Literary Characters: 4 Novels That Would Make Great Games

Aug 10, 2010 by  

four novels that would make great games

It’s no secret that most video game developers haven’t quite figured out how to successfully combine solid gameplay with a riveting narrative. To be perfectly fair, there are a million reasons for this.

For example, some people will say that gaming, as a medium, is still in its infancy – which is true. Others have been known to opine that a complex narrative might possibly get in the way of the one thing that matters most in a game: gameplay. Again, not an untrue statement. And let’s not forget that gaming is an amalgamation and an evolution of all the art forms that preceded it. Making a video game in this day and age is an extremely complex task that involves painstaking attention to art style, music composition, color palettes, acting, directing, and convoluted computer code that can adapt to a variety of circumstances as well as player-controlled actions.  On top of it all is the crucial gameplay factor, which more than anything, allows the artists behind the game to subtly control the experience – while giving the player the illusion of being in charge. It’s not a simple job.

At the end of the day, it’s easier (and better, really) to half-ass the story than anything else.  How many times have you played a game where the narrative boils down to getting the magical item to the mythical place in order to defeat the monstrous thing?  Even fairly open-ended games like Oblivion or Grand Theft Auto have only two basic mission types: find something or kill something. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, Mass Effect comes to mind, and it would be foolish to say that every game needs a compelling story (I’m looking at you, Mario).  But even games with a great plot are missing the one thing that could elevate gaming to a whole new sphere as a storytelling medium – and that one thing is character development.

Now don’t get me wrong, weaving character development into a medium that has become more and more enamored with open-ended, player-controlled choice is not an easy task.  But let’s be brutally frank here, all games, at their core, are linear experiences. Some allow you to do things in a different order, or with a slightly different outcome, but no game is entirely devoid of a cohesive plot, the outdated ramblings of Roger Ebert aside.

As of right now, there are three approaches to character development in games and while some are superior to others, not one of them is an entirely complete representation.

the un-evolved hero

The Un-evolved Hero – Mario, Kratos and Master Chief are examples of un-evolved heroes.  Mario is just your typical Italian plumber tasked with rescuing a princess.  Kratos is just a really pissed-off albino dude with a suicidal streak.  Master Chief is just the strong, silent type who’s really good at killing aliens.  These three are the means to an end and their job is to not change.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Unapologetically one-dimensional, Mario, Kratos and Master Chief are really just supposed to move gamers from one set-piece to the next, and they do an admirable job of that.  But that’s all they do and anyone claiming that Mario Galaxy, God of War or Halo has a deep, character-driven story needs to catch up on their freshman lit reading list.

the deceptive hero

The Deceptive HeroNico Bellic, Rico Rodriguez and John Marston are examples of deceptive heroes.  The deceptive hero arises when a character with apparent motivations is given free reign to do whatever the player wants.  The result is an inconsistent mess, at least as far as that character is concerned.

How many times does Nico talk mournfully of his past violence and desire to leave it behind, only to go on a cop-killing rampage or even murder the man that cheated with his cousin’s girlfriend? Is the island-nation of Panau really suffering more under the rule of “Baby” Panay as it is under Rico’s wanton grappling-hook-impaling and general destruction?  Can John Marston be justified in slaughtering scores of Mexican freedom fighters only to switch sides as it benefits him?  Instead of the story reacting to the character, deceptive heroes react to the story, and it shows.

The Illusive Hero – Commander Shepard, Demon’s Souls Dude and Jack from BioShock are all illusive heroes.  Illusive heroes seem to be saddled with a blend of both apparent motivations and player control.  The same weaknesses present themselves here as with the deceptive hero, though they are generally curtailed.  If you’ve been playing most of the game as a nice Shepard, some cruel acts will be beyond your reach; they don’t make sense with the hero you’ve heretofore created.  Shepard is almost an example of a developed hero – though he’s not entirely there.

Demon’s Souls Dude is allowed only a certain amount of freedom and is left mostly anonymous, and for good reason.  Players are allowed to play him/her as they see fit.  Is (s)he a stealthy sniper or a reckless berserker?  You decide.

Jack may be the closest to a complete hero that we have in gaming, but that’s really only due to the narrative’s manipulation of emotion and motivation.  The big reveal with Ryan is a commentary on gaming structure, more than anything else, and the subsequent battle with Fontaine feels right because you, the player, wants to nail that jerk to the wall.  By using general anonymity and limiting choices, the illusive hero uses the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps of motivation.  It’s the best out of the three, but it’s still not an ideal set-up for a developed character.

demons souls

So how do we create games with evolving, changing, real protagonists?  Well, you’ve got to do a couple of things that may not even be possible at this point in time.  First of all, in a game with a linear story, game-makers have to limit the choices available to players while hiding the fact that’s what they’re doing.  In a sandbox game, developers will have to borrow from Bioware’s playbook and make sure that behavior has consequences.  The game world has to react to the character as much as the character reacts to the world.  Easier said than done.

Second, choice needs to be more and more limited as the game progresses, but not in a way that’s restrictive.  For example, in your life right now, you could drive to Ohio tomorrow but that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Game worlds need to operate in the same way. Third, the plot of a character-centered game should be subservient to the title’s protagonist. Fourth, make more tragedies, almost no one actually learns from their mistakes. Fifth, show, don’t tell.  I want to see how the world changes in response to my character’s choices.

The points listed above are adapted literary and theatrical devices that could change the way that games tell stories. Lastly, people that write games should be writers first and gamers second.  Most games have terrible stories and, in all honesty, most books would probably make terrible games. Nobody wants to play War and Peace or Catch-22, but when over half of the Academy Awards for Best Picture have been given to films based on adapted screenplays, there’s definitely an argument to be made for quality adaptations.

Continue reading to check out our choices of four novels that would make great games…

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9 Comments

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  1. Hey guys, I’ve got a great idea.

    You know Dante’s Divine Comedy? That would make a SICK game.

  2. A Dennis LeHane game? Awesome idea. Somebody make that, now.

  3. Love the idea of loaded moral choices without a clear good or evil decision, as much as they tear me up when playing a game. And I really hope that Heavy Rain has opened up the door for more Noir-Detective games.

  4. I think you could have a fantastic gameplay experience with Fred Saberhagen’s “Swords” books: mythology, fantasy, dystopian future, mystery…Good grief–the possibilities are literally ENDLESS!

  5. Actually, now that I think about it a lot of Koontz’s books could make rad games. Lightning, Phantoms, Midnight, Dark River of the Heart, those could all make amazing games!

  6. I was pleased to see Cold Fire on this short list. Dean Koontz is my favorite author, and I’ve thought for a long time now that many of his stories would lend themselves well to games. Intensity, the character of Odd Thomas and the world he lives in, the Frankenstein series, and many others would make terrific and exciting games.
    Another character/world that would be fun would be Jack from the repairman Jack series by F. Paul Wilson. Tons of possibilities for “fix-it” side missions, stealth, hand-to-hand and weapons combat. Once you add in the Other and all the supernatural stuff you could have a terrific game. (and battling an enraged Rakosh would be freakin’ intense).
    Sherlock Holmes-really, just Sherlock Holmes in many of his classic tales. So many possibilities there.
    Stephen King. ’nuff said there.
    The world of Shannara.
    Tad Williams’ Otherland series.
    Sitting here, looking around at my bookshelves, and my modest collection of some 800+ books, many would make great games, be they open world rpg, action, adventure, crime drama, survival horor. The list could go on and on. The literary world has a lot of potential when brought to the gaming table.

    • Damn, those are some awesome ideas. I’d especially like to see Tad Williams’ Otherland in a game. :D

  7. Ok, first my (mild) objection, then my ideas for books that would make good games.

    The objection is that the game needs to *not* frustrate me in a bad way. For example, let’s say at one poin in a book the character leaps across a crevice and grabs onto the ledge, hangs by his fingernails then climbs up (an author would write it in a less sucky way, obviously). Exciting stuff yes? But how would we represent this in a game? With a pixel-precision jump perhaps? So you attempt the jump, miss then go back to the last checkpoint, and all you can do now is retry the jump. At some point you’ll either make the jump or give up and (possibly) not ever want to play the game again.

    Open world games at least give you the option of doing something else within the game for a while, even if that something else doesn’t always make sense in the story. The point is to keep you playing the game and eventually you’ll be ready to retry the jump again. I love a good story, but where that story results in stuff that is just not good to play (which you kind of elude to in your post I guess) the overall effect can be harmful.

    Of course, in the example I mention, one way to do it would be to have an Assassin’s Creed-style auto-grab system, with a change in camera angle to emphasise that the jump was a close thing.

    Anyway, my books that would make cool games:

    Terminal World by Alistair Reynolds
    The Painted Man by Peter Brett
    Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
    The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
    +1 for Otherland by Tad Williams. I’d also probably say the Shadowmarch trilogy and War of the Flowers by the same author

    There’s also a few books by Karl Schroeder – his Virga novels, particularly following Hayden Griffin

  8. Hi, constantly i used to check website posts here early in the daylight, as i love to find out more
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