Over the years, particularly with today’s technology, this one glaring absence in our gaming choices has continued to amaze me. With the wealth of fictional worlds out there that have built a built in fanbase, ready for more interaction with their favorite world or characters, we don’t see more books turned into games.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t been done already, just not very often. Perhaps the most successful translation of all time for a book into a game is Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not only did it succeed in feeling like the book because it was a text adventure, it got the involvement of the author himself, Douglas Adams. Honestly, there is simply no way that a text adventure written by the original author is NOT going to feel like playing through the book, and to this day, that adventure (which is free over here, by the way) is regularly hailed as one of the all-time classics in interactive fiction.
This is something the money people at the game publishers need to learn. Comics and movies aren’t the only media with a lot of pre-existing fans.
But I don’t need to dig back to the 80s to point out good examples of books turned into games that have won over the gamer crowd. Many of you are probably already aware of this, but one of the best RPGs to hit the scene in years, The Witcher and its sequel, are actually based on a fantasy series by Andrzej Sapkowski of Poland. This is a “conventional” game by today’s understanding in the sense that it has polygonal graphics, loads of action, violence and sex. But it also stays true to its fictional roots with the jaded protagonist Geralt, and his morally ambiguous world. There are other successful translations as well, though perhaps those are not so obvious thanks to their status as beloved film franchises as well. Both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings started their lives as books, and to this day they command a large audience of fans that also look to the games to extend their stay in these fictional worlds.
This doesn’t mean that every literary property is necessarily going to translate well. Even some attempts at what could have been sure-fire winners didn’t turn out to be great games. Few people remember it, but back in the late 80s, early computers like the Amiga, Apple IIgs and of course, DOS PCs were treated to a game rendition of William Gibson’s famous science fiction novel Neuromancer. You’d think a computer game tackling iconic hacker moments like Cyberspace intrusions and hustling for software and hardware upgrades would have been perfect fodder for the gaming audiences of the time. Unfortunately technology—and some questionable design decisions—weren’t at the place they needed to be for such an undertaking. With today’s technology, and some far more assured examples of cyberpunk done right in games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we now have a better glimpse into what William Gibson’s world would be like were we to play such a game today.
The key to success for book-to-game franchises like The Witcher and the failure of other recent attempts like Game of Thrones, is an almost alchemical marriage of appropriate gameplay to the subject matter. Both The Witcher and Game of Thrones are a series of fantasy novels given RPG treatment, so on paper, they’re both bound to succeed. But CD Projekt RED had permission to not only recreate the world that Andrzej Sapkowski had invented, they allowed players to wear the grubby boots of Geralt himself and have their very own adventure as a Witcher. Cyanide, however, created ancillary characters with peripheral involvement in the major events that took place during the actual plot of Game of Thrones. There were limitations as to what they could do without interfering with established continuity and they were hampered by a lack of polish to their systems, compared with the sleeker, more obviously optimized play experience of something like The Witcher 2.
But there are plenty of other properties out there that are still ripe for the picking, particularly in genre fiction. Urban fantasy has been popular in recent years, which is why I’m amazed that we haven’t seen a Harry Dresden game since, like The Witcher, it would be quite feasible to create a unique adventure for a game involving Jim Butcher’s now famous character from The Dresden Files series. Or how about an adventure game that takes place in grim, yet hilarious world of Gormenghast? Or maybe someone needs to go back, wrest The Wheel of Time from the clutches of Atari and try making a game that’s NOT a FPS this time.
This is something the money people at the game publishers need to learn. Comics and movies aren’t the only media with a lot of pre-existing fans. Much as I’m loathe to admit it, anyone that creates a game where you can be Bella and get hit on by a sparkly vampire will probably make a mint from 14 year old girls that can’t tell the difference between a Wii controller and a TV remote. Ill-defined teen lust that doesn’t yet understand its own sexual impulses knows no financial bounds. Especially if they can pretend they’re making out with vampires via Kinect and post augmented reality photos of the act on Xbox Live.