Allusions: A Literary Niche

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.

I can’t hear the word allusion without thinking of Arrested Development and the running joke where everyone calls Gob’s magic illusions “magic tricks”.

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.

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve have different genetics in each new iteration of the game.

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.

Players work to fine-tune the tribe’s genetic makeup, gather resources, and battle predators who make occasional appearances.

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)?

Wrapping Up

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.

Lost MarmotBefore 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.


What are your favorite allusions from shows, games, comics, or movies? Share them in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterary, or send a message on the “contact me” page.

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!

16 thoughts on “Allusions: A Literary Niche

  1. Games definitely have all sorts of allusions and its great to see a post on this topic. In my Hollow Knight review at Well-Red, I argued that the game was alluding to other Metroidvania games, but not through story content, but in forms intertextuality of level and character design. Niche looks like an interesting game actually… like the old Evolution Lite game, but with much better tech.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember that review. I enjoyed it. You did a great job! I remember really liking the connections you wrote about. I feel like games are a medium that especially has the opportunity to include elements of allusion that are non dialogue and non story.
      Haha Niche is pretty awesome. It’s been fun watching the game evolve as updates come in to make it more interesting. I thoroughly enjoy strategy games!

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      1. Why thanks. Non-dialogue and non-story elements seem less appreciated in media analysis, although they do feature in film and other more visual media criticism. Games analysis is still pretty new and fresh field. Lots and lots of debates on all sorts of stuff, slow going process, but it also makes room for new voices. I recently watched a video by this channel Folding Ideas about ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ and I really enjoyed it. I think he gave a great counter-example to the guy who he was arguing with (Errant Signal, another channel I sub to). If you’re not too busy, check it out as I’d enjoy hearing what do you think of all this stuff 🙂

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        1. Thank you for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out today (I didn’t want to leave you hanging in the meantime, since I am not able to watch it just yet)! I’m always on the look out for good game analysis since it is so fresh. It’s incredible to watch the field grow (alongside the equally new animation analysis field) while also participating in its growth. I feel like this field hits a lot of snags because it has to stop and remind people along the way that these works are art and story, not just mindless time-sinks.

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        2. I watched the video, and thank you for suggesting it! I really enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance,’ so that’s a new one to add to my toolbox. I have noticed the disconnect between the narrative and presentation before, and it is awesome to have a word to connect that to now. Most of the time, people just call that bad writing and chalk it up to nothing else, without thinking about the fact that two different departments handled the written and visual elements. Fantastic! I loved what he had to say about treating games as both a whole text, and not being afraid to look at the visual and narrative elements separately in order to find what’s good or disconnected about them. Literary study works with books in similar ways, looking at not only the story but also the writing itself (among other elements… it’s not easy to compare the two mediums ^^; ).
          I haven’t yet watched the video that he was countering (I meant to watch it, but ended up watching a different Errant Signal video before I realized which one I actually meant to watch, and then my lunch break was over), so I have that to look forward to later this evening.

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          1. I do enjoy a good book of which the writing is complementary to the content. There is a book called Zhuangzi. Western philosophy has a hard time categorizing, some want to call it literature, some philosophy, but its much more than those two categories, or at least that’s my argument. The writing compliments the philosophy to such an extent that there’s no real telling where one ends and the other begins. Glad you enjoyed the video and had some time to check it out. I enjoyed it too myself.

            As for animation analysis, one of my favorites is Nerdwriter’s analysis of Ghost in the Shell (here’s the link in case you’re hard up for something to watch next lunch break). Do you have any suggestions for some cool analysis vids of animation? I see Wisecrack has gotten into analyzing some anime these days with One Punch Man and others. They also have now, what 3 videos on Rick and Morty. My all time favorite animation is Aeon Flux though. The shorts were are absolutely spellbinding.

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            1. I love when a work doesn’t fit neatly into a particular category. It makes discussing it so much more interesting because it is a pool of people who focus on either category separately all putting their thoughts together and making connections!
              I’ll have to check out Nerdwriter’s video soon! Sadly, my arsenal of analysis videos is pretty small at present. It only recently occurred to me to seek them out. Other than well known channels like the PBS Idea Channel, I don’t have much to offer yet!

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I love it too when certain things are, well, uncategorizable. Yeah, check out his vid if you’re bored, I guess. I don’t want to spam you with vids or anything, haha. Yeah, too bad Idea Channel is going away though. It was a lot of fun, while it lasted. Well if you find any cool analysis vids, send em my way. 😉

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  2. References and allusions are much trickier than most people give them credit for. I feel that in order for them to be successful, they need to provide meaning within the work rather than throwing them out there in an attempt to prove one’s credibility. I remember playing The Witness and stumbling upon a movie theater. By solving certain puzzles, you can view clips of various art films and intellectual interviews. They are fascinating watches when viewed on their own, but they serve little purpose in the game itself. If there is a purpose, it’s so esoteric, it may as well not exist. Conversely, Undertale contains many references to Earthbound, but they’re not distracting to anyone who wouldn’t get them; it could even get those not in the know interested in playing it themselves.


    1. That is true! Many works throw out references that are there and gone in a moment without doing anything for anyone. Cartoons are especially skilled at these sudden nods that do nothing. I remember many times when a novel or movie reference something that I don’t know about at all. It always pulls me out of the moment. But when the alluded to moment is cohesive in the story, impacts the scene or story, or just sneaks in without slapping you in the face, it’s delightful. Thanks for mentioning Undertale and its references to Earthbound! I feel like games often do a rather fine job of alluding to one another, and it’s awesome hearing about another!

      Liked by 1 person

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