Words, Words, Words: Looking to Lit for Better Games

“Why don’t you put that down and read a book?”

It’s a phrase that most gamers hear at least once in their lives. Usually as a child, at home and about half way through a marathon session of whatever the latest release was back then.

It’s also advice that gamers, and game developers in particular, may want to take.

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While we are used to games based on movies, comics and even fast food chains (remember Sneak King?), books, which have the potential to be a great source material for the next generation of videogames, are largely overlooked.

Last week developer CD Projekt RED announced The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third installment of its popular RPG series. Aside from the game’s visuals, much of what made the franchises’ last two games, The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, unique was the complex and engrossing world the they were set in. As monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, the player is thust into a world seeped in history and political intrigue. Against that setting, you interact with sweeping cast of characters with complicated motivations and personalities. It is a world that feels alive. A living breathing entity, in which Geralt/the player is just one small part of the bigger story of the world itself. It’s that kind of vivid, intricate backdrop that sets the Witcher games apart from its other RPG peers.
Much of the credit for world should be laid at the feet of the game’s source material, a series of novels by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

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Read through Sapkowski’s work, and it’s clear that CD Projekt RED had a deep pool of lore, background, and characterization to draw from. They took the universe created by the autor and fit their game within the larger context of that world.

Metro 2033 is yet another example of just how effective books can be as a source material for games. Based on the novel of the same name by Russian writer Dmitry A. Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 takes palce in a post apocalyptic future where surviors live underground in subway tunnels, consantly fending off hunger, despair and hideous monsters that lurk in the darkness beyond their makeshift cities.

Similar to the Witcher series, developers 4A Games used the stark, haunting world Glukhovsky created in the 200 plus pages of his novel to add tone and character to what could have been a generic first person shooter. What they ended up with was a unique, tense FPS with survival horror elements that perfectly captures the tense, dark mood of the source material.

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These are just a few examples of the untapped potential literature has in the videogame industry. Unlike movies, which usualy have only a fraction of their two or three hour run time to establish a setting, plot and characters, books allow authors to take their time to create complex worlds and intersting characters much more thoroughly than movies ever could. It’s these traits that make literature a potential gold mine of material for game developers.

Imagine getting the chance to play a game based on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series: exploring the bizarre crumbling world full of tains with murderous AI, giant cyborg bears and evil wizards as gunslinger Roland Deschain. Imagine scavenging desperately in the ash coverd ruins of civization for food and water while protecting you young son from roving bands of cannibals in a game based on Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.

What if a game gave you the chance step onto a mid-19th century whaling vessel with the obsessed captain Ahab as Ishmael the in search of the White Wale, Moby Dick, or search for the American Dream while coping with mind-blowing hallucinations in HD in a game based on Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas”? Books not only offer stellar souce material for well established genres, but can provide a chance to push games into new thematic territory.

Videogames are evolving as a medium. Gamers are are maturing and are looking for a deeper, more meaningful experience. They are looking beyond graphics to the heart and soul of games, and are asking for a higher level of storytelling, something that can be found in the pages of great books past and present.

The possibilities are endless, and I hope that more devopers take note of what CD Projeckt RED, 4A Games and have done and consider trading in their movie tickets in for a library card.

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4 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words: Looking to Lit for Better Games

  1. Agreed! I’m also quite surprised not more authors of fiction feel tempted to write game manuscripts, considering how the could explore their topics and their characters from different angles if they did.

  2. Agreed. I’d love to see more developers bringing in novelists to work on games. I think they have a different way of thinking about plot and narrative than say, a screen writer. I think they would bring a lot of interesting and innovative ideas to the table.

  3. Eleanor Lamb says:

    eh… I did play games based on Ramond E. Feist’s works back in the day and they just weren’t very good, see also Dante’s Inferno (still waiting for purgatory and paradiso but they’d make less exiting games.. even though Inferno is pretty bland when it comes down to it (both the game and the book that is) and the game is ‘loosely’ based on the book in the same way Oddyssey of the West was ‘loosely’ based on Journey to the West) also all the Lovecraft based games have been shit but maybe, as the article suggests, an author has input (although that would dash my hopes of a count of monte cristo game)

  4. Good point. I think what it really comes down to is how committed the people who make the game are to the source material. Like any other game, it really shows when the developers truly care about the product they are making. Even the best movies/books/ideas can be ruined by a lazy game studio *cough* Aliens: Colonial Marines *cough*

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