Literary Video Games, Part One

By Thomas Vose

Video games based on books are nothing new, and several big-name titles have literary inspirations. The Witcher games, enjoying a surge of popularity right now based on the streaming series, are of course based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s (really quite excellent) books. The Nancy Drew series has inspired a truly impressive number of games with their own dedicated fanbase, beating out her predecessor Sherlock Holmes in raw numbers. There are almost as many games with Tom Clancy’s name slapped on them as there are books, and his death certainly hasn’t slowed either down any. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings have their own games, generally (though not always) based more on the movies than on the books. And then one has to consider the innumerable games of widely varying quality based on superheroes from graphic novels.

Some games, however, may come as a bit more of a surprise. Spider-Man may be a natural fit for digital adventures, but how about Jean Valjean? The Wife of Bath? Henry David Thoreau? Exploring some of the more esoteric games based on classical literature is a real eyebrow-raiser at times. While these articles can’t pretend to be comprehensive, here’s a look at some perhaps lesser-known titles from which game designers have (however misguidedly) drawn inspiration, starting at the dawn of literature itself with…

Tales of the Mahabharata (PC, 2018)

Based on: The Mahabharata (4th century BCE)

(Screenshot sourced from Steam)

Created using the popularly available RPG Maker toolset, this ambitious action RPG takes on the massive challenge of covering the extremely long and involved (1.8 million word) Hindu sacred text, the Mahabharata – a story of gods, dynastic conflict, and generations of war, interwoven with philosophy central to Hindu thought. This game lets you take on the role of central figures in the conflict, including the Pandavas Yudhishthira and Arjuna and the Kaurava commander Bhishma. While the graphics are par for the course for an RPG Maker game – tile based and simplistic – the game itself seems to have been a genuine labor of love.

Ramayana (PC, 2015)

Based on: Ramayana (3rd century BCE)

(Screenshot sourced from Steam)

While the Mahabarata deals with an ensemble cast, the Ramayana is focused on a central protagonist, Rama, a legendary ruler and avatar of the god Vishnu. This arguably lends itself better for conversion to an action-packed video game, especially a real-time strategy game in which you’re in command of an army of monkeys trying to kill a demon lord that kidnapped your wife. Unfortunately, while the passion and story were there, the skill and/or manpower wasn’t – developed by a single person (to whom credit must be given for creating a working game at all), the character models are outdated and copy/pasted to a distracting degree, the character animations are laughably bad, and the whole thing has nasty performance issues.

Bible Adventures (NES, 1991, PC, Genesis 1994)

Based on: The Bible

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

An entire book (and a fascinating one at that) has been written about the circumstances surrounding the creation of Bible Adventures, an NES game originally designed to bypass the system’s lockout chip and by extension Nintendo’s official licensing process. Frequently seen on lists of “worst NES games ever,” while hampered with controls that the game interprets more as suggestions, the game itself isn’t too bad by the standards of the time, and there can be fun to be had schlepping around animals as Noah, Moses as his mother, or sheep as David (the three “adventures” share the same mechanics). The PC version is available via Internet Archive at the link above, so give throwing Baby Moses into the river a try for yourself.

Odyssey: The Search for Ulysses (PC, 2000)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Based on: The Odyssey (8th century BCE)

Sadly, as the title indicates, you don’t get to play as Odysseus/Ulysses in this game but as his old (and hitherto unknown) friend Heritias, whom Penelope apparently sent on a winding journey of his own to find her husband. Reviews of the game employ terms like “adequate,” “decent” and “passable” as opposed to terms like “fun,” so it didn’t set the world on fire at the time, though it evidently did frustrate a lot of people with steep difficulty and unintuitive puzzles. If you prefer your Greek mythology in dog form, Wishbone and the Amazing Odyssey (Mac, 1996) is another alternative aimed at kids which replaces Odysseus with a Jack Russell Terrier.

Warriors: Legends of Troy (PS3, Xbox 360, 2011)

Based on: The Iliad (8th century BCE)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

For those unfamiliar, the “musou” genre involves hacking through an army of enemies on a battlefield – loads of fun at first, but it can get tiresome after the 1500th (no exaggeration) soldier chopped into chum by your hand in one battle. Koei’s Dynasty Warriors is the ur-example of this genre, but they have applied that successful template over the years to a wide variety of subjects, including the Legend of Zelda, Gundam, feudal Japan, and the Trojan War. Warriors looks good and plays well for fans of the genre, replicating some moments in the story and throwing in a lot of supernatural elements and enemies for good measure – even including a riff on the Aeneid at the end in which Aeneas is playable during his escape from the city.

Dante’s Inferno (PS3, PSP, Xbox 360, 2010)

Based on: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (1320)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

This one represents more of… a departure from the original text, as one might imagine from a game that starts you out beating the crap out of Death and taking his stuff and ends with you beating the crap out of the Devil to get Beatrice’s soul back. Oh, and Dante is now a soldier that committed horrible atrocities in the Crusades, and has to kill his way through Hell to redeem himself. A shameless clone of the then-popular God of War series, this effort relied heavily on over-the-top edginess and an obnoxious marketing campaign, and while it draws from elements of the book in the structure of Hell and the characters Dante meets, anything genuinely reflective or thoughtful lies chained up and whimpering in a corner.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (various), Dynasty Warriors (various)

Based on: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century)

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, NES (Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)
Dynasty Warriors 9, Playstation 4 (Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

The Japanese developer Koei has been making games since 1985 drawing on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese masterpiece of historiography describing the chaotic Three Kingdoms period of the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. The Romance has a massive number of characters to keep track of in grand, overarching stories, as well as smaller vignettes based on the lives of the major figures of the time. Their games have spanned two genres – grand strategy (Romance) and the Musou genre they developed described above (Warriors), and while famed for their often hilariously bad English voice acting, remain well regarded by fans and generally faithful to the source material (aside from those instances when your actions can change the course of history “what if?” style). Sega also recently put out an entry in their “Total War” military strategy series entitled “Total War: Three Kingdoms” based on the events described in the Romance.

The Road to Canterbury (PC, 2018)

Based on: The Canterbury Tales (1400)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Interactive fiction still has its aficionados in this day of ray-traced 4K 60 FPS graphics, and Kate Heartfield’s game draws on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (with Chaucer himself as a character) and interact with the many different personalities on the eponymous road in the fourteenth century. While the adventure is more inspired by the original work rather than drawing on it directly, the presence of a storytelling contest is well in the spirit of Chaucer and the writing is well done. Players will also appreciate the presence of modern language as opposed to going for historical accuracy with Middle English…

Saiyuki: Journey West (Playstation, 2001)

Based on: Journey to the West (16th century)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, has been in a lot of games in one form or another, though many of those never made it to Western audiences (though his spiritual successor, Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, is a lot better known here). This game follows the basics of the original story in a Final Fantasy Tactics-style battle system, in which the monk Tang Sanzang travels west to India with his companions to bring the wisdom of the Buddhas back to China. It was little known at the time, but reasonably well-received, and its graphics and gameplay hold up. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West represents a more recent sci-fi take on the story that received good press at its 2010 release (and features motion capture work from Andy Serkis to boot).

Next week we’ll take up our literary journey in the 17th century and discover what game designers did with books from the early modern and Victorian periods – there are some pretty insane selections to choose from…

Thomas Vose is the director of the Ruth Enlow Library of Garrett County, and is endlessly fascinated by the random weirdness of the world.

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