Games

How 'Memoranda' Successfully Brings Haruki Murakami's Surrealism into a Video Game

Translating literature into a game is difficult. 'Memoranda' developer Bit Byterz succeeds by focusing on the big picture.

by John Robertson
Feb 16 2017, 5:11pm

Translating a work from one medium to another is a not insignificant creative challenge. When content has been conceived and crafted with a specific form in mind, changing that form wholesale leads to a number, typically a majority, of the core pillars inherent to the original no longer being communicated as intended. Quite simply, the form around which the content was written no longer exists.

As such, the translation often fails to make an impact given that the support structure has been removed. This is a fact you'll be well aware of if you've been unlucky enough to sit through most movies based on video games, and vice versa.

Memoranda, a point-and-click adventure recently released (for PC, Mac and Linux) by Canadian newcomers Bit Byterz, adopts the most plausible means of successfully translating one medium into another: It focuses on evoking a tone akin to its inspirations, as opposed to trying to mimic directly the narrative and/or the experience of consumption.

All 'Memoranda' screenshots courtesy of Bit Byterz.

It's a tact that has worked for games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which was influenced heavily by Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and BioShock, inspired by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. And it works here, too.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, specifically his more surrealist short story writing, is the inspiration for Memoranda. Like Amnesia and BioShock, Memoranda foregoes a direct retelling of the source material in place of seeking to instill upon its audience a sensation similar to the experience of reading Murakami.

"I started with one of his short stories, and gradually added characters from other short stories," lead developer Sahand Saedi tells me. "I tried to bring over the surreal atmosphere, as well as the lonely and strange characters from the stories, and hope that the gamer will feel like they are living in one of these stories while playing."

"I felt that the strange atmosphere of Murakami's stories were great for an adventure game." — 'Memoranda' lead developer Sahand Saedi

Murakami's "Sleep" and "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," both found within 1993's The Elephant Vanishes collection, are the two short stories that come most readily to mind upon initial exposure to Memoranda. From "Sleep" is taken the idea of a protagonist incapable of sleeping, one of the results of which is a life wrought with seemingly self-imposed oppression. 

The Wind-Up Bird's influence, meanwhile, is more tonal, the concept of life increasingly feeling as though it's an elaborate fantasy controlled by forces out of our control taking grip here as it does in Murakami's words.

Above: 'Memoranda' launch trailer

Saedi is eager to not 'simply' replicate the work of Murakami, however. This is a game that he has written and he is adamant that he has authorship over it, as opposed to allowing the inspirations behind it to dominate the entire experience.

"At first I tried to minimize my authorship, but since I was bringing characters together that were inspired by various stories I needed to relate them all together and to the main story of the game," Saedi explains, when quizzed on where his position as writer and designer stands when creating a game based on another writer's conceptualizations.

"I really tried to read many stories and draw inspiration from them, but it was me writing the unique stories for this specific game. I felt that the strange atmosphere of Murakami's stories were great for an adventure game."


Indeed, Memoranda is an adventure game in the most traditional sense, in terms of interaction and pacing. While it might be taking an enlightened path to adapting one medium into another, it follows well-trodden game design routes, and sticks to established rules. You click on items on pick them up, observe them or interact with them, saving key examples to your inventory for later use in puzzles that are often abstract in their construction. Interspersed amongst this staple diet is dialogue-heavy narration and conversation.

A familiarity with the game's systems, though, means that they fall into the background. This works to Memoranda's advantage, in that most of your conscious effort can go into absorbing the tone and emotional underpinnings of what Saedi and his team have created.

Related, on VICE: More Video Games Should Be Based on Books 

The positive effect that this traditional structure has on the thought-provoking nature of the narrative might not necessarily have been part of the original design plan, however. Given that this is Bit Byterz's first game, many of the guiding factors behind Memoranda revolve around pragmatism rather than idealism.

"Memoranda is our first game development experience, and we were trying to come up with a standard game with good art and music," reveals Saedi, answering a question on the state of adventure games in general and their perceived lack of evolution in comparison to other genres.


"I hope we can someday push the genre, and innovate. On the other hand, I don't like all evolutions in the adventure genre. For example, I am not a big fan of some of the new games where you only have a few options to select and most of the time you are watching a cutscene."

For certain, Memoranda is nothing like the Telltale-style games that Saedi is likely referencing. Rather, it's more reminiscent of the likes of Day of the Tentacle and the newer Broken Age in terms of interaction mechanics. It is most unlike those examples in tone, however, and it's in this respect that Memoranda distinguishes itself.

If you've never explored Murakami's work before, then the best option for newcomers remains the reading of his books. But if you want to see how a game can intelligently and provocatively reinterpret literature, Memoranda absolutely warrants investigation.

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