Games Based On Books!

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!

While I don’t think it’s a good game, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Wheel of Time PC game. I loved that series (despite never being able to get past the ninth book) and would spend countless hours roleplaying as Aes Sedai in other games so it was great to have a proper Aes Sedai game, even if it was a weird FPS. I might actually find that game again and reinstall it. It’s been so long but I remember it being a terrible Doom clone with bad platforming.

As for whether games based on books hold up narratively/structurally? I think it’s an interesting idea. Games as a medium need to base themselves around interactivity which a book is obviously the exact opposite of. Unlike other media, books get to provide an omniscient look at a world which not only helps with narrative planning but also can help endear us to characters or better understand what they’re feeling. Games don’t really get to do that often. We don’t see a third-person perspective that follows every character and details us their thoughts or actions in a manner that isn’t simply visual. I don’t know if games even should try to co-opt books into the medium. I enjoy the differences in all types of media and often I’d prefer each piece plays to the strengths of it’s kind. It’s why Nier: Automata is such an amazing game. It plays within the realms of a video game rather than trying to be a playable movie like so many other games.

I do believe games have issues with conflict-oriented narratives that are often at odds with pieces that are trying to be adapted. Off the top of my head, I can think of very few games that don’t have conflict as a main gameplay mechanic. The game genres that do inherently provide a well-placed narrativewould be either walking simulators - which would be odd adaptations for how little they’d add - or older RPGs - of which I have no mouth and I must scream is the perfect novel adaptation in this sense.

An adaptation, in my opinion, needs to add something to the original story. A game that just follows the same plot, or is just a game that seems to cash in on the popularity of a book series adds nothing and would be better off lost to the nether. For this I would use the old PC Harry Potter games which I found were rather uninteresting and uninspired. That said, I did enjoy casting spells with the mouse movements and I believe that could have been used effectively if it wasn’t an adaptation of a previously known story which constrains the narrative structure of games.

But if I had to choose a novel to be adapted into a video game, I’d love for some horror games based around Stephen King novels. It’s possibly because I’m just a huge King fan, but his aesthetic would be terrifying to be thrown into. Not necessarily an adaptation of a specific novel, but more the setting of his novels. Derry would have a million interesting setpieces and stories that could be done well both as a Silent Hill-esque game or a Walking Simulator horror game akin to Amnesia/Outlast. For a specific novel, I’d definitely try out a The Stand game or a game based around Under The Dome. The former is an incredible novel that could provide an interesting setting, yet it would probably become far too combat-oriented. The latter is an average novel that could easily have plenty of video game violence in it without straying too far from the original novel.

1 Like

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is definitely my favorite book-to-game adaptation. The books are so heavily based on games tropes that it has a real snake eating it’s tail thing going on, but the game executes pretty perfectly. Gameplay, art, music, and faithfulness to the source material are spot on.

As a side note, my current favorite board game right now that’s based on a short story: A Study in Emerald.


I’ll add to the list:

  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (if Spec Ops is Heart of Darkness then this should get the nod towards Journey to the West despite not being a 1-to-1 retelling - I may not consider it a great book to game adaptation but more of a really good game that happens to be referencing a book; one of my favourites from the last few years.)
  • Saiyuki: Journey West (as we’re already talking Journey to the West games)
  • Basically most everything not on the Wiki page that has anything to do with the Tom Clany-verse.

I think there’s definitely interesting connectivity when looking at the history of games and adapted books. I can think of far more adaptations earlier on that rely a lot more on the text of books (as gaming was, in general, also widely a read medium at the time - even when adapted to later adventure style games, the lineage was clear and influenced the genre conventions) while almost anything recently has used a rather more Hollywood style of conversion where the setting is more important because far less of games is about reading today (as RPGs moved to fully voiced). Maybe that’s a skewed remembering (as that list of games includes plenty that look like old platformers that probably lift very little of the source material) but I’d say as games have increasingly been able to compete with action movies for what they present that this has led to games from books that feel somewhat more like they are a video game of the film of the book rather than a direct adaptation. Not sure how everyone else feels on that point.

In terms of what I’d like to see? Give me The Expanse: Mass Effect. Proper big budget, fun on the ground and in space, lots of good story beats to get involved in (pretty linear story, not a sandbox space game - plenty of those already being made right now). But this also sounds a lot like I really want a game from that TV series and the book origin is kinda incidental.

1 Like

I had no idea this was happening so thank you for the alert, the Redwall books were my favorite series as a kid!

I’ve heard very good things about the Hitchiker’s Guide text adventure, though I’ve not played it myself.

Personally I’d love a game of the Red Rising series of books. Iron Gold, the latest novel, very much expanded on the world. Honestly my imagination runs so wild with possibilities it might better be served s a tabletop game. Maybe I’ll give Pierce Brown a ring, see if he’s interested…

My pitch is simple: Mass Effect, but you’re a Special Circumstances agent from Iain M Banks’s Culture novels.

I think 80 Days is one of the most successful (though quite loose) book-to-game adaptations, and it has a lot of lessons to teach about how to build fun systems into a narrative game.



i took a dante class in college in which we all had to do a little project/writeup/presentation about the divine comedy being used or referenced in modern media. about one third of the 100-person class chose this as their thing. :laughing:

OH MY GOD I loved the Wheel of Time game! And I gave up on the book series after book 5…

I wish I could play that game again…

1 Like

Very much agree with this point. Playing Kentucky Route Zero struck me with the thought that games are an ideal medium for conveying literary techniques (obviously something explored in interactive fiction / text adventures in the earliest days of gaming), despite games often consciously attempting to echo cinema.


I feel like you could make such a good game in the Moorcock Multiverse.

Neuromancer was (is?) a fun game! Go to BBS to get upgraded versions of skills to fight that ICE. Upgrade your deck. Fun stuff!

does it follow the plot and characters of the book or is it just a cyberpunk hacking thing?

i need to read neuromancer again…

It’s an adventure game that kind of loosely follows the book but I don’t think you’re playing as Case?

All I really remember is that you start the game passed out in a plate of spaghetti in Ratz’s bar, so it’s probably still good.

Damm, now I really want a Culture game

This has reminded me that there’s an interesting article about a planned early incarnation of the game that would have featured writing by William S. Burroughs and involved Timothy Leary:


wow! absolutely wild. definitely never heard of that. i like those few pieces of art they put out.

It uses some of the story elements and locations but you are a hacker. Definitely feels like the same world as the book though.

Kristin Cashore’s latest novel, Jane, Unlimited, actually started life as a CYOA draft. I would be really fascinated to see it adapted as an adventure game, whether text- or graphics-based. The thing is, even though this is pretty much as close as you can get to being games-ish while still being a book, I do think it would change in the adaptation, and not necessarily in a straightforward “increase gameishness” kind of way where “gameishness” is some kind of measurable element. And it’s that very difference which intrigues me.

I didn’t realize that Suikoden is based off of literature, which apparently it is? So that’s amazing and the best. We need more Suikoden games.

As books I’d love to see made into games, I want more non-fiction. Give me an adventure game based on a person’s biography, or based off of the retelling of an event, with the ability to (perhaps) change the way the story unfolds – while also presenting the real events along the way (via audio commentary or some such nonsense). There’s a book I’m reading right now, which I can’t remember the title of at the moment, but it recounts the journey of the last exploration by a czarist spy into China. Imagine an 80 days type game, but about a historic setting like that. I’d play the living hell out of it.

1 Like