Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Real Life Inspirations Behind These Game Characters

Like any art form, video games have a history of being inspired by the real world that produces them. Whether it is the gorgeous rendering of real world locations in the Assassin's Creed franchise or the Polish folklore infusion in the heart of the Witcher series, the blueprints of many of the best games and their characters begin right here on earth. Art imitates life, and video games are well suited to support that claim as graphical technology continues to push the boundaries of what separates what we see on our screens from what we experience in our lives.

Even some of the most iconic characters in all of video games have their roots in some real world counterparts, however unlikely that may seem. Animals, actors, past relationships: everything is on the table when it comes to what video game developers are willing to use to launch their next character into superstardom. Here's our collection of some of the most interesting, funny, or downright bizarre inspirations for popular video game characters.

Nathan Drake (Uncharted) - Johnny Knoxville

Nathan Drake is suave, charming, and every bit the archetypal adventurer we've come to love thanks to movie franchises like Indiana Jones. Drake definitely has his flaws, too: he's a bit of a hothead in the moment, quick to rush into danger without concern for how it impacts those around him. But they're what make him such a fun protagonist to follow around, even when he's making dumb decisions.

Drake's inspiration, however, is known for far more stupid decisions than just attempting to unearth a mystical relic or crossing paths with some of the most dangerous people on the planet. Nathan Drake's original inspiration was Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, right down to the somewhat goofy hairstyle and trademark look of bemusement. Can you imagine Nathan Drake riding a shopping cart down an icy hill or getting low-blowed by all kinds of different contraptions just for the thrill of it?

Developer Naughty Dog eventually decided to go with the more traditional "handsome explorer" look that had done so well for other properties in the past, but there are still elements of Knoxville underneath the surface of Drake, and perhaps some of the character's recklessness still stems from the original inspiration for his looks.

Mario (Super Mario Bros.) - Mario Segale

It's hard to believe that a character as iconic as Mario himself has any inspiration rooted in the real world. The Italian plumber by trade but adventurer by nature is larger than life at this point, having starred in a number of gaming's best platformers. When it comes to Mario — full name, apparently, Mario Mario — he's the kind of fictional character that feels as though he's always existed.

That obviously isn't the case, though, and the story behind Mario's inspiration is also perfect for the character. Originally, Mario was called Jumpman, and President of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa and other executives were trying to figure out an Americanized name for the game's player avatar.

A man named Mario Segale owned the business park housing Nintendo's American operation during the early '80s, and the story goes that Segale came to Arakawa to demand payment on a late rent. Apparently, Segale was so forceful and intimidating that when he left, one of the Nintendo executives shouted "Super Mario!" out of respect for how passionate the argument had been. Just like that, a multimedia superstar and one of the most recognizable video game characters ever created had his name.

Princess Zelda (The Legend of Zelda) - Zelda Fitzgerald

Princess Zelda is so famous she has an entire video game series named after her despite not having starred as the protagonist in any of its entries. The Legend of Zelda just wouldn't be the same without the Hyrulean princess, who is one of the more capable members of gaming's royal families. When she isn't masquerading as a sort-of ninja or a full-on pirate, she's still Link's most useful and powerful ally.

Zelda is very much the inheritor of her inspiration's traits, then. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto has gone on record as saying that the team behind The Legend of Zelda's development wanted a name for the princess that evoked beauty, with the man behind the game eventually settling on Zelda thanks to Zelda Fitzgerald, the famous artist who also happened to be the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Zelda Fitzgerald was a socialite who was exceptionally talented in whatever field she was interested in, but is often mentioned in conjunction with her partner, who is best known for his seminal novel  The Great Gatsby. Princess Zelda is a socialite who remains exceptionally talented in whatever field, magical or otherwise, she needs to be, but is often overshadowed by Legend of Zelda protagonist and sometimes-partner Link.

Sonic the Hedgehog - Michael Jackson

Sonic the Hedgehog is mostly known for two things: his distinctive blue fur and his penchant for traveling at high speeds. Given that Sonic is a pretty wild interpretation of an otherwise unassuming mammal, it's probably hard to believe anything in real life outside of the common hedgehog was an inspiration for him.

Sonic is flashy, though, and he gets his flair from one of the most dazzling pop superstars music has ever seen in Michael Jackson. Yes, the King of Pop himself was an inspiration in how Sonic's character design ultimately worked out. Sonic's sneakers were inspired by the cover of Michael Jackson's Bad album, which used white and red in heavy contrast with each other; apparently, Sonic character designer Naoto Ohshima imagined Sonic's legs spinning with the color combination of Jackson's album and that was all it took to give the character his cool kicks.

Michael Jackson's association with the Sonic the Hedgehog series goes even deeper, though. Apparently, Jackson also wrote music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 that was eventually scrubbed from history when the first allegations regarding his behavior emerged. Jackson still wrote several Sonic 3 compositions but then chose to remain uncredited so that the music remained in the game, although this has never been corroborated by Sega — just a bunch of the musicians who also worked on the game, who do seem like rather credible sources.

Dr. Catherine Halsey (Halo series) - Professor Patricia Dickson

Dr. Catherine Halsey isn't the most iconic character within the Halo franchise. That honor, of course, goes to Master Chief himself, or even Cortana since she lent her name and voice to Microsoft's answer to Siri. The thing about Halsey, though, is that her inspiration is super weird. It's a lot he-said, she-said between a UCLA professor named Patricia Dickson and Jason Jones, one of Halo's creators. Apparently, Halsey shares a ton of characteristics with Dickson, who had a relationship with Jones during their college days. The kicker? Jones and Dickson broke up well before Halo was created, and Dickson apparently had no idea that she was going to be the basis of a character within the game.

Dickson's case is a compelling one. Halsey has similar physical features, scientific interests, behavioral patterns, and backstory to the information she shared with Jones over the course of their relationship. That being said, however, it's not something that can be conclusively proven, and Jones has been mute about the subject, at least during the attempted correspondence from Dickson on it. If true, though, this is one of the strangest real life inspirations in a video game character and certainly one of the most intriguing.

Snorlax (Pokemon) - Koji Nishino

When people hear the word Pokemon, they typically think of the series' most popular creature Pikachu. While the undeniably cute yellow rodent has a few cool facts about it, its real-life inspiration is, well, a rodent. It's not the most exciting or interesting stuff.

Then there's Snorlax, a Pokemon that was inspired by one of the designers who worked on the original games, Koji Nishino. That's right: the giant, sleep-loving Normal-type is inspired by a real person. Even better, that person is totally okay with being the inspiration for a Pokemon that has come to represent laziness in the face of most of life's struggles!

For those interested, Nishino is not a giant man who sleeps most of his days away. He is a larger person in terms of stature, though, and his nickname, Kabigon, is what Snorlax's Japanese name is. Kabigon comes from the Japanese word "kabi," which means "mold": apparently, Nishino has such a ravenous appetite that he would even eat food that had gone moldy.

Seeing the two side-by-side really does showcase how much Snorlax is influenced by Nishino. Who knew that one of the Pokemon characters we relate the most to was also inspired by a real human being!

Noctis (Final Fantasy 15) - Kurt Cobain

Final Fantasy 15 features a cast of memorable protagonists thanks to the game's heavy focus on the journey that informs the bond between all four of them. While there are other issues with the game, including troubling representation of female characters and a plot that seems as though it was put together piecemeal, it's not an absurd proposition to place Noctis into the ranks of one of the most well-developed Final Fantasy 15 protagonists in the franchise.

Part of that likely stems from the unlikely real life personality who influenced him. Localization director and lead writer Dan Inoue stated that Noctis was developed with lead singer of Nirvana Kurt Cobain in mind. Apparently, the developers were genuinely concerned they might be creating a stereotypical, generic emo RPG lead character, but knew that they needed to tell a story featuring Noctis' struggles with his role in the world at the heart of it.

The solution? Kurt Cobain, a superstar who spurned the spotlight during his time in it. It makes sense when you look at how Noctis' story arc plays out, as he never attempts to find the spotlight, but it always ends up pointing on him anyways. It's a more nuanced take on the chosen one archetype, and Noctis' mood swings are likely a by-product of developing a character with the enigmatic Cobain as one of his chief inspirations.

Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2) - Toshiro Mifune

Arthur Morgan is a pretty archetypal character when it comes to cowboy westerns. He's a man torn between doing what's right for him and what's right from a moral perspective, and he doesn't always land on an answer that's satisfying, making him a very divisive but sympathetic character.

Apparently, though, Morgan wasn't inspired by actors like Clint Eastwood, at least not on the same level as his main inspiration. Roger Clark, the voice actor behind Morgan and thus someone intimately responsible for how the character comes across, has said that the biggest influence for Arthur Morgan was actually Toshiro Mifune.

Mifune is best known for a sixteen-film collaboration with legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in works like Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. Mifune's characters were samurai or ronin who were gruff, with a gravelly, sometimes difficult-to-understand tone that was the direct opposite of the usually clean-cut samurai.

Clark definitely didn't deviate Morgan's voice too far from Mifune. While there are elements of other famous actors present in the way Arthur Morgan drawls or acts, the influence of Toshiro Mifune is huge, and it's a nice nod to one actors who helped influence the way we perceive samurai — and, by extension, Western — films in the modern day.

Dogmeat (Fallout 4) - River the German Shepherd

Dogmeat is one of the most beloved Fallout companions of all time. He's an adorable German Shepherd that can't die, helps kill the many threats players encounter in Fallout 4's wasteland, and is basically the ideal partner because he never judges you for the horrible, horrible things you decide to do during your journey.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dogmeat is based on a similarly good boy in real life. Dogmeat is inspired by lead level designer Joel Burgess' real world German Shepherd, River. In typical Bethesda fashion, the studio really went all-out making sure Dogmeat looked almost identical, and the effort created one of the most adorable in-game pets in gaming.

What's even better, though, is that River got to contribute his likeness in more than just appearance alone. River came to the studio to do performance, audio capture, and a little bit of frisbee catching on the side.

Dogmeat might not be one of the most popular video game characters of all time, but his inspiration in the real world has to be one of the cutest, and that certainly counts for something.

Balrog (Street Fighter) - Mike Tyson

It really isn't difficult to figure out who Street Fighter's Balrog is meant to be based on. Athletic, intimidating boxer? Notable mean-mugging during fighting? Street Fighter 2 was released in 1991, during the height of one Mike Tyson's stardom in the boxing world. Balrog is, quite clearly, based on Tyson, who ended up becoming one of the most talented and infamous boxers in the sport's history.

The connection between Balrog and Tyson was supposed to be much more obvious, though. Originally, the Japanese version of the game labeled Balrog as Mike Bison instead, a very clear homage to the popular fighter. Later, the names of the characters M. Bison, Balrog, and Vega were all switched when they released in the US versions, which later became the correct way to refer to them. So what happened?

According to Street Fighter executive producer Yoshinori Ono, there isn't a real reason for it. Apparently, during the switch to the US version of Street Fighter 2, the easiest way to address the issue was to switch programming numbers around. Switching those numbers changed the names the characters were associated with, and thus the versions of three popular Street Fighter characters came into being in the West.

That also explains why M. Bison is in the game but not the boxing character that kind of name might be associated with. The more you know!