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.
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
There are many other games I could have included, but only a few I'd really have wanted to. These are those.
Irrational's art deco shooter was inspired by the writings, and repudiations, of controversial novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. In particular, names and themes from her novel Atlas Shrugged are used liberally throughout. I didn't put it in the main list purely because it's more a discussion of ideas than an attempt to digitally recreate the world of a novel, and because its own story very much becomes its own story (and eventually even more so, in the wake of BioShock: Infinite). But in the broader category of literary- or philosophy-inspired mainstream games, BioShock would be somewhere very near the top.
It's based upon the Bible, the title referring to the tale of Abraham (perhaps the Old Testament's most overt statement that God was initially a right old bastard), but the absurdly popular roguelike/twin-stick shooter is more about what fervent religious belief can do to someone than it is recreating Christian tales. Given there's something of a dearth of religious discussion in games, its Catholic guilt and anger is fascinating, however, though the exploration is arguably subsumed by all the poo-shooting and obsessive completism.
As fine a tribute to and lampooning of Ernest Hemingway, particularly his machismo celebration The Old Man And The Sea, as exists in games. Possibly the only one, in fact.
[no official site; here's Wikipedia]
A horrifying and brutal point and click adventure game based on short story by Harlan Ellison. Everyone remembers its name, and everyone remembers how unpleasant it was, but I'm not sure anyone really, truly wants to replay it now.
[no official site, so here's Wikipedia]
Another Tolkien game, this one of uncommon ambition, and on paper a damned impressive concept even today. This semi-graphical but primarily textual adventure sits alongside the the plot of The Hobbit, and for many of us was perhaps a more meaningful, memorable introduction to Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin than the book was (let us not mention the recent films). In fact, it probably was our introduction to them, given that the game originally shipped with a copy of the novel. Playing out in real-time with entirely unpredictable outcomes, and boasting a surprisingly involved physics system - all of which accessed by typing in words and phrases - it was doing emergent gaming long before anyone knew what that meant. It's another of those beautiful paradigms of a time before genre and before marketing. As landmark as they come, though a bit of a struggle to play today.
Heavily inspired by Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (and, of course, Coppola's movie adaptation Apocalypse Now), though nothing like a direct adaptation, Spec Ops is an often unflinching examination of the horrifying side of war, rather than the usual celebration of a fictional soldier's heroism. It earned itself a great deal of praise for its rare willingness to explore subject matter games traditionally hand-wave away, but underneath all that it's a fairly routine third-person shooter with a high body count, which arguably does some harm to the message it attempts to convey. Or props it up, some might say.
The Great Gatsby
If F. Scott Fitzgerald made NES games....