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Why Wait for the Movie: More Video Games Should Be Based On Books

'MaddAddam' and 'Cloud Atlas' could both make for brilliant games, and yet they went the way of TV and movies first, respectively.

by James Tennent
25 September 2015, 7:46am

Cover art detail from Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam', published in the UK by Bloomsbury

The MaddAddam trilogy was really how I first got into Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood. I read all three books fairly quickly, albeit accidentally in the wrong order, and I made sure my closest friends went and did the same so I had people to talk about the ending with. Last year's announcement that HBO were to turn the trilogy into a television series overseen by Darren Aronofsky filled me with such joy; they'll hopefully produce an adaptation as cool as Game of Thrones that everyone will watch. Of course, I'll have already read the books and will laud that over everyone. And yet, as great as the HBO news was I had a nagging thought in the back of my head: MaddAddam would have made a great video game, or even a series of them.

We've seen that an HBO franchise can be complemented by a great Telltale-produced adventure title – Game of Thrones proves as much. But if MaddAddam went the same way, and who's to say it won't, you know that it'll be set in the world of the TV show, not the books. There's nothing innately wrong with this. It'd likely be decent, but what's wrong is that the TV show will have to be doing well for people to even consider a video gaming take on the tales.

The default reaction to great books is to make them into movies – that's the expected next step. A game though feels like a periphery project, often viewed as merchandise to accompany the film's release. This perception – not absolute, but certainly pervasive – is something that I thought added to a few of the bad reviews received by the recently released Mad Max game. The fact that it eventually came out right between the box office release of Fury Road and its home-media distribution meant that most people assumed the two were linked. They weren't, at least not especially closely, each telling its own unique story and featuring very different versions of Max. Some players, and critics, were disappointed: while Avalanche's game is certainly action packed, it's not as frequently adrenaline pumping as its cinematic cousin, with slow upgrading of character and car alike a must. The game was more about surviving the entire desert rather than a single storm.

The immediate reaction many people will have to my suggestion that games makers should be turning more frequently to novels for inspiration is: "Dude, what about The Witcher 3." And it's true that the Witcher games are based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski with no in-between movie of particular popularity to influence the presentation or storytelling – there was The Hexer, but the less said about that, the better. And The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is obviously awesome. But the reply to that comeback is two fold. Firstly, how many other recent games can you name that were based on novels without a Hollywood intermediary? And secondly, how surprised was everyone you told that The Witcher 3 was based mainly on written words and not moving pictures?

The idea of games coming straight out of books is foreign in modern gaming culture. In the early days of the text adventure, though, it wasn't. Literary classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were made into engaging, wordy challenges for 1980s home computers.

There's an idea that since we've moved on from linear text-based games, we're more interested in adventures where we have greater decision-making power – and books, with their set narratives, don't fit well into this new form, one more open to player agency. But when you move a narrative from one medium to another, you alter it to fit what the new, the next, medium can bring. Film has known this for years and will take the most stream-of-consciousness novel and adapt it so the message and story is still there, but told with a different set of tools. Games, equally, can do this – taking major plot points into a narrative and adding extras that fit with the existing world to make a great interactive experience.

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But even without this argument, what's so wrong with linear games? Having certain actions that you have to work out to progress is a mainstay of point-and-click games (Simon the Sorcerer will never get old) and can work well in other genres, too – think of the forgotten narrative classic Fahrenheit, as many problems as it had.

The point is that the medium that puts so much emphasis on the strength of narrative could bring that great quality to this medium that we so love. But instead we're left waiting for the movie; and often, the movie isn't going to work.

For those of us who are fans of David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian), the news that his epic Cloud Atlas was going to be made in a film by none other than the Matrix-helming Wachowskis was exciting, but alas, the end product of 2012 was lacking. The book was one of those that people thought would never work as a film – six stories, each intrinsically linked yet set centuries apart and all but one split into two sections. It's confusing, there's a lot to keep up with and if you're a cinemagoer, you probably don't want to sit through three hours of it. Gamers, on the other hand, are happy to spend hours upon hours learning about the lore and the background, getting involved with the characters as they lead them down their storied paths. Cloud Atlas would have worked much better as a game than it did as film.

And it has action. It has shoot-outs and car crashes, attempted murders and sci-fi guns. It's not like it's lacking in things to do, things to represent gameplay. I'm not saying let's turn Pride and Prejudice into a game – dating sims are boring and weird anyway – and obviously there are some books that lend themselves to games more than others. But all the same, there's a tremendous wealth of intellectual property that feels so ignored by the games industry, and much of it is modern and exciting, packed with new stories to tell on computers and consoles.

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Mitchell's 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks, and its soon-to-arrive "sequel" of sorts Slade House are perfect examples of literary works that'd transfer well to a gaming interpretation – a series of stories spanning time-lines and filled with fantasy fun, the words on the pages immediately conjure amazing, controllable scenarios in the mind's eye. The overarching plot is essentially about two ancient groups battling in psychic duels, taking over other people's minds, and the ordinary citizens that get stuck between the warring parties. Tell me: how would that not make for an awesome video game? Psychically switching into new characters on the street, fighting bad guys. Come on. No, the whole thing wouldn't work in its totality – the chapter that follows a writer as his career as a bad-boy of English letters starts to fade is probably not going to take up as many exciting game hours as the more fantastical sections, but any studio taking on the task would be able to cut it or mould it, to gamify it. A new medium asks for an adapted narrative. And this is a challenge the games industry should go for.

When MaddAddam, the show, does come out, I'm going to watch it – Atwood's stories are some of the best currently written and will transfer well onto the screen. But I'll be sad that games never took up the mantle when they could have brought the post-apocalyptic, anti-neo-liberal story to a new, fascinated audience with hands on D-pads and shoulder triggers, not just the remote control in readiness of the ad breaks. And besides, having a few of Atwood's female protagonists introduced into gaming, in leading roles, couldn't go amiss now, could it?

@duckytennent

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