When we talk, we often make references to popular culture in order to convey information quickly. If a person says “Sam acts like such a Romeo,” they mean that Sam is a romantic person. Calling the internet a Garden of Eden shows that the internet is a plentiful place that fills the needs of its users. We don’t usually stop to explain these references to our listeners; we assume that they have prior knowledge on the subject and thus understand. These references are called allusions, and they appear in many elements of pop culture.
It’s an Illusion Allusion
Allusions can encompass references to a wide range of people or things: literary works, religious texts, movies, political figures, historical figures, TV shows… the list is nearly endless. Some of the most common ones include biblical, historical, Greek Myth, and literary.
Authors and other creative minds use this literary device to quickly convey complex concepts and emotions in a simple, easy to understand manner. It also allows the creator to appeal to specific groups of people. When trying to appeal to a Japanese audience, for instance, a writer might allude to Japanese celebrities or legends.
In many cases, these literary devices can slip in quickly, mattering only for a moment or two (just like the above allusion to Arrested Development).
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Sometimes one of the hardest aspects of allusion is recognizing them when you hear or see them. If you’re not familiar with the reference, it might go right over your head. I regularly have to stop conversations with my friends in order to ask them to clarify what they mean when they compare someone to a celebrity. In today’s popular games, comics, and shows, many allusions slip in as a nod to other works or the surrounding culture as well.
If you’re searching for examples, keep an ear out for unfamiliar names and places. Take a moment to look the name or place up to see if it is a reference or just a name drop for world building. Doing this can help you gain some insight into the scene or characters.
Likewise, any time a character says something that sounds out of character, unlike their usual speech pattern, or comes off as rehearsed, consider the fact that they might be quoting something. Everyone’s favorite super powered gorilla from Overwatch, Winston, offers a great example. When re-spawning, Winston occasionally says “once more unto the breach.” On its own, the line sounds a little odd. What does he mean by breach? Investigating the line reveals that it is a quote from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. What does that say about Winston’s character?
A Niche Allusion
Now that we’ve discussed this literary device, let’s take a look at another example from pop culture.
In Niche: A Genetics Survival Game, the player starts out with two critters to establish their tribe: a male named Adam and a female named Eve, allusions to the biblical story of creation. The names serve to quickly establish these two creatures as the origin points of the player’s tribe. As a bonus, using a biblical allusion to start out can help developers appeal to players with backgrounds in religions that study The Bible.
Sometimes, allusions have unintended consequences. Starting with this particular one gives Niche a lonely, isolated feeling at first. In the biblical tale, Adam and Eve are the first and only beings of their kind. They live in an isolated paradise and understand that no other creatures of their kind exist. Fortunately, this is not the case with the starting creatures. They do serve as the origin of a new tribe, but the player quickly finds other members of the species wandering around the grassland. Wanderers show that the player is not stuck with the weighty task of starting an entire species from scratch. Failure won’t mean extinction.
Presumably, Adam and Eve wandered off from their tribe or tribes somewhere in the timeline leading up to the moment the player joins them. Whether in search of food, mates, or by mistake, we do not know. However, encountering wanderers suggests that members of this species regularly leave their tribes. Knowing this makes Adam and Eve’s starting situation more ordinary.
Creative works don’t have to strictly follow the rules surrounding the allusion, and they don’t usually do so either. Once the allusion serves its purpose, the narrative is free to move on. Niche players familiar with The Bible’s story might jump to the conclusion that Adam and Eve are the only members of the species, only to learn that this is not true. Similarly, they might conclude that their Adam and Eve live in an Eden-type utopia like the one from the story. They will quickly discover, however, that the grassland around them is no paradise. Their growing tribe has to work together in order to coordinate gathering food and fighting off roving predators to survive. Of course, what kind of survival game would take place in a paradise (other than a frightening dystopian one that quickly reveals that the paradise is not nearly as wonderful as it seems)?
Allusions offer fun ways for authors to reference other creative works, or they can serve more practical purposes by quickly conveying concepts in simple ways. Some are more difficult to spot than others.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to give a shout-out to YouTuber Lostmarmot, who makes Let’s Play videos for Niche (among other games). The screenshots that I used for this post came from her channel. If you want to see some of the Niche gameplay or watch delightful Let’s Plays, I recommend giving her videos a watch. They’re such a treat. Lostmarmot is a charming gamer and really puts a lot of heart into her videos.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!