Why Video Games Should Come From Books


Posted August 26, 2011 - By Jonathan Deesing

Why Video Games Should Come From Books

It’s no secret that video games and movies have had a tumultuous relationship. It’s a negligent relationship, really. While one forgets birthdays and only discusses prior flings, the other often goes out on benders and forgets they’re even dating. And like any bad relationship, someone needs to call it quits before both sides suffer irreparable damage.

Movies rarely make good video games – they’re too short. The length of a movie usually results in a game chock full of filler levels that either don’t make sense or feel uninspired and obligatory. Further, movies rarely contain subject matter that lends itself to an eight-hour game. Even the most action packed Michael Bay films only contain at most a little over an hour of material that would fit in a game. No one wants to play Shia LeBeouf as he banters with his mother about jerking off. At least, I hope they don't.

The other member of our unhappy couple, video game movies, is no saint either. Like an inattentive boyfriend who spends all day watching SportsCenter and considers drive thru at McDonalds a date, video game movies have only ever gone through the motions. It doesn’t help that they have been repeatedly bullied and abused by Uwe Boll to the point that any competent actor or director will avoid a video game film like the plague.

Either way, the subject material is often too much to work with. Just like the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy took 50 years to find a halfway decent film adaptation, video games are rarely under ten hours long and cutting that into a two-hour film is a tall order. Beyond the length, the cost of creating an authentic video game world is often cited as a reason for killing high profile projects like the Halo and BioShock movies.

Why Video Games Should Come From Books

But there’s no need to worry. There is one source material that is almost infinitely exploitable: books. Like I’ve said before, many video games fit into book form seamlessly. The flip side of the coin, games made from books, is territory shamefully underexplored.

Books offer a much larger experience, entirely more malleable and open to interpretation than movies. Because any book that takes two and a half hours to read would not generally be considered a “book,” they almost always contain more source material to work with than films. Books are so full rich detail that is often ignored by movies, but would definitely be welcomed by video game developers. Airport novels typically offer detail down to the make and model the main character is driving. It’s like having a storyboard for a video game outlined for you.

As an unrepentant dork, I spend the entire time I read a book trying to sculpt it into a video game. To be perfectly honest, most books would not make a good video game. However, there are a select few that would be a shame to resign to the dusty prison of a bookshelf. Some authors seem to write novel after novel that would fit in the paradigm of a video game. Lee Child, Clive Cussler (and his myriad coauthors), and Tom Clancy have all written dozens of novels screaming for video game adaptations.

Other books, those that would never be considered for film adaptations, could make for some seriously impressive video games. Just think about it – a generation of video games springing from the pages of beloved masterpieces. These games would offer unique story-driven games more along the lines of Catherine and LA Noire than Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto. I recognize that video games using books as source material would be foreign territory for most gamers, but I for one would welcome it. Simply thinking about the variety of gameplay types, characters, and entire worlds that books could offer video games is a bit overwhelming.

Why Video Games Should Come From Books

Converting books into video games isn’t a far cry from what we have already seen. BioShock, the quintessentially over analyzed game, sprang partially from the pages of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Ken Levine has often discussed molding Rand’s epic into something gamers could relate to. I’m under no dissolutions that crafting a successful video game out of a novel would be easy, but it is by no means impossible. Especially with Levine’s strategy of using the concept of a book to devise a universe for a game, instead of simply adapting the entire book.

I suppose I should present this argument with a large disclaimer – letting narrative dominate a game is ill-advised in almost every case. Unless the game’s story is written by God himself, it is not good enough to make people forget they’re playing a video game and therefore need to enjoy the actual gameplay. In most cases, books converted into video games will still need a vast amount of tinkering to result in a product pleasing to the masses. The gameplay experience always comes first, and while appropriate attention should be paid to the source material, if developers were to get carried away with their adaptations of books without developing a proper game, the results would be undoubtedly disastrous.

When movies are converted into video games, fans expect a religious attention be paid to character portrayal, storylines and dialog. However, books are much more open to interpretation. Characters can be manipulated to better fit in a game and even story structure can be altered slightly if necessary. As we’ve seen in countless movie adaptations of books, fans are less concerned about accuracy as they are about how attractive the lead actor is. Conversely, a character from a book can take on a depiction with sketch artist-like accuracy in a video game. So Jack Ryan might actually look like Jack Ryan in a video game, not that guy from Gigli.

Why Video Games Should Come From Books

Perhaps someday Hollywood and video games will go their separate ways. No drama, no more blathering from Roger Ebert, no more Uwe Boll, just an amicable separation. In this void, maybe books could offer some source material to studios looking for a pre-written game. There are far more good books than there are good movies, so this is really the logical choice. The best part I suppose would be waking up in a world in which Marky Mark was not cast to play Nathan Drake.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.


Video game book covers @ Olly Moss. Check out some of his amazing work


Why Video Games Should Come From Books


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