Let’s Start Adapting More Games From Books

Take a look! It’s in a book! On Nintendooooooo…



I’m worried about the Wrinkle in Time movie. Not because I think it looks bad; I try to withhold judgment on these things, and besides, so far I think it looks pretty neat. No, I’m worried about A Wrinkle in Time because I grew up with the book, and the only adaptation attempt this particular childhood favorite of mine ever got was a 2003 straight-to-DVD movie that was…well, about what it sounds like. I’m not saying it ruins the thing I like, but if the thing I like is getting reimagined, it would be nice if the reimagination wasn’t lobotomized.

Along the way of my worrying, I started to wonder if A Wrinkle in Time, and the series that branches out from its impossible mind, could be good fare for a point-and-click adventure game. I have no idea if it actually would, but that in turn caused me to reflect on something odd about video games. So rarely do we get any that are directly based on non-visual things.

And really, if we’re to start adapting anything into video game form more often, it should be books.


Post-licensing age



There was an era – and yes, truly a lengthy one at that – wherein adaptation ran thick in video games. It didn’t  often come from books, then, but from movies. We were all there once. You go out and see a movie as a kid and just can’t get enough. Then you find out there’s a video game, and you just have to play it, certain that you’ll get the same fireburst of fun you got from the movie in question. You usually don’t. I remember being 10 when the original Incredibles came out. I begged my mom for the game, but seeing as I didn’t have any current-generation home consoles at the time, I wound up with the Game Boy Advance version. Now don’t get me wrong, the GBA Incredibles game is actually a reasonably competent peat-em-up. But it was hardly what I had imagined. I wanted to play exactly what I had seen. I wanted to fight a weird spider robot on a tropical island, and…whatever else happens in that movie. Withhold secrets from my wife? I don’t know, it’s been a minute.

Point being, there have been movie-to-game adaptations that have stuck close to the source material but been mediocre. Then you have surprise classics like Spider-man 2, which deviates from the film but was a surprise standout game of its entire generation. Movies leave less to the imagination than a book does, so moves away from the source feel more unilaterally “right” or “wrong.” Most people love the Spider-man 2 video game, but there is laughably little of what is arguably Sam Raimi’s best Spider-Man film in that game. Play any of the Harry Potter games, and you’ll probably find yourself pretty quickly in the midst of some sort of sidequest, gathering potion ingredients, and distinctly not remember watching Daniel Radcliffe do that.

So with movie-based games, we have a good framework of where to go. If the medium leaves less to the imagination, that means less room for interpretation. With books, everything is interpretation.


The proof is in the pages



Despite how hand-in-hand games and cinema have historically been, there are plenty of examples of games drawing from books, dating back to older PC titles. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a great early example, mixing a classic sci-fi/horror short story with the capabilities of 1995 adventure games. Edgar Allen Poe compilation The Dark Eye was similar, imagining classic horror stories through a lens of claymation characters over pre-rendered graphics. Early examples like these were unafraid to take the eerieness into their own hands.

The Witcher games are perhaps the best modern example. The series of games requires no knowledge of the books. Good thing, too, as nobody had heard of them when the first game made its way west in 2008. They all take place after the books and play around with existing characters and locations in ways new and refreshing to both the developers and those who knew the books.

Dante’s Inferno is another interesting example. The original Inferno describes the circles of hell at length, but the artistic rendering of those rings into game form is very different when played then when read. It’s one thing to read about an encounter with Satan, and quite another to fight him as his huge cock swings about willy-nilly.

All of these examples take the freedom to go outward from their source material in ways a game based on a movie might be more likely to get slammed for. I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream has multiple endings. The original story, of course, does not. The Witcher games over time realize Geralt of Rivia in some ways different to who he is in the original novels. Spec Ops: The Line weaves one of the most interesting psychological perspectives in gaming by taking Heart of Darkness and turning it on its head. When adapting from a book, it’s seen as more permissible to elaborate. To make an existing story ones own, on the part of the person doing the adapting. That’s because the act of adapting is also an act of adding.


Adding dimensions, not removing


I’m a big fan of Fight Club as a movie, but I haven’t read the original book. If and when I decide to someday, I’m sure I’ll find things that were changed in translation from Chuck Palahniuk’s pages to David Fincher’s film. More importantly, I’m sure I’ll also find things left undefined that are more clearly defined in something with a visual component.

When you’re reading a book, you’re often given the chance to color things in. Maybe a street is described by the cracks in its terrain. By the architecture of its buildings. Or by the kinds of clothes people wear. No matter what description you get, the image you’ll create in your mind is bound to be at least a bit different than in someone else’s. Maybe it’s a cloudier day, or maybe fewer people are wearing hats. Maybe something is more cartoonish, something else more realist.

The thing about books is that they sit open, begging to be drawn upon and interpreted. Books leave everything to the imagination. Plenty of the best films of all time have taken advantage of that. Plenty more games can, too.

So lets start looking more often to books, then. You’d be surprised at some games that have their basis in secondhand bookstore pages. Adapting a book into something else is a form of secondhand collaboration. It’s a kind of storytelling evolution that games seem in a good place to let into their lives. So it’s time to do some reading.

And please, just let this Wrinkle in Time movie not suck eggs.

Jay Petrequin started writing at HeyPoorPlayer in the summer of 2012, but first got his start writing for It's Super Effective, a Pokemon podcast that happened to be a reflection of two of his biggest interests: pocket monsters, and making people listen to him say things.

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