Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Video Games and Literature

Have you read The Little Prince? I'm sure we're all familiar. Kid lives on a planet (B612) with a half-a-house, a Rose Girl, and three volcanoes (one extinct). And that's all. The space geese fly him up to where comets are coming by and he snatches one with a butterfly net and whizzes off other worlds. I feel like he does, a lot of the time, trapped on that tiny microcosm of a planet, waiting for the right chunk of rock to take me someplace different. Except, for this traveler, the worlds exist in my head. I guess they all exist in our heads, and we strive to create these worlds for ourselves. We dream them every night, worlds similar to our own, but more fantastic. If I could build the bookstores I've seen in my dreams, they would be truly amazing! It seems our society has become enamored with playing God, in our dreams, our writings, in the images that flash upon the wall, and, for people in my generation or younger, in our video games. We've created world after world to escape into, from the most primitive of pixelation, Commander Keen, for instance, to the epic worlds that Nintendo and the like have created. And I have gone into my fascination with The Legend of Zelda games before, and I curse Nintendo for putting the new games on a system where you actually have to move to enjoy the full effect of the game. I just want to press buttons. But I digress...

The most recent games I've been playing are Where the Wild Things Are, reviewed here. This video game is uniquely designed, for the book has no real plot, at least, not on the island. And so
the game designers had to look to their own imaginations, and Maurice Sendak and David Eggers' movie script, to develop this amazing piece of literary real estate. And with that, they did such a wonderful job. What a lot of the reviewers online don't get is that the game isn't really about hack 'n slash, killing enemies, or even winning the game. Instead, it's about the island itself, and the characters. It's jumping into a world where there are no chores, no going to work, no dealing with insane customers and co-workers. It's jumping into a world of forests, mountains, furry creatures that have problems, but not real ones. It is escapism into what Tolkien called the land of Faerie, the undeveloped potential that comes forth in our dreams and fantasies. It becomes the lands of Narnia, Fantasia, Middle-Earth, and Where the Wild Things Are, because each of those worlds existed inside of their creators. And how wonderful are each of the makers that they would share that land with us, to exist in for just a little while?

With each video game, the goal is to make a world out of that mold so that we can all exist inside of it, but also to make it entertaining. There must be evil as well as good, something to threaten the very peace that we yearn for inside those realms. A game about Transformers wouldn't be very exciting if there were no Decepticons to keep things lively, even as much as I don't like 1st person shooters, you have to have something to shoot at.

But back to literature.... children's picture books provide a grand opportunity for video game makers to do whatever they want with the world within the pages, as long as it fits into the mold the author originally intended. How marvelous would it be to take the illustrations of Colin Thompson and turn them into video games? They would be perfect for the "hidden object" genre, but I think it would be better to delve into the lands he created at the corners of our world. Seriously, everyone needs to pick up Searching for Atlantis and gander at it for a while.

Other picture books that would make great games.... Harold and the Purple Crayon would work well as a Wii game or for the other interactive systems. Let us create our own worlds with crayons, solve puzzles, overcome bad guys, go outside the lines for a time. The books of Graeme Base would also make interesting video games. He's already got an App for those that play with such things. .. Chris Van Allsburg's Jumanji isn't a stretch at all (as I'm sure that's already been done, but probably for older consoles...a new refresh would be better). One last illustrator that has picture books ripe for video game adaptation would be David Wiesner.  I am most familiar with his work Sector 7, which would make a wonderful racing game with a surreal feel to it.

 But plot lines (and more words) make for better guidelines when making a video game, so games like American McGee's Alice can draw off of the author's talent as well as the designers.  In Alice, the game is a sequel to the books by Lewis Carroll.  Alice is the only survivor of a horrific fire that destroys her house and family.  Then she is committed to a mental institution where she is drawn back into a twisted version of Wonderland, where the mangy Cheshire cat (with an earring now) teaches Alice to become a mean killing machine with the Vorpal Blade and a deck of cards.  The lean, but spectacular, graphics of the first game are now replaced in Alice: Madness Returns with a gorgeous recreation of Wonderland (using the updated Unreal engine which didn't exist when the original was made in 1997).  The background is filled with references to the literary work, although in often twisted ways. I have a feeling that, like WTWTA, critics are probably going to pan the ease of which the game is played, as well as the platform-ish characteristics, but those are what makes it fun.  Sometimes the difficulty of a game gets in the way of being totally immersed in the world.  A good balance turns the game from forgetful or nightmarish to totally engrossing.  Take a look at the Final Fantasy or Zelda games for examples.

Some other books that should be made into Video Games:

  • Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift. In what would be called The Further Adventures of, Gulliver can go to any of the worlds in Swift's imagination, complete with the references to the world of British Academia, the moronic state of politics and war, etc... and then go to other worlds as fits the twisted mind of the Irish Satirist. One only has to read "A Modest Proposal" to see how outrageous he was in pointing out the problems of his society. Bring in subtle pokes at today's world, and there's a great game for anyone, adults or children alike. I've found this work on several sites that talked about Literary Works as Video Games.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This one is already half done, with a French company having produced a CCG TV series with spectacular graphics and an engrossing plot that would make a great game for any age.
  • The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. This world parallels Alice's wonderland in magnificence and in plot, where a sequel or a spot on working of the original series (Baum made many books pertaining to Oz), would be amazing.  Especially with upcoming renditions of the work being made in theatres.  I suspect this will be coming in the not so distant future.
  •   I would love to see a video game made of Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts. That would be fun, to battle beings made up of data, words, thoughts... this would be a great first person shooter game in the vein of Bioshock.
  • Michael Ende wrote The Neverending Story, and while I would love to find the hardback book that looks just like the one in the movie (one of my favorites), I would want the video game to be based on the book instead.  The book is considerably different from the movie, with much more depth and wonders that would make for lots of playing time.  
  • Andrew came up with a good idea, and I've seen it on quite a few similar lists before, as well. Because video games don't have to be just about fantasy worlds. I've always loved small town nostalgia, the yearning for simpler times, and so how ironic would it be to have Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a video game. The book is very episodic, with plenty of action, or it could be more of a free flowing environment like the old Game Boy Advance title The Sims, Bustin' Out (great game, BTW). Story and Goal oriented, but with a fair amount of free play as well.
There are a number of worlds I'd love to see as a video game. Anne McCaffrey's Pern world would be great as an Ultima Online type world where you build up skills through learning your trade, as well as hopefully training a dragon and fighting Thread. Or Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Trilogy.  Or one based on Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. I think that's already in the work, along with a movie.  All the worlds out there in the dreamscape, from the minds of the great authors' who have molded their creations, expanded and pixelized by the computer programmers that can seemingly do anything with 1's and 0's.  I guess the ultimate achievement would be Star Trek's Holodeck, but perhaps it's better not to live in our fantasy worlds all the time.  That's why books, and video games, will have to suffice, for now.

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