What makes a scene from a video game iconic? What causes certain images to stick with us years after a game’s release? Like other forms of media, video games have certain imagery that goes beyond the works that they originally appeared in and becomes identifiable in its own regard. Some of the circumstances that cause this may be similar to other mediums like film, but there are also instances unique to video games that ingrain such images in our minds.
Often times, scenes from the beginning of some games stick with us, likely because we see them over and over. They may be as simple as a title screen, or as complex as an entire level layout, but the repetition helps these images stay in our heads. For example, the opening to the NES game Castlevania is a simple scene of Simon Belmont standing assertively in front of the castle gates with Dracula’s abode looming ominously in the background. But seeing it every time a new game is started increases its familiarity. Many of the game’s sequels have recreated this scene in the years since, and it’s likely that it’s one of the first images to come to mind when we hear the name “Castlevania.”
There are also many scenes in games that are memorable not because of their imagery, but because of text or dialog associated with them. Quotes like, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle” from Super Mario Bros, and “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this” from The Legend of Zelda likely overshadow the scenes in which they originally appeared. Indeed, the graphics are rudimentary, and there isn’t much to look at, but the quotes themselves can still evoke the images of Mario standing before the grateful Mushroom Retainer, or Link being given his first sword.
But aside from special events, repetition can also go a long way in cementing iconic status within certain game mechanics. In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarnia of Time, the sight of Link playing the titular instrument is certainly among the game’s more recognizable visuals, yet it’s a very common and almost mundane activity in the gameplay. Still, the combination of its repeated use with its presentation and literally magical results, not to mention that it’s central to the story, make it a very defining action in the game.
Of course, there are also scenes that simply make an impression on us because of their impact. The ending to the original Metroid surprised us with its reveal that its protagonist was a woman. The first zombie encountered in Resident Evil sent shivers down our spines as it turned to look at us directly. In both instances, the scenes evoked a strong emotional response, and those are powerful memory-makers.
However, personal experiences alone do not cause images to become iconic. They have to transcend that, and permeate their way into gaming (or even popular) culture to the point where even people who have not played the games would recognize the images. Iconic imagery in video games play a part in defining the medium, and act as signposts in its history.