Monday, 13 June 2016

From Page To Screen: 10 Video Games Inspired By Books

I've been a bit behind in posting my pieces written for Forces of Geek lately, but this was written for them some time last month. I really enjoyed writing this and hopefully, it gets people thinking about reading some of the titles I mentioned!

I love reading just as much as I love gaming so when I happen upon literary references in games or can recognise storylines inspired by books I've read, I naturally become overwrought with extreme bibliophilic joy. I have decided to combine my love of the two and talk about games inspired by books. Not just direct adaptations but also those that borrow ideas or draw inspiration from books (or those analog e-readers that your parents keep banging on about).

In no particular order, here are 10 video games inspired by books:

1. The Witcher series

This is the first obvious book-to-game series I want to talk about. Originally a series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski The Witcher series has a huge cult status in Poland and much of Eastern Europe. Originally written in the 1990s, Sapkowski's series, although domestically successful, remained relatively unknown, his first novel wasn't translated here in the UK until 2007.

There aren't many obvious similarities between the books and the game except perhaps the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia who awakes to find himself without any memory of how or why he got there. Though the lack of similarities is to be expected, after all being 'based upon' something is not the same as being a direct interpretation. Even the author has stated that the games shouldn't be seen as sequels to the books, or as alternative versions of the story but as separate works of art.

In The Witcher game series you are responsible for the moral choices and actions of Geralt whereas in the books, the story is of course linear. Being able to control a protagonist from a book you love is an exhilarating feeling, we all imagine these characters differently when we read them so the moral choice in The Witcher series works incredibly well.

2-4. Basically Everything Written By H.P. Lovecraft

Is there anything that isn't in some way H.P. Lovecraft inspired? Hundreds of games developers and writers have cited Lovecraft as being a huge influence on their work so, to save you from reading a approximately 1500 pages of writing on the subject, I've chosen just three to talk about.

Firstly, Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth, this is a first person shooter survival horror game without a HUD, so the player has little indication how their health is doing other than a louder heartbeat or a noticeable limp. This reliance on aural and visual cues amplifies the horror element and places the player into the game in a true first person view.

Despite the fact there are weapons available, the combat in this game is mostly to evade hideous creatures and horrors unarmed, the sanity feature adds chaos in an already tumultuous game world. The more you look upon the horrors depicted by the game the more sanity you lose. This translates into a number of ways including visual hallucinations, increased sensitivity of the controls and distorted sound.

The game is a reimagining of Lovecraft's 1936 novella, The Shadow Over Innsmouth (with elements of another of his novella's The Shadow Out of Time) and oh my, the xenophobic townsfolk of the coastal town of Innsmouth are truly terrifying.  

The second is a game I believe is highly underrated and also had a sanity meter feature which worked incredibly well, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. This game was released at a time when I still owned a Nintendo console and was one of few games that really felt aimed at an older demographic. Amidst the brightly coloured, family friendly Mario titles on offer, this game was a very welcome break.

This psychological horror action adventure game is unlike Call Of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth in that it spans multiple time periods, which only serves to intensify the terror. The sanity meter in this game is superb and as such, I was constantly on edge during my playthrough.

As you lose sanity the camera tilts at weird angles, there's creepy, unintelligible whispering that gets louder and the sound of sharpening knives and women screaming. Not to mention, suddenly being on the ceiling when you enter a new room, which is extremely disorientating. Though, perhaps the worst outcome of the sanity meter is when the game breaks the fourth wall by simulating technical errors, like your console turning itself off. Nothing can equal that terror!

This slimy mess of tentacles in the Bloodborne game is most definitely Cthulu inspired!
The third Lovecraftian nightmare inspired game I want to talk about is Bloodborne because how can I not? This game borrows ideas from and is partially inspired by Lovecraft's entire body of work as well as Bram Stoker's Dracula. These influences can be seen mostly in the games surroundings and in  atmosphere it evokes.

This visceral abject horror also has an incredibly aggressive style of play and has been lauded for it's challenging nature. If anything, this game is a lesson in patience and remaining calm...unless you're a big ball of impatient rage (like me).

5. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl

This is another literary inspired game (as is the whole S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series - though this is the closest adaptation). It borrows more from the post-apocalyptic vision of the book it's based on as opposed to the characters or storyline. The book in question is called Roadside Picnic by brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Rather than utilise the novella's post-visitation, sci-fi world where many of the inhabitants haven't realised or have been seemingly taken, the game is set in a similar post-apocalyptic world during the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and focuses on the weird goings on that happen in and around this mythological Chernobyl Zone and the desolate surroundings like overgrown previously urban areas and abandoned cities.

Personally, I think I'd have enjoyed the original idea much more but then I'm a huge fan of sci-fi and although I find alien visitation stories absolutely terrifying (seriously, watching E.T. as a kid scarred me for life) I find them infinitely more interesting than standard post-apocalyptic fiction.

6. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been re-imagined and adapted many times in other books, TV shows, films and games. The very notion of the duality of self is one we have seen in many forms and it's an interesting subject inspiring complex philosophical debate, so it should translate well in most mediums...right?

 Except, I remember a rather terrible NES game, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde - like in the book, Dr. Jekyll when angry, turns into the terrible Mr Hyde who must use his blood lust to battle demons in order to quell his anger and revert back to the calm and reserved, Dr Jekyll because as we all know, the best way to combat your rage is to channel more rage! Thanks, Stevenson!

Unlike the book however, this game is awful - when you're not playing as Mr Hyde, the basic aim of this game is to avoid combat, making it incredibly dull. I mean, side scrollers can be quite repetitive but this one gets boring at an alarmingly fast rate. It's also an existential nightmare as the aim of the game is to arrive at Dr Jekyll's wedding before Mr Hyde does, even're the same person!?  This game missed the point of the novella entirely.

7. Dune

It's not just the horror genre that games have borrowed from, though it does seem to be the most favoured. The sci-fi novel Dune by Frank Herbert has inspired multiple game versions, however I've only ever played Dune 2000 which I believe is a loose remake of 1992's Dune II: Battle For Arrakis on the Mega Drive (Genesis) so I'll only make mention of this particular game.

At least it's sandy?
It's a real time strategy game which plays a bit like Command and Conquer: Red Alert and focuses on various warring factions most of which exist in the Dune novels but the similarities sort of stop there. I've heard much more praise of the game it is based on and it is heavily criticised for copying the game exactly, adding in a few cutscenes and cashing in on it.

8. Metro 2033

The book, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky is set in a global nuclear holocaust, where Russia's surviving population now lives underground in the Metro tunnels.

In the game, the protagonist defends his home station from communists, mutants, a mysterious threat and even Fourth Reich Nazis.

The game Metro 2033 and it's subsequent sequels convey this new world remarkably well and some of the detailed environments in this game feel as though they are lifted exactly from the book, which speaks volumes for 4A games' work on the game.

The lack of ammo available as well as the scavenging aspect ensure the game is challenging at times and forces the player to think about their actions.

In a similar vein to S.T.A.L.K.E.R, the atmosphere in this game is suitably creepy and the eerieness evoked as you run through dark metro tunnels is genuinely quite scary. Though it's definitely fair to say, Metro 2033 is more faithful to its novel than S.T.A.L.K.E.R is.

It seems Russian and Ukranian authors are experts at knowing exactly how to creep everyone out.

9. Alice: Madness Returns

American McGee's Alice games are heavily inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It features characters from the book, including the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the protagonist is called Alice Liddell, who was Carroll's real-life inspiration for the character of Alice.

Despite the books being characterised as children's fiction, even adapted into the classic Disney film, McGee's Alice games are incredibly dark, deal with adult themes and are definitely not for kids, I can not stress this enough!

The horrifying plot of Alice: Madness Returns reveals that Alice, after being institutionalised after the death of her sister and parents is being hypnotised by her psychiatrist so that he can turn her into a blank slate to be given to child molesters. Wonderland is where she retreats to, in order to deal with this horror and to fight his hypnosis. While there, Alice must defeat Dr. Bumby's alter-ego in Wonderland, the Dollmaker.  And yes, he is as creepy as he sounds.

10. Dante's Inferno

Dante's The Divine Comedy has also been a muse for various games including The Divine Comedy, Devil May Cry and has even been the inspiration behind various summons in the Final Fantasy series, as well as various incarnations of Dante's Inferno. 

The original Dante's Inferno game was a 1986 adventure game on the Commodore 64 where you work your way through mazes representing each layer of hell encountering beasts, landscapes and characters based on the ones described in the poem. While it's not quite as pretty as the 2010 Dante's Inferno, it's a surprisingly good representation of Dante's work.

I could of course also mention Telltale's The Walking Dead game series, the various iterations of Game Of Thrones or the multiple Harry Potter games but I feel those were only adapted into games due to the success of their respective TV shows and films.

Here are some honourable mentions that I had neither the time nor the word count to write about including:

  • The Dark Eye which explores three Edgar Allan Poe stories and features voice acting from author William S. Burroughs
  • The Dynasty Warriors series, based upon an earlier game, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which is actually based on the historical text of the same name by Luo Guanzhong)
  • Parasite Eve which is based on a novel of the same name written by a Japanese pharmacologist, Hideki Sena
  • The original Assassin's Creed game was inspired by the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol (as well as being based on various historical fictions and conspiracy theories) 
  • The 1995 point-and-click Discworld adventure game based on Terry Pratchett's novel series of the same name.
  • And finally, BioShock which is borrows themes and is inspired heavily by author Ayn Rand.  

Let me know which book inspired games you've enjoyed (or haven't!) in the comments section below.

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