Everything in pop culture builds off what came before. Source Code is where Playboy explores video games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
Mark Twain famously said there’s no such thing as a new idea.
“It is impossible,” he states in Mark Twain, a Biography. “We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Salt and Sanctuary is not a game filled with new ideas. Its mental kaleidoscope is packed with the colored glass pieces of its influences. The largest and most obvious pieces are Dark Souls, the 2011 video game from Japanese developer From Software, and the 1997 Konami classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
You play a shipwreck survivor who washes up on a mysterious island full of unspeakable horrors. There’s a princess that needs saving somewhere, but finding her requires carefully navigating a labyrinthine game world full of shortcuts, secrets, and things that want you dead. Enemies drop salt when defeated, which is used to level up your character, while the titular sanctuaries provide safe haven from the island’s monstrosities.
It’s impossible to talk about Salt and Sanctuary without mentioning Dark Souls in the same breath. Nearly everything in the game—its cryptic lore, challenging boss fights, even its user interface—is meant to evoke the Souls series. Meanwhile, Symphony of the Night’s DNA is mainly found in Salt and Sanctuary’s 2D platforming and interconnected but gated level design. Although you have some freedom in how you explore your surroundings, you can’t truly progress without first obtaining special brands. These brands give you new abilities, like a wall jump or gravity flip, and each one opens up new areas of the island.
“The game [started] with this question of ‘Would the Dark Souls theme and mechanics…would that work in 2D?” said James Silva, the creator of Salt and Sanctuary and one half of the husband-wife team that makes up indie video game developer Ska Studios. “Would it feel cool in 2D? Would it feel kind of forced into 2D? And in answering those questions, a lot of it came down to this take on Dark Souls that it’s the first true-feeling 3D Castlevania game. There’ve been attempts at a 3D Castlevania, but they all go kinda wrong, and Dark Souls captures that meticulous attention to detail and exploration and danger that all the 3D Castlevania games lose out on in the name of trying to be more of [an action game].”
Another piece of colored glass in Salt and Sanctuary’s mental kaleidoscope is George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation A Game of Thrones. In the books House Greyjoy is a seafaring family loosely based on Vikings that worships the ocean and its deity, the Drowned God. Ska Studios artist Michelle Silva said the Greyjoys and their religion inspired Salt and Sanctuary’s nautical theme. “Just the idea that everything comes from the sea and that all life originates from the ocean,” she said.
“And returns to the ocean,” added James.
“And in the saltiness of it,” said Michelle. “The salt is what your essence is, it’s what your worth is, and that’s where the theme came from.”
Assimilation, the notion of taking a culture or religion and making it your own, plays a big part in Salt and Sanctuary. Upon waking on the shores of the mysterious island, an old man asks what gods you believe in. You can choose to follow the new gods, The Three, who represent order and wisdom; you can believe in Devara, the Goddess of Light, whose pilgrims practice humility, kindness, and forgiveness; or you can be an Iron One and believe in no gods at all. After a decision is made, you claim your first sanctuary, decorating it in the imagery associated with your chosen religion. Other creeds exist on the island, and their sanctuaries can be desecrated and converted as well, often by force. Later, in the Crypt of Dead Gods, you battle The Forgotten King, Knight, and Judge. It’s presumed that they are in fact The Three, old gods re-purposed and injected into a new religion.
“A lot of the ideas [in Salt and Sanctuary] draw from real concepts of different religions and cultures interacting, and how they share stories, they change stories,” said James. “One culture will alter stories from a different culture to make them their own, or they’ll insert their own monarchy into that religion to make it a new religion and then try to force it back on the first culture. Those kinds of real-life, real historical things—well, real and fictional—it kind of draws from all that.”
Salt and Sanctuary borrows so heavily from its source material to call it derivative is an understatement. Yet it doesn’t feel like a cheap copy of the things it imitates. Like Twain’s kaleidoscope, it takes old ideas and creates new and curious combinations, forming an effective love letter to the past.
Stefanie Fogel is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. Her work has appeared at PC Gamer, Polygon, and GamesBeat. She talks about video games a lot. Follow her on Twitter @stefaniefogel.
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