Everyone loves David Lynch and his strange brain, but apparently, no one loves him more than video game writers do. We can’t get through a year nowadays without at least one clear David Lynch homage sliding its way onto the release calendar. Some companies, like French developer Dontnod, have even created entire brands around it, with Dontnod games like 2015’s Life is Strange and 2020’s Twin Mirror both teetering on the edge of Twin Peaks knock-off. Other games like Control from 2019 don’t fall far behind when it comes to emulating the Lynchian aesthetic, but with so many Lynch-inspired games, one has to wonder not only what causes game writers’ obsession with the famous film and TV director, but why his style works so well in the interactive format.
Of course, we can easily say that game writers love Lynch because many of them grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when Lynch was arguably at his most popular, but wanting to emulate Lynch’s style does not alone explain why Lynch’s style appears in games so often. If his style didn’t work, game writers would have abandoned it long ago, but it actually works surprisingly well. While it sounds weird to say, it might not be insane to actually posit that David Lynch himself often writes more like game writers than screenwriters.
This comes on a few different levels, but we can start by looking at how Lynch creates locations and spaces to see how they compare with what game writers have to do in their format. Games need to tell more than just stories, they need to give the player room to explore, often multiple times over the course of the game, so games specialize in creating rich, complex, visually stimulating locations. Lynch approaches the design of his spaces somewhat similarly. Sure many of Lynch’s spaces resemble common, simple locations common among film and tv, such as the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department or the Double R Diner, but when Lynch creates his more supernatural locations, he tends to go for more visually striking locations, with complex functionality. A location such as the Black Lodge works well for this example, of course. The Black Lodge has a clear design, with a good deal of complexity in the way you move from room to room, with strange hallways and varying layouts that change in ways defying common logic. Another good location comes from the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return when Cooper gets thrown from the Black Lodge. He ends up in a sort of living room, but upon leaving the room he finds himself surrounded by outer space with nothing distinct in sight.
These locations have a lot of similarities to game locations, especially supernatural game locations. The way the Black Lodge changes in logic-defying ways works much the same way as both the Oceanview Motel and the Ashtray Maze in Control, which change as the player traverses in distinct and subtle ways. The function looks cool in Twin Peaks but works even better in Control, where the player has to explore the space themself. Lynch’s style depends on creating interesting spaces that leave the viewer wanting to know more, but when placed in a game the player not only has the option to explore the space and learn as much as they can, but they often need to, making them (pardon the cliche) feel like the characters Lynch writes. The experience of exploring the motel or the maze in Control appears very similar to what Cooper’s experience in Twin Peak likely felt like, creating an electrifying experience for the player. In essence, moving these locations into games forces players to take their confusion and learn, solving the puzzles posed to the characters.
Looking at the room from The Return, we can see how the visuals of Lynch’s projects also play well in games. In The Return, creating a space with nothing but a room and a vast void looks visually interesting and the viewer wants to look at it more, and in games, the visual design does that as well but also has great practical functions. To look for similar locations in games, a few different Dontnod properties can give us examples. In Life is Strange, which, notably, released in 2015, two years before The Return, a large portion of the fifth episode takes place in an ambiguous, broken reality, caused by Max’s powers, where the player needs to navigate Max’s anxieties, repeating tasks from earlier in the game that have gone from menial to life-threatening. This entire section takes place in a space similar to the one Lynch crafted, with relevant objects on floating, shattered platforms suspended in an empty void. Taking earlier chunks of the game and putting them into the new void, turns the standard teen romp into a dark thriller, and the void, alongside the sense of impending doom, heightens the sense of dread and fear in the player as they only see their anxieties, embodied by Mark Jefferson, Warren, or worst of all, empty beer bottles. No soothing mountain views or calm forests background the scenes, just a vast emptiness, offering the player no escape.
Alternatively, we can look at Dontnod’s latest game, Twin Mirror, and the main character, Sam’s “Mind Palace”. Sam’s mind palace looks like a non-threatening version of Life is Strange’s off-putting finale, with light blues surrounding the player instead of a deep black void. While no longer creepy, the void still serves to highlight the relevant information, and changes in the mind palace, such as during certain moment’s where Sam’s anxiety takes over and his mind palace darkens, creating clear emotional shifts, making the mind palace more resemble Life is Strange’s. The shifts in the mind palace immerse the player further, and the simplicity of the spaces create harsh visual changes that allow the player to better empathize with their character and follow the emotion of the plot. The use of Lynchian spaces in games like these afford developers far greater options when attempting to control the player, because these simple locations allow for recognizable, tangible emotion in design, where changes are both more noticeable and more emotionally dramatic.
Beyond simply creating visually detailed and interesting spaces, game writers also need to create plenty of side stories and events that occur outside the main plot of the story, a tactic Lynch employs all the time when working on his projects, especially longer-form projects like Twin Peaks. We all know games like The Witcher, The Elder Scrolls, and other large RPGs have extensive side content, much of it more well known than their games’ main stories, but even more linear games also need to employ a good deal of side content, flavor text, and downtime. Because games immerse the player in a character, games need to offer more thorough views of their main characters’ lives and the lives of the people around the main character. Games like Dontnod titles employ a hearty amount of flavor text, with Max from Life is Strange offering little details on basically every item and location in the game, providing information on how it relates to her, other characters, and the world at large, but for our purposes, we’ll look at a game like The Witcher 3 and how it approaches side content and stories.
The Witcher 3 has, as I’m sure you’re aware, a wealth of side content, but the game takes care to ensure that it all makes sense in the world. Many of the quests stem from Geralt’s job as a witcher, and many of the large side plot lines come from interactions Geralt has with characters in the main story. Upon meeting a character like Keira Metz or Dandelion, side stories will often pop up where they ask Geralt to help with their own problems, outside of his own quest to find Ciri. The little glimpses the game offers into the lives of other characters resemble a tactic Lynch uses commonly to show the going-ons of the characters in his properties.
It’s not a secret that Lynch takes his time telling stories, especially in Twin Peaks: The Return, where he frequently features events that have next to no bearing on the plot at all. We see little (but still exceptionally long) scenes of Andy and Lucy looking for a chair to buy online, or of them introducing Sheriff Truman to their son, Michael Cera. We also get other, more detailed side content, such as the story that follows Norma and Ed, or Shelly, Bobby, and their daughter. Most of these side stories either feature characters in the main plot, or events tangential to the main plot, but none affect the outcome necessarily. In the eyes of many writers, directors, and producers, they often function as little more than money wasters, or opportunities for Lynch to spend far too long exploring Andy and Lucy’s journey to buy a chair, but Lynch sees them very differently. While not necessary, these little vignettes give the audience important looks into Twin Peaks without Cooper, the Black Lodge, and all the other strangeness that happens. In game terms, they are valuable pieces of world-building.
Naturally, other shows and films world-build with side content, but Lynch’s approach assigns far more value to the side events than most filmmakers would. Again, film projects generally need to remain concise and will generally cut out anything deemed unnecessary, but games give side content a lot more attention, knowing that the option to explore the nooks and crannies of their world often gives more excitement than the main plotline. After all, there’s a reason why most people talk about the Civil War and Dark Brotherhood storylines in Skyrim and not the main plot. In the same vein, while the main plot of Twin Peaks is certainly fascinating, watching the director of the Las Vegas branch of the FBI have scene-long explosive episodes is just as fun and leaves the audience wanting a spin-off of just one man and his untethered rage.
While games by no means invented the concept of side events and world-building, the practices employed by Lynch often resemble the tactics from games more than in film, which can help explain why game writers love him so much. Unsurprisingly, he enjoys creating an air of mystery around his shows, creating events, characters, and locations that grip the audience by making him want more. Game writers need to accomplish this same thing because they need to engage players for tens of hours, so Lynch’s method of engaging his audience actually works really well for occupying game players as well. Naturally, because of these strong similarities, game writers would want to take inspiration from him over other, more succinct filmmakers like Kubrick on Scorcese.