Kneel Before Nods!

You say Carson GT Nighthawk... I say KITT

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.

In T-Bone Junction, on the upper level, Scooter has a billboard advertising Clitz beer

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.

Dene and Simon Carter, inspiration for Sam and Max

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:

Last five articles by Mark R



  1. Rook says:

    I’m sure there are plenty of nods in games that we haven’t come across either because we didn’t know what they were referencing or we were too involved within the story of the game to notice; it’s when you do notice them and know what the nod is to is great.

    I’ve not seen the grafitti to which you mention on Big Surf Island as I’m usually travelling at top speed in the oncoming traffic lane to notice. And there’s the other legendary cars that they put in but had to give them different names.

  2. Richie rich says:

    Grange Hill?! That’s amazing.

    Interesting article, Markicle. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more nods.

  3. Kat says:

    I love when I spot little nods in a game. There’s a bunch in L4D2 including a room where (I think) all the graffiti references zombie films. There’s also some in the DLC which is a nod to Dead Rising.

  4. Greg Greg says:

    Loved this, and will definitely be trying to spot these when I next have these games on. Of course, it’s easier to spot the nods if you know/like the same things the developers do and I think that’s where the pleasure comes from – a sense of kinship with the guys who created the game that you’re playing together with a slight sense of (righteous) smugness as you recline safe in the knowledge that not everyone will ‘get it’ The GTA games have always been massivley referential to pop culture with Vice City being a particular highlight (mainly because I think EVERYONE could spot at least a few of the nods in it)

    It’s not always positive though – Bad Company 2 felt a bit confused in Single Player because on the one hand the style and presentation was clearly aping MW2, whilst at the same time there were many sly references and digs at MW2 from the characters throughout – if you can’t beat them then slag em off AND join em I guess?

  5. MrCuddleswick says:

    I think it’s in Fable 2 that they have a portal door that leads to a tranquil garden that contains a lovely memorial to a member of the development team. Not so much a nod in the relevant sense, but touching all the same.

  6. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I’ve never noticed that portal in Fable 2 although, admittedly, I didn’t bother opening all the demon doors… as far as I remember. I think I was put off by the one which wanted you to bring cheese to it, then come back later with a specific hat and got more and more ridiculous so I just never bothered with the others. I do remember one particularly nice place through a demon door which was very tranquil and you could live there… so perhaps that’s where the memorial is, I’ll need to flick the game on some time to check that one out.

    The obvious nods in games, such as the Holness Hotel, Grange Hill or Mad Mel just have me grinning from ear to ear when I stumble across them… or they’re thrust in my face rather unashamedly! It’s the little nuggets, such as the Buffy reference, that really requires you to temporarily step away from the game on a mental level and start to analyse whatever is before you just in case there’s more to it than meets the eye. I wouldn’t have got that one, never. Farmers are always called Giles in fiction, it’s the law… and I doubt that I’d have even paid enough attention to know that the son was called Rupert and the dead wife was Jennifer. Well, I didn’t… so it’s not even speculation.

    Enjoyed writing this one though, it’s been on the cards for months but I just hadn’t got around to it. Thanks for the comments everyone, they’re very much appreciated, as always.

  7. MrCuddleswick says:

    Yes that Buffy one is very nice – I didn’t notice that until you said.

    The demon door with the house is (I think) near the town that’s near the evil cult……the town next to the coast. It’s very tranquil in there, and I had my family there (until I accidentally killed my first wife). The one with the cheese and then the other stuff was annoying. I had to use a guide.

    The one with the memorial is…..perhaps…..the final one at the big palace/castle in the main city…….you open that demon door once you’ve opened all the others maybe. There’s a large amount of money in the memorial area too.

    It’s amazing how few specifics I have provided there.

  8. Lee says:

    I can’t believe I never noticed all those things in burnout! I’ll be paying more attention next time I play, one of my fav nods like this and so very geeky nod is in mass effect 2. There is a planet called Kobayashi with a distress signal on it that plays out like the Kobayashi maru test from Star Trek.
    Made my inner geek very happy :D

  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    I love nods and though there will be hundreds which I will likely never notice, those that I do see/get are always appreciated. The ones on Big Surf Island were great and thanks to watching some Borderlands play, I got to see a few of those. I think, sometimes, it can be easy to whizz through a game and not take the time to absorb, so these are perhaps easy to miss at times. I have never noticed graffiti on BSI, so it goes to show how you can still discover fresh things in an old game. Great title btw :)

  10. Lorna Lorna says:

    Lo and behold, with me thinking that I don’t spot many nods, while sorting out a news piece with the Fallout: New Vegas achievement list, I spotted a Mad Max reference with one being called ‘You Run Barter Town’ :D

  11. Iain says:

    Loved the article. I hadn’t noticed half of the nods in Burnout because like Rook, I’m too busy travelling at dangerously high speeds.

    I was playing Assassin’s Creed II yesterday though and the first time you meet Ezio’s uncle Mario he introduces himself like this;

    “You don’t recognise me do you? It’s-a Me-a Mario!” made me chuckle :)

Leave a Comment