Like books, video games have dozens of hours to engross the player in their details. When adapting a book into an interactive medium, however, the creators lose control over the story’s events and the perspective from which they’re viewed. The fact that you get to play it yourself is the biggest obstacle in a game designer’s storytelling.
The games that succeed in adapting books are the ones that do not take this as an obstacle to be overcome by taking control away from the player. Instead, they adapt the book worlds into stories that can be experienced, rather than just told. This article contains some of both.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
An early example of book-to-game adaptations going horribly right is this 1984 text-adventure bursting with Adams-esque cleverness and squeamish hilarity. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for Apple-II, Amiga, MS-DOS and whatever else had a screen at the time takes the form of that titular book-in-the-book as though the narrator of the story were the text you type.
Actions progress you through the familiar plot at first but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quickly diverges into its own story. Best of all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will often remand you with entries from the Guide, such as early on when whatever you just typed gets sucked up by a wormhole, shouted across the table at a meeting of alien war generals, and causes countless generations of interplanetary holocaust. For adherence to the book, this one cheats a bit but wins all the chips anyway and trades them all for a single smutty towel for some reason.
A game that borrows from another game is nothing new. If we discounted all the Space Invaders and Tetris clones we’d have no more shmup puzzle games to review. Ever. Even still, Dante’s Inferno was flogged for being too similar to God of War and I can’t really defend it. It’s basically a Kratos slasher with a new fetish outfit that happens to be inspired by a 14th century epic poem. Inspired by, not based on. This fits snugly into the moist palm of the barely-adapted, taking names and phalluses aplenty as reason enough to swindle the lit crowd into buying God of War for the seventh circle of times. Not much else to say, really.
Dune/ Dune II
Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork series centering on the planet Tattooi … Arrakis, and starring Anaki … Atreides and the Princess Aleiais ripe for a video game adaptation. These might be the best Star Wars games ever made.
They’re also drastically different from one another. The first Dune follows the events of the novel in a point-and-click adventure game, sometimes spicing it up with the David Lynch movie. Nothing too fancy. Westwood’s Dune II is the real attraction here.
Often cited as the first modern real-time strategy game, Dune II takes the political and socioeconomic themes of the novels and converts them into a real-time system of unit-management, structure building, and resource collecting. While technically not the first game in the genre, its use of the mouse and keyboard and its basic control over multiple units, menu interfaces, and structure building point the way to all the RTS games that would copy it directly, including Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and Age of Empires. Now this is pod racing.
Suikoden / Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
For space’s sake I’m counting these two together. These are so loosely inspired that you’d never know they technically came from books. The first is the Suikoden RPGs, based at some point in its far conceptual past on the ancient Chinese novel “Shui Hu Zhuan” about 108 outlaws forming an army to help a government suppress rebellions. Basically a dynastic Suicide Squad. The similarities end there.
The second is the recent underrated hack n’ slash adventure from Ninja Theory called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. It’s loosely based on Journey to the West, a 16th century Chinese novel about a monk’s pilgrimage to recover sacred scrolls and the disciples who help him on the way. The most famous of these is called Monkey, a violent imp who gives the main character in the game the same name. But it’s really only a reference.
The forty-one Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett create a landscape that satirizes Tolkien and Lewis and Lovecraft and Shakespeare. More importantly, the flat universe sits on top of four elephants standing on a space-faring sea turtle. Let the hilarity ensue.
There are multiple games based on this world, including an early-nineties MUD (basically a text-based MMO, if you can believe it) a mobile game and so on. But I’m focusing on the two Discworld games released for DOS, Mac, and PlayStation in 1995-96. These point-and-click adventure puzzlers emulate the wild humor and satirical wizarding world beautifully, with jaw-slacking hand-drawn backgrounds and environments. Unfortunately, the inventory-based puzzle gameplay is one of the biggest culprits of “try everything with everything!” I’ve personally ever encountered. Too esoteric to finish for most muggles, Discworld is still one of the most faithful on this list for adapting beloved material into a lush new interactive form.
You wouldn’t think that philosophical fiction by Ayn Rand would be material to inspire a game’s world, but similarities to “Atlas Shrugged” aren’t exactly subtle in 2K’s cynical sci-fi shooter. Bioshock traces a lot of the novel’s philosophy, from its use of Aristotle to the plight of the industrialist versus the church and state. Additionally, the characters Fontaine and Atlas reference Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and its sequel, Rand’s real name was Rosenbaum against the game’s Tenenbaum, a reviewer once called Rand “Big Sister” (the antagonist of Bioshock II), and the city of geniuses in “Atlas Shrugged” was slyly named “Atlantis.”
It’s an interesting feat to adapt a philosophy into a game world and Bioshock benefits from the complex source material. But when you copy the author’s biography for the game’s villain (both born in Russian in the early 1900s to flee from the Bolsheviks to America) and even have that villain’s name put on its best anagram to hit the reference home (at least it wasn’t “Ayndrew Randan”) you might be taking references a bit far.