Why Twin Peaks is a powerful influence on games, not just television

Twin Peaks returned to television screens this weekend after a 26-year absence. It's the miraculous result of a vocal viewership who loved it during its short 1990-1991 run, and a far younger fanbase that discovered the show later through their parents, Netflix or its popularity on platforms like Tumblr. Alan Wake, meanwhile, a horror shooter from Remedy whose Pacific Northwest setting and offbeat characters are clearly influenced by the show, was recently pulled from Steam after its music licenses expired—triggering a surge of support in its final weekend on sale, and its most played day in four years. 

If there's one thing I've noticed about the spread of games inspired by David Lynch and Mark Frost's mystery drama, it's that they emulate its ability to generate a passionate cult audience. Something about the strange magic of the setting, themes or characters rubs off on the games it inspires. I can't think of any other television shows that have had the cultural impact to influence two mediums in this way.

Twin Peaks is the mystery of who murdered Laura Palmer, the high school homecoming queen in a fictional Washington town, and the way that affects a community of oddballs and morally questionable individuals. There's a ton more going on beneath the surface, though, including a slowly-building lore of demonic entities and other realms, as well as a strange infusion of soap opera-style melodrama and offbeat comedy.

It revolutionised the look of television through its cinematic presentation, as pioneered by Lynch, and arguably acts as the blueprint for the modern serialised TV drama—for better or worse. Across just 30 episodes, it had moments that are among TV drama's greatest highs, as well as a bunch of hideous lows. Twin Peaks didn't change the form of games in the way it did with television, but it's left artistic and thematic influences all over the place. For me, the real pleasure of playing games inspired by the show is how they deliver their own vision—or how they mix in other influences—on top of that.

Deadly Premonition somehow manages to be more idiosyncratic than the TV series in a bunch of ways.

Alan Wake is one example, but so too is the endearingly rough Deadly Premonition, which is as close to taking Twin Peaks' setting, premise, tone and characters as you can get without simply plagiarising them. Deadly Premonition somehow manages to be more idiosyncratic than the series in a bunch of ways, though, and this successfully differentiates it from the show. Despite being dreadful to play, its ability to flip from drama to bizarre comedy on a dime is enormously enjoyable, and also feels like a result of Lynch and Frost's influence. Its own oddities are the reason it has such a large following, then—enough to Kickstart a boardgame based on the game that I will likely never play, seven years after it originally came out.

There's so much to be inspired by in Twin Peaks that developers can pick and choose the elements that suit the game they're trying to make. In smash teen drama Life Is Strange, Dontnod uses a similar setting to the series, but also explores Lynch's running theme of the dark secrets lurking beneath an idyllic town—which Andy wrote about last year. I disagree with Andy's assertion in that piece that the influence of Twin Peaks is mostly superficial or cosmetic in games other than Life Is Strange, however. I think a lot of projects inspired by Twin Peaks replicate its ability to produce distinctive, well-liked characters, or pull out one particular element that help makes a game feel more unsettling, comforting or even funny—and sometimes all three simultaneously. This is a curious but effective balance that the show pulled off frequently at its peak.

Remedy's Alan Wake is not entirely indebted to Twin Peaks, of course—there's a lot of Stephen King in the idea of an author protagonist—but the Bright Falls, Washington setting deliberately evokes the show, as well as locations and characters that are specifically inspired by it. This wasn't Remedy's first game to be inspired by Twin Peaks in some fashion, either. Both Alan Wake and the studio's other famous work, Max Payne, notably borrow the idea of Twin Peaks' Invitation To Love, a TV show within the TV show where the storylines parallel the series' own twists. Max Payne 2's version actually comes in the form of four TV shows which variously mirror the story and Max as a character: the very Peaks-y Address Unknown, Dick Justice, Captain BaseBallBat-Boy and costume drama Lords and Ladies. The show's influence even reaches as far as narrative presentation in games.

There are plenty of other games that recall the show, too. The town of Silent Hill is filled with similarly odd residents across the series, and the show's favourite concept of the 'double' is explored in the second game, as protagonist James Sunderland searches for Maria, a woman who looks identical to his deceased wife. Slow-paced adventure game Kentucky Route Zero has Lynchian vibes in its relationship between a small town American setting and the surreal. And last year's Virginia uses a similar setting and premise, but with very different characters, and a novel dialogue-free narrative approach. Twin Peaks isn't just a wallpaper and a set of quirky elements like damn fine coffee and cherry pie to be copied: it can be a starting point for other stories that are similarly worth talking about. 

I watched the first two episodes of the revival this morning, and without spoiling anything, I thought it was extraordinary. Twin Peaks has re-entered a medium that it's shaped on many levels, and yet it stands entirely apart thanks to Lynch's capacity for the horrifying and the absurd. It's a continuation of the show, but also contemporary-feeling. It's so unsettling and mesmerising that I didn't touch my phone during the entire opening two hours, and that's rare these days. 

 Once again, I see the enormous potential for it to inspire another generation of game developers—whether that comes in the form of a comparable vibe, imagery, abstract lore or characters. Even when developers have come close to ripping off Twin Peaks, they never end up with exactly the same thing. But it's no coincidence that they earn a similar place in players' hearts.