A reimagining of 16th Century Chinese novel Journey To The West, which you may know as Arthur Wayley’s translation Monkey (or more likely its more playful 70s TV adaptation of the same name, so beloved of students in the 1990s). Enslaved moves the setting from a fantastical, folk tale-inspired China to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, and is a punchy action game which enraptured those who played it – which sadly wasn’t all that many. Clearly the settings and plot details diverge enormously from the book, but many of the characters are shared.
Andy Serkis did motion capture and Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) wrote, and it was particularly delightful in its appearance and oddness (its beauty very much at odds with what we usually expect from the post-apocalypse), which more than made up for the relatively simple game it was at heart. We shan’t see its like in the mainstream again for quite some time, I imagine.
Notes: First released for Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2010 and then seeming to die a death, Enslaved wound up with a surprise PC release in 2013, with all DLC included. It wasn’t quite as pretty as it could have been after all that time, but .ini tweaks make a big difference. Here’s a guide written by a helpful Steam forumite.
Read more: Wot I Think: Enslaved
Throw a rock in the air, hit 40,000 games based on Tolkien, and 400,000 inspired by them. In either case, most are either bunkum or head too far in the direction of the movies’ all bombast, all the time to be a meaningful reflection of Middle-Earth’s sprawling-to-the-point-of-excessive world-building or sedate pace. Angband, one of the granddaddies of the Roguelike generally, thus becomes a particularly fascinating example of book-to-game adaptation: it borrows from a relatively small slice of Tolkien’s fictional history and then turns a microscope on it. No gloss, no flash, no graphics: just a permadeath roleplaying descent into the titular pre-First Age fortress in an attempt to defeat Morgoth, one of the main baddies in The Silmarillion. This is history-making, not mere re-enactment: what could have happened, writing your own legend, the great tales of the distant past. Your own Middle-Earth adventure. It is punishingly difficult and far from accessible, but for many, roguelikes only went downhill from here.
The many subsequent, splintered spin-off projects expanded the perma-death dungeoneering concept, but most took it ever-further away from Tolkien. However, the revered ZAngband ran further with the book-to-game ball, switching to a setting based on The Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber. Far, far away from Angband but definitely retaining some of its ethos, we can theoretically look at the mighty simulation Dwarf Fortress as being abstractly based on the ancient history of Middle Earth.
Notes: Though broadly speaking Angband has been superseded by its own spin-offs, and then again by the glut of modern glossier, more accessible perma-death dungeoneering games which just about fall under the roguelike and roguelite banner (though not without much shouting), it’s still active, having been updated as recently as this month. Much of the community is pretty deep into the Tolkien stuff, too. You may get more out of ZangbandTK however, which has graphics rather than ASCII art and some other concessions to accessibility (although it’s sadly no longer updated).
Read more: Comics SuperstarTM Kieron Gillen got very excited about Zangband in his former life.
Unlike most everything else on this list, the novels which the three Witcher roleplaying games are heavily based upon were barely known in the West until digital Geralt swaggered onto our screens and tried to hump our keyboards. Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski published five domestically successful fantasy novels during the 90s, and though three of them have recently been translated into English, I rather suspect they still haven’t made much of a dent outside of the core fanbase even now. To most minds the games are very much the definitive Witcher.
All the key components and characters we’ve come to love/roll our eyes at in the games are there though, from emotionally-neutered, bed-hopping monster hunter Geralt himself to his destiny-swaddled protégé Ciri and the sprawling politics of The Continent. The games have improved exponentially as the series wore in, with more sandboxy yet focused third game The Wild Hunt very much the high point. If you’re in this for the plot and politicking above and beyond the monster-bashing, however, you almost certainly need to play – or read – the entire saga.
Notes: The books are gradually crossing over to the West, with the fourth and fifth novels in the series getting an English translation in 2016 and 2017 respectively. That’s just the main ‘saga’, though – in fact it all kicked off in 1986, and there are numerous short stories, anthologies and comics filling in the gaps of the setting and timeline. It’s approaching Tolkien levels of detail by now. If you want a starting point, anthology The Last Wish (1993, English translation 2007) contains the very first short story and effectively begins the in-fiction chronology, but Blood Of Elves (1994, English translation 2008) is your best bet if you simply want the central saga.
Roadside Picnic, the 1972 Russian sci-fi novel which inspired the STALKER games, has been oddly resistant to direct adaptation. Tarkovsky’s wonderful, transcendentally reflective movie Stalker uses the broader ideas as a launching point for an exploration of human idealism and aspiration, but leaves most of the science fiction behind. The three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. first-person sandbox shooters, by contrast, abandon almost all character work in favour of expanding the sci-fi and the post-disaster theme, and then deftly blending them into a real-world location.
Both book and film pre-dated the Chernobyl meltdown, but the Zone, the eerily beautiful ruin left in its wake, was both an uncanny predication of the disaster and about as perfect a setting for a game about surviving in a strange and mysterious place as we’ve ever had. First game Shadow of Chernobyl is the closest of the trilogy to Roadside Picnic’s plot, and perhaps also to the pervasive loneliness and distrust of the 1979 movie.
Notes: Third game Call of Pripyat is in many respects the ‘better’ game, by which I mean it is more polished and accessible. I would still go for Shadow of Chernobyl every time, however, as it manages to be so much stranger, more unpredictable, sinister and somehow alive, despite a great many rough edges. Alternatively there’s Survarium, if a multiplayer, free-to-play spiritual sequel sounds more like your cup of irradiated tea.
1. Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty (aka Battle for Arrakis)
[no official site; here’s Wikipedia]
For me, the grandparent of the modern RTS is the perfect adaptation of a book – taking the settings and themes and making them into the borders of a toybox, rather than attempting to re-tell a tale. Dune II is a systems game rather than a story game, distilling Frank Herbert’s sci-fi series down to its core ideas: contested planet full of resources, warring factions, military-industrial technology, bloody great worms. Only those elements which fit the game design were used – the mysticism was dropped, and so too were the vast majority of the cast. This was a game about an endless war, not the destinies of a favoured few.
There has, to this day, been no better setting for a sci-fi real-time strategy game, but that almost every subsequent one has shoehorned concentrated, self-important plot into any available space hasn’t helped. StarCraft et al are, perhaps, more akin to the latter, unmentionable Dune novels. Dune II, however, is so pure, and so Dune.
Notes: Dune 2 shows its age, to put it mildly. Fortunately, you can take your pick of modernisation projects. Dune Legacy and Dune Dynasty are your best bets if you want to revisit the original game’s singleplayer in higher res with a better UI, while The Golden Path is focused on making it into a robust multiplayer game, and OpenRA has a swing at tarting up the Dune 2000 campaign. There’s also OpenDune, though it’s been quiet for several years.
On page 3: Honourable Mentions