Books! They’re like films without pictures, or games that are all cutscene. Old people and hipsters really like them, teenagers think they’re like totally lame, and quite frankly we should all read more of them. There are countless games inspired by books – most especially Tolkien, Lovecraft and early Dungeons & Dragon fiction – but surprisingly few games based directly on books. Even fewer good ones.
Perhaps one of the reasons for that is that a game can, in theory, cleave closer to what a book does than a film can – with their length and their word counts, their dozens of characters and in some cases even their own in-game books, they can to some degree do the job of a novel. They don’t need to be based on books – and often they can do so much more, thanks to the great promise of non-linearity. Of course, the real reason for the dearth is that novels are so rarely the massive business a movie is these days. You might get a forlorn Hunger Games tie-in here and there, but suited people in gleaming office blocks just aren’t going to commission an adaptation of the latest Magnus Mills tale, more’s the pity.
I suspect that, over time, we’ll see the non-corporate side of games development increasingly homage the written word, but for now, these ten games (and seven honourable mentions) are, as far as I’m concerned, the best, and most landmark, results of page-to-pixel adaptation to date.
[no official site; here’s Wikipedia]
Given quite how many games cite Lovecraft as an inspiration, there are surprisingly few which go directly to his original tales. Most settle for elder gods and other-dimensional tentacle-beasts, and perhaps a spot of pseudo-Victorian mysticism. Dark Corners Of The Earth works hard to provide more than Cthulhian lip-service, weaving in and out of several Lovecraft tales, particularly Shadow Over Innsmouth, replete with both mystery and a rare dedication to making the protagonist weak and fearful. Lovecraft’s tales were not about supermen fighting monsters, but about terrified mortals being destroyed by things beyond all imagining. Of course, the second you show something on-screen it becomes entirely imaginable, but standard sacks full of hitpoints they generally are not. Investigation, exploration and mounting terror are Dark Corners’ major concerns, but overarching all of this is a sanity system, your grip on reality loosening as you encounter terrible things. It does become a first-person shooter to some degree, but a very dialled down, more realistic one in which every single bullet counts, to the point that firing at the wrong time/entity can be deadly. Uneven and often expasperating, but it’s both directly based on Lovecraft and, I think, the closest game in spirit to his tales.
Notes: It’s buggy and it’s arguably too difficult, but sadly official support stopped soon after launch. However, several unofficial patches and mods exist, particularly DCOTEpatch. It’s a bit of a bugger to install with the Steam version, however – give these instructions a try.
Two planned sequels never came to pass; a great shame, as Dark Corners looked rather dated even at the time, and it would have been lovely to have a crack at more modern-looking follow-up.
Douglas Adams’ adaptation of his own novel is de facto inclusion in this round-up, though slightly against my better nature. Clearly, the words and spirit of the thing are wonderful, and it’s a faithful as they come, but as a game it’s bit of a pain in the arse, really. This sci-fi comedy very much reflects its time: a text adventure bound by an internal logic that wasn’t always obvious, and with an unforgiving streak because these early days of gaming didn’t go in for focus-testing or conscious mainstream appeal. It didn’t care that it was too hard. It didn’t much care about anything other than its own wit, in fact, which is at least part of the ongoing appeal. In an age of games – perhaps most especially those which cite literary influences – which strive for often preposterous degrees of melodrama, there is much still to be learned from Hitchhiker’s abiding nonchalance.
I would, at a push, say that its many deaths and roadblocks become puzzles for all the wrong reasons, at least in this day and age. But it is The Douglas Adams Game, and the second-person perspective – you are Arthur Dent – still works a treat. Balancing the familiarity of the book/radio show with the panic and confusion of being a faintly incompetent man thrust into a preposterous situation, it’s a far more authentic and illuminating reflection of the great man’s imagination than any other visual adaptation.
Notes: If you’re not concerned with being a purist, then there’s a semi-graphical 30th Anniversary Edition available online here. It includes a few modern-day concessions to make the experience a little less punishing too, including a save/load option.
8. Metro 2033
Like The Witcher, the two Metro games are based upon Eastern novels which never quite crossed over here, in this case Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky’s 2005 post-apocalypse tale Metro 2033. There are close similarities to STALKER – Russia and the Ukraine seem to have their end-of-the-world tropes just as America does – but both book and game spend a lot more time exploring post-society society than the rival series. In the aftermath of nuclear horror, what remains of Moscow’s population has retreated into the subway system below the city, where they eke out a subsistence lifestyle and try not to fall into factional war. Supernatural elements and mutant wildlife make matters harder, too.
The setting, and the lavish treatment Metro 2033 and its sequel Last Light gave it, is very much the game’s enduring appeal. As first-person shooters, their many interesting ideas don’t always coalesce, and they can irritate, but amid so many games about soldiers mowing down infinite other soldiers, their strangeness and alternate perspective feels vital.
Notes: First game Metro 2033 essentially follows the plot of the source book, but sequel Last Light went down its own path instead of following printed sequel Metro 2034. As a game, Last Light is slicker but for me 2033 nails the atmosphere and oddness a little better. Both games were partially remastered into a redux version last year, which is probably the edition you should get.
[No official site; here’s Wikipedia]
I was reluctant to include this, as neither the pinko scum or the literary snob side of me wants to include hard-right military fetishism in a list of interesting novel-to-game adaptations. (For instance, here’s how Tom Clancy’s original Rainbow Six concludes: “After Rainbow defeats the eco-terrorists’ militia force and destroys their facility and supplies, Clark has the survivors stripped naked and left to die, taunting them to “reconnect with nature.””) But fair’s fair: Clancy’s 1998 counter-terrorism novel directly spawned an ongoing and initially landmark series of usually pretty great tactical shooters, which have long provided a more considered alternative to first-person shooters’ legion of supermen.
The 1998 first game used the novel’s Greenpeace-bashing plot and lead stormtrooper John Clark (a Clancy novel regular) kept on appearing until 2006’s Rainbow Six: Vegas, but Clancy’s high-tech, global counter-terrorism unit theme was a mainstay throughout. Many RPS staffers are particularly fond of the Vegas games, but the fanbase tends to be more keen on the more realistic, stealth- and teamwork-based first three games.
Notes: Opinions vary wildly about which is the ‘best’ Rainbow Six, but 2003’s R6 3: Raven Shield arguably finds the sweet spot between tactical and accessible, which is why its Gold edition got the title here. If you want to be bang up to date, it’s not too hard to get into the current Rainbow Six: Siege beta. The game itself is due for release this December.
Read more: Impressions: Rainbow Six Siege alpha
[no official site; here’s Wikipedia]
One of those formative RPGs for PC gamers of a certain age, and although I don’t suspect a great many would rush to play it again now, like Rainbow Six it’s an example of books and games expanding upon each other in more ways than a straight adaptation. Set in Midkemia, the world of Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar books, Krondor is itself structured to resemble a novel. It wasn’t based specifically on an existent tale, although Feist went on to adapt (and canonise) the adaptation of his own work into 1998 book Krondor: The Betrayal.
As for the game, yeah, it’s not aged too well in some respects, but the degree of freedom and complexity it offered is conceptually impressive even by today’s standards, and its avoidance of so many of what have become the genre’s mainstays are particular impressive. Other than in terms of nostalgia, Krondor really doesn’t feel familiar. It was also one of the first RPGs to experiment with 3D worlds, so it’s a bit of a milestone. Just seeing screenshots of its polygonal landscapes and digitised cast still does funny things to me.
Notes: While the GoG version ironed out most of the compatibility problems, Krondor can be made to look and sound a little better still. RPS reader Waltorious has a guide – plus an extensive replay of the entire game – here.
On page 2 – entries 5-1, obv.