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Video games are a manifestation of pop culture, and pop culture thrives on borrowing ideas from numerous sources. Film, music, comic books, and even internet memes have inspired countless video games, some overtly, some in more subtle ways. Not surprisingly, literature has also been a rich source of inspiration for video game creators.
Video game staples such as knights, wizards, demons, and dragons can be traced back to the earliest literary creations. But there are also cases where particular books acted as a direct source of material for video games.
These games, perhaps unexpectedly, are few and far between, at least compared to games that borrow ideas from the general culture of the age. But those that do exist have made a strong impression on the gaming public, subsequently becoming landmarks in the history of video games.
In the remainder of this article, we will examine some of our favorite video games based on books.
1. Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) is a post-apocalyptic survival FPS developed by GSC Game World, a video game company from Ukraine. It takes place in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the bleak, mutant-infested area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Players take the role of stalkers, fortune seekers exploring the Zone in order to understand its mysteries.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was inspired by The Roadside Picnic (1972), a novella written by the Strugatsky brothers, two renowned Soviet sci-fi authors. The game also takes inspiration from Stalker, a movie by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t follow the plot of the book. Instead, it adopts the ominous atmosphere of the novella, and most gamers agree that it does an outstanding job.
2. Metro 2033
Another title from the former Eastern Bloc, Metro 2033 (2010) is a post-apocalyptic FPS developed by 4A Games Limited, a Ukrainian-Maltese game dev studio located in Malta. The game is set in the ruins of Moscow’s Metro system, humanity’s last hold-out after a worldwide nuclear catastrophe. Players assume the role of Artyom, a man seeking to save his home station from the horrors lurking within the Metro tunnels.
The game faithfully recreates the plot of the novel but also takes some creative liberties to make it work better as a video game. It does an excellent job of adapting the novel’s claustrophobic atmosphere into video game form.
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3. Dune II
Dune II (1992) is a real-time strategy game by Westwood Studios, a now-defunct video game company from Las Vegas, Nevada. The game chronicles the war between three factions fighting for control of the titular planet: the Atreides, the Harkonnen, and the Ordos. It is one of the earliest examples of real-time strategy gameplay, and it inspired countless other games.
Dune II was based on the sci-fi novel Arrakis (1965) by Frank Herbert, the first book in the series later known as the Dune franchise.
The game does a good job of simulating the harsh desert environment of Arrakis. The factions are also faithful to their literary counterparts, but the ecological, religious, and social themes, which form the core of the book’s narrative, are largely absent.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) is an action RPG by Polish developers CD Projekt Red. It is the third installment of the Witcher franchise, which follows the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a monster slayer for hire.
The game takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Slavic mythology, where mythical creatures such as Elves, Trolls, and Vodyanoi share an uneasy existence with humans. The game’s byzantine plot has many twists and turns, reminiscent of another fantasy franchise, Game of Thrones.
The Witcher series is based on the works of Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski, which include several novels and short story collections published in the period between 1990 and 2012.
The game is a faithful adaptation of the source material. The setting, the characters, and the atmosphere were recreated with great love and attention to detail, earning Witcher 3 a slew of video game awards. Witcher 3 remains one of the finest examples of how to adapt a book into a video game.
5. I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream
I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream (1995) is a point-and-click adventure game developed and published by two companies, Cyberdreams and The Dreamers Guild. It takes place in a dystopian future where an artificial intelligence called AM has exterminated all of humanity except for five people. AM keeps torturing these five by placing them in simulated realities based on their character flaws. Players interact with the game by making decisions centered around ethical dilemmas that deal with issues such as genocide, insanity, paranoia, and rape.
This grim masterpiece of a game was based on a novel of the same name by Harlan Ellison, originally published in 1967.
Ellison was directly involved in the game’s production, and it shows. The script is tight, the graphics are macabre, and the game oozes flair and atmosphere. It is one of the rare examples where a video game perfectly captures the elements that made the source material great.
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6. Starship Titanic
Starship Titanic (1998) is an adventure game developed by The Digital Village. The game takes place on the titular starship which has run aground on planet Earth. Players are tasked with restoring the craft to working condition and the gameplay involves standard adventure game fare such as solving puzzles and talking to various characters. Of note is the game’s built-in text parser, capable of understanding a variety of player inputs.
Starship Titanic doesn’t sound like a remarkable game until you get to the writing credits. The game was the brainchild of none other than Douglas Adams, the sci-fi writer who needs little introduction.
The game’s script is rife with Douglas’ trademark humor and wit and is brought to life by a stellar voice cast that includes Monty Python members Terry Jones and John Cleese. The game received mixed reviews due to what some perceived as archaic gameplay elements, but the writing remains superb and well worth the admission fee.
7. The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac (2011) is a roguelike adventure game by indie game author Edmund McMillen. It is centered around a small boy called Isaac and his many brothers and sisters, who are attempting to escape the wrath of their abusive mother by fleeing to the basement below their house. As their journey progresses, Isaac & co. go deeper and deeper into the maze, eventually reaching hell itself. On the way, they collect various trinkets and oddities which give them special abilities. They are also beset by a range of nightmarish enemies, including their malformed siblings, toxic flies, living blood clots, and even poop.
The Binding of Isaac was inspired by the eponymous episode in the Bible and features countless references to biblical stories, themes, and characters, including Cain, Judas, Magdalene, Samson, and Eve (the names given to Isaac’s siblings). The trinkets the children collect include rosaries, halos, crosses, and prayer cards. Enemies in the game include demons, angels, and even Satan himself. The game perfectly highlights the contrast between the Bible’s message of peace and its themes of violence and death.
8. Discworld Noir
Discworld Noir (1999) is an adventure game developed by Perfect Entertainment. It is set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe and follows Lewton, the city’s lone private eye, as he attempts to solve a murder case that will lead him into the occult underbelly of Ankh-Morpork, the world’s largest city. Most of the game takes place in conversation, with players interrogating potential suspects of the crime. Halfway through the game, Lewton becomes a werewolf, adding a new smell-based investigation mechanic to the game.
Unlike previous games set in the Discworld universe, Discworld Noir doesn’t follow the plot of any of the existing novels. Instead, it borrows characters and locales from Discworld to tell its own story. Terry Pratchett viewed the game as an alternative take on the Discworld universe. The game lacks Pratchett’s trademark humor, which was replaced by more somber, macabre elements, more in line with dark fantasy.
Bloodborne (2015) is a dark fantasy action RPG by From Software, the creators of the cult classic Dark Souls. The game is set in the crumbling, Victorian-Gothic-inspired city of Yharnam, whose inhabitants are afflicted with a blood plague that is slowly turning them into nightmarish beasts. The players are tasked with finding the source of the plague, and in the process, they unravel hidden mysteries surrounding the city’s eerie past.
While Bloodborne is not a direct adaption of a particular book, it does not hide its literary influences. On the surface, the game is inspired by classic horror tales such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But as you progress through the game, it becomes evident that Bloodborne is a direct homage to the surreal works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Classic horror monsters give way to abominations from the void beyond the stars, deranged cultists seek to enter strange dimensions of being, and nameless deities pull the strings behind the veil. Bloodborne is not a game for the fainthearted, but fans of H.P Lovecraft will revel in this unsettling game.
10. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (2003) is a post-apocalyptic JRPG by Atlus Studios, one of Japan’s most beloved game studios. SMT: Nocturne follows a high school student who undergoes a demonic transformation when a doomsday cult triggers the apocalypse. Stuck in a Vortex World centered around Tokyo, the once student, now Demi-fiend becomes a pawn in the battle between Reasons, conceptual entities seeking to transform reality in their image. The game uses a standard JRPG turn-based battle system based on exploiting the enemies’ weaknesses and a Demon recruitment mechanic that allows players to engage demons found in the Vortex World.
Few people know that the Megami Tensei franchise was inspired by a trilogy of science fantasy novels from the 80s called the Digital Devil Story, written by Aya Nishitani. The novels introduce the familiar demon summoning mechanics present in all Megami Tensei games. Megami Tensei, the aloof youth granted godlike powers and then forced to fight divine beings for the fate of reality, is also overtly inspired by the protagonist of Nishitani’s novels.
11. Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line (2012) is a military shooter by Yager Development, a Berlin-based game development studio. Players take on the role of Captain Martin Walker, a Delta Force operative sent to Dubai to aid in the relief efforts after the city was engulfed by a massive sandstorm. As Walker and his team progress through the city, they become engulfed in street violence between various factions fighting for control of the ruined city. The game features standard third-person shooter mechanics, admittedly with a much grimmer tone compared to similar games.
The direct inspiration for the game was Heart of Darkness (1899), the colonial tale by Joseph Conrad that also inspired the film Apocalypse Now. The game portrays the horrific realities of war in gruesome detail, rape, war crimes, and genocide being at the core of the game’s themes. This is a tough game to stomach, but it is honest in its brutality.
12. Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword
Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (2011) is a stand-alone expansion of the cult classic Mount & Blade: Warband. It is an action RPG where players control a band of warriors placed in a faux-European historical setting. The gameplay attempts to simulate life in a warband: players can recruit and equip warriors, raid caravans and villages, trade, become servants of various local lords, and even attempt to establish their own kingdoms.
Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword was inspired by the novel With Fire and Sword written by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1884. The novel depicts Poland’s 1648-1651 war against the Khmelnytsky Uprising in present-day Ukraine. All the main factions from the war, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Cossack Hetmanate, the Polish Commonwealth, the Muscovite Tsardom, and the Crimean Khanate, are present in the game. Players can side with these factions and change the course of history.
Despite their superficial differences, video games and books have a lot more in common than what is immediately apparent.
They are both creative expressions where imagination has the final say. This makes it possible to jump back and forth between the two mediums and gives rise to a number of excellent video games based on books.
Try out these games, and if you like them, don’t forget to check out the books they are based on.
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