Video games aren’t usually associated with books—games have yet to reach literature’s level of sophistication in storytelling, and we all know books are for uncoordinated nerds who can’t get kill streaks in Halo. But the two mediums are sometimes combined, and not just into dozens of mediocre Lord of the Rings games. Some very fun and important games have been inspired by the written word, such as…
10. Shadow Complex
Orson Scott Card is famous for his classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game, but more recently he wrote a book called Empire. It’s about a second American Civil War between increasingly radical right and left wings—think of it as Fox News viewers going to war against MSNBC fans. It’s an interesting idea, although its execution falls flat. But it did inspire Shadow Complex, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2009, which runs parallel to Empire’s plot.
Shadow Complex is clearly inspired by the Metroid style gameplay of “blow up everything in sight, then backtrack so you can blow up some more stuff with the cool new weapons you picked up.” It’s immensely fun, featuring a mixture of fast-paced shooting and addictive exploration.
Its connections to Empire are tenuous—if you hadn’t heard of the book beforehand you probably wouldn’t even realise there were connections. And since Orson Scott Card has dropped off the mainstream radar, making a game inspired by one of his weaker novels was an odd decision. But it paid off—Shadow Complex’s literary roots may not be remarkable, but we still have them to thank for one of the best action games in recent memory.
9. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is inspired by the 1970s Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic¸ a loose film adaptation called Stalker, and the book based on the film based on the book, also called Stalker. You got all that?
Set in and around Chernobyl after a fictional second meltdown, players control an amnesiac stalker, a person who explores and scavenges the radiation infested wasteland. Along the way you’ll encounter mutated monsters, anomalous areas that defy the laws of physics, and plenty of good old-fashioned gunfights.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. drops most of the themes and ideas that led to the novel being heavily censored by Soviet authorities, but it does a remarkable job of capturing the bleak, depressing and often scary landscape—and an equally good job of making travelling through it feel grimly realistic. It’s one of the most memorable settings you’ll find in a video game, book or movie.
8. The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time is a fantasy series of over a dozen long and often tedious novels, written by Robert Jordan. Naturally, it made perfect sense to adapt the franchise into an action-packed first person shooter.
The Wheel of Time didn’t get much attention when it was released, both because it was competing against the successful Unreal and Quake series, and because its source material is only popular amongst the geekiest of geeks. But don’t let its obscurity fool you—this is a fine game. It takes advantage of its fantasy setting, replacing guns with a complex spell system and letting players use those spells to blast monsters in locations that, for the time, were some of the finest displays of architecture in gaming. And it tells a decent story to boot.
If you’re a fan of the series you’ll appreciate the game’s attention to detail, and if you’re not a fan you’ll appreciate the fact that you can shoot chain lightning at bad guys. What’s not to like?
7. Parasite Eve
Parasite Eve is a beloved Japanese role playing game set in New York City about a woman who makes people spontaneously combust if they get too close to her. This freak of nature occurred after an experiment to cure cancer went wrong (you know you suck as a scientist when your attempt to cure cancer makes people explode), and it’s up to the player to stop this madwoman before she gives birth to a terrible monster. It’s a strange game.
Parasite Eve was made by SquareSoft, who are famous for their Final Fantasy series. Their sudden shift from swords and sorcery to modern biological drama was inspired by a book of the same name, a Japanese horror/sci-fi novel written by a pharmacologist (so it totally has a scientific basis). It’s gory, scary and often perverted (and footnoted), kind of like a Japanese Michael Crichton. And since it was translated to English in 2007, you too can read one of the weirdest, most over the top horror novels out there.
6. Metro 2033
Metro 2033 is set in post-apocalyptic Russia, where atomic war has forced survivors into the subway tunnels. The main character must defend his home station from a mysterious threat, while at the same time dealing with communists, Fourth Reich Nazis and mutants.
The story was first told online in 2002, where readers were encouraged to add to the universe with artwork and their own tales. A cult hit in Russia, it was published in book format and translated to English in 2005. The novel is both a sci-fi adventure and a commentary on modern Russian society, which is presumably plagued by radioactive freaks and future Nazis.
The game adaptation came out in 2010 and is similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in that, while the plot is nothing to write home about, the atmosphere is simply fantastic. Players shoot, sneak and occasionally run in blind terror through a creepy, engrossing world of metro stations. It’s a faithful take on an interesting literary project, one which has expanded into a second novel, with a second game and movie in the pipeline.
You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland, probably through the Disney movie but maybe the books if you had more literate parents. If as a child you said to yourself, “Alice in Wonderland is neat and all, but it would be better if Alice whipped out a knife and stabbed everybody,” then Alice is the game for you.
Alice (technically American McGee’s Alice if you’re a fan of egocentric, oddly named video game developers) is about Alice after she went insane when her family was killed in a house fire, turning Wonderland into a place warped beyond recognition by her broken mind. It’s uh… a little bit darker than the books.
It’s also one of the most visually creative games you’ll ever play—the new, macabre Wonderland is a horribly fascinating place. Unfortunately the gameplay, which largely consists of running around and smacking enemies, isn’t quite as compelling; but it’s such a twisted take on a childhood classic that you can’t help but be enthralled by it anyway.
4. The Witcher
A Witcher, besides being someone who witches, is a cult hit series of short stories and novels. They’ve been published in their native Poland since the early 90s, but were only translated into English in 2007. The role playing game came out the same year, introducing the franchise to the western world.
What’s The Witcher about? Slaying monsters, making difficult moral decisions and sleeping around, mostly. You play as a witcher named Geralt, a person raised from birth to travel the world and kill dangerous beasts.
Monster slaying is fun, but the game’s greatest draw is the decisions you make—unlike the moral choices in most games, The Witcher’s aren’t clear-cut. The consequences of selecting between various shades of grey are rarely made obvious, a theme carried over from the books. It’s that extra level of moral complexity that makes The Witcher worth playing. Also, you can collect naughty postcards featuring pictures of the women Geralt sleeps with. Now that’s literature!
3. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Enslaved is based on Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The book, set in mythological times, is about the pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk and his followers to India.
So obviously there were some changes, as the tale of a monk on a journey to enlightenment doesn’t translate into exciting gameplay. The main difference is that Enslaved is set 150 years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic world full of killer robots.
It’s a pretty serious change, but you can still see the core inspiration in Enslaved’s characters. Their names, traits and relationship to each other are similar to those of the novel’s heroes, and those familiar with the book will catch additional references to the work.
Connecting a post-apocalyptic action game to a 16th century novel may sound strange, but it worked—Enslaved was acclaimed for its excellent storytelling. Modernising the classic was a great idea, because with all due respect to one of the most important works of art in Chinese history, the killer robot fighting really spiced things up.
2. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is based on Harlan Ellison’s famous story of the same name about a supercomputer, AM, that annihilates the human race in a nuclear holocaust and tortures the five survivors into insanity. The game adaptation is a point and click adventure—you control each of the five survivors in turn as AM puts them through a trial that reflects their greatest flaws.
In each scenario you’re given the ability to do both good and evil—take the high road and you’ll have a better chance of destroying AM in the climax. But act immorally and, well… the game’s title should make it pretty clear what kind of ending you’ll get.
The game has its shortcomings, including some illogical puzzles and ridiculous overacting by Harlan Ellison as AM. But it’s a rare game that tackles serious subjects like rape and genocide with the respect they deserve, and the adventure is both thought provoking and genuinely unsettling.
1. Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty
Dune, the classic science fiction novel about the decay of a mighty space empire, a rare drug that turns men into supermen, and gigantic worms, has received numerous video game adaptations. Dune II was the second in a series of strategy games, but it’s more than just another take on the franchise—it’s one of the most important titles in gaming history.
Okay, so you can tell from the video that Dune II hasn’t aged well—but its influence can’t be overstated. Dune II is a real time strategy game, and while not the first of its kind it laid down many of the conventions gamers know today. StarCraft, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires… these beloved franchises are all based on ideas that Dune II established.
It was also a pretty fun game. As for its literary influence, Dune II did a fine job of capturing the feel of the Dune universe. The storytelling isn’t exactly on par with the novel, but the source material was put to good use. Dune II may not be the greatest game based on a book, but it’s certainly the most important.