12 Great Video Games Based on Books
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.
American McGee’s Alice
I’ve got a problem with dark interpretations of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Isn’t that pervy ol’ book with the skirt shots and child endangerment and giantess fetishes creepy enough all on its own? For some reason we keep forcing the issue with adaptations that add gore and eye shadow to a universe that’s actually creepier when it’s played as innocent.
American McGee, whose parents surely must have jumped a line or two on the birth certificate, gives us this violent … horror hack n’ slash … platform puzzler … well it doesn’t really know what it wants to be, honestly. Its clunky charm is in a glumly surreal aesthetic and the creepifying incongruity of bloodied schoolgirl lace and teatimes in hell. Its sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, is less clunky and less inspired too.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
A painterly masterpiece on last-gen directed by the design lead from Devil May Cry and Okami, El Shaddai actually takes its inspiration from Bible DLCs (it’s called apocrypha, folks) specifically the Books of Enoch, about a scribe visiting heaven and earth after angels escape and become “The Watchers.”
I’ve never read the books, but unless it features third-person weapons-based combat and jumping puzzles, it’s probably not too similar. The anime aesthetic and fourth-wall breaking structure though make the game a modern masterpiece that’s worth a go just to figure out what Metatron is and where the heck it’s ascended to.
Spec Ops: The Line
This shooter tricks you into thinking by giving you Call of Duty on the cover and emotionally dismembering you with an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s postcolonial novella, Heart of Darkness. As in the book, you’re tasked with rooting out an AWOL military commander (Kurtz in the book, Konrad in the game, harhar) and on the way discover the atrocious dank corners of your own desensitized, violent soul. Yippee.
Aside from the locale shift from Africa to the Middle East, Spec Ops plays it pretty straight, getting surprisingly involved psychological commentary into a genre that normally revels in its own senselessness. Note that the PlayStation game Heart of Darkness, about a boy saving his dog from aliens, bears no resemblance at all.
This PlayStation RPG gem isn’t based on Hideaki Sena’s sci-fi horror novel of the same name, but is actually its sequel. The story is that a sentient being made of mitochondria, called Eve, has awoken to usher into existence the ultimate lifeform: one that can manipulate its own genetic material. Parasite Eve and its sequel take place after this awakening, as a cop babe called Aya shoots her way through pseudo-turn-based battles against mutant animals and folks in order to get to Eve or show off her legs or whatever. It’s all operatic and cinematic and really a grand ol’ time, even if the slow movement and tank controls aren’t everyone’s cup of cytoplasm these days.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Based on Harlan Ellison’s short story, this point-and-click adventure game on DOS is one of those reminders that games used to be twisted and experimental and cynical, cynical. In the future, a sentient computer has wiped out all of humanity save five individuals it’s been torturing for a century. You play as each one as the computer attempts to manipulate your personalities to defeat you in body and spirit, taking advantage of each character’s fears and flaws. You have inventory and dialogue puzzles like usual, but some weird options too. Normal actions like “Talk to” and “Look at” are complimented with stranger ones like “Swallow.” I Have No Mouth isn’t a game that plays at most people’s pace anymore, but it’s still worth a look.
Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski wrote the series of short stories and novels that would become this trilogy of successful action-RPGs. Open worlds that are Bethesda-esque but less robotic compliment the host of well-crafted character models and cool battle situations that echo more Dark Souls than Skyrim. The author saw the designs but never played them, saying in an interview that “he had better things to do.”
That’s a shame because they’re really quite good. But the ultimate problem with these adaptations should be clear from this list: the more accurate they are to the source material, the more text they contain. This means that these adaptations are often only partially interactive versions of stories, and more likely literally transpositions with gameplay thrown in around the edges. Adapting a book into a game should be an act of visual storytelling, like turning whole chapters of a novel into songs in a musical, more an act of reduction than transposition. Until we can master that, “inspired by” (or literally copied from) may be the best we can manage.
Know any more awesome games based on books? Let us know in the comments below!