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Video Games Explore Ancient Myths and Folklore

Scholars’ perceptions of mass media’s impact on folklore and mythology are complicated. Some scholars believe that tale dissemination via movies, television programs, and video games encourages viewers to rediscover classic stories. Others argue that film adaptations of folk and myth narratives may create “definitive texts,” which threaten to “replace the more fluid oral variants.” What is at stake when we adapt folklore and mythology to mass media? I suspect it leads to engaging discourse and creative expression. The video game industry has recently provided players with two games, Puppeteer and the forthcoming title Apotheon, that explore the figures and motifs of mythology and folk tales in a playful format.

Puppeteer, a new side-scrolling platformer, presents the story of Kutaro, a young-boy transformed into a puppet by the evil Moon Bear King. The game play diminishes any resemblance to a spin on Disney’s Pinocchio—when the king turns Kutaro into a puppet, he also severs his head. The king wishes to use Kutaro and the souls of other children to guard his kingdom. Kutaro, adorned with a temporary head and armed with a pair of magical sheers, navigates unfamiliar territories to escape the King’s land and find his way home. The remaining gameplay unfolds through seven acts of a theatrical performance. Along the way, Kutaro must defeat Moon Bear King’s 12 minions, which resemble Chinese Zodiac creatures. Puppeteer presents comic relief when some of the characters forget lines. Yet, some parents might approach this macabre fairy tale with caution. Puppeteer’s lead designer John Trudeau believes that children are “much more open! They see everything as it is, rather than adults, who are trying to hide behind everything and see it in a certain way.” Scholars, such as Maria Tatar, suggest the sanitization of fairy tales began as early as versions recorded by the Grimm brothers (they often added a note of cautionary advice to parents of young children) and continued through Walt Disney. Perhaps the darkness of fairy-tales in games like Puppeteer will help the genre return to its origins. The only way to appreciate contemporary variations of tales is to understand their dark past.

Alientrap’s forthcoming title Apotheon introduces another example of present-day variations of classic motifs. In Apotheon, Hera, the queen of Olympus, overthrows her husband Zeus. Hera occupies the throne as ruler of the Gods and launches a murderous campaign to find mortals. The gameplay requires a player to guide the last human hero through the land of the dead to infiltrate Mount Olympus and battle the Gods. Ancient Greek mythology often depicted Hera as bitter, jealous, and vengeful and she frequently directed this at Zeus (guilty of adultery on numerous occasions) and mortals. Apotheon’s aesthetics resemble the black figure paintings found on ancient Greek pottery. Alientrap artist Jesse McGibney felt the pottery art style “perfectly meshes with the narrative and theme…We were honestly surprised that hardly any games have used this style before.” The figures prove bold and beautiful against the geometric designs that fill the game’s landscapes. After I watched Apotheon game trailers, I decided to revisit John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I despised this poem in college, but I now have a new appreciation for both Keats’ words and ancient art.

Myths and folktales are powerful stories. Video game depictions of folktales and myths present a playful and engaging format to explore cultural identities, social systems, and customs. If you want to learn explore more games inspired by folk tales and myths, check-out Hercules, Dragon’s Lair, Kid Icarus, and Dark Age of Camelot, among others.