If you’re reading this, chances are that you like video games. And when you were a kid, video games were your whole life. You lived, ate, breathed, and maybe sung about video games. But you’re not a kid anymore, are you? You’re an adult now. You need to know other things to hold a conversation and not look like a manchild, like movies, politics, what your family is doing, and…ugh, books. Yes, those things you decided were for poindexters in high school and haven’t touched since.
As such, when people ask you what your favorite classical work is at a fancy cocktail party, you reply with Super Mario 64 and everybody laughs as if it’s a joke. You know you weren’t kidding and that’s actually what your brain jumps to when you hear ‘classic’, but you laugh along anyway and pray that they don’t ask you to follow that up.
“Please don’t ask again, or I’ll have to take my chances with The Lord of the Rings.”
Luckily, just like whenever life grabs your wrist and slaps your face while saying “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself, god you’re a dumbass, why are you hitting yourself”, video games have come to the rescue! Not only can you dig yourself deeper into the only non-essential muscle memory your brain is capable of, but you can tell that snooty girl at that cocktail party about your thoughts on the themes of Dante’s Inferno because (unbeknownst to her), you played the video game eight years ago! But what if you want to know about more books without having to read? Pardon my cursing.
That’s where this article comes in. I’m here to tell developers what books to turn into games, because developers obviously listen to everything I say – I’m a games journalist! My word is law, and more important than those of the plebeians! With my help, we’ll get your literary vocabulary expanded like Donkey Kong’s dong in no time! These are books that range from genre-defining to obscure pulp, so expect me to sound much smarter than I am when I explain what kind of game said titles should be. Without further ado, open your minds to chapter blown.
Humankind’s obsession with crazy old people has never gone away. There’s something primal about seeing some coot do weird stuff that never fails to make us feel better. Literature has a long history of exploring the exploits of our more senior friends, but none come quite as batshit funny as Don Quixote. I can totally pronounce that.
Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel by many people with way too much time on their hands, and even more flower crowns. It comes from the only time where Spain was at the top of the world, and the second-last time they were relevant: the early 17th century. Who doesn’t remember those good old days? Sea exploration, religious and colonialist genocide, and who could forget the world-defining schism within the Church? That Martin Luther…what a scamp.
Don Quixote is about a rich old dude who’s gotten so senile he thinks that the stuff he reads about chivalry and knight adventures are real events. Just like Samurai! Keen to get out of the house (and presumably to piss off his caregivers), he puts on an old suit of armor and makes way to the local inn—sorry, “castle” to start his journey. To go into detail would be blasphemy against a fantastic and hugely influential book but trust me when I say that it’s chock-full of Spanish shitposting and is insanely funny to boot.
So, how do you turn a novel about an old man going on dementia adventures into a video game? A more important question is, “how don’t you?” Don Quixote is a masterpiece of pre-modern satire, dripping with comedy like a used sponge drips olive oil. Games like The Witcher III are great open-world experiences with superb writing, but here’s my proposal; imagine The Witcher, but without any sincerity.
A Don Quixote game would play out like any other RPG in an open world, but absolutely nothing is taken seriously. Game mechanics could be turned on their head and then back again, the visual and sound design could get so wacky that they’re surrealist masterworks on their own, and you’d even play as an old man! What game lets you play as an old fart this side of Tekken 3? It could even be a linear third-person action game (so Sony can have yet another one) but secretly a pisstake of the entire genre.
I really like The War of the Worlds. I could call it a favorite. I have the entirety of the bomb-ass 1978 prog rock musical committed to memory – instruments and lyrics. In fact, the portrait of myself at the bottom of this page is from a rehearsal of a stage version of the 1938 radio play that I was pretty good in. H.G. Wells had been previously known for his sci-fi pouts, but it was this book about Martians being a metaphor for Social Darwinism that really got his name preserved in the history books. You know what the book’s about. I’m not wasting precious finger energy I could use to fill more important holes explaining it to anybody, so I’ll just get to writing context and pretending my university degree is worth something.
Believe it or not, this entry-level anti-colonialist book is no stranger to video games. One of the rarest arcade cabinets in the world is a really crappy adaptation of Wells’ classic that never saw full production. The Jeff Wayne prog musical, with the phattest bass line of all time, has two game adaptations. Hey, it was the late 90s and we didn’t have much time until 9/11 ruined absolutely everything good about the world so we had to start cramming in those useless adaptations.
The first, released in 1998, was an RTS set in the most one-sided fight in sci-fi. It was also one of the first RTS games to use 3D models for its units and environments as opposed to sprites, so it was good for something besides its awesome remix soundtrack. The second game was a vehicle combat title for the PlayStation that was incompatible with the memory card…in 1999.
A more narrative-focused indie game adaptation of the book came to us in 2011, so we’re getting warmer. But there’s an aspect that all these adaptations are missing: spookiness. You can make all the bang-boom games that focus on the first half of War of the Worlds where the Martians land and start their genocide of anything that says “blimey”; I haven’t got anything against that, you do you. But the latter half of the book where the aliens, who thought putting fighting machines on three legs instead of four was a great idea, start patrolling a broken England where all semblance of the old world has been superseded by a human population scurrying and scared in the shadows is sorely ignored.
Sure, the video game industry talks about new frontiers and brave storytelling, but they refuse to answer my calls about setting a game in Martian-occupied Britain with survival horror elements. Hypocrisy much? It’s their loss, because a game that’s exactly like the one I just described would be cool to play. You’d start in the actual invasion for about an hour or two, then be forced to scavenge for whatever food and water there is left while also avoiding the Martians that are out to harvest you for blood. Cramped and chaotic environments, some juicy hiding mechanics, and metal tentacles that slither about looking for you make for a recipe I like to call ‘BAFTA bait’.
Hell, make it an online-only open world survival game so that casuals who eventually stop playing because they found another online-only open world survival game to play will replicate the dwindling human population of the book! You could even end the game by killing the Martians off with the common cold or something at some point, because let’s be real here; you can’t make this game into a service that’ll retain players. Live your life, then die young so people can call you avant-garde! Of course, this’ll never happen because anti-colonialism doesn’t fit into publishers using developers as an expendable workforce. Yeah, I went there.
One of my friends once described war as a “bro time”. Regardless of how “unique” that perspective was, there’s a grain of truth to that statement. If war didn’t have a sense of brotherly comradery, how come Republic Commando was the best Star Wars shooter? Look, I realise that war is a tragedy that serves as a prominent metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man, but you can’t deny that squad-based shooters are the fucking tits.
Warfare wasn’t always seen as tragic, either; up until the 20th century, war was simply an excuse for the everyman to go out and see the world. ‘See the sights’, the posters would say, ‘and kill a Frenchman while you do it!’ Old-school war was seen as glorious, necessary, even beneficial. Nowhere do we see this more than in the battles of the 18th and 19th centuries, and there were no bigger battles than those fought in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s here, in the middle of a war that ripped Europe apart, that the Sharpe series finds itself.
Richard Sharpe is not a fancy man. He’s a broken and cynical man. But he’s a good man. Raised as a guttersnipe in 1770s London, Sharpe found himself in all kinds of childhood trials and tribulations. His life takes a turn for the worse/better when he gets into a fight over a girl and is conscripted into the British army to avoid sentencing. After a brief stint in India, Napoleon causes trouble in Europe and Sharpe is caught up in the action! He’ll also take men under his wing, who eventually become his friends and brothers in arms, and show those snooty officers who’s the real soldier!
Sharpe is a series that’s chockers with British flag-waving bravado, but there are two major factors that go into these books being perfect video game fodder. The first is the personal relationships between Sharpe and his men; they make the series great territory for some squad-based bro shenanigans. Secondly, the Napoleonic War setting is criminally underused for games. Total War delved into it for what was its finest title [in this writer’s humble opinion], but the medium we know and love hasn’t quite caught up yet.
So, why not make Sharpe a bombastic and gritty shooter, with comprehensive squad command mechanics and (mostly) historically-accurate rifling? Sharpe himself sees his fair share of grandiose battles, and every character is fleshed out to hell and back over the course of the series. Can you imagine leading a skirmish line you know will fail, because some rich dickhead officer thought it’d be a great idea to pursue cavalry. When you’re eventually fired upon by French cannon, you and your squad must hold the line as best as you can.
Dialogue options would play out in the segments between combat, too. After the battle goes pear-shaped, you’re confronted by the douchebag toff officer and he drags you to Arthur Wellesley – the Duke of Wellington himself. Imagine getting the dialogue choices just right to get Wellesley to rip into the officer for being such a bloody idiot and get you off scott-free! There’s plenty of underdog satisfaction to be found in Sharpe, and video games thrive on underdogs.
The series’s structure also makes for a fantastic excuse for either episodic adventures or low-budget sequels. The books jump back and forth in Sharpe’s timeline, choosing to stand as their own individual stories as opposed to a long-winded narrative. Fans have long debated whether reading the series in chronological or publishing order makes for a better experience, so anything’s possible here.
Here’s something you probably already know: the British are masters of shaving sugarcoats and making weird shit. Nowhere was this more apparent than in British public safety media in the 1970s. You had a seizure-prone cat teaching children how to be safe, a middle-aged couple teaching adults how to be safe, and a Grim Reaper knock-off reminding parents of the dangers of “dark and lonely water”.
By the way, none of these are things I had to research for this article. I knew about all these things already because I’m too busy drowning myself in old-school Britain every day to have a real life, please help me I’m so lonely
But there’s one example of British refusal to make public service even the tiniest bit, you know, nice, that sticks out even today. Protect and Survive was a multimedia nuclear civil defense program, developed in the late 1970s. It was intended to replace the Civil Defense Corps that was disbanded in 1968, after people realized that nuclear weapons had become too ball-bustlingly powerful to recover from with volunteers. Rather, Protect and Survive taught its readers/watchers/listeners to chin up and take care of you and yours in the case of nuclear attack instead of relying on authorities. Top stuff.
It was originally intended to be distributed when the British government saw nuclear war as inevitable, but the booklet variety was made publicly available after its existence was leaked by The Times in 1980. The television PSAs were likewise leaked to the BBC some time later, narrated by Patrick Allen – a man who people knew from a wacky real estate commercial with a helicopter in it.
The inadequacy of the information that Protect and Survive provided was quickly ridiculed by essentially everybody. It inspired two watershed works of nuclear fiction in particular: The 1984 television film Threads (which is a really good film and you should watch it), and the 1982 comic book When the Wind Blows. The latter is what I’m talking about here because comic books are still books, fuck you.
When the Wind Blows follows a naïve, but lovely, elderly couple in rural-ish Britain – Jim and Hilda Blogg. They have their nice, comfy retirement lives in the idyllic English countryside, but it’s all about to come crashing down. Escalations between the Communist Bloc and NATO begin to reach boiling point, which convinces Jim to begin preparations as outlined in (you guessed it) Protect and Survive. Both Jim and Hilda are suffering from a severe case of rose-tinted eyes; Jim’s obsession with doing ‘the correct thing’ that the booklet says is matched only by his Blitz-inspired trust in government authority. Hilda simply doesn’t know what’s going on, but trusts Jim when he says that it’ll all be just fine.
But once the bomb drops, things aren’t fine. They pretend that their situation is tickity-boo, going right ahead and doing everything people shouldn’t do after a nuclear attack. Drinking the rainwater, leaving your shelter (no matter how useful it is), the whole kit and kaboodle. After all, they can’t smell or taste a difference in the world around them – fallout radiation is undetectable without instruments. As the days roll by, both Jim and Hilda’s health and morale deteriorate until they eventually perish.
To put it simply, When the Wind Blows is the perfect book for you if you want to see a sweet old couple die slowly from radiation sickness.
This is perfect for pretentious indie developers.
If you want to make a clone of This War of Mine but make it even sadder, look no further than Briggs’ depressing portrayal of British wartime optimism being undone by nuclear Armageddon. Imagine the hopelessness you could convey with something as frightening as a realistic nuclear wasteland. It’d be great! No bandits, no wacky mutants, just you and your spouse in the ruins of your carefully-planned shelter. Get some sad piano or music the Bloggs liked as young people that’s cheap to license, slap on a gritty filter, maybe even get a Patrick Allen impersonator to do voices in it, and you’ve got at least three 10/10 scores. One of those would be me. I mean, did you see how highly I rated Undertale? Christ, hindsight’s 20/20.
It doesn’t even have to be set in Britain; replace the Blitz Spirit elderly with the Red Scare elderly to appeal to an American audience. Lord knows they need nuclear fiction that tells it like it is. Yeah, I said it! The Day After is sanitized trash! You can’t handle the truth! You’d just make it a Trump hit-piece anyway, you unoriginal hacks.
The Second World War is the most studied and adapted conflict in human history, and why not? It’s got everything that an artist needs to make mad bank – clear good vs evil sides, a wide variety of factions and weapons, and old people who fought in it will go to see movies about it and get teary-eyed next to you. Now, old people generally don’t play video games, until you reading this article grows old. Did you know that the Nintendo 64 is the legal drinking age or that Spyro turns 20 in September? Just a quick fact.
But hoo boy, has that not stopped video games. Killing Nazis and driving/also killing tanks that only grew fucking larger as time went on are a major selling point for any product, and video games have taken the cake. Call of Duty is the most profitable video game franchise in the world and that started as a WW2 game, then tried to go to the Cold War, then to the future, but now it’s back in WW2 again. Company of Heroes is the crown jewel in the WW2 RTS genre, a playing field that was so overcrowded in the 90s and 2000s that it made Hong Kong trains look like a Norwegian prison in comparison.
Games set in the bloodiest conflict in human history fell out of favour more than a decade ago, but now they’re back for a new generation to get sick of! So, what better time to make a game based upon what could be called the most pulp alternate history scenario of all time? Worldwar is a series of books by alt-history mastermind Harry Turtledove about an alien invasion of Earth in 1942.
Right, so, these reptilian creatures that call themselves ‘the Race’ are confident that humanity will keel over and die after they send a probe to watch over us in the 11th century. But because their technology is both hard sci-fi and also not, their attack fleet takes 1000 of our years to reach us. They don’t see this as a problem, though, because it stands to their reasoning that if they take forever to advance technologically then every other race in the universe also advances slowly.
Unfortunately for the Race, they have underestimated humankind’s desire to find new and exciting ways of killing or exploiting each other. They arrive in 1941 and quickly discover that the Earth has now industrialized, and that the Race’s technological advantage is now marginal. With that in mind, let’s review:
- Aliens have invaded Earth (which is already a cash-guaranteeing concept) during this incredibly marketable conflict that has a strong precedent in video games and proven contemporary demand for them.
- The factions involved are balanced but visually distinctive, and the pulp story allows for plenty of creative liberties with history.
- You are a goddamn moron if you don’t think this fits an RTS where a War of the Worlds prog rock musical from the late 70s RTS already exists.
Think about this for one second: give this license to any RTS veteran developer that isn’t Relic (Dawn of War III was basically a crime against humanity), and watch people pay attention to a WW2 game with an actual difference. You may think that this also makes the game a shoe-in for the FPS genre as well, but the Race are canonically the size of a really short ‘goth’ teenager who says she likes The Cure but in fact mostly listens to Fall Out Boy. Make it an RTS, watch that interest flow in, and wait for people screaming and crying about ‘historical accuracy’ to do your marketing for you.
So there you have it. Now, when you’re asked what books you read recently you can list off an obscure-ish graphic novel from the early 80s. It’ll be you scoffing at them this time when you say “just watch the movie…it’s more your speed.”
Don Quixote art by Jack Davis
War of the Worlds art by Warwick Globe
Sharpe art by Herb Tauss
When the Wind Blows art by Raymond Briggs
Worldwar art by Bob Eggleton