Thanks to Soma and [Ersatz] for edits.
A dead girl with a sordid past whose brutal murder threatens her seemingly wholesome community. A quirky but brilliant investigator tasked to solve the crime. An idyllic town of “suspicious types,” all with dark secrets of their own. Picturesque forests obscuring secrets, some of which seem to be not of this world. That’s right; Twin Peaks is back, baby! For anyone unfamiliar with the series – which, after a twenty-five year hiatus, is getting a revival on the Showtime network – it is one of the greatest and most important shows ever made, one which had an incredible impact on the entire television landscape. A collaboration between idiosyncratic filmmaker David Lynch and Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost, its depiction of surreality, extensively serialized storytelling, and openly provocative subject matter marked a turning point for how television was seen by both audiences and creators. Its influence can be seen in shows as diverse as The X-Files (coincidentally, co-star David Duchovny appeared years earlier in Peaks as transgender DEA agent Denise Bryson), Buffy, The Sopranos, LOST, Hannibal, Gravity Falls, Atlanta, and a large number of ripoffs, but you can find its influence almost everywhere.
What’s odd, though, is that its influence was not limited to television; video games especially are inundated with references to the show. The Legend of Zelda in particular owes a fair bit to it. Link’s Awakening director Takashi Tezuka was inspired by the show’s wonderful depiction of a small town community to create a population of eccentric “suspicious types” living together in a coherent environment, a deliberate shift from how prior Zelda games were mostly wildernesses with little in the way of “communities” to speak of (Adventure of Link and A Link to the Past had towns, but they weren’t especially exciting). In an interview with Gamespot about Majora’s Mask, Zelda creative director Eiji Aonuma suggested that the influence has remained, and even up to today you can still see an interest from the series in having lively towns full of quirky NPCs with their own stories. Breath of the Wild even has a location named after it, though it’s most likely a generic name.
You can find Peak’s terrifying Black Lodge in Fez, a reference to it in Mass Effect 2’s “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC, and its iconic zigzag carpet in the Chaos Theater of EarthBound (whose sequel MOTHER 3 also has multiple Lynch references). Final Fantasy IX has a chapter whose premise may be partially based on the show’s paranoia about owls. Alan Wake found space to reference its small town comforts when it wasn’t digging through the works of Stephen King. Most of the Silent Hill games looked no small amount at its small town vibe and literalized psychological and sexual horrors. Unseen, minor No More Heroes character Diane shares her name with Agent Dale Cooper’s similarly unseen companion. Kentucky Route Zero and Life is Strange borrowed from its tone and atmosphere, with the latter having numerous references to its characters. While there’s no evidence of it influencing him, Shigeru Miyamoto has lauded its approach to storytelling.
The series can be felt most strongly in outright homages like Virginia, Thimbleweed Park, the Japan-exclusive Mizzurna Falls, and Deadly Premonition, which ended up changing details from a prototype that was criticized for just how much it openly aped the show. Even then, at times it reads like a cross medium adaptation, despite director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro’s protestations. You have a sleepy logging town in the Pacific Northwest, a dead teenage girl whose apparent innocence obfuscates a history of sexual impropriety, an eccentric FBI agent whose investigation into her murder shakes up the town’s tenuous order, a crazed millionaire who owns most of the land with his own agenda, a friendly but largely useless deputy, an unseen sidekick to whom the main character narrates the plot, a woman who anthropomorphizes a seemingly inanimate object, a sheriff with a cowboy hat, an obsession with coffee and unique kinds of food, a bizarre and horrifying monstrosity stalking the town, a soapy in-universe story parallel to the main plot, and a diner owner whose husband is at one point wanted for murder. To say the game’s reception, even when those elements were discounted, was controversial would drastically understate it, but I adore it. The game’s incredible ambition is compelling, as are the ideas it interrogates and its devotion to a focused, character driven storytelling and unique kind of writing we sadly see little of in games. I highly recommend reading this Gamasutra interview with Suehiro, where he discusses his attempts to create this cohesive town – an attempt that’s more reminiscent of Lynch and Frost’s show than all of the game’s explicit homages.
Of course, this is all really beating around the bush, which avoids the question I’ve been thinking about long before this article’s publication: why? It’s clear why this oddball show impacted television history so much, but why did, and do, so many games look to it? It’s not influential on a level like Aliens, but its mark is distinctive and frequent. I think it primarily comes from a few specific reasons.
First, there’s timing. The first episode of Twin Peaks came out in 1990. So did the Super Nintendo. It became a hit early on, right at a point in which games were interested in storytelling on a much grander and richer scale than what most of them had attempted before. So when developers were looking for ways to diversify the kinds of plots they wanted to tell and expand how storytelling could function in a game, they could just look at this insanely popular (at the time; the series’ popularity dropped off in the second season for a number of reasons) show for inspiration. Peaks used the style of a slow-burn soap opera to present its plot, full of quirky oddballs who had to potentially be “the killer.” Like Link’s Awakening, many games need to have characters with whom the player interacts for basic gameplay needs, and working to give them personalities and agendas allowed them and towns to feel richer, even when it doesn’t affect the gameplay in a particularly meaningful way.
The second part is related to that, which is that Peaks was an incredibly unique show, and in some ways waded in the same kinds of uncharted waters as a lot of games at the time. It didn’t couch its uniqueness or try to downplay the craziness, but it also didn’t proclaim how wacky and loony it all was – or at least, it only did after Lynch bailed in the second season (while still playing quirky, deaf FBI boss Gordon Cole) before returning for an impeccable series finale. It was just proud, confident, comfortable with its identity. Video games are an industry that did – and still does, if not as exclusively – focus on polish and technical proficiency far more than atmosphere or the storytelling possibilities of an interactive medium, and some of our most auteurist or unique creators often try to use it for more distinct ends. They look to other media that pushed against boundaries for inspiration, and Peaks was a relatively rare one that managed that while also being popular and iconic.
The format may have also helped. While Peaks was partially a pastiche of contemporary Eighties soap operas like Dallas – it even had an in-universe parody soap opera about rival identical twins – it also stretched the strict, repetitive plotting of a police procedural series to a series length, spending part of each episode on Cooper interrogating witnesses, conducting a search, or analyzing evidence using Tibetan dream logic. Procedural shows like Law & Order or Columbo use an objective-driven format for plots that span only a single episode, and Peaks popularized using that structure to tell a longer form story (it wasn’t the first to do this, but it eclipsed earlier efforts). And weirdly, procedural, iterative storytelling isn’t out of synch with the progression of any typical action game, which gives you a main “end goal” and then numerous, explicit secondary goals to reach that end. Think of Zelda; you have to defeat Ganon, but to get to him you need the pieces of the Triforce, and you also have to learn the land of Hyrule and discover secrets. Most games function much more in that vein than people realize; they provide a main goal, with subgoals and tertiary goals below which iterate upon the game’s basic themes. Executing these provides a reward, be it from plot or gameplay. This meshes with basic, formulaic TV storytelling, and you can even see it in games as lauded for their writing as Mass Effect and The Witcher. Peaks obfuscated the formula through artistic and narrative strengths, and I suspect that uniqueness may have made it more enticing or even “respectable” as an influence.
And there’s another often unanalyzed element to this: Japan loved Twin Peaks, at times more intensely than the United States. It helped sell the early satellite service “Wowow.” Three “mock funerals” for television’s most famous murder victim Laura Palmer drew crowds of thousands. The cast, with Lynch directing, starred in amazing Japanese commercials for Georgia Coffee, which mimicked the show’s longform serialization by telling an interconnected story. Despite the film epilogue Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me bombing in the U.S., it did phenomenally well in Japan, where it also premiered. It may have even popularized cherry pie – one of Agent Cooper’s favorite foods – in the country. And while the influence of Japanese developers and studios has been somewhat on the decline for well over a decade, they reached their zenith of popularity and importance in the Nineties. The show was simply made at the right place, right time, and most popular with the right audiences to be as integral as it’s been.
It’s not particularly clear why the show was as popular there as it was, even to both American and Japanese critics at the time, and as someone without much insight into Japanese cultural attitudes of the early Nineties I’m not comfortable speculating – though I look forward to any theories in the comments below. Perhaps that’s just one more facet of the series’ captivating oddness, yet another element that can only be partially understood.
Far more than virtually all of its early Nineties television contemporaries, Twin Peaks has remained an enduring part of the cultural consciousness. So many creators today – not just TV producers and writers, but game programmers as well – were the right age for when it debuted and burned a mark into so many of their imaginations. And it’s understandable, because the show has remained, to quote former Dissolve writer Keith Phipps, an “unfixable enigma” in the cultural milieu (NOTE: that article drops into spoiler-heavy territory. While I’m not spoiler wary myself, I’d recommend those interested in the series to jump in without too much prior knowledge). It’s difficult and satisfying in equal measure, offering so many pleasures but openly defying giving viewers what they “want.” Its characters and world are likable, but it’s far more interested in posing questions than giving answers, even ambiguous answers. And it was firmly aware about how little those answers would really have meant in the end.
Honestly, maybe that’s the (or at least a) reason so many artists in the gaming world flock to it. Games are by their very nature, well, “games;” they’re more often than not systems with an end goal meant to be “won.” We get completion percentages and competitive multiplayer and win and fail states, and that design has led to an industry based around chasing a concept of victory. Puzzles are meant to be solved, mysteries to be answers, and villains to be felled. And for a lot of creators and players, myself included, there’s something captivating about games far less invested in that, or even willing to defy those expectations and demands entirely. In an industry where thousands of fans can make a dumb petition for Mass Effect 3 to get a “real” ending, the appeal of something so willing to stand by its artistic vision and be lionized and rewarded for the effort is a draw of its own.