MIND MELD: Books That Would Make Awesome Video Games
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
The first author I ever talked to was John Scalzi. I emailed him after reading The Ghost Brigades to tell him how much I loved the series and hoped to one day see it adapted as a video game. I may never get to play as a green-skinned Colonial Defense Forces soldier, wielding the versatile MP-35 and fighting a variety of aliens – but Scalzi is developing a First Person Shooter called Morning Star, with Industrial Toys (a studio formed by Alex Seropian of Bungie fame). As an avid reader and gamer there are plenty of books I’d love to see transformed into games – a real time strategy game based off of John Ringo’s Legacy of Aldenata series, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim as an action-adventure hack n’ slash title à la Devil May Cry, or a crazy colorful role playing game set in the world of James Maxey’s Greatshadow. But enough about the books I want to see transformed into video games, let’s ask some professionals for their opinions!
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
This is possibly the nerdiest question I’ve been asked in a while, and I’ll do my best to avoid restraint in my answers.
I’d love to see Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks done up as a retro-styled adventure game, in the fashion of the late 80s/early 90s. That might be getting a bit personal and obscurantist, but what the hell. A guy can dream, right?
Other dream projects… Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser done up in Skyrim/Thief-style detail and gameplay. Heck, my own world, done up as a fantasy version of a Grand Theft Auto sandbox…
A Dune political/strategic/economic game ruthlessly and strictly faithful to Frank Herbert’s work. Another in-depth turn-based RPG based on Ray Feist’s Midkemia. A Mass Effect-style action roleplaying game set in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy world. A tramp starfreighter simulator based on the work of C.J. Cherryh and Colin Greenland. Mary Robinette Kowal’s magical Regency stuff done as a cooperative/competitive card game. A Talisman-style semi-random card and dice game where the characters are drawn from dozens of works of contemporary fantasy and SF. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon done as a tabletop game in a throwback 1980s AD&D style.
Yea, sure, I know what you’re thinking: Why the hell didn’t I think of this earlier? I could have soared to the top of Bethesda with this sort of gaming gold!
Well, that’s why I’m here.
Angela’s Ashes, written by the late Irish-American author Frank McCourt, recounts the narrator’s real-life journey of the narrator and his family in 1930’s and 40’s Ireland through pain, anguish, and all manners of famine. I imagine this being a consul adaptation (for the PS3, of course, because all else is irrelevant), designed with a first person, open-world action/adventure POV and developed, preferably, by Sucker Punch Productions. Frank’s main abilities would include begging, stealing, and trying to keep his father Malachy from blowing his paycheck at the pub. Optional quests would involve scavenging for coal or peat turf with Frank’s brothers by the defense plant, or filching leftover food from restaurants. Combo-based button sequences will make fighting your way through typhoid fever that much more exciting, and choosing your responses to Frank’s arguing parents will determine whether or not they get divorced. The point of the game, of course, would be to get your main character the hell out of early 20th century Ireland before the entire country basically sinks into the ocean.
If I were to really pick a book to turn into a video game, it would be Ubik by Philip K. Dick. The plot of this sci-fi gem involves a debt-stifled technician named Joe Chip who works for something called the ‘prudence organization,’ which employs people whose psychic powers involve blocking other people’s psychic powers. Anti-telepaths are my favorite of the bunch, acting as security enforces for would be mind thieves. The prudence organization is run by a man who keeps his deceased wife, Ella, in a ‘half-life’ form of cryonic suspension, so that she can communicate with the living world.
I won’t go into the twists and turns that make up the final stages of Dick’s twisted tale, but I think the premise alone would make for a brilliant open world action/adventure/RPG. I could see psychic powers being utilized for various combat and puzzle-based functions. The plot would give Bioshock Infinite a run for its money, and there would be limitless capacity for character customization.
But if that doesn’t sound interesting, there’s always scavenging for peat turf. As long as it’s not Aliens: Colonial Marines, I’m cool.
Books make great inspiration for games. Two of my favorite games, Red Dead Redemption and Naughty Dog’s recent The Last of Us, were heavily influenced by two Cormac McCarthy novels. Throw in Red Dead’s Undead Nightmare zombie DLC, and you get some Joe R. Lansdale flavor as a bonus.
I would love to see Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon as a video game. You get all of the private detective intrigue and interrogations of L.A. Noire with an amazing cyberpunk setting. Takeshi Kovacs’ background wouldn’t be out of place with most other protagonists in shooter games. Melee fights, neurochem mods, cool vehicles, and creepy immortal antagonist and to the fun.
I’d also love to see Perdido Street Station as an open-world RPG, like a fantastical Grand Theft Auto. You can follow the main mission strands hunting down slake moths and fighting the Bas-Lag government, or you can do side jobs for Mr. Motley, read about your character’s riotous exploits in the Runagate Rampant, or (what I would most likely do) just wander around New Crobuzon exploring and observing all of the different people. Random Weaver spawn points would be imperative to just throw a wrench into whatever task you’re trying to compete.
Lastly, the immensely popular Female Commander Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale in Mass Effect, has paved the way for Honor Harrington. As a female who enjoys games and SF, I’d love to see more female leads on spaceships in general.
But seriously (ahem). When posing this question, it’s important to distinguish between “awesome” and “awesome with commercial potential.” The truth is that the book-buying and game-buying markets are rather different. There are a half-dozen intellectual properties (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, increasingly A Song of Ice and Fire) that guarantee sales. For the rest, a hundred thousand copies sold isn’t going to make a licensed game worthwhile based solely on crossover potential; nor is a million, or two million, or maybe five million. Ten million and a publisher might be tempted to fund a modest budget based primarily on the value of the license, assuming the book’s theme fit current trends. But in general, a great book is best looked at as a depository of lore and ideas that can be mined to produce a fantastic game.
The Witcher, which I developed for, is a fine example of how a modestly successful (compared to the big American authors) literary property can be adapted into a bestselling game. From what I understand Andrzej Sapkowski had little input in the design process, but that didn’t stop the development team from identifying the unique aspects of his work. The game triumphed because the writing and world felt authentic and the themes resonated with players, particularly in Poland. This is how books ought to be adapted: not to attempt to cash-in on an existing fan base, but rather to provide a narrative platform by supplying deep characters and a rich setting. The game designers then take care of the rest.
I’d say the Malazan novels are the best fit for an RPG in the style of the classic Baldur’s Gate. The series already resembles a high-level D&D campaign played out in novel form across multiple continents with hundreds of characters. It would be easy to strip out the standard races and classes and replace them with Malazan-specific variants, then begin the protagonist as a lowly squad member in some far-flung corner of the Malazan Empire during the events of the series. The use of warrens could justify the player flitting in and out of events depicted in the novels. Even the magic system, while unusual and perhaps tricky to adapt at first, would lend itself to some new and potentially interesting system design outside of the standard Vancian and mana-based approaches.
I actually wrote a proposal for the above back in 2009. Sadly, the authors wanted to go in a direction my producer and I did not feel was right for the property. This illustrates the difficulties in licensing literary work – authors are naturally passionate about their books and full of ideas about what they want to see, but it’s the game developers’ job to turn a licensed property into a game that has a place in the market – and to get the multi-million dollar publisher funding such a project requires. (Unless a game is crowd-funded. That’s another subject entirely…)
Lately I’ve contemplated that the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence could make for a great Skyrim-type experience. On the surface you have what appears to be a pseudo-medieval grimdark fantasy setup: dig a little deeper and you’ll find a brilliantly conceived post-apocalyptic Earth buried beneath. The player could sift through the bones of a barely recognizable Europe in first-person, unearthing futuristic weapons to wield alongside broadswords while battling what, at first glance, are fantasy staples such as necromancers and the undead. The science-gone-bad element could be explored later in the game, introducing all sorts of twists to subvert the standard tropes. The central character in the trilogy, Jorg, would be a great protagonist for the player to control – but one senses there is scope for a hundred such stories, and their heroes, to play out across the breadth of a ruined Earth.
A game based on The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie is also an interesting prospect. Joe appears to enjoy experimenting with writing in different genres and mediums. I suspect he’s one of a few authors (along with Mark Lawrence, who recently corrected me on some D&D minutiae) who could take a large role in designing and writing their own game. I could imagine such a title being heavily cinematic and character-driven – not necessarily an RPG, but perhaps some hybrid featuring iconic First Law characters. One example might be a strategy title where the player assumes the role of a Magi, and takes control of the North, the Union, or the Gurkish. They would have to defeat the other sides economically, politically or militarily – including utilising “hero” units a la Warcraft (“send in the Bloody-Nine to take out that guard tower!”).
I would love to take the easy route here and answer something like Neuromancer, especially since my own book, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, is pretty heavily rooted in Cyberpunk as well — and that would make for a seamless, if slightly jaded, PR move on my part. Plus, Neuromancer would be a fine answer: As a book, Neuromancer is widely considered unfilmable because of its rampaging scope and boggling futurism. But the same traits that make it poison for film make it perfect for a sprawling (pun intended) open world cyberpunk game. I’d love nothing more than to hop on Aerol’s scooter and jet around Freeside with impunity. But I think I must secretly hate myself, because I never take the easy route: Instead, I’m going to say I would love to see House of Leaves adapted into a video game.
Haha, what? That’s the worst answer short of Finnegan’s Wake.
But think about it: House of Leaves is also widely considered unfilmable – not because of its scope, like Neuromancer – but because of its twisting structure. The story is told from multiple POVs, ranging from first person narrative to stage directions, with half of the tale unfolding in increasingly bizarre footnotes and annotations. It would be rough to make a movie out of that, but a game somewhere between Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime, and Left 4 Dead would be just about perfect. If you’re not familiar, Eternal Darkness was an excellent Gamecube survival horror game that used sanity-warping game mechanics. The more frightened you became in game, the less real the “world” was – rooms would turn upside down, fake death scenes would unfold – and that’s the perfect mechanic to capture the strange format changes in House of Leaves. Metroid Prime took place in a lush, alien world, and you could sprint through the whole thing, obliviously blasting away as you liked. But if you stopped and looked around you, you could scan virtually everything in the environment, picking up bits of information and backstory that would then be archived to peruse at your leisure. That’s a nice, seamless way to handle the footnotes. Left 4 Dead was a pure action game – you could be forgiven for not thinking there was any story there. But you’d be wrong: Set it on easy sometime, and start a single player game. Just go explore the levels. Look around the homes, the trailers, and the saferooms. The whole narrative of the apocalypse is told in the tableau of the wreckage, and the graffiti on the walls left by previous survivors. The appeal of House of Leaves was its unique approach to traditional storytelling. That’s something games have been doing for a long time. I don’t doubt that a video game adaptation of House of Leaves would be a glorious failure. But hey, at least it would be glorious.
I’ve spent the last eight years marketing video games. When I’m not writing books that feature people’s head blowing up, I’m writing ads about games that feature people’s heads blowing up. So this is a question that’s often at the front of my mind. For the simple reason that there’s one thing missing from so many games: a good story.
It’s so easy to see the games where a writer has been involved from the start. And the ones where a writer’s been dragged in at the last minute to force fit a narrative around what is essentially a bunch of set fight sequences. The former tend towards the awesome. The later, not so much.
Kudos to RockStar and Naughty Dog for the stuff they’re putting out. With them, and companies like them, it’s clear that plotting, character development and dialogue are just as much of a priority as the game engine or mechanics. A story and a character I care about makes me exponentially more invested in a game than great graphics or intuitive controls. You get all of those things right, you get a great game.
I’m always asked when my book is going to be turned into a film. But I’ve never been asked when is it being turned into a game. Which is a shame, as it seems to me there is more alignment between games and books. What games have in common with books is the potential for depth of empathy. The more time you spend with a character, the deeper that emotional connection.
I could list off hundreds of books that would make awesome games, especially the kind of SF and YA books that are packed with action and throw every kind of obstacle at their protagonists. (Take the Tomb Raider engine and replace Lara Croft with Katniss Everdeen and you’d have a killer (no pun intended) game.)
But it doesn’t have to be all action. Just like books, games have the opportunity to put aside explosions and headshots and prioritise ideas. Can you imagine Camus’ The Plague done in the style of Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to some) where the character knows there is no escape from the quarantine and the purpose of the game is to find solidarity with your fellow condemned? Or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four done like Metal Gear Solid: dodging cameras and desperately hoping to escape whatever is waiting for you in room 101? How awesome would they be? The answer is very.
However, I can’t quite imagine games companies taking on the modern classics. So I’ll focus on three books that I not only think would make awesome games but could also become big hits with gamers.
The first is Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway, which combines stunning writing, striking visual imagery and an absolute romp of a story. If I had my way, Rock Star games would be all over this. It would be an open-world adventure game with a lovable protagonist – Joe Spork. In between wandering freely around an underground London, Joe would have to overcome the increasingly tough tests thrown at him all while walking the fine line between the clockmaker he thinks he wants to be and the mobster he is destined to become. There could be mini games where Joe has to fix clockwork to progress. And the sections where you’d play as Eddie Bannister, badass octogenarian, would be epic.
My second book is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. I’m imagining it as a Heavy Rain style noir, with the main character, Kirby, trying to track down the man who left her for dead. Her narrative thread could be broken up with jarring intercuts and sections where you’d play the game from the POV of serial killer, jumping through time to find his Shining Girls.
The final book on my dream game list is Lone Wolf and Cub, the manga series created by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima. Imagine the exploration and fighting scenes of a game like Capcom’s Onimusha with the connected play of Ico. The ronin Lone Wolf would have to keep an eye on his cub, even while fending off hundreds of samurai attackers. If Cub dies: game over. I would play the heck out of that.
Games are just another storytelling medium. And I’m excited to see the lines between media blurring in the future. Books have inspired games and now games are inspiring books. They certainly inspired mine.
My favorite video game genre is the platformer, games like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man — the more retro the better. But the problem with old school games like these is that the stories behind them are usually scant and superfluous to the action (eg. Save the princess! Again!), which is rather a waste when adapting novel to a video game. You can come up with something that borrows the setting and elements of the book, a la this fan-made video game version of The Great Gatsby, or perhaps text adventures like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but can it truly capture the essence of the story? More and more, video games today are featuring rich and layered plots, with an emphasis on world building and dialogue and characters as deep as anything you’ll find in a novel or a Hollywood film, or deeper. I would argue that many modern video games have reached a point where they are somewhere between books and movies.
When I read Erin Morgenstern’s fantastic debut novel, The Night Circus, it reminded me strongly of Sleep No More, an “immersive theater production” currently running in New York City which is loosely based on Macbeth. I wasn’t surprised when I saw her mention it as an influence in the book’s acknowledgments. In some reviews, Sleep No More has been compared to video games like Bioshock and other first person titles that allow players to explore and interact with entire video game worlds, so I think it makes sense for The Night Circus to be adapted into a game in the same style. I imagine players taking the role of a “dreamer” obsessed with following the Circus from place to place, exploring the magical tents within, collecting souvenirs and trinkets, and meeting many of the characters, including the book’s protagonists Celia and Marco, Bailey, Poppet, and Widget. Through such interactions, the player will learn the history of the Circus and the backgrounds of the people who are part of it, and become involved in its fate — perhaps even learning magic and creating new tents of her own. The game would focus on exploration and the experience of Morgenstern’s book, featuring the settings and hopefully capturing some of its beauty and the senses of wonder, joy, and sadness in the novel. I think a video game would be as close to visiting the Night Circus as we can achieve in the real world, using the only magic available to us.
Ender’s Game is the first and most obvious answer, I suppose. When I was working as a game designer the possibility of this happening came and went a few times, and what bothered me about the various proposals I’d heard of was that they were all basically RPG style “play-throughs” of the book. My preference would be to focus completely on the battle room. Set it up similar to Team Fortress or Counter-Strike, whereby players are organized in two teams in a first-person environment. The difference here would be a focus on very quick, intense matches played out in a cube-shaped room that is randomly filled with obstacles (or lack thereof). A room where neither team has advance knowledge of the layout. And just like in the book, the cards could sometimes be stacked in favor of the less accomplished team. Let them in early, for example. As teams win or lose they are assigned the next better (or worse) team for their next match, and so on. Avoid giving players any kind of leveling or skill improvement incentives so that, like Counter-Strike, everyone is on relatively equal footing. Reward players with stripes and medals and the like, so that better players are highly sought after when teams are formed. Run servers 24/7 for pick up games, and also have an assortment of tournament servers that people can register to participate in with their own pre-arranged teams.
By the way, while writing this I discovered that a few years ago a company called Chair Entertainment announced just such a game, Ender’s Game: Battle Room, however it was later put on “indefinite hold”. Sad!
Caveat: I won’t go into Orson Scott Card’s political views here, but suffice to say even though I think this would be a fun game, I wouldn’t buy it. In fact my preference would be for some developer to use this core game mechanic but in an original setting.
Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series would also make a wonderful game universe. Dusting off my game designer hat again, I’d love to do this as a space combat sim whereby the player takes the role of Captain John Geary, commanding both his own ship and directing the rest of the fleet. Only, in my dream version of this game the player sees everything through Oculus VR goggles, as if you’re on the bridge of the actual ship, sitting in the captains chair and glancing about not just at your tactical displays and whatever’s outside the windows, but also your bridge crew. Control is entirely through natural voice commands plus limited decisions made on the various displays around the Captain’s chair. Epic space battles as seen from a single person’s POV — a “First Person Strategy” game, if you will.
I think we’re still a few years away from having good enough voice recognition to make something like this work well, but such a game is perfect for Oculus VR.
Switching gears, I think a game based on Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law would be fantastic. The magic system in that universe is perfect for a game, both in the consistency of its rules and the cinematic awesomeness of its application. Gameplay-wise, something along the lines of Dishonored would suit me just fine.
And just to go a bit crazy, how about a Ready Player One MMORPGMMORPGMSA?
A massively-multiplayer RPG where you and all the other players are struggling to stay alive in a dystopian future, with the constant goal of getting the best VR rig you can acquire so that you can enter the massively-multiplayer RPG known as OASIS. In this game-within-the-game you find yourself in a universe filled with player created content, overflowing with 80’s geek culture references, and nearly infinite choices of worlds to explore and rules to play by. Scattered about are any number of massively-singleplayer arcade games-within-the-game-within-the-game. Phew. I’m there. Sign me up.
At my house we have a wall of video games that started growing not long after our son was born. It began with games for the Wii and Playstation 2, then the Xbox, and now we’re up to the Wii U. Oddly, none of the many games we have is based on a book. I didn’t realize that until this question was posed to me, so I’ve picked out two of my favorite classic genre books that I think would make fun video games.
The first is Logan’s Run. The name even sounds like a video game! People who know me know that I’m a bit obsessed about this book and the movie that was made from it. It’s certainly not the greatest science fiction book written, but it has the kind of “linear” story that reminds me of the video games I grew up playing in the early 80s. They were often side-scrolling adventures where the hero had to overcome obstacles and reach his goal—exactly the kind of story told in Logan’s Run. Of course I wouldn’t want the game to be too simplistic, like the old Pitfall game. The dystopic world of Logan’s Run actually has a lot of interesting aspects to it that could add to the complexity of a game, such as the gun used by the Sandmen that fires different types of projectiles, the palm flowers that change color as the characters age, and the martial art called Omnite the Sandmen practice. The goal, obviously, would be for the player to reach “Sanctuary.” Logan’s Run is definitely a video game I would buy. Maybe someday, if the movie remake ever gets off the ground, a cool game will follow.
Logan’s Run was published way back in 1967, and so was the second “book” I’d like to see made into a video game—Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series. Let’s change gears here and move from the more simplistic game I imagine for Logan’s Run into one of the complex, “open architecture” games, where the player gets to move around and explore a detailed world. The Hawkmoon books have just the kind of striking visuals that would look great in a game, like the onithopters of the Dark Empire, flame lances, warriors riding into battle on giant flamingos—crazy, over-the-top stuff that would make amazing cut-scenes. It also has a fun group of colorful characters, like Count Brass and “the Warrior in Jet and Gold” and the King-Emperor Huon, who lives in a fluid-filled globe. Players would be able to move at will throughout the lands of the book, searching for the magical items from the story and battling the forces of “Granbretan.” The Hawkmoon books have already been made into a paper-based RPG, but as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a video game yet.
Okay, so before I go let me plug an idea for the next LEGO-based game. They’ve already done Star Wars and Batman and Harry Potter, but what I want to see is a James Bond LEGO game. Think about all the cool villains and gadgets James Bond has going for it. A LEGO Pussy Galore is just what the world needs.
I was really excited when I first saw this question as there are loads of books that have amazing ideas in them but the more I think about it what would you be able to do to make them into a game?
A novel is obviously a story where all the decisions have already been taken by the writer to take the reader from A to Z leaving little for a games player to do. I’m really glad you asked for ideas on games mechanics as most of my initial thoughts centered around RPGs and quests as that’s what a majority of novels seem to boil down to. But lets have a look at a few books and see what could be done with them.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline would make a great mix of story and challenges especially as most of it takes place in it’s own virtual world, OASIS.
In fact, you could forget about what happens in the book and just create the OASIS but that might have been done already with second life so better stick closer to the plot of the book. In Ready Player One a challenge is laid down when the OASIS creator dies and issues a challenge clues that set people searching OASIS for the answers. In the novel we follow Parzival on his quest but in a game you wouldn’t have to be him. You could be anyone and become a ‘gunter’ (egg hunter) and follow the clues and work out the puzzles.
Speaking of puzzles I think The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks would make a really good puzzle game. Well a game of several puzzles. It doesn’t have to be the main game set on Azad, which is where the highly skilled games player Jernau Gurgeh ends up. Though that could be the ultimate challenge but any of the games mentioned that occur around the Culture.
I really want to come up with a shoot ‘em up. I was thinking of something set in Neal Asher’s Polity as I like the drone Sniper especially the battles he has in The Skinner with the insect-like Prador and I can see a battles coming from the events in Prador Moon where first contact doesn’t go well. So some skirmishes in the Prador War though this would need new stories from Asher to describe the events – actually that’s not such a bad idea.
Lastly, I’d love a new game based on the Discworld but I have no idea what you’d do with that setting. And that’s what I’m struggling.
I’m a binge gamer and therefore I game judiciously, since otherwise it would ruin my life. I’m game snob. I await the special games, the experiential RPG monstrosities which mock the title of mere ‘game.’ Everything in the Baldur’s Gate franchise. The Fallouts. Skyrim. Watching game release dates approach, each time I’m a kid again, longing for the first day of ski season, the last day of school, for Christmas. When the right game comes, I give it literal weeks of my time, and then I’ll go back, a little here and there, for years. Games are good when I sink into them the same way I do a good novel, when they succeed at being games, but are also much more, entire worlds, fully realized. When I think of novels that would make good games, that’s where I go: I want whole countries to explore; I want to make allies and enemies. I want to join the currents of a completely separate history.
Obviously Game of Thrones is on my list of novels (well, series) that would make great games. (I know, there already is a GoT video game, but it’s not the game I want it to be. The characters are predefined. I want the game that simply unleashes you into Westeros, after you build whatever character suits your whim.) How much fun would it be to play a hedge knight in The Riverlands? Or an Iron Islands pirate? How much fun would it be to have your ass handed to you by Jaime Lannister, because you got drunk and talked shit about his sister? Few worlds are as rich and intricate as GoT, and that’s good game material. But GoT is probably on everyone’s list, so I’ll move on.
Edmond Hamilton’s Starwolf. Old school, meat-and-potatoes space adventure. You could base any kind of game you wanted to on this book—first-person shooter, space exploration, even something Zelda-esque built for the console. The story is all of these things, and boils down at the end to a heist: enter the lair, get the jewels. But of course, I want the RPG version, with the world flushed out. The truth is, I loved Starwolf as a kid. I can’t count the number of times I read it. It would be a happy moment for me, experiencing it again in a new medium.
Speaking of my childhood, I’m also of the opinion that all things Dragonlance should get a reboot, and that said reboot should include a VERY BIG VIDEO GAME, in which you get to RIDE DRAGONS. Games based on books based on games. Now we’re talking.
I think I’ve brought up Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War in every article about anything genre I’ve ever written, so why not here? There is simply so much cool in that novel—from the school, to Mandella’s training, to the physics of the battle scenes—all potentially fertile ground for gaming. The thing that really intrigues me, though, is the idea that someone might build into a game FW’s sense of social dislocation as Mandella, travelling back and forth to the front at relativistic speeds, moves forward though time. Imagine a game whose narrative tone shifts with each jump into the future, incrementally and over and over, until the only victory, after weeks of real time, is the realization that the game itself is folly, that you don’t remember why you started playing in the first place, and that choosing to do so has stripped you away from the life you were meant to live…
Back during my first ever job interview in the video game industry, the man who would become my boss asked me to pitch a book I’d read recently as a video game. That book happened to be Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory and the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to the idea. Initially, it doesn’t seem like it would work. The book deals with some pretty intense philosophical questions, which can be hard to translate to engaging game play. However… it has a lot of other things going for it.
We get an alternate history America-strongly influenced by comic book themes-in which classical archetypes (known as demons) possess people. There’s the kamikaze that flew his plane into the Whitehouse, making Nixon a multi-term president. There are the do-gooder superhero types who save people and cause chaos. There’s the Dennis the Menace style boy terror (who happens to be the demon possessing the main character in the book) and the angelic lost little girl as well as many others. The setting lends itself beautifully to a hyper-realistic art style, blending comic book with gritty realism. The demon archetypes would be a neat challenge, since you’d have to apply the archetypes to different people, making sure the essential characteristics came through while also making it clear the demon has possessed a new host.
The player character could be someone who has been possessed by a demon at some point in the past, which would be similar to the main character in the book. Or could be someone trying to save a possessed loved one. The adventure would take the PC all over the US, and involve tracking down mysteries and meeting a host of characters (including potentially a possessed Philip K. Dick).
If you wanted to, you could toss in combat mechanics in fights against possessed people, but you could also take a more interactive narrative approach and make the game entirely about choice (think TellTale’s Walking Dead). The latter would be my choice, since it would work very well the book’s focus on self identity and the conflict between your inherent nature and the choices you make.
My inner 13 year old would love to see the Dragonriders of Pern made into a video game RPG. Particularly if you look at Pern as it was in the first several books, with a seemingly obsolete military force (the dragonriders in their weyrs), an impending threat they have to fight without the necessary resources (thread), political conflicts in the civilian population (the holdings and holdless), and the very real danger of losing all life on the planet. Great stakes.
Player characters could come from the weyr folk, the holds, or any of the guild halls. Obviously they’d have to impress a dragon, but it would be easy to also give them a range of party members with their own motivations.
In terms of game play, you’d have the social mechanics necessary for winning allies as well as room for ground combat. With the dragons, you get airborne fighting complete with complex aerial maneuvers, squad teamwork, and teleportation. It would be a complicated balance, but done well could be a lot of fun.
Add in the remnants of a spacefaring ancestry, and you’ve got your first DLC adventure unearthing the story of the original settlers. Your second DLC could be settling the southern continent and building a new Weyr. Pern is such a richly developed world, the narrative possibilities are endless.
There are, of course, far more books that I could ever cover that would work well as video games: Girl Genius would have a fabulous crafting system. Old Man’s War would lend itself well to being a third person shooter and I’d love to see the BrainPal UI. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover would be fascinating, with the political conflicts, the magic system, and a focus on strong women (we need more games that do that!). Tanith Lee’s decadent future society complete with bio-domes and body swapping from Biting the Sun could be a great dystopia with respeccing built into the gameplay. The Cheysuli Chronicles with shapechanging, epic warfare, and two opposing magic systems… You get the picture.
Turning a book into a video game is never easy. I’d say it’s more complicated than turning a book into a movie, and it’s easy to point out plenty of movies that failed spectacularly at it. When it comes to video games, you need to make the same shift to visual storytelling but also add in game play mechanics and a way to make the player feel like it’s their story-so much so that they’ll play for 30+ hours. A video game really is a story told in the second person.
As a Proper Game Designer I should be thinking about this in a disciplined way that primarily accounts for mechanics, but god damn it, I have to admit that what I really want is a Snow Crash MMO. The Matrix Online took a swing at what it would mean to have a cyberpunk MMO, and its demise ultimately was not of its own doing, but related to the commercial failure of the second film (sad and strange to think of what it must have been like to be the engineer who pulled the plug on the Matrix!). As a product it was financially viable, and I think there’s room for its like — and heck, while I’m at it, what I’d love is a kind of Stephenson online world that combines the worlds of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age… I want factions and territory ownership and hacking puzzles and Minecraft-esque user-generated nanotechnology construction and and and… Seriously, it would only cost $30m, hit me up and we can Make This Happen.
Whew. But. Discipline. Mechanics. Let’s see. I’m an unabashed social mechanic junkie, so I think that the hierarchical SF dystopias like China Mieville’s The City and the City or Alastair Reynolds’s Terminal World or Kay Kenyon’s The Entire and the Rose provide really fascinating fodder for social-mechanic-based transactional status games. There could be all kinds of mechanics supporting how one travels between different levels of social status (which would be geographical world location also, property ownership, etc), and greater investment in the game could generally correlate with advancement — games like that (think Eve Online) have the greatest potential, I think, for investment over time and really interesting personal interaction. I’m reaching again into massive online game territory here, which one could argue is cheating, but suffice it to say that I think the greatest potential for books becoming games has to do with the worlds that these books create and the ways in which those worlds are driven by rules that can then be mechanically manifested. That, to me, is a heck of a lot more interesting than yet another sword or gun mechanic, and does credit to both the game and the fiction by providing that experiential exploration of the ideas being prototyped in the story.
That said, I’d also love to see a game harness Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea world, though I hesitate to say that because I think we’re a ways off from the technology that could really do it justice. But the way that Earthsea emphasized and placed power upon language and learning suggests a mechanic, maybe not unlike Scribblenauts, where speaking something in the right language makes it occur in the world. Again to make this really interesting I think you need to have a lot of players engaging in it all at once, and genuinely embrace the information transfer by letting players teach each other the Words that they discover. This kind of project would be massive in scope, but I suppose that’s what blue-sky I-can-dream-can’t-I discussions like this are for?
I have always also thought that there was a great deal of existing game design in Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. Central to the world on Proton is “The Game”, run by an AI Game Computer, by which serfs in the rigidly hierarchical society can compete with each other each year for a chance at becoming super-wealthy Citizens. The Game was in fact an array of many games or competitions across diverse subjects — music, sport, puzzle, acting, what-have-you. The actual selection of the game being played is strategic and competitive, with each contestant filling a grid with choices and then trying to box the other player into landing on an item they’ve placed. I’ve always thought this was an interesting structure for player matching and competition, balancing across depth and breadth of a variety of competitive games. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that something like this is likely to one day exist, either in virtual or real space. I’m surprised it doesn’t already exist somewhere in Japan!
He grew up in the Seattle area, spent time with the Navy and Marine Corps as a medic, graduated from the University of Washington, lived in Africa for half a year, and has traveled to six continents. He has been employed as a surgical technician, college instructor, news writer, television producer and Director of Public Relations and Marketing for an international telephone company.
Dietz is a member of the Writer’s Guild and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He and his wife live near Gig Harbor in Washington State where they enjoy traveling, kayaking, and reading books. For more information about William C. Dietz and his work visit: williamcdietz.com
When Nick asked me to recommend a book that should be made into a game, I immediately thought of the Book of the New Sun Volume I, which includes The Shadow of the Torturer and the Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe. Both novels could be, and in my view should be, combined into a groundbreaking game.
Perhaps my choice is partly driven by the fact that I was invited to contribute a short story to a Gene Wolfe anthology, titled Shadows of the New Sun. My goal was to write a story that would fill a tiny gap in The Shadow of the Torturer. So to get all the details right it was necessary to reread both novels. What a delight!
If you haven’t read the Torturer and the Conciliator I strongly recommend that you do. These are strange and wondrous books filled with complex characters and complicated motivations set on Earth, or Urth, in a far distant future. The protagonist, a man named Severian, is a professional torturer and executioner who, armed with a sword called Terminus Est, is forced by circumstances to set out on a journey that will test him in many different ways.
That, plus the nature of the setting suggests a game in which the player would be confronted with lots of Myst-like puzzles, and interesting surprises along the way. “But wait!” as the voice over announcer would say, “There’s more!”
For better or worse Severian is required to execute people–and that means he is required to make moral choices. An example of this occurs in The Shadow of the Torturer when he gives an aristocrat named Thecla a knife, so she can commit suicide rather than be tortured. However by doing so he breaks his oath to the Torturer’s Guild.
Other games require players to confront moral choices including Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and the controversial Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which players who fail to opt out carry out a terrorist attack on people in an airport.
So, although games in which moral choices must be made already exist, Severian would bring something new to the subgenre. Should a particular person be executed? If so, fine. Some sort of justice is done and Severian gets paid. And he needs money to survive.
But were the Torturer’s Guild to discover that Severian has broken his oath assassins might be looking for him as the game begins. And the constant threat would keep the player on his or her toes.
As for scoring it’s possible that the gamer would start out with a thousand morality points and no money. The challenge would be to earn money while staying alive and giving up as few morality points as possible. Although, I think Severian should be allowed to defend himself without losing any morality points.
Would some people object to a game in which the player assumes the role of an executioner? Possibly. But I would argue that rather than commit random acts of violence ala Grand Theft Auto–this game would cause the gamer to think about what they are doing before putting someone to death.
So there you have it… My notion of a game just waiting to be made. And that’s going to happen, right?
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