Kneel Before Nods!
Although often paraphrased, Cicero’s “to each his own” has its place in more or less every decision we make that isn’t based on a logical or moral choice. Whether we’re pondering the choice between pizza or Chinese food when it comes to ordering take-away, or deciding whether to watch the latest romcom or action blockbuster at the movies, our ultimate decision tends to be based on that which ignites the inspirational flame within ourselves. The same approach could be applied to how much enjoyment we take away from a game when, throughout the entire gameplay, we are not merely playing through the game itself but also being visually and audibly teased by nods which have been thrown in to the mix by the developers to not only show us their own personalities, but also to appeal to the inner geek that lives within most gamers.
While there have been times before where I’ve been aware of nods within games, either to other games or to cult movies, it wasn’t until I first climbed in my Carson GT Nighthawk (let’s be honest here… it’s KITT, even if the licensing laws say otherwise) and headed for Big Surf Island that I realised just how many possible nods a single game could have, yet without it becoming derivative or tiresome. Perhaps the most instantly recognisable nod in Big Surf Island is the road leading towards the Ski Jump named, simply, Grange Hill. It was this blatant flag waving of the institutionalised 1980s British TV show that immediately caught my eye and had me on the lookout for any more treats meticulously hidden by the programmers for the eagle eyed gamer to spot… yet none were hidden. The beauty, or rather the magnificence, of the nods on Big Surf Island is that there aren’t actually any nods whatsoever on the island as the island itself is constructed almost entirely of nods. The proverbial Land Of Nod, perhaps?
A quick drive around Big Surf Island will have you cruising past such glorious erections as Tel Wogan’s, Monkhouse Royal, Noakes Plaza, Shep’s Surf Shop and Crackerjack (CRACKERJAAAAACK!!) House along with countless others. We also managed to find ourselves in a collective nod with the aforementioned road being the tip of the Grange Hill iceberg, along with Zammo Mansions (just say no, kids!), Tucker Towers and I’ve heard mention that there’s also somewhere called McClusky’s Bar although I’ve been around the island several hundred times and never spotted it myself, so I’m naturally sceptical.
As someone who had spent a considerable amount of their youth indoors in front of the TV, these nuggets of nostalgia elevated the game itself, although not necessarily the gameplay, to a new level as I’d be keeping my eyes open for references such as the Holness Hotel, an obvious nod to the great Bob Holness… overseer of the ITV classic game show Blockbusters, but that particular nod doesn’t end there. Throughout the island, graffiti adorns the walls with further references to British TV pop culture, such as the phrase “Can I have a P please Bob?”, “Just Say No”, “Say what you see” and my personal favourite – “Our survey says…” although I’m not sure anyone knows how to spell the obnoxious raspberry noise that normally follows. That particular inclusion had me sink into a state of melancholy for a few brief moments as I reflected on the original Family Fortunes with the late great, and sorely missed, Bob Monkhouse.
Another game where I’m still stumbling across various pop culture references is Borderlands which is, astonishingly, crammed full of nods and deliberate plays on cult icons. The reference which would be most noticeable to your run of the mill gamer would likely be Mad Mel, a direct play on both Mad Max and Mel Gibson, riding around the barren landscapes on a codged together runner with bits and pieces hanging all over it while The “Road Warriors: Bandit Apocalypse” mission text for killing Mad Mel even goes as far as to list him as “…a lethal weapon behind the wheel of any vehicle”. The beautiful and seductive MILF that is Mad Moxxi also comes with the obvious Mad Max connotations, as does her fantastically titled “Underdome”. If it hasn’t become apparent yet, I have a thing for Mad Moxxi… but that will be covered in a future article.
Other references within Borderlands aren’t quite as obvious and, unless you’re familiar with their origins, you’d be forgiven for assuming that they were just run of the mill inclusions. The most surprising for me was when Baron Flynt’s two main bodyguards went by the names of Hanz and Franz, which immediately threw me back to the early 90s when I’d spend a lot of time watching reruns of older Saturday Night Live shows, a lot of which would feature Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon as Schwarzeneggeresque Austrian body builders called Hanz and Franz who wanted to “Pump You Up”.
One particular gaming nod caught my attention straight away as it not only references a game which swallowed a considerable amount of my hard earned (read: asked parents for) money when I was a kid, but is also a phrase which I still use to this day whenever my stomach decides that it’s time to eat: the “Earl Needs Food… Badly” mission title is a direct quote from the low health warning played by Gauntlet when the Elf was about to die. The original phrase, of course, being “Elf needs food… badly” graces my own Facebook wall every few months. I apologise for such flagrant misuse of a wonderful meme and a shameful display of geekdom.
During my final playthrough of the Borderlands Zombie Island DLC last night, I experienced my final nod (until the next DLC comes out, presumably) where an ECHO recording from a chap by the name of Harry (Shaggy) who ran in to trouble when his vehicle, the Misery Machine (Mystery Machine), broke down and a later recording references Skaggy (Scooby), discusses how ghosts are usually people in masks “Ok, so, like, you know how the ghost always turns out to be some old guy with a mask on?” and even sounds exactly like Shaggy. This certainly put a huge smile on my face, especially as I was nearing the end of the DLC and would likely not be playing the game again for quite some time.
Although this isn’t really a nod, or even a vague cultural reference, it still makes me laugh – the inclusion of billboard posters featuring Scooter as he advertises a beer called “Clitz” with the tagline of “It’s what’s under the hood”. If I were to clutch at straws, I’d say it was a play on the “Schlitz” beer which was all the rage in the 1980s around the same time that their advertising campaign featuring Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” was a huge hit in the UK, but I’m not sure that’s the case because, although I do know that Schlitz had been considered a brand leader in the USA for some eighty years up until 1982 so it’s entirely possible.
More subtle nods than those in Borderlands can be found within the Fable 2 world, although some of them can be ridiculously easy to miss… if you’re not actively seeking them, you’re unlikely to notice, but they still evoke a wry smile when you do. The most obvious of the subtle references would be when Sam and Max are introduced to the game, and their quest for the Normanomicon or “Book Of The Extremely Dead” which is a nod to the fantastic Army Of Darkness which, in turn, was directly referencing HP Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. The characters of Sam and Max are also references to the Carter brothers from Lionhead Studios, Dene and Simon although there isn’t exactly a hugely noticeable resemblance between the in-game characters and the real life developer brothers.
As with all decent journalism it’s important to double check facts before publishing, so it’s no surprise that I found myself trawling the ‘net to verify some of my experiences to make sure I wasn’t paraphrasing or remembering something that didn’t actually happen. There was one particular Buffy The Vampire Slayer reference within Fable 2 which, admittedly, escaped my attention completely and yet, on reflection, the clues are almost being dangled in front of your face and I should have picked up on them immediately. I’m speaking of the “Cold Comfort Farmer” quest where Farmer Giles asks for your help in stopping a bandit named Ripper, who had killed the farmer’s wife Jennifer, from terrorising his farm. Farmer Giles’ son goes by the name of Rupert and Rupert Giles is, of course, the name of Buffy’s “Watcher” who not only went by the name of “Ripper” when he delved into the dark arts as a youth, but who also had a girlfriend by the name of Jenny that was ultimately killed by Angel in the series. A rather obvious, if tenuous, link that completely escaped me at the time but which I now find to be well thought out and inspirational.
One thing I did notice when playing through Fable 2, prior to the DLC coming out, was that every headstone carried a caption which would, more often than not, be humourous and often quite profound. According to the Fable wiki, the majority of the headstones were directly referencing people from the development team which, for me, was an incredibly personal touch and it also means that those particular developers have something to look back on for as long as they have equipment capable of running the game. The most memorable of all the internally referencing headstones was the “PDM” stone reading “This is possibly the best gravestone ever and will revolutionise the way we look at final resting places forever” which is clearly a direct nod to Lionhead’s founder and arguably the most well known game developer ever, Peter Douglas Molyneux OBE… as famous for overhyping as he is for his genuine achievements.
So there you have it, my list of the more recent games in my own collection which have the developers taking the time to personalise the games both for the player and themselves. While they may not contribute towards making the game a great game rather than a mediocre game I, for one, would much rather play a half decent game which has personality and which expands the gameplay beyond the game itself than a better game with no personality. Thankfully, all of the games cited above are those which I’d class as great titles. I would have enjoyed playing them regardless, but moreso for the sporadic chuckles and occasional belly laughs along the way.
For more pop cultural references on the above games:
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