Novel Approach: Video games based on books

As the film adaptation of The Giver approaches, we remember some games that have looked to novels for their own source material.


As The Giver approaches this weekend, we're once again getting a taste of a young-adult novel run through the movie-making machine. Hollywood loves book adaptations, for the extra bit of prestige that comes with an association to reading. Video games aren't as apt to chase books, but developers have attempted it more than a few times with mixed results.

Fahrenheit 451 (1984)

In the early 80s, most games were original creations, and the industry wasn't yet big enough to claim all of the blockbusters for itself. The text-adventure genre naturally lent itself to books, and the Fahrenheit 451 adapted one of Ray Bradbury's most famous novels. The book is a commentary that works on a number of levels, including the meta-level that stresses the importance of knowledge through books, and delivering that message through a book itself. 

Thanks to the involvement of Bradbury himself it does carry itself with some weight. It takes place a few years after the book, and stars the protagonist Guy Montag as he attempts to save some of the knowledge from burned books that was stored onto microcasettes. It was a clever way to invoke some level of parallel--the book is about destroying books and the computer game is about saving computer data. 

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984)

Another text adventure game, Hitchhiker's Guide was an underground hit in the early 1980s and enjoyed its own success as an adaptation. Unlike Fahrenheit, this one carried the silly tone of its own novel, with puzzles that paved the way for some of the nonsensical puns found in later LucasArts games like the Monkey Island series. Those puzzles were fiendishly difficult at times, as missing one particularly important one would render the rest of the game unwinnable. If you can't unlock the Babel Fish, how will you know what anyone is saying?

You can actually still play this one right now. To celebrate the game's 30th anniversary this year, BBC released a updated web version that captures the spirit with a slight visual overhaul.

Parasite Eve (1998)

Among the first of Square's notable forays into less traditional RPG territory, Parasite Eve was based on a critically acclaimed Japanese horror novel of the same name. The novel was only released in North America seven years later, though, so many westerners didn't realize the connection. 

Like Fahrenheit 451, Parasite Eve's game adaptation served as a sequel to the book. Since Parasite Eve received another sequel after that, the three serve as a canonical trilogy. The story is similar, focusing on a latent life form existing in human bodies for thousands of years. The book concludes happily, with all the samples of the Eve life form being destroyed, but the game revived them to create its moody atmosphere.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Adventure based games went out of fashion long before 2006, but 2K games couldn't ignore the wild popularity of Dan Brown's hit book. Though it was released in the same year as Ron Howard's film adaptation, the game is notably removed from that version. Its characters look nothing like the ones from the movie, and it even takes some liberties with the book to be less hostile towards the Catholic Church. Given that the entire plot revolves around a massive Catholic conspiracy, that couldn't have been an easy task. 

True to the novel, most of the game was based around puzzles and cryptography, with only occasional action sequences. The player, as either Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu, will just as often avoid or knock out enemies as engage them directly. Despite sticking close to the source material, it was largely panned for tedious gameplay and glitches. Who would have thought a novel about staring at paintings would make for a boring game?

The Witcher (2007)

The popular RPG series currently preparing for its third installment is based on a book series that traces its roots back to the 1980s. The Polish sci-fi and fantasy magazine Fantastyka first introduced Geralt, and it was such a success that it was quickly followed by several full-length novels. The games stick to the same premise, following a rare, dying breed of monster hunters with special abilities. It took advantage of its medium, though, offering a wide variety of choices that have major impacts on the world around you. While the first game received a fairly positive reception, it really came into its own with the sequel, Assassins of Kings. It won multiple awards, including the only one that matters, the Shacknews GOTY

The Bourne Conspiracy (2008)

Another game that capitalized on movie success, High Moon's game based on the super-spy Jason Bourne was ostensibly based on the Robert Ludlum book series, but borrowed liberally from the films starring Matt Damon. Essentially, it dodged using the actor's likeness rights because he felt the game was too violent and wanted it to be more of an adventure game like Myst. Aside from a different looking Bourne, it took its action beats from the film, rather than the more deliberately paced cloak-and-dagger tone of the novels. 

Its game DNA shares more in common with the Splinter Cell series, putting Bourne into standard espionage action mode. Though it received mixed reviews, the lack of any mention of a sequel seems to indicate that publisher Sierra didn't find it too successful. It's as if the video game community told the industry, thanks but no thanks. We already have our own super-spy and his name is Sam.

Shadow Complex (2009)

Though these connections are more tenuous, Shadow Complex exists in a universe created by science-fiction author Orson Scott Card. Card wrote the "Empire" novels, and Shadow Complex is set during the events of the first book. The story has little direct connection with the novel Empire, but the events run parallel and some of the same organizations and shadowy conspiracy elements are at play. The game establishes  that the militia group has killed the Vice President in an effort to start a new civil war in America. The second book, Hidden Empire, takes place after both the first novel and the game, at which point the President is killed too. Given the middling reviews of the Card book, it seems playing in this world is more fun than reading about it.

Dante's Inferno (2010)

Sharing about as much in common with the book as Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dante's Inferno used the "inspired by" label extremely loosely. Dante's Divine Comedy is an allegory for the afterlife, touching upon elements of religion, faith, and 14th century Italian culture. The first canticle of the book, Inferno, is a fairly serious reflection on the concept of sin. 

Then EA made it into an action game. It covers some of the monsters from the epic poem, but rather than presenting them as metaphors it simply makes them brawler-beasts. Riffing on a religion is all well and good--none of the Greek myths mention anything about Kratos killing Ares and taking over the mantle as the god of war, after all. But while God of War is based on a loose collection of myths, Dante's Inferno was based on one specific and highly-regarded book. It was a weird choice, is what we're saying here.

All that could've been forgiven if it was a great game, but it received only middling reviews. We probably won't be seeing sequels based on the other canticles anytime soon.

Metro 2033 (2010)

Based on a Russian novel of the same name, the Ukraine's 4A Games took its inspiration from Dmitry Glukhovsky's post-apocalyptic world. It was a much more direct retelling of the story than some on this list, starring the same protagonist and coming to the same twist-ending conclusion about the menacing "Dark Ones." It even largely takes place in environments described in the book, albeit with less dialogue work.

The follow-up novel, Metro 2034, also shared its name with a game for a short time. Ultimately, though, the game's title was changed to Last Light, and is more of a companion piece without the plot similarities of its predecessor.

Honorable Mention: Goldeneye 007 (1997)

James Bond's connection with novels is more tenuous, since 007's success has had much more to do with his blockbuster films than the more methodically paced (and sometimes outright creepy and sexist) books. Regardless, without Ian Fleming's novels, we would never have had a Goldeneye movie with Pierce Brosnan, and the game that brought shooters into the mainstream on consoles may have never existed. At the very least, Goldeneye was chock full of references to the classic movies that were more closely based on Fleming's books, including The Man with the Golden Gun. It's not every day that a swan song novel becomes one of the most memorable modes in a video game.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 14, 2014 11:30 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Novel Approach: Video games based on books.

    As the film adaptation of The Giver approaches, we remember some games that have looked to novels for their own source material.

    • reply
      August 14, 2014 11:31 AM

      wait is The Giver about goatse

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        August 14, 2014 11:36 AM

        I thought he was a taker. The Giver was a jar of dill pickles from Costco.

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      August 14, 2014 11:39 AM

      What about Blade Runner!

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      August 14, 2014 11:41 AM

      I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, damnit.

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      August 14, 2014 11:45 AM

      L.A. Confidential. I want to play Bud's level where he plants a gun on some black kids he shoots and punches a whore in the mouth for cheating on him.

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        August 14, 2014 11:56 AM

        James Ellroy's books are so great :D

    • rms legacy 10 years mercury mega
      August 14, 2014 1:11 PM

      Oof. The author is unaware of two famous examples:

      and the Strugatsky brothers' short story _Roadside Picnic_, which spawned both Stalker the movie, and the game series.

      Also, is based upon various EA Poe stories. I have this game, but have had issues getting it to run.

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      August 14, 2014 1:26 PM

      I have always always always wanted a Ender's Game battleroom simulator in the vein of an RTS like starcraft / homeworld.

      Actually, Frozen Synapse would be a wonderful base to start from. 3d arena, have planning stages, kids that have slightly different attributes. Would be a cool as hell mod.

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      August 14, 2014 1:36 PM

      I'm going to guess that the approximately 100 Harry Potter games have sold more copies than all those listed combined.

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        August 15, 2014 6:31 AM

        However, the Harry Potter games were licensed from WB and based on the movies, not the novels.

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      August 14, 2014 2:09 PM

      Ha! I am playing a Commodore 64 game right now that is based on a book: "Dragonworld" (1984, Telarium) one of my favourite text adventure games from the era. I never read the novel but always wanted to find a copy (Dragonworld, published by Doubleday, 1979)

      What actually grabbed me about this game is the little bits of music/sound they added to the abundance of text-only and tex + graphics adventure games we had back then.

      Telarium also did Fahrenheit 451, as mentioned in the OP.

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      August 14, 2014 5:10 PM

      interesting article! more of those please :)

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      August 14, 2014 5:13 PM

      WHOA! How can we overlook Dune II? Not only is it based on a very popular series, but it also established the modern RTS genre.

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      August 14, 2014 5:16 PM

      Bioshock leaned heavily from Ayn Rands books.

      BS2 is chock full of refereances from the "Fountainhead"

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        August 15, 2014 6:49 AM

        True, but even though Bioshock is inspired heavily by Rand's works, it's not based on her books. Otherwise, it would be about how an unrestricted free market society would work, not how it completely broke down and led to class-based civil war that was ended by a bunch of insane splicers.

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      August 15, 2014 11:23 AM

      There was a Shannara game back in '95 based on the Terry Brooks' novels, but the game was pretty much the suck, if I remember correctly:

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