The Sphere of Influence: Journey to the Centre of the Earth


 There, upon a granite slab, appeared two mysterious graven letters, half eaten away by time. They were the initials of the bold and daring traveller:
      “A. S.,” shouted my uncle. “Arne Saknussemm! Arne Saknussemm everywhere!”

– From the Malleson translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth

This is the first in a second series of posts that, along with my Great Game Space series, I want to continue for some time. Ever since I’ve been interested in videogames as a topic of intelligent discussion, I’ve been interested in their relationships with other media. If you’ve ever listened to the PALGN podcast, you’d know that I almost can’t go an episode without bringing up a film reference; my general cinema studies background surely has something to do with this. However, as a Cultural Studies major, I can’t help but see cultural influence as more of a sphere than any hierarchical relationship. Films influence games, games influence films, media creators influence audiences, and media creators are audiences.

To that end, I thought it would be interesting to explore a number of media texts that have influenced videogames. I might in the end turn it around and look at the way videogames have influenced other media, but at the moment I want to look at the culture that has created videogames as we know them. It’s a popular fallacy to imagine that videogames were birthed in some sort of cultural vacuum. In part, then, this series is an attempt to draw some form of vague sketch as to the cultural DNA of gaming as a response to that notion.

Today, I start with Jules Verne’s 1854 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This might seem like an odd choice: few games have used similar subject material (save for the videogame adaptation of the woeful 2008 film of the same name), and certainly there are more obvious works of Verne’s that are more immediately influential. However, there is a lot more here than might initially seem evident.

Eight years ago, Don Carson used the term ‘following Saknussemm’ to describe a process of storytelling through “cause and effect”. For those who haven’t read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the protagonists at many points find themselves following clues and notes left by Professor Arne Saknussemm, who preceded their journey.

The parallel uses for this type of technique in videogames are obvious. As Carson points out, “In this way, the game player is pulled through the story by following “bread crumbs” left behind by a fictitious proceeding game character. Whether you create notes scattered throughout your environments, or have the game player follow the destructive path of some dangerous creature, “cause and effect” elements will only heighten the drama of the story you are trying to tell!”

Many games have used this technique since Carson highlighted its usefulness, but there is no clearer example than Portal. After GLaDOS has proven herself unstable, and the player escapes to the bowels of the facility, Saknussemm again emerges. Valve had originally planned to include a Rat-Man character who was responsible for these spots of graffiti, but decided in the end to let the spaces do the talking. In the final copy of the game, the Rat-Man graffiti serves to replace GLaDOS’ previous function as a narrator and guide while still working within the boundaries of the game’s fiction. I think that we as players are aware of the slightly contrived nature of the directions we receive from Rat-Man, yet follow them anyway. They must have been successful in at least one sense: if I ever hear someone make a ‘cake is a lie’ joke again, I may well abandon my pacifist principles that I professed to have in a recent post. Rat-Man’s graffiti somehow clicked with fans.

Interestingly, this type of guidance isn’t unusual to another form of mediated experience: the theme park. Notes, signs and scrawled messages from ‘previous’ passers through in self-guided attractions are common, featuring notably in the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. In fact, it’s unsurprising to learn that Carson himself used to be Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of Disney, and helped to design Splash Mountain in Florida, and Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland California.

While only a small selection of games would have been directly influenced by Saknussemm, the idea that exploration can be greatly enhanced through this method is a pervasive one. Indeed, many videogames from a broad spectrum of genres seem to use this method. Even that great big dumb cliche of a game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, managed to throw it in on several occasions. It’s a question of following history more than anything else: as players, we are at once uncovering plotlines as well as exploring physical space. When I follow the grooves created by a chest that has been moved in Uncharted, I am being cued into both gameplay actions and narrative function. As I follow the path to the cave opening, I gain a strong sense that I am disturbing history. Someone has been here before me, and I am following in their footsteps. The same goes for Portal, as Rat-Man’s graffiti creates just as much atmosphere as it does gameplay behaviour, which is almost certainly why we are willing to buy its contrived nature so easily.

So, IMAX and Brendan Fraser aside, Journey to the Centre of the Earth might have had a stronger influence on videogames than many might think. It’s entirely possible that someone hit upon the notion as a storytelling device before Verne, and that I, and Carson are giving him too much credit. However, it seems unlikely that the theme park designers of the mid-20th Century were ignorant of Verne’s work. It’s also worth noting that Verne continues to exert influence through other avenues even today, as the style of Steampunk obviously draws on his and H.G. Wells’ work (can you imagine BioShock in a world without Verne?).

So, even if Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not an overt influence, many games still endeavor to encourage players to ‘follow Saknussemm’. It appears that 150 years on, we are still following Verne.


1 Comment

Filed under The sphere of influence, videogames

One response to “The Sphere of Influence: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

  1. catfishmaw

    I’m glad you made the link to theme parks. As many before me have said, it’s great to see virtual worlds taking their cues from these havens of spatial storytelling.

    I haven’t read any Wells, but I know that Portal‘s graffiti storytelling pleased me no end. I’m surprised to learn that the original plan was to give Rat-Man more exposition, and I’m glad that his larger presence in the game was canned. I feel that it would have detracted from the tone of the game. The power of the graffiti would also have been considerably lessened.

    You remind me of Eternal Darkness, in which blocked-up rooms suggest long-hidden dark secrets, and watchful statues tell the story of the avatar’s depleted sanity bar.

    This sounds like it’s going to be an interesting series. I’ve been thinking in similar terms recently (hence my FFX post a few days ago). I look forward to your next post.

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