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More Thoughts on that Literature Article

March 5th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Gamespy, Me, Media

Other People’s Stories was one of the easiest articles I’ve ever written. As EA’s Jonathan Knight says of Dante’s Inferno, the ideas are so big. It’s impossible not to find an angle or know what questions to ask. Not everyone I asked for input replied to my queries, and that ended up being OK since I have enough material for another 2500 words – easily.

I chose to focus on relatively recent games, though there were lots of other possibilities. The Tolkien games and how they have changed with the fortunes of that literary franchise, a teeth-clenchingly difficult adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, how Romance of the Three Kingdoms has retained its strong historical and literary roots on platforms that are generally resistant to that sort of thing, American McGee’s attempts to turn not just Alice but also Grimm fairy tales into horror games and what this says about his sense of authorship…the possibilities were really endless. I wrote the first thousand words in a couple of hours.

As I note in my conclusion, one of the problems with adaptations is the constraint of genre conventions. AAA games seem to be reducing their genre breadth, making it very difficult to imagine adaptations in new forms. Most of us are not designers and see the media we know through the lenses we have in front of us. So, I see The Song of Ice and Fire as a Kingmaker/Crusader Kings type game, not a Heavy Rain style exploration of character and meaning.

Ironically, games are getting better at telling original stories even as they still struggle with adapting other people’s work. This should not be a sign that adaptations are a bad thing or that they can’t be done, only that I think that game developers should take some ownership of the stories they are adapting and consider what makes those stories so powerful. Yes, Dragonlance will always be an RPG; Beowulf could be almost anything.

To Knight’s credit, he has seriously thought about Dante and the game. When I asked him why EA’s Limbo was nothing like that in the poem, he explained that the player had just fought his way into hell; giving him/her a rolling meadow with a castle and lounging historical celebrities would break the pacing. I am sympathetic to the idea that there was no need to have Dante’s named attached at all – they could appropriate his hell and imagery and not bring up the poet at all. But, like it or not, the Western Canon is still a powerful brand and that name itself is probably responsible for a lot of the coverage for what is, at its core, a God of War-type action game. Knight and his team knew exactly what they were doing, and he knows this poem inside and out. Yes, the setting was the big draw but they didn’t stop there.

One side note: If these are the sorts of feature stories that you want to see, instead of simply long think-pieces (op-eds stretched over 1000 words), you need to support them by referring your friends to them or commenting there on Gamespy instead of here – even though you know I love and cherish all of your opinions. Ryan Scott has made it sort of a mission to acquire good writing for this sort of thing (including my friends Julian Murdoch and Lara Crigger) and it can only really be supported if he has the page views to justify the cost. In an eye-ball driven business like contemporary games journalism, I think we get what we deserve – support this stuff instead of Top 10 Lists.

Unless I have written that Top 10 List, because daddy has to eat.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Chris Floyd

    It sounds to me like what Visceral did with the WORLD of the Inferno is a lot more forgivable–that is, it’s closer to good adaptation–than what they did with the characters. It might be interesting to compare this game with Irrational’s The Lost, a console title that never got released. I don’t know how much information ever really got released about it, but I happened to get to play through a chunk of it when I was a lead tester at a small publisher that considered picking it up. It drew heavily on Dante, but the main character was a modern woman whose child was stolen away into Hell. In many ways, it wasn’t as “purist” in intent as Visceral’s game–I think the idea of sticking with medieval elements probably was smart; Irrational was all over the map with its game elements, including a conniving guide named “Virgil,” modern set pieces, and a player character who had melded souls with two other characters and could switch between them, Trine-style.

    Anyway, bringing in Dante/Virgil/Beatrice as side characters to a story centered on a differently named Crusader would probably ultimately be more faithful, less cognitively dissonant to those familiar with the canon, and not offend the hell out of us Dante fanboys. Don’t mess with Beatrice, man. Just… Don’t.

    Great, great piece, Troy. Sorry for not commenting over at Gamespy, but I’m not inclined to register myself with them.

  • Kingdaddy

    When will we see a first-person shooter titled The Bible?

  • WCG

    That was an interesting article, but maybe we’re looking at games all wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t even be trying to tell a story – which is, after all, too linear to take advantage of gaming’s real advantages – and instead let gamers tell their own stories.

    Look, for example, at Mount&Blade. Look at Dwarf Fortress, UnReal World, Aurora. Are mainstream games getting it wrong by imitating movies? Is this the wrong direction for gaming?

    It makes sense for a movie to adapt a book to the screen, since both media are linear. But games are interactive. Games let players make choices, choices that then impact the gameworld. RPGs try to give players meaningful options, even supplying multiple endings, and sometimes multiple paths through the game.

    But aren’t these only half-measures? Why not let the player create his own story? Isn’t that the REAL future for computer games? What if developers create a world, a setting with its own history, and populate it with NPCs who simply act, as much as possible, as people would? The story would be your own – completely. Yes, you’d start at the same point as everyone else, but no two games would be at all alike past that.

    I’ve always thought the story was important in a computer game, but I’m beginning to rethink that. I’m starting to think that we’ve been misled by the example of movies, that this is entirely the wrong direction for games. True or not, it’s an interesting idea, isn’t it?

  • Bruce

    Yeah, the “games let players tell their own stories” has pretty much been the counter-argument to the “games suck at telling stories” criticism for years. I don’t think the word “adaptation” works for game versions of books/movies is really appropriate, or it should be clear that it is simply referring to the setting. I don’t see much point in translating a book or movie “story” to a game since the more faithful the game is to the story, the worse it is as a game. As I interpret your last post, Troy, Dragonlance is a setting, whereas Beowulf is a story. I think that’s very accurate. That’s why you can make a Dragonlance game but not really a Beowulf game. Have you ever played the Reiner Knizia Beowulf boardgame (Beowulf the Legend)? It’s an auction game. I don’t see a lot of people getting all mad that it distorts the legend of Beowulf by making it be about auctions. I’m not sure why people get all worked up about this stuff. The reason any of these things have value as art is that they teach us something about ourselves or life in general. Books and movies can do that, but games really don’t in any way that has to do with them being games. So I don’t see what the argument is.