Literature-Inspired Video Games: What’s Next?

Dante’s Inferno proves that classic literature has the potential to inspire thoughtful game development. The gameplay may have been ripped straight from God of War, but the environments, characters, and story propelled the game forward in a way that modern creative minds simply can’t match. Metro 2033, also inspired by an engrossing and emotionally charged tale, had the pieces of plot and narrative development that can make a game great. It’s inevitable that developers will continue to explore this often unjustified type of inspiration; the question is with what?

Fantasy literature readily lends itself to game adaptation, with vividly described, imaginative worlds, fantastical abilities, and often action-driven stories. The last wave of fantasy literature games to make it big were The Lord of the Rings games, most notably The Lord of the Rings Online, LotR: Battle for Middle Earth, and LotR: The Two Towers. Fantasy epic authors of Tolkien’s caliber appear only once in a generation, though, and no other series, save Dune, have the kind of general recognition and clout to make it to the minds of game developers. And with studios like Bethesda producing quality fantasy titles based on original ideas, literature may be an unnecessary inspiration.

Modern British and American Literature, as memorable and poignant as they may be, also don’t fit the gaming bill. I’m as big a Hemingway fan as any English major, but can the occasional bullfight and fishing trip really make a game? This kind of writing focuses on the inward battles of symbolic characters, explicating the effects of war on a generation or the presence of peace on a gentry class. Wuthering Heights has no place in gaming, and it certainly will never have one. There needs to be a balance between action and intellectual depth, and for a genre of novels that focuses so intently on the latter, this isn’t a likely possibility either.

War novels permeate every era of literary history, and have been picked up on either directly or in spirit for game inspirations before. Just look at the overwhelming amount of Greek and Roman warrior titles (God of War being a derivative of mythological literature) and RTS series like Total War and Age of Empires. Though the focus for many AAA titles has recently shifted towards modern warfare, there’s still a good possibility that some untapped war literature will be used for some upcoming battle epic. However, given how loosely most of these kinds of games base themselves off literature (given the abundance of historical accounts), a war novel game probably isn’t the next big thing.

Classic literature has been a favorite for developers because of the artistic freedom afforded by poorly documented eras or the simple ability of these works to stand the test of time. Dante’s Inferno is the most recent and perhaps most memorable example, but two and three generations of consoles ago saw the advent of Odysseus’ voyages and the fall of Troy. My guess is that with these stories hitting the silver screen in such a huge way, and the obvious comparisons to God of War, developers will shy away from these stories.

henry v

The potential, I believe, is in Shakespeare. Not only is the originality factor through the roof and all of the dialogue practically already written, but the plays already have all the necessary balance of action and story, with a little tweaking of course. Take Henry V, for example: A prince inherits the throne of England as an inexperienced and haphazard young leader, and then marches to victory in France against all odds. Othello is another story full of violence with a dash of war and torrid love affairs ripe for the picking. The medieval world is often captured in a bastardized sense through Oblivion-style fantasy games but what if the recreation was period-faithful? What if the Montagues and Capulets actually did go to war with each other (taking the Inglorious Basterds approach) and Romeo not only fought for Juliet, but for peace? Incorporate a deeply consequential dialogue system analogous to Mass Effect and it’s a knockout. The stories are there, they just need to be told.

Maybe Shakespeare won’t make his way into gaming anytime soon, and maybe developers are ambitious enough to write their own new classics. If you were a developer, what would you pick? What literature would you digitally immortalize, if any, and most importantly why?


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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