It’s Saint Patrick’s Day (for another hour or so, at least), and I hope everyone’s had their fill of shamrocks, pots of gold, excessive boozing and iffy Irish stereotypes by now. This time of year we usually look to gaming’s most prominent Gaelic protagonists—the McRearys, Colin Moriarty and Irish from Red Dead Redemption haven’t gotten much attention since last year—to help ring in the drinking, but what about lesser known Irish inspirations? The sort that sneak into your favorite games where you might have missed them entirely? Well, I’ve got a frothing glass of them for you right here: 6 cool things from Irish history, folklore, music and programming that have slipped into and enriched our favorite games. Sit down, have a listen–the Leprechauns won’t leave you behind.
Metroid – Samus Aran: probably Irish
We’ll start off with something lighthearted that is nonetheless true: Samus Aran, beloved badass protagonist of Metroid, is probably Irish. Her given name is the most obvious tip-off, as it is strikingly similar to the Irish name Seamus, and by some accounts (such as the one in this essay) serves as its female variant. Aran, not necessarily a common last name, is also not unheard of, and is likely a location-based name referring to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. This essay further suggests that the combined meanings of Samus’ names—”one who supplants/supersedes” for Seamus and the Aran Islands for Aran—refers to Samus’ main goal in the original Metroid: “she who supersedes an island.” While this suggestion might be a bit on the nose, it’s definitely a clever interpretation that gives the name some meaning.
Granted, the developers have since revealed that the inspiration for Samus’ name was much simpler (and more confused) than this theory suggests, it’s still worthy of thought. Stories and characters are limited by the imagination of their creators once they’re out in the world, after all, and Samus’ Irish heritage is certainly an interesting possible addition to her character, even if it’s fan-conceived. It wouldn’t be the first time popular fan thought became canonized, and with that bright red mane of hers in the original Metroid, it looks like we’re halfway there.
Final Fantasy – Gae Bolg and Cuchullain aren’t names Square Enix made up
Square Enix has a habit of incorporating real-world mythology in interesting and sometimes confusing ways, taking a mythological figure and twisting it so it’s recognizable in name only. Such is the case with their frequently occurring summons. Most bear as much resemblance to their original selves as the summons Shiva and Bahamut—a trident-wielding supreme God and a world-bearing fish in their original carnations, and decidedly not that in Final Fantasy. Among this number is Cúchulainn, an Esper from Final Fantasy XII and Tactics that draws its name, and nothing else, from Irish mythology.
In Gaelic myths, Cú Chulainn was an infamous warrior know for miraculous deeds of heroism, such as defending Ulster (now a province in modern Ireland) from the warrior Queen Medb of their neighboring kingdom, Connacht. The battles he waged and won were beyond count, the women he wooed of similar number, and his strength in battle sees him likened to Hercules in Greco-Roman mythology.
Contrast the Final Fantasy summon Cúchulainn, King of the Impure: sent down to the world to rid it of impurities, it feasted on too much corruption and became a god of filth resembling a nasty green marshmallow. Nothing of the original hero is to be found in this creation, and while one could argue that the Clan Primer referring to the summon as the “once beautiful Cúchulainn” could liken it to the mythological hero, the filth-eating narrative comes right out of left field. Why Square-Enix chose to liken these two is a mystery for the ages, and Cú Chulainn would probably have a spear to brandish at whoever made that call.
That in mind, Square Enix does get points for at least doing his weapon, the Gae Bolg, some justice: the “spear of mortal pain/death spear” is just that in its Final Fantasy incarnation, used by Kimahri from FFX and Fang from FFXIII; in the latter, it’s described as ” Once the property of a hero doomed to wade through blood, this well-used weapon almost seems to leap back at attackers of its own accord.” So, there’s that at least.
Dishonored – Morley is a blatant Ireland parallel
As bizarre and magical as fantasy worlds often are, they usually have an anchor in real-world culture or locations—Fable, for instance, is set in the world of Albion (the oldest known name for the British Isles), and has a distinctly western-medieval style, and many fantasy realms have something resembling a nebulous Asian culture. Dishonored may be even more on-the-nose than most, drawing heavily from the geography, cultures, and even trade goods of real-world areas to create their fantasy locales. One such location is the nation of Morley, unwilling addition to the world’s extensive Empire, and obvious fantasy-Ireland.
While no single hint on Morley’s real-world inspiration seals the deal, taken together the likeness to Ireland is hard to deny. Morley boasts a dreary climate but “colorful” and “spirited” populace. The people cook hearty food, are known for their drink, and hold extravagant festivals. All of this is established by writers in Gristol, the head nation of the Empire and fantasy equivalent of Great Britain, in exoticizing fashion. The game also doesn’t stop with such surface-level characteristics, but establishes a conflict between Gristol and Morley fought to break away from the Empire, ala the Irish War for Independence. The conflict even ended similarly, with a victory for the Empire and tensions subsisting long after the fighting was done.
Ultimately, the comparison actually does a lot to bolster the world-building the developers are Arkane Studios are going for: by establishing these real-world parallels, it utilizing story-telling shorthand by invoking an already existing dynamic which players in the know can reference. While that isn’t the extent of the development the nations get (which is of course a good thing; references can only take you so far) it helps set a base on which to build, and players who remember high school history looked it up on Wikipedia benefit from the comparison—you how get the reference, and you learned something today.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – “The Parting Glass”
If you got to the end of Assassin’s Creed IV and didn’t tear up, you’re lying. It’s okay, you can admit it: the inclusion of the song takes what can often be a cheesy closing dynamic and uses it to build a perfect and heartfelt conclusion. It’s appropriate that the farewell is sung by the lovely Anne Bonny, because her strain, “The Parting Glass,” is one that is well known and loved in her Irish homeland.
“The Parting Glass” is a Scottish and Irish folk song boasting a long and illustrious history, and which still commands great popularity today—Ed Sheeran, The Wailin’ Jennys, the Celtic Women and numerous others had all done their own recordings of it, and if none of those are ringing a bell, it appeared in the season 3 premiere of The Walking Dead (your move, Telltale Games). Meant as a tune to send off a gathering of friends, it can be a song of hope, bittersweet remembrance, both or anything in between. It’s used to great effect in Assassin’s Creed, a perfect send off to the life Edward Kenway once had and the friends he once knew, now lost to him in everything but memory:
Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve loved
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all
The simple, powerful and bittersweet tune concludes Edward’s story—one of great mistakes, painful growth, affection lost and found again—so perfectly that it seems a part of the story itself, part of a place, time, and people lost and well-loved. Until next time, of course.
Gears of War – The story bears a striking resemblance to an old Irish folktale
This one you have to sort of squint and tilt your head to see, but when you do, it’s worth the effort.
Consider this story: one day, peaceful life on the world’s surface is ravaged by a plague from below, creatures who emerge from the hollow center of the planet to wreck havoc on the world above. Their force is innumerably vast, and wherever they tread, they leave infertility and destruction in their wake. The only ones who can stop them are a contingent of powerful warriors, who must put down the creatures to save the world as they know it.
Does that possibly sound like the video game Gears of War? Gee, it sure does, but I was actually describing the Irish myth of Cruachan and Oweynagat, the Irish “gate to Hell” and the cave from which demons emerged and roamed the Earth. Huh, what about that.
Strongly associated with Samhain, an Irish holiday celebrating the blurring of the boundaries between life and death (Halloween, basically), it is said that horrible three-headed beasts, birds with crop-destroying breath and pigs who could shed their captured flesh would emerged from the cave and had to be beaten back by the warriors King Ailill, Queen Medb, and Cú Chulainn. This loosely resembles the main conflict of the Gears of War series: overrun by a powerful subterranean race dubbed the Locust Horde (named after insects know for, you guessed it, ravaging crops), the warrior protagonists fight to force the demons back and protect their home. In Irish legend, the Morrigan (a ghost queen and goddess of battle) is also known to have emerged from the Oweynagat; while a separate tale, the Morrigan could said to be the inspiration for Myrrah, the warrior queen of the Horde. Not surprising, for two stories marked by battle-hardened champions fighting against crazy monsters. It’s like I’m seeing double.
Havok – The well-loved game engine was released by a Dublin company
Do you love Alan Wake? What about Half-Life 2? The Last of Us? F.E.A.R.? Bioshock? Halo? Saints Row? Uncharted? Then you have Dublin-based software company Havok to thank: the Havok Engine is used in a plethora of the most popular western games on the market today, and without it, some of your favorite games wouldn’t exist as you know them.
Specializing in collision and rigid body dynamics (i.e. punching stuff and ragdolling, basically), over 500 games—including a large collection of AAA titles—utilize the Havok engine to great effect. While Havok’s claim that they are the “gold standard” of simulation technology might seem a little presumptuous, numbers talk, and the fact that developers and players keep coming back in droves shouts—with a megaphone.
While this entry might seem out of place in an article about Irish influences on game stories and worlds, it is here for an important: the impact it has had on the gaming world represents the most widely-felt Irish influence in gaming today. While many in-game representations of Irish people come down to stereotypes and funny accents, the Havok engine shows that Ireland is far more than a set-piece in the world of gaming, but a technological force all its own. Shamrock that, my friend, and remember that next time you fire up Dark Souls or Dead Rising. I think everyone owes Havok a kiss, and not just because they’re Irish.