The Austro-Hungarian Melting Pot: The Mythopoetics of Borgovia in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture


The Austro-Hungarian Melting Pot: The Mythopoetics of Borgovia in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing1

Péter Kristóf Makai

Introduction: Enter the Vampire Hunter

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), written at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was and still is a cultural touchstone, creating one of the most recognisable monsters of European culture. It touched a cultural nerve, expressing the anxieties of the British Empire and the many menaces on its borders in a manner similar to invasion literature. The initial novel was given a new lease on eternal life within every medium that was invented after the Count originally rose from the grave. Video games are no exception.

Riding on the renaissance of vampires in novels, fan fiction, film, television, and games, [2] Dracula’s foe, vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, gained more prominence among Western audiences after Stephen Sommers’s 2004 movie, Van Helsing, put the son of the vampire hunter, Gabriel, played by Hugh Jackman, in the title role. Although the reimagined action hero version of the character proved to be a box office failure, it added swashbuckling action to the repertoire of a previously nerdish, scientist-type character, and inspired a slew of shock horror and comedy spoofs.

One unforeseen offshoot was Hungarian independent video game developer NeocoreGames’ The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, published between 2013 and 2015. This trilogy of action role-playing games (ARPGs) is set in the fictional Eastern European country of Borgovia, which was constructed with an eye towards the times and places of Bram Stoker’s original novel, but incorporating a judicious amount of magic and steampunk science to allow distinct forms of gameplay to emerge. [3]

In this paper, I highlight how the Hungarian developer infused the world of Borgovia with Central and Eastern European (CEE) influences to create The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. Taking the Final Cut (2015) as Neocore’s definitive version and uniting the trilogy, I showcase how Transylvanian and Hungarian historical, mythic, literary, cinematic, and architectural influences have shaped the world of Borgovia. Drawing on Tolkienian mythopoesis, I specifically argue for a creation of a Central and Eastern European mythic space that arose from a mélange of cultural images propagated in late nineteenth-century Hungary and Britain as a source that has had a lasting impact in how even CEE game developers approach the region. Finally, I emphasise non-Slavic (Austria-) Hungary’s presence as a cultural mediator between East and West, packaging and romanticising the region for popular consumption.

Locating The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing in the Action Role-playing Game Genre

Emerging as a distinct form of computer gameplay, the ARPG is a subgenre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) that—in its prototypical format, epitomised by Diablo (1997), Titan Quest (2006), Torchlight (2009), and their sequels [4]—feature an isometric, top-down view; real-time combat; one player character (PC) with quantified combat statistics; an experience point system and stratified character progression; a selection of eligible character classes with different strengths and weaknesses; a class-specific skill tree system; RPG-style inventory and equipment management; an extensive, level-based world, often randomly generated, with distinct level tilesets; a throng of (relatively) weak enemies, outnumbering the player; boss battles at the end of levels; and a loot-and-vendor system, with monsters dropping rarity-based equipable and consumable items that provide numerical bonuses to combat skills and abilities (Barton and Stacks 357–82). Unlike party-based and story-focused CRPGs, which often feature extensive dialogue trees and voluminous written exposition, the main drive of the ARPG comes from the feeling of overwhelming power as the player mows down hordes of monsters (non-player characters or NPCs) with the use of their ever-improving skills and equipment, collecting their loot and selling it for cash on the quest to face more challenging enemies. ARPGs, especially at higher difficulties, require deep familiarity with skill synergies, lightning reflexes, a careful crowd control of NPCs, and a healthy dose of luck for finding rare items that provide massive gameplay advantages.

Neocore’s The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: The Final Cut (2015, henceforth Van Helsing) is a mature example of the genre, published a full eighteen years after the groundbreaking Diablo, playing straight with the conventions of ARPGs, adopting the standards of its predecessors and deliberately staying close to their commitment to visceral, fast-paced gameplay. [5] The player is put into the role of a descendant of the legendary Abraham van Helsing, who, like their forefather, is a grim monster hunter dedicated to their task of ridding the war-torn land of Borgovia from any eldritch creature or mechanical abomination to bring peace to the lands once again. Most of the monsters are drawn from Slavic mythology: from lesoviks to vilas, or from vodyanoys to rusalkas, they bank on the popularity of Slavic fantasy in the wake of the success of books like Sapkowski’s Witcher series or the works of Naomi Novik.

Left: Dreadknechts attacking Lady Katarina. Right: A frog-like vodyanoy approaches

On the other hand, some enemy types are distinctly of a steampunk persuasion; some are massive, sentient machines, and of particular interest to us are the mechanised infantry known as the “Dreadknecht,” which menace Van Helsing when they are not in the clutches of mythic foes. The Dreadknecht’s name is inspired by the German Landsknecht, while their dialogue and diction are reminiscent of Judge Dredd, and their dress and appearance are more akin to toy soldiers or Austro-Hungarian hussars—this enemy already embodies the melting pot-like nature of the mythopoetics of Neocore’s vision. [6]

Van Helsing is aided by Lady Katarina, an untraceably Eastern European-accented ghost of a noblewoman bound to the Van Helsing family, which in practice means that she serves as an NPC companion that soaks up damage, supports the player’s attacks and holds items to be carried to vendors in town in exchange for cash. Much of the charm of the game stems from the verbal sparring of the two protagonists, and their acerbic commentary on the characters and events they meet as they explore Borgovia. Indeed, the world of Van Helsing is a character of its own, as the land is a distillation of cultural imagery associated with the clichés of horror fiction and nods to other media franchises. The rest of this essay is dedicated to teasing apart the dense web of allusions, inspirations, adaptations and pop cultural references that mark the gameworld as a uniquely Hungarian instance of mythopoetics.

Literary Skeletons in the Closet

The figure of Abraham van Helsing in Stoker’s Dracula is a peculiar one: a Dutch doctor and vampire hunter with strong Catholic convictions, a notable foreign accent, his speech peppered with Germanisms—a forerunner to the eccentric German scientist trope that will come into full swing around the time of World War II. His main feat in the novel is slaying the vampires in Dracula’s castle while the Count is fleeing, chased down by Mina and Jonathan Harker and their entourage through the gateway to Dracula’s realm, the Borgo Pass (Pasul Bârgău in Romanian and Borgói-hágó in Hungarian). In the Sommers movie, Gabriel van Helsing retains his ties to Christianity, as he is on a mission from the Vatican, but has become a more general monster hunter (not unlike Slavic fantasy’s beloved Witcher, Geralt of Rivia), who faces Mr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves. On his way to Transylvania, he even travels through Hungary and is attacked by the brides of Dracula.

The Hungarian connection is meaningful, not just in terms of geographical necessity, but because Stoker himself refers to a colleague of Abraham, a certain “Arminius of Buda-Pesth University” (Stoker 282) for ethnographic advice. It is speculated, but has never been proven, that Stoker met said-Arminius, a Hungarian scientist and spy for the English, Ármin Vámbéry, personally (Norton-Taylor, Péli). Stoker was also familiar with Hungarian folktales, and used them as inspiration for his short stories, too (Heiniger 1 n3). Besides Castle Bran, the models for Dracula’s castle include the castle of Vécs, Criş, the fortress of Déva, and Hunyadi Castle (Crisan), the latter of whose elements were imaginatively reshuffled by Ignác Alpár to create “Vajdahunyadvára,” an assemblage of buildings in Budapest’s Városliget—a titbit that will become important soon.

At any rate, the sources distilled to create Dracula are numerous, and Stoker’s own mythmaking served up a potent brew. Count Dracula is based on Vlad Tepes III but yet is a creature of myth himself, and the vision of Transylvania conjured for Stoker’s novel is a far cry from the realities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a rival to the British. As a Dracula scholar notes, 

Images of Transylvania as a realm of horror, haunted by the ghosts of the past, the land beyond the civilized world where all the superstitions have gathered, are not accidental. They represent the evolution of constructs based upon stereotypes and clichés created during the centuries by our British visitors. They wouldn’t have taken the apocalyptical dimensions in Bram Stoker’s novel had it not been for a certain frame of mind in the West: the need of projecting one’s own anguish on a neutral, harmless and conveniently distant territory. (Andras 2)

Such chauvinistic mythopoeia of the British Empire came at a time when Austria-Hungary was on the rise following the Compromise of 1867 and the 1873 unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda into the booming metropolis of Budapest. The year prior to the publication of Dracula saw the 1896 Millennial Celebrations of Budapest, a universal exposition-style event marking the thousandth year of the establishment of Hungary. As with any world’s fair worth its salt, massive constructions reshaped the face of Budapest, with the opening of the first continental underground railway line in Europe (after London), the Budapest Hall of Art (Műcsarnok) on Heroes’ Square, and the first version of the above-mentioned Vajdahunyadvára. Counter-mythmaking was definitely the order of the day.

None understood the importance of mythmaking more than J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to explain his ars mythopoeia, and coin the important term, “sub-creation” (eds. Flieger and Anderson, 42) for the art of enchantment that brings the inner consistency of reality to the fictional universes created by writers (Wolf). As I argued elsewhere, the essay invents a fictional art form, the Faërian Drama, which is imagined as an interactive drama that enchants its spectators to the point where they believe it to be real. Such illusionistic realism was not possible in Tolkien’s time, but we may recognise it today as a form of virtual reality, whose interactivity seems to foreshadow computer games (Makai, “Faërian Cyberdrama” 43). In fact, table-top RPGs are overwhelmingly inspired by Tolkienesque fantasy, and the nascent genre of CRPGs themselves drew on the pen-and-paper tradition, but they also brought a discrete, interactivity visuospatial representation to the storyworlds of fantasy (Makai, “Games: Playable Arda”). Tolkien’s meticulous world-building is one of the prime reasons why “our current virtual worlds in video games . . . are massively dependent on fantasy conventions brought alive by Tolkien” (Makai, “Games and Gaming” 532).

In the case of Van Helsing, the intellectual genealogy of Tolkien is highlighted both in the several cultural references to the Professor’s oeuvre as well as by the meticulous worldbuilding of Borgovia. On the way to Markovna, Van Helsing meets a mysterious Halfling, Domovoy Baggins, upon whose death the player may pick up “A Certain Magical Ring”; likewise, he may later come across the Grey Wizard in some caverns. The tabletop tradition’s fondness for statistical uncertainty and its simulationist roots are palpable in the ARPG’s combat system that values randomness in calculating hit chances, damage, and the mitigation of damage by separate resistances, not to mention the gameplay focus on constantly upgrading equipment with higher statistical bonuses. Like Game Masters of a tabletop session, the game prides itself on creating a fully realised and believable fantasy realm with its own geography, history, and architecture, complete with rivalling political factions and religious rituals, which the player partakes in on their own quest of heroic derring-do.

Thus, we have a conflux of real, literary, and virtual world-making at the heart of Van Helsing: Stoker creates an orientalised Transylvania to mitigate the economic boom of Austria-Hungary, which itself builds on nationalistic mythologies of the emerging Hungarian intelligentsia, whose tales reach the ears of Stoker. The resulting creation becomes a popular myth of its own right, to be endlessly refigured by every medium it touched, and it was inevitable that it would be picked up by a medium destined for fantastic and mythopoetic world-building. The malleability of the computer game’s virtual world, as designed by animators and programmers, are the natural habitat of fantasy. And when Neocore picks up the slack to create their own version of the Dracula myth, they choose the RPGs genre as the logical form of their mythicisation of Van Helsing’s descendant.

A World Built on Hungarian Soil

Van Helsing is remarkable for the range of cultural and architectural allusions that weave Hungary into the tapestry of the Dracula myth. Early on in the first game, Van Helsing enters a grim, Gothic backwater town called Markovna, a town full of stone-walled buildings with wooden-slatted roofs and tall, ornamental wooden gates peculiar to the Székely (Szekler) people of Transylvania. Curiously, the names of the townsfolk and nobles are clearly of Slavic origin (e.g., Boris, King Borislav, Grigori); however, people familiar with Hungarian animation might notice that the Romany camp outside of town is led by Gaspar and the charming Saffi. Their appearance is modelled on the characters of Szaffi (1985), itself an animated adaptation of Mór Jókai’s novel, A cigánybáró (1885), set in the Banat, a border region of Transylvania. Besides the geographical proximity (and the pop cultural reference), the inclusion of the characters must also have been motivated by the Jókai text predating Stoker’s work.

The Romany Camp in the Croakwood, with “Saffi” (rightmost) and “Gaspar” (exclamation mark)

As the player proceeds towards the city of Borgova, Borgovia’s imperial center, the architectural references move from Transylvania to Budapest. Borgova is indicated to lie at the conflux of the Borgov and the Lugosi rivers, the latter being a nod to Dracula’s most famous portrayal by Hungarian-American actor, Béla Lugosi, whose bust graces the aforementioned Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest. After a series of encounters in the industrial port, we move to the Old Town level, a district described by the game as “a neighbourhood of wide avenues and magnificent palaces with wrought-iron gates.” However, anyone with a passing familiarity with the main sights of Budapest will immediately recognise several important landmarks that are stripped of their real-world historical detail, but they still retain their main architectural features, if one can see past the piles of enemy cadavers gracing the landscape.

A loading screen of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing showing the first area of the game, including the Lugosi River.

The wide avenue that serves as an umbilical cord to the central plaza bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Andrássy út, a Budapest avenue widened for the turn of the millennium, guarded by rows of stately homes of nobles which today mainly serve as embassies. The parallels are soon reinforced by a cursory glance at the plaza, which features a massive, symmetrical colonnade forming a half-circle, the columns interspersed with winged statues and equestrian monuments. The absolute centre indicated by the two quarter circles is occupied by a bronze statue of King Borislav. Beheld as an architectural unity, the plaza is recognisably a riff on Heroes’ Square at the heart of Budapest, with the Millennium Monument at its centre. And if there were any doubts as to the inspiration for the level, the plaza is flanked by two massive, Neoclassical buildings of uncertain function, which mimic the placement of the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Műcsarnok (Hall of Art), which—as indicated above—were major landmarks of fin-de-siècle Budapest.

The Old Town of Borgova. Note the spatial arrangement of the colonnade and the Neoclassical buildings on both sides. 

As the player slaughters their way beyond the old town plaza, they soon find themselves in a more arborescent, park-like landscape, a vast pentagon that features a great lake with boat jetties, bisected by the continuation of the avenue. Left of the lake, we find a fountain of epic proportions, large enough for twenty people to bathe in, whereas the right side of the lake is dominated by a white boathouse and a castle with lion statues as gatekeepers. Indeed, this portion of the map is an imaginative recreation of Budapest’s City Park, with its Széchenyi Thermal Baths and a Vajdahunyad Castle stand-in located at precisely the spot where it would be in real life. Granted, it is far from an exact replica, as the art style is consistent with the steampunk trappings of the rest of the game, but the layout follows that of the real-life castle, and the facades of the buildings lining the square evoke Habsburg-era bourgeois villas.

Minimap view of the Old Town (credit: GameBanshee) and Google Map image of the Városliget in Budapest.

Finally, the last open-world portion of the game, The Gables, takes players to another reconstruction of Budapest’s must-see sights: the Castle District on the Buda side. The level design is careful to lift many elements from the area most visited by tourists in Budapest: they include a massive bird statue not unlike the Turul bird featured atop a column overlooking the Pest side of the city; a triple-arched gate adorned by several decorative reliefs to match that of Buda Castle’s Lions Court; and an easily identifiable copper dome identical to that atop the National Gallery. The final confrontation takes place in what is called The Palace of Machines in-game, but its domed arena, the floor’s decoration and the interior design evokes that of St. Stephen’s Basilica, resting on the Pest side of the Danube.

The Gables in-game and the Turul statue in Buda’s Castle District.

The entire level design process for Borgova and the world of Van Helsing in general begs the question: Are these stylistic choices not just a whimsy of a Hungarian developer, a mere in-joke for Budapest’s citizens, whose passing smile is soon replaced by gleefully murderous intent? I would argue that there is a deeper meaning at the core of this process, a sustained effort of bringing Dracula ‘home,’ so to speak. What the developers engage in is an active process of mythopoeia. As Alexander Vari suggests, the decades of the Dual Monarchy were a time in Hungarian history where, in particular, the reburying of Lajos Batthyány in 1870 and of Ferenc Rákóczi in 1906, as well as the burial of Lajos Kossuth in 1894 served as prominent rites of Hungarian mythmaking:

Nationalism . . . became inserted in a modern urban context while the technological and urban modernity of Budapest allowed patriotic mythmaking to gain more traction. Past and present melded together on these occasions, with the nation becoming a mediatic presence in the city. (Vari 225)

Similarly, through the revival of the Dracula myth and placing it in pseudo-Slavic steampunk environment, with a sustained effort to locate it in a fantastic Austria-Hungary, Van Helsing creates a Central Eastern European mythopoetic space that arose from a mélange of cultural images propagated in late nineteenth century, at a time when cultural and literary ties were close between the United Kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as evidenced by the use of Hungarian folklore in Bram Stoker’s work. After pop culture westernised Dracula, Neocore Games’ reimagination can be read as an allegory of competing visions for a contested territory, that of Dracula’s “mythic Transylvania,” and the inscription of “Magyarising”7 popular culture onto that landscape, mirroring real-world historical processes. In the primary world, Magyarisation was an act of Hungarian nationalism that promoted an exclusively Hungarian identity among citizens of different or mixed ancestry in Austria-Hungary. This was coupled with the kind of mythmaking documented by Vari, which has consistently served a political purpose in the history of Hungary, enabling the nation to position itself vis-à-vis the Slavic and Germanic populations with whom they have shared a country for hundreds of years.

This is not to say that the developers and narrative designers have viciously removed elements of Austro-Hungarian history with the intent of giving a false vision of Hungarian or Transylvanian culture. On the whole, the Van Helsing games are written in a snarky, tongue-in-cheek style, overwrought with pop cultural references to Western media, and they very clearly steer away from making connections with real-world history. Borgovia, as a creation, feeds on vampire lore and contemporary mediascapes far more than on any historical signifiers. However, the narrative of the games, the architectural setting, combined with the mechanics of the ARPG, present a uniquely Hungarian perspective on the Central Eastern European region and the Dracula myth. It is by this act of re-burying the undead that Neocore’s mythopoetics of Borgovia come full circle, and lay the foundations for games like Zen Studios’ Operencia: The Stolen Sun (2020), another Hungarian contribution to the RPG genre that explicitly draws on and adapts Hungarian folk-lore and legends to construct a fantastic world. It is to be devoutly wished that such trailblazers actually pave the way for future titles that would put Hungary on the world fantasy and science fiction maps once again.

NOTES

[1] The paper is an extended version of a talk given at the 2018 Central and Eastern European Games Studies conference, held in Kraków, Poland, as part of the Slavic Fantasy workshop. The author would like to thank the generous support he received from the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut of Essen during the course of 2021 that enabled the writing of the article.

[2] The popularity of Dracula as a subject of horror fiction is best epitomised by the extensive, if not exhaustive, list of media products enumerated in the entry “Count Dracula in popular culture” (Wikipedia 2021). For twentieth century film adaptations, see Holte 1997; for the effect of vampires on live-action role-playing culture, see Milspaw and Evans 2010.

[3] Although the influence of the Sommers movie on the game would appear prima facie obvious, lead narrative designer Viktor Juhász confided that the 2004 movie had little influence on the world of Borgovia, and in fact proved to be misleading when gaming journalists promoted the game with posters of the film (personal communication).

[4] Of particular note here is that Diablo’s arrival on the scene created a seismic shift in terminology. As one games journalist observed, “prior to 1996 . . . the term ‘action RPG’ described a number of other games and styles, foremost of which was The Legend of Zelda. Such has been the impact of Diablo that the Zelda series has been entirely recategorized as ‘action adventure’” (Parish 2012).

[5] A notable innovation is the inclusion of tower defence mechanics at key points in the story, which was made optional by the time The Final Cut came out, to preserve the flow of gameplay for people who thought it an unwelcome distraction. Nonetheless, the tower defence segments seem to have had staying power within the studio, prompting the release of a game exclusively devoted to the mechanic in Deathtrap (2015).

[6] An earlier draft of the paper drew a direct connection between the Warhammer 40,000 universe’s Dreadknights and the game’s Dreadknechts. However, Viktor Juhász, narrative designer of the series indicated that no references to WH40K property were intended at the time (personal communication). This did not prevent Neocore to later go on to design a WH40K action-RPG, Warhammer 40,000 Inquisitor – Martyr (2018).

[7] The Hungarian demonym for the Hungarian people is “Magyar,” and the name of the country is “Magyarország.” Magyarisation, therefore, denotes the cultural imperial tactic of suppressing other ethnic identities in favour of the dominant Magyar culture and language.

WORKS CITED

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Crisan, Marius. “The Models for Castle Dracula in Stoker’s Sources on Transylvania.” Journal of Dracula Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2008, n.p.

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Milspaw, Yvonne J., and Wesley K. Evans. “Variations on Vampires: Live Action Role Playing, Fantasy and the Revival of Traditional Beliefs.” Western Folklore, vol. 69, no. 2, July 2010, pp. 211–50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27896342.

Mór, Jókai, A cigánybáró, Révai, 1885.

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Operencia: The Stolen Sun, Steam version, Zen Studios, 2020.

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Péli, Péter. “2 Az 1-Ben: Angol Kém És Magyar Nyelvész.” Nyelv És Tudomány, 20 Apr. 2010, https://www.nyest.hu/hirek/2-az-1-ben-angol-kem-es-magyar-nyelvesz.

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Vari, Alexander. “The Nation in the City: Ceremonial (Re)Burials and Patriotic Mythmaking in Turn-of-the-Century Budapest.” Urban History, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 202–25, doi:10.1017/S0963926813000084.

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Péter Kristóf Makai recently finished his Crafoord Postdoctoral Fellowship in Intermedial and Multimodal Studies at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden. He is set to join the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Cultural Studies Institute as an International Visiting Fellow to study how theme parks are transmediated into digital and board games. He got his English Literature PhD from the University of Szeged. He has published work on Tolkien, games and worldbuilding in Reconstructing ArdaTolkien Studies, and in Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales. He is a member of COST Action 18230, Interactive Narrative Design for Complexity Representations.


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