The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on Modern Video Gaming
It’s hard to imagine a world without high fantasy, RPG (role-playing) video games. Indeed, the genre constitutes a significant niche market in the United States, and a significant chunk of all video game sales in Japan. But, were it not for the literary experiments of one man, we may never have seen the likes of Legend of Zelda, King’s Quest, or even Final Fantasy, some of the most successful video game franchises in the history of the medium. Strange as it may sound, the landscape of modern gaming makes no sense unless one factors in the influence of the legendarium of that famous Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Development of the RPG
Before we begin, we need to provide a working definition of the term “RPG,” and the genre with which it is associated. “RPG” stands for “role-playing game,” and refers to a game in which the player assumes the role of a character within a fictional narrative, undertaking a task or quest alone (as with most video games), or with a group (as with tabletop RPGs and Massive Multiplayer RPGs). Fantasy RPGs have, historically, been the most popular in this genre, beginning with the release of the first tabletop RPGs in the 1970’s. These games attracted a large and devoted fanbase, many of which ended up programming some of the earliest video games. Seeing the potential inherent in the new medium, many of these programmers, logically, began incorporating elements from tabletop RPGs into the emerging medium.
Now, while plenty of games exist based on Tolkien’s work, especially in the wake of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Trilogies, his influence on the fantasy RPG genre as a whole is not as direct. Adventure for the Atari 2600 was the first game that can be considered a fantasy RPG. Though now considered crude, the programming and gameplay pushed the boundaries of what many considered possible for video games in 1979. It featured dragons, castles, and a quest to save a certain kingdom by finding and returning a chalice to its rightful place. In short, it had all the basics of later fantasy RPGs, providing the template for later action-adventure RPG games. But, groundbreaking as it was, the template didn’t originate solely with its programmer, Warren Robinett. As with most creative breakthroughs, it relied significantly on the discoveries of the past–in this case, the text based adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure.
The text-based computer game has all but disappeared since the advent of the video-game and the graphical user interface (GUI) becoming industry standard on home computers. Though lacking graphics, these games provided a scenario for the player, and then the game advanced based upon the simple commands the player entered when faced with options and obstacles. Colossal Cave Adventure, programmed by Will Crowther and Don Woods, was among the earliest, as well as most popular, examples of this genre. Inspired by Crowther’s love of spelunking and a trip to the Mammoth cave system in Kentucky, Don Woods expanded the original adventure Crowther created for his daughters by lifting many fantasy elements from a certain famous tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who created and published the game in 1974, while not creating a Tolkien rip-off, did liberally incorporate elements from the famous fantasy trilogy, so much so that the Tolkien estate demanded they change “ents” to “treants,” “balrogs” to “baldor demons,” and “hobbits” to “halflings.” By incorporating elements of the tabletop game into the text-based one, Crowther and Woods essentially began codifying what are the essential elements of fantasy RPGs.
In the late 1970’s, after Atari created the video game market and began pumping out games, Warren Robinett began brainstorming ways in which he could adapt the famous text-based adventure into a game for the Atari 2600. Though the complex text-based had to be stripped down to its barest essentials to accommodate the limited processing space of the Atari, Robinett nevertheless managed to successfully translate the more literary tropes of the genre in the new, more visually-based medium. The success of that game ensured more like it would come after, incorporating the fantasy elements originating with Tolkien.
The Essential Elements
Despite this illustrious lineage, how much Tolkien influences the RPG fantasy genre is not easily quantifiable. After all, these programmers and designers didn’t rely exclusively on Tolkien’s work–the works of other authors, fairy tales, and their own imaginations played a significant role in the development of these games. Moreover, programmers and designers rarely lifted specific story elements from Tolkien’s work. Rather, they imported what might be termed as a “culture” for fantasy games. Elves, trolls, sword-fighting, magic, and dragons have been present in fairytales of most cultures since time immemorial. The tropes, in and of themselves, when used by Tolkien, Crowther, Robinett, or anyone else, are little different from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales or King Arthur. It’s not these concepts themselves, but how they are used.
While these elements are shared with fairytales and other kinds fantasy, there is a sense of age, of weight, reverence even, unique to Tolkien’s world. Much of that sort of solemn tone was imported into these new kinds of games. To take a specific example, let us look at elves in fantasy, before and after Tolkien. Elves are beautiful, wise, immortal figures in Tolkien; in stories prior to his work, elves were more like Christmas elves, tiny “figures of fun,” mischievous and not worth taking seriously. But, though we still have Christmas elves, most elves, or elf-like creatures, in fantasy are much like Tolkien’s: wise, solemn, immortal, superior to humans in almost every way (though the latter is much more nuanced in Tolkien’s work proper). It’s the selection of elements that counts, to be sure, but more so the way in which the elements are used.
To illustrate our case, let us consider a specific example in a popular modern RPGs, World of Warcraft. Within the fantasy realm it creates, one often encounters, as one does in many of these fantasy RPGs, those of the elven race. The superficial similarities are clear–like many fantasy elves, these elves are wise, fair, and immortal–but if we go deeper, we can see more clearly the unmistakable stamp of Tolkien. The Elves in World of Warcraft are divided in different categories, races, if you will: the “Night Elves,” the “High Elves,” the “Blood Elves,” and the “Dark Elves.” These elves, though they share major characteristics, have differing abilities and loyalties depending on their race (each race having a long and sometimes tumultuous background with another). Now, those who only read the Lord of the Rings may not know this division among the Elves began with Tolkien, whose long, glorious, and tragic history he chronicles in the Silmarillion. Even the names given to the races are eerily similar–for instance, “Sin-dorei,” the blood elves, sounding much like Tolkien’s “Sindarin,” and “Quel-dorei” resembling “Quendi” and “Quenya.” Though the backstories of the elvish races vary wildly depending on the source material, nonetheless these and other Tolkienesque elements have floated into the RPG genre since the beginning.
The RPG fantasy genre grew from a sort of “culture”: these games partake of the tropes, mood, and elements of Tolkienesque high fantasy to new ends, characters, and stories. These programmers and designers used tools suggested by Tolkien’s work to create an entirely new genre of video game, expanding the world of video-gaming when sports games and arcade ports ruled the video gaming world, a world where all these elements of fairytales intertwined together with a single history, geography, etc. What these games share with Tolkien, what he unwittingly contributed to the genre of RPG fantasy games, a unified world where all these fairytale elements intertwine with a single, coherent history, geography and culture.
Tolkien’s Continuing Influence
Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda are two of the most popular RPG fantasy games in the modern video game market. Though both are distinct in their use of common fantasy tropes, the influence of Tolkien’s work upon each of them is clear the farther back we look, though both lifted different elements and use them uniquely within their respective worlds. Of the two franchises, the first Final Fantasy, released in 1987, has the most obvious parallels to Tolkien’s work, at least as far as their stories are concerned. The first Final Fantasy game has humans, dwarves, orcs, and dragons, while adding mermaids, robots, and other such creatures. Much like the quest of Frodo and the Fellowship to destroy the One Ring, the main storyline of the game involves The Four Light Warriors travelling to vanquish the works of Chaos and the Four Fiends. Tolkien’s influence became much less pronounced as the years rolled by and Final Fantasy developed a mythology unique to itself, but the initial games are undeniably indebted to Lord of the Rings, both in their story and surrounding mythology. While not a carbon copy, the basic outline–a group of heroes travelling to destroy an ancient, entrenched evil–is one popping up frequently in fantasy media after the publication of Tolkien’s trilogy.
Now, while Legend of Zelda doesn’t lift as much direct story elements, it’s tone and scope is reminiscent of what Tolkien sought to accomplish in his legendarium. That is, Tolkien didn’t only write some fun fairytales, he created an entire world with its own comprehensive and developed mythos. Beginning with games Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past (released 1998 and 1991, respectively), Zelda, unlike many of its predecessors, outlines a creation myth for the land of Hyrule, bringing all the disparate elements of its story together into a cohesive whole. Though Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s creator, relied on his own childhood experiences as well as well-known stories such as Peter Pan and Arthurian legends, Zelda obviously derives significant elements from Tolkien: three goddesses bestow on the land of Hyrule a powerful piece of magic known as the Triforce, which is subsequently stolen by the evil sorcerer Ganon, by doing so plunges the land into darkness and wickedness, and only an ordinary farm boy with a pure heart of courage can endeavor to retrieve it and save Hyrule.
To those familiar with even the basics of Tolkiens’ mythology, the parallels should be clear. Not a one to one correspondence, to be sure, but its certainly clear from whence the game designers derived these elements. This only becomes clear when the games discuss the history of Hyrule explicitly, and is not necessary to know in order to enjoy the game, but it enriches the game with an epic scope and mythical weight it might not otherwise have.
Which is what Tolkien provided for modern video games: a mythos. Before Tolkien, it was not considered necessary for a collection of fairy stories to have a coherent history and backstory tying them together: it would have seemed ridiculous, taking a pleasant diversion entirely too seriously. But Tolkien recognized the storytelling possibilities inherent in having the stories linked together coherently, by a single history, mythos, and geography. While many video games lifted story elements, characters, and creatures from Tolkien, they used them to enrich the newborn medium, to create something creative, exciting, and innovative, rather than simply plagiarizing to vomit out games faster. Tolkien defined most of the fantasy tropes now used in modern gaming, providing a “culture,” a “landscape” upon which all these video game worlds unfold and evolve.
Without Tolkien’s work, many of the tropes and elements we consider essential to fantasy games simply would not exist, or at least not in their present form. Tolkien added a richness, depth, and solemnity to “fairy stories,” as he called them, in an era when fairytales were dismissed as trivial distractions fit only for children. He uncovered possibilities no one had ever considered in fantasy before, and game developers explored those possibilities in new and groundbreaking ways.What matters here is not so much that they relied so heavily on Tolkien’s groundbreaking work, but how they used the tropes originating with Tolkien to enrich and transform the nascent medium of the video game.
Carol L. Robinson, “Electronic Tolkien: Characterization in Film and Video Games.” From Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, Ed. by Gail Ashton, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
Douglass C. Perry, “The Influence of Literature and Myth on Video Games,” 18 May, 2016, http://www.ign.com/articles/2006/05/18/the-influence-of-literature-and-myth-in-videogames?page=1, retrieved 9/15/2016
Andrew Heisch, “Tolkien in Videogameland,” 3/18/2011, http://www.nintendojo.com/features/specials/tolkien-in-videogameland, retrieved 9/15/2016
“A History of ‘Adventure,'” rickadams.org, http://rickadams.org/adventure/a_history.html, retrieved 9/15/2016
World of Warcraft Wiki, “Elf,” http://wowwiki.wikia.com/wiki/Elf, retrieved 9/15/2016
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