific gamers — Rocket League for multiplayer nerds, Starcraft for compulsive competitors, art games for creatives, phone games for commuters, FPS’s for bros, and vintage reboots for nostalgics — it’s hard to see the mess of vintage games that inspired one game in the mess of modern games. Mostly, it depends who you ask. We talked to five influencers within gaming, magazines, movies and more and asked them to reveal the games that most influenced them, old and new.
Director, designer, programmer, developer: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake
Editor’s Note: When people think of influential first-person shooters — today’s most commercial successful genre — they think of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, all of which were created and designed by John Romero in the early 1990s. Romero has gone on to other projects, but it’s his popularization of the 3D shooter that he’s remembered for. This is the man who coined the term “Team Deathmatch,” after all.
Pac-Man (1980): I played everything as a kid in an arcade named Spanky’s in Tucson, Arizona. So many games were “shoot the aliens” types — Asteroid, Space Invaders, so many others. Then Pac-Man was, “run away from the colorful monsters!” with great music. For me, it was a pretty life-altering game, because it showed me that game design can be limitless. It was really important for me to play Pac-Man in 1980.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (2001): When first-person shooters (FPS’s) came out, everybody was exploring what they could do with an FPS. There was a splintering among how shooters could be played. Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon all were different design shards for tactical shooters. Ghost Recon had great atmosphere, but most of all it had great replay-ability, because there were a lot of randomized variables in the game. It had good feel, excellent balance, the tension was amazing, it was very, very fair. And it made you feel real fear. You’d stop moving, and you’d have to look around to make sure of what is around you. It could be full daylight, and you would know someone’s closing in somewhere. But it would be so hard to see them, in plain daylight, due to environment.
Half-Life 2 (2004): Half-Life 2, I’d say, was one of the pinnacles of FPS design. It took the original formula of Half-Life, which was amazing in 1998, and refined it and made it really look amazing, made it work even better. The cut scene design where you’re fully in control of the character is still very rare to see anywhere. Then there’s the storyline, and the fact that your character is not big brawny marine guy, but a scientist. He’s smart. And he still kicks ass.
Minecraft (2011): Minecraft has been really important in [showing how games can allow gamers to be] constantly creating, and destroying, making anything you can think of, while at the same time playing a game. And not in a separate mode. Typically, to build worlds, you’d have to quit the game, run a level editor, make the level, then start playing and testing. It’s a totally different feeling, because you’re trying to make a finished product to give to others to try out. Not here. Here you’re creating because it’s fun, and while you’re doing that you’re also exploring and fighting. It’s all seamless.
Director, Grandma’s Boy, The Shortcut, Six Guys One Car
Editor’s Note: Nicholaus Goossen’s directorial premier, Grandma’s Boy, was panned by critics. But its stoner appeal and video game design storyline struck a chord with underground audiences; it’s since become a cult classic. Goossen, who says he’s been directing his own movies “since I was five, six, seven years old,” eventually landed among Adam Sandler’s crew at Happy Madison, where his love of childhood gaming influenced both the script and his direction of the film.
Demonik (Shown in Grandma’s Boy, 2006; never released): Demonik, the game that our lead character is developing in Grandma’s Boy, was really a game. It was developed by Terminal Reality, and the designer was Brett Combs, the designer of the Bloodrayne games. The early version of the game in the movie was meant to be something else. Once we started dealing with pre-production, and started investigating how we were gonna be able to make it work, I landed on Terminal Reality and Demonik.
I had to go out [to Terminal Reality’s studios in Texas], and they only had one level completed. We decided that was gonna be the game. We wanted to be able to use a real game; we didn’t have a budget to create a game that would look at all realistic… I captured action that I thought would be applicable. Then we wrote a script that would fit what I captured. For that last battle, there was no online multiplayer, so all we did was take the lead character of the demon and paint one blue and one red.
Famously, Clive Barker joined on to the game and it completely died before it was ever released. It got canned, but we have this cool game that’s in our movie. It’s got a nice level of authenticity for that reason. And only because we couldn’t afford to create something else.
The Legend of Zelda (1986): It was important for me because of its storytelling. Bringing that level of interactivity to a cool storyline with cool characters, it enhanced my perception of what a good story is. Mom had to buy me the $75 version of that gold cartridge. Games were taking their cues from movies in the first place, but movies have started to take some cues from video games, as far as how action is staged. Even now in movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, they’re actually using video game tropes to tell a story. The two are so intertwined in my mind. The line between the two keeps getting blurred. And what’s the coolest thing you could say about a video game? “It’s like you’re playing a movie!”
Editor, Kill Screen Daily
Editor’s Note: Purdom grew up a music lover, and eventually became a freelance writer focused on hip-hop. When he wrote a piece on a group of rappers designing new soundscapes for video games, he fell into the media. Now, as editor at Kill Screen, a site dedicated to games and their art and culture (which hopes to soon relaunch their print edition), he oversees the award-winning publication’s reviews, essays and features, and continues to write himself.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997): The first Playstation system was made to do polygons — games like Tomb Raider — and instead they made a really beautiful, lushly animated 2D game. It was a big, open thing, where you’d wander around and slowly unlock the secrets of the castle. There are things in the game that are still mysterious. There’s a telescope you can look through… and there’s no reason for it to be in the game. The second castle is hard to even find — you can beat the game and not know you only really beat half the game. I love the feel of the castle, and of being in that place.
Limbo (2010): As I got older, people started to talk about “indie” games. I was super jazzed by the possibility of making games outside of the big, traditional system. But up until this game, nothing else had resonated with me. It was just sincere, and there was a childlike aspect. You play as a child, but it’s also a classic childlike horror type thing. But not fey or whimsical. It’s the type of game that I probably should have hated — childlike, a stupid fairytale. But they nailed the details. It’s done in film noir, with a film grain look. The big thing was, I beat it in an afternoon. I was exhilarated by it. The other big thing, too, was its sound design. It was like Eraserhead. They had made a really beautiful industrial ambient soundscape that was as good as a movie. Walking through the world and hearing sounds was as much a reason to play as anything else.
Halo: Combat Evolved, and Halo 5: Guardians (2001, 2015): Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Reach are always associated with frat boys and LAN parties. But to me they’ve always felt a cut above their peer group. When Halo came out, everybody I know would sit around and play co-op on Legendary for a full afternoon. Just like Symphony of the Night, it had an incredible space, and I enjoyed being there. Like, take supposedly boring levels that people hate, like the Library. It’s a big, dark place, with really smart, hard enemies that they just keep throwing at you, who keep evolving and doing different things. And the weapons evolved with the enemies. It was a great sort of pure shooting moment.
I’m playing through Halo 5 co-op on legendary with the same guy I played through Halo with. It’s a beautifully nostalgic thing. And a lot of the same stuff is great. You get into this big battlefield and die immediately, die immediately, die immediately. Your next life, you go behind a hill, and it works out. One guy stays there, sniping. The other guy runs up with a shotgun, dies, respawns. And you just pick through it that way. I’m not a glutton for punishment, but the difficulty has always felt rewarding. When you clear that battlefield out you really feel like you’ve done something big.
The Last of Us (2014): They were open about the fact that this was inspired by No Country for Old Men — of course, it’s a zombie game. But as soon as I knew that — and I had already beaten the game when I found out — I was like, that is it! They did nail it! Even the last shot, its tempo. I’ve never seen a huge game by a big studio that was so visually impressive, and really fun to play, and really difficult, but that was also so focused on a very specific artistic idea. I’m constantly measuring games against that.
Dark Souls (2011): There have been so many games that in some capacity are trying to be Dark Souls. One thing it did for the better was show that a game could make unaccommodating design choices — rigid, unyielding design choices — and be better and more popular because of it. Some of the best games since have taken inspiration from it — sometimes a game should be unwieldy and weird. But then a bunch of games have been like, “We’re Dark Souls,” and have stolen [parts of it].
Scorer and Composer, Red Steel, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Halo: Spartan Assault, Halo: Spartan Strike
Editor’s Note: In 2011, Tom Salta lived out a video game composer‘s dream: for the release of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition, he was part of a team that recreated the game’s original score. Video game scoring was a major pivot for Salta, who toured as a sound designer and keyboard tech with Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown in the ’90s and produced records through 2001. The original Halo score was an epiphany for him, and he began pursuing composing jobs in the industry. His music has since appeared on games in major series like Project Gotham Racing, the Ghost Recon franchise, Prince of Persia and, most recently, Halo.
Halo: Combat Evolved (2001): The music struck a chord with me. It fit within this new, unfamiliar alien sci-fi fantasy adventure shooter game. Besides the memorable factor of the music, one thing I loved about it was the way Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori integrated the music. It didn’t follow the typical formula: action in the game, action music; when [the game is] tense, tense music. It went much further, and it was done truly artistically. Sometimes you’d be in this intense battle, storming the beach, and yet the music would be calm and dreamy. That got my attention. This was different than all the other video game scores I’d heard. It was inspiring to me. It was freeing. It just stuck with me, as a music lover and a video game lover. The two worlds collided.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003): It had this wonderful combination of fantasy and Middle Eastern eclectic music. There was a hybrid of modern elements and traditional elements, and a dreamy factor to it, but a lot of the music was also driving. It just took me somewhere else. It wasn’t familiar. It makes me sum up why I love video games: I’ve always loved anything that transports me to somewhere unfamiliar or new.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011): Jeremy Soule created some wonderful music for Skyrim. He did it on an epic scale, and a huge part of it is that it was delivered in a medium that you can appreciate it. So much of Skyrim is walking around and exploring. There’s not a lot of stuff going on, competitively. You’re just looking at landscapes and journeying, and with the music, you can hear that. He does a wonderful job of creating a musical universe, a land you can just get lost in.
Bioshock (2007): Garry Schyman’s score was unexpected. The music he created was a of a style you didn’t hear in video games at that time, and something unique that really added to immersion. Plus the licensed music, all that old stuff, was really spooky in the game’s setting.
Dead Space (2008): The aleatoric music by Jason Graves in Dead Space freaked me out. And of course the game was terrifying. You put those two things together, it was one of the most uncomfortable gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
Designer, StarLicker, TileWild
Editor’s Note: 31-year-old Hayden Cacace left gaming giant EA to start making his own games — which wasn’t as easy as he expected. But after a year and a half he and a friend released TileWild to the iTunes app store; it didn’t make any money, he says, but it “felt good to actually release a game that we did without any funding, nobody helping us.” He’s since grown to embrace this appealing facet of indie gaming, and become a part of the growing market for mobile games. His latest release, StarLicker, has seen larger sales and garnered praise for its combination of tower defense and arcade shooter styles, and for its two-player turn-based dynamic.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991): Visually, I was most influenced by the character-driven, iconic games of the ’90s. Sonic is like a kids’ cartoon that you play. They’re all stylized characters. I loved the bright colors. It’s pure imagination: Hedgehogs are brown and white, but Sonic, he’s bright blue, wears red sneakers, and is incredibly fast. Hedgehogs aren’t fast! The ideas are so imaginative.
Bubble Bobble (1986): This was an arcade game, and on NES — and I loved it for the same reasons as Sonic. The weird characters, the bright colors, how wacky it is. Video games are a medium that encourages weird stuff. It’s all very abstract, typically, especially older games. Literal objects are often just meant as coats of paint over a very abstract system. It encourages weird and wacky stuff.
Starcraft, Starcraft II (1998, 2010): [Starcraft] was the best of everything. Single-player had a great story. The three different races were all really unique. And multiplayer was the most competitive thing out there. In adult life, I came back to Starcraft because it has a really serious competitive league in Korea. The players are making a lot of money, and when Starcraft II came out it led a big push in bringing pro multiplayer games to larger audiences. League of Legends has carried that torch, and now a bunch of games are played competitively. We don’t often think about the connection between video games and sports. But people are drawing comparisons — it really is like playing a crazy intense sport on a computer.
Killer Queen (2013): Recently, I’ve been interested in games where you have to get together in real life with friends. Killer Queen is the number one game I play, and the biggest influence on me as a designer. It’s a 10-player game — there are two teams of five, each playing on a gigantic arcade cabinet that stands back-to-back with the other team’s game. The machine is gigantic, and the game is very simple. But because it’s a team game where you have to play in person, it’s built big communities in Chicago, NYC and Portland. And you have to play in person — [the game’s creators have said] there will never be a console version, no online version. It’s stubborn, but brilliant. The more I’ve played, the more I’ve realized it really would not be the same [to play online]. When people take notice of this game, they’ll see that games that force you to leave the house and play with friends have tremendous potential.