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in a different order, or with a slightly different outcome, but no game is entirely devoid of a cohesive plot, the outdated ramblings of Roger Ebert aside.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 - 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 - Nico 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.
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.
Of course, some books just shouldn’t be adapted - and for good reason. However, there are plenty of books that could offer an engaging driving force for terrific gameplay.
What follows is a list of four novels/series that would make amazing games. That’s not to say that all of these books are high art, or literary masterpieces (or that, with the wrong developer, they couldn't be a total mess) - but the stories are character-centric and could easily make the transition to interactive entertainment.
The Deathgate Cycle - By Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The Deathgate Cycle is a post-apocalyptic fantasy series. The main conflict is between two powerful races, the Sartan and the Patryn - which branched off from humanity following a nuclear holocaust. In order to end the conflict, the Sartan sundered the earth into four elemental worlds and created a fifth world called the Labyrinth in which they imprisoned the Patryn. After several millennia the Patryn are stronger than ever and have escaped from their prison only to discover the four worlds in chaos and the Sartan nowhere to be found. The Lord of the Patryns sends his most trusted servant, Haplo, on a mission to discover just what exactly went wrong and to serve as a harbinger of his lord’s ambition to rule the universe.
Why it Would Make a Great Game
Okay, so it’s a seven book series, but if you condense it into a game it would be about the perfect length. The narrative would allow for diverse play with several different characters in incredibly varied environments, as well varying gameplay tactics. Melee combat, stealth, puzzle-solving, and adventure elements could easily be woven throughout the length of the game. Most importantly, Haplo is a different person at the end of the story than the beginning, and he takes his time getting there - allowing for a character that is fundamentally and realistically different by the end of the story. As an added feature, the Sartan and Patryn use rune magic, which is activated by drawing symbols in the air. In the right hands, this could be the killer app that future Kinect and Move owners have been clamoring for.
A Drink Before the War, Darkness Take My Hand - Dennis LeHane
The first two books in the Kenzie-Gennaro modern-noir thrillers are everything that detective novels should be. Combining suspense, thrills, intense action sequences, clever dialogue, and brilliant detective work, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on some of Boston’s most dangerous child molesters, thugs for hire, and straight-up serial killers.
Why it Would Make a Great Game
Alright, again, this is more than one novel, but combining the first two books into one game would offer gamers two wildly different cases that deal with some seriously twisted subject matter. Modeling a title after downtown Boston would be amazing and this game would allow for a lot of play variety - from combat to puzzle-solving to driving. Plus, it would be nice to have a detective game that actually has a decent noir-ish script populated with strong characters, unlike the less-than-believable Heavy Rain. Any sex scenes in a Kenzie-Gennaro game wouldn’t be forced and they actually go after scary bad guys, not losers who drown little boys in rainwater. The serial killer in Darkness Take My Hand? He crucifies people. Exactly.
The Mistborn Trilogy - Brandon Sanderson
In Brandon Sanderson’s superb Mistborn trilogy, the world is ruled by an enigmatic and immortal emperor known simply as the Lord Ruler. Oppressive and tyrannical, the Lord Ruler has crushed every rebellion formed against him . . . until now. When Vin, a 16-year-old thief discovers that she is Mistborn, a person that can “burn” ingested metal particles to gain special abilities, she joins up with a revolutionary named Kelsier and his ragtag group of followers in a bid to pull the greatest con in the history of their world - and destroy the Lord Ruler once and for all.
Why it Would Make a Great Game
In some ways, Mistborn seems like it could have been written for a video game. The magic system, where ingesting different metals grants different powers (like increased awareness, telekinesis, and even the ability to see a few seconds into the future), would be a ton of fun to play around with and could present several layers to combat, puzzles, as well as traveling in the world. The cast of characters is unconventional and fresh, the story is clearly planned, set-ups and pay-offs are surprisingly rewarding- and the best part? Spoiler alert - it's somewhat of a tragedy. Characters that you love often die and nothing is really what you think.
Cold Fire - Dean Koontz
The Dean Koontznovel Cold Fire revolves around the life of Jim Ironheart, a recently retired teacher who believes that God is sending him on missions to save the lives of ambiguous but important people. After receiving a prompting, Jim drops whatever he happens to be doing at the time and rushes off to fulfill his mission, often arriving in the nick of time with no clear idea as to what will be expected of him. At the beginning of the novel he saves a little boy from being hit by a bus, prevents a man from shooting his wife, and chases down two child molesters/kidnappers on a motorcycle in the desert. A chance encounter with a ruthlessly inquisitive reporter makes Jim question exactly who or what is sending him on the missions, and the answer could either set Jim free - or destroy him completely.
Why it Would Make a Great Game
If you wanted to make one of the greatest sandbox games of all time, Cold Fire wouldn’t be a bad script to follow. Instead of the cookie-cutter black or white morality of contemporary games, a game based on Cold Fire could make the player choose between two equally good choices that would be impossible to fulfill simultaneously. You have fifteen minutes to either stop a runaway bus full of school children or save a family of five from a house fire.
Who do you save?
Neither is a bad choice, but doing both is impossible. The game could also throw different missions at you based on the kinds of missions you tend to accept. Maybe you like non-violent missions that involve helping land a plane after the pilots have been incapacitated, or spelunking in a cave to rescue a stranded hiker. On the other hand, you could take down shooters at a school or prevent an armed robbery at a bank. The type and scope of missions are basically limitless and the potential for variety is staggering. The choices that the player makes and the types of missions they accept could also contribute to how your character develops and grows - as well as how the game world reacts to them.
While this isn’t a complete list of every book that could make the jump to a compelling game, it’s a solid starting point for adaptations that make sense - and wouldn’t have to stray too far from the subject matter to be enjoyable. Was that a dig at Dante’s Inferno? Maybe.
The point is that while games have come a long way, most of the storytelling is either needlessly complex and borderline unintelligible or simplistic to the point of nonsensical, and you can forget about solid, realistic characters.
Is adaptation really the way to go? Well, maybe you should go ask the Academy.