I was reading Rob’s piece on Nantucket, and I got to thinking: it seems like games based on books rarely come out anymore. Now, licensed games that are direct adaptations are increasingly rare nowadays in the first place, but even when it wasn’t uncommon to see a game based on a film, it felt like games based on books were far fewer in number. Which is a shame, because I think the narratives in a lot of literature could be super neat in a game!
I feel like it used to be that countless PC games, especially adventure games, were based on sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. I remember filing through them in Half Price Books. And many of them are classics! Dune II, Discworld, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (albeit loosely on Roadside Picnic) are all highly revered by many. (I actually just got a huge rush of nostalgia just now when I found the game Rama, which I remember playing on the old desktop in our living room when I was, at most, maybe seven years old. I got it at a book store, and had absolutely no idea how to progress. But that alien was super cool to me at the time. Man, maybe I should go play this…)
In ways, I think literature adapts well to games because of the amount of narrative space that can be conveyed, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. So much world building can be done in video games because a lot of it can be opted into as the player. The influence of the worlds of literature is immense; there are probably more video games influenced deeply by Lovecraft than film, and the same goes ten-fold for Lord of the Rings. This literature has already created a narrative world to occupy, and then we are permitted to go forth and experience it. Lots of classic literature, too, has had an influence. Greek & Norse mythology shows up everywhere, and references to the famous “Classic Chinese Novels” continue to pop-up constantly in games. But it seems like, because of the structure of games (generally very interested in conflict and action), most of the literature that we see taken tends to be science fiction, fantasy, or horror. It’s rare to see, say, Dostoyevsky or Baldwin show up as a game, let alone non-fiction work! (Can you imagine a game based on Symposium?(…brb opening Twine))
Video games are also probably a bit more “lean forward” compared to film, so the relationship with engagement for the player is probably more like a book for some games than a film. But there does develop a struggle: in adaptation, we are caught between accurate adaption and reinvention of a narrative. If you want to provide agency, you have to start tweaking the narrative of your source material. This is probably why adventure games were such a common mode of adaption for these stories, and by that extension, perhaps why these adaptations died out, too.
There are still games based on books, obviously, as Nantucket proves. Not to mention that many visual novels from what I understand are based on manga. And of course, there are some big recent blockbuster exceptions. In fact, here’s a brief list!:
- Spec Ops: The Line, a reimagining of Heart of Darkness
- Metro 2033 games, still going strong with the upcoming Metro Exodus
- The longrunning Shin Megami Tensei, which I just learned was spawned by a novel!
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on the classic Chinese text
- Redwall is getting an adaptation apparently
- The new Call of Cthulhu game, though probably based more on the RPGs
- The Witcher, ah, who could forget The Witcher!
Perhaps games based on books are coming back in vogue after all?
What are some of your favorite games based on books or literature? If you need a refresher, here’s a Wikipedia list to jog your memory! And don’t forget about myth and legend!
Do you feel like video games are very good conductor for the narratives of literature? Do you think that the conflict of adaption of narrative is a hinderance, or an opportunity for creativity? And do you think games limit themselves by conflict-oriented narratives?
And what books or literature would you like to see made into a game? Personally, I just finished Vandermeer’s Annhilation, and think that would make a really unique squad-based game. And what about a weird, time hopping adventure game off of Slaughterhouse-5? I’d also love to see more games based on less conflict-oriented literature. I think a game based on a play (I’m imagining Waiting for Godot) with an Alpha Protocol style dialogue system would be really interesting.
Also pls adapt Adapation for full meta
Christ, this got way longer than I was expecting. Curious to hear all your thoughts!