Literary Video Games, Part Three

By Thomas Vose

Part One, covering the classics up to the 16th century, can be found here, while Part Two, describing games based on books from the 17th to 19th centuries, can be found here.

The conclusion of these articles brings us into the twentieth century, and the proliferation of literary genres developed over that time has resulted in some pretty wild adaptations…

Kim (PC, 2016)

Based on: Kim (1901)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

The “Great Game” makes for a pretty good game, after all. Kipling’s story of Kimball O’Hara’s eventful upbringing in colonial-era India was recently adapted into a top-down open world adventure game with Metal Gear-style stealth elements. The game is certainly pretty and evocative of the period Kipling described (though filtered through his romantically imperialist lens), and freely traversing the subcontinent as Kim changes every time due to procedurally generated maps, creating an experience where discovery is everything.

Joycestick (PC VR, 2017?)

Based on: Ulysses (1922)

(Screenshot sourced from Boston College)

While this interactive virtual reality exploration of Leopold Bloom’s Dublin was evidently developed by students at Boston College, the work itself seems to no longer be available – the game’s website is gone and scattered screenshots in a few associated news articles are all that can be found. The idea is clever, and intelligibly reenacting Bloomsday in first person has its attractions. One might argue, however, that making Ulysses a more comprehensible experience defeats the purpose somewhat. We’ll see if anyone is similarly inspired to try adapting “Finnegan’s Wake” after this…

The Great Gatsby (PC, 2011)

Based on: The Great Gatsby (1925)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

One has to admire the effort the developers of this game put into creating a mythos around it, mocking up a retro-styled advertisement and an origin story involving a mysterious cartridge purportedly found at a yard sale. The music, text and graphics all capture the feel of the NES era very well, and the cutscenes between levels are well-animated (as is the intro screen – a well-digitized replica of the book’s cover). In the game, Nick flings his hat at an unending stream of waiters, flappers, hobos and drunks trying to find Gatsby and collecting omnipresent coins to earn 1-ups and martinis to restore his health. While controlling a sidescrolling platformer with a keyboard is and always will be a miserable experience, the game is definitely worth a look.

Cthulhu Saves the World (PC, Xbox 360, 2011)

Based on: The works of H. P. Lovecraft (d. 1937)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Lovecraft’s works and characters have made it into plenty of games over the years, and while the recent big budget Call of Cthulhu (Xbox One, PC, PS4, Switch) might be a more straightforward adaptation of the mythos he created (minus the nasty strain of racism running throughout his works), this effort by Zeboyd Games is a fun and clever JRPG that plays with the character of the unfathomably evil elder god by making him a hero in a Dragon Quest-esque parody. A sequel, Cthulhu Saves Christmas, is also available for those that want to take on the Krampus and associated holiday villains.

Waiting for Grodoudou (PC, 2011)

Based on: Waiting for Godot (1953)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

While not much of a “game” so much as an “interactive joke,” this lawyer-friendly parody does capture the scenery and plot of Beckett’s play, and certainly involves a lot of waiting. At least the periodic boss fights are fairly epic, and two players can join the fun, though the dark banter of the play is their responsibility, as the game is sadly dialogue-free.

Fahrenheit 451 (PC, Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari ST, MSX; 1984)

Based on: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

There is a certain level of irony involved in adapting Fahrenheit 451 to a screen-based device, potentially one played with headphones on – and especially to a medium criticized (however unfairly) for desensitizing people to violence and shortening their attention span. Ray Bradbury himself actually contributed to this game, however, which is a sequel to the events of the book that takes Guy Montag into the New York Public Library to help the resistance save the Library’s holdings. A text adventure with limited graphics, reading text and typing responses is the focus of the gameplay, and dystopian New York is at least an interesting place to explore – so long as you don’t get immediately mauled to death by a random tiger. That can happen.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream (PC, iOS, Android; 1995)

Based on: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (1967)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

As with the previous entry, the author actively participated in this point-and-click adventure game – indeed, it’s Harlan Ellison’s voice that torments the protagonists as the supercomputer AM. While the game basically follows the plot of the book, it can have a different outcome – indeed, depending on the player’s actions, there is actually the potential for a happy(ish) ending. While old, the game does hold up very well as a disturbing and atmospheric look at humanity in the face of unrelenting horror, and has been recently ported to smartphones for those interested in trying it out.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (PC, Atari ST, Apple II, Commodore 64; 1984)

Based on: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Aside from Zork, this title remains one of the most well-known text adventure games, famous for its excellent writing by Douglas Adams himself (as the screenshot above nicely shows) and infamous for the ridiculous difficulty of its puzzles. With walkthroughs easily available online now, the latter concern is relatively minor, but players in the mid-1980s had to be intimately familiar with the book’s story – and even then, it was a crapshoot. The game ends well before the book does and plans for a sequel were in place (the game sold quite well for the time), but with Adams bailing out and Infocom suffering financially, it was canned. The BBC released a “30th Anniversary” version with limited graphics, linked above, but makes sure to tell you up front that “The game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.”

Neuromancer (PC, Amiga, Apple II, Commodore 64; 1988)

Based on: Neuromancer (1984)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Before Cyberpunk 2077 there was Neuromancer, with its author William Gibson arguably the founding father of the cyberpunk genre. The book remains extremely prescient in its description of things like virtual reality, hacking, the Internet and artificial intelligence, and is essential reading for any sci-fi fan. The game, however, is a forgettable ’80s point-and-click adventure with decent graphics for the time (as long as you’re using an Amiga, anyway) and an interesting mechanic by which Case, the protagonist, deals with threats in cyberspace using programs in a way that foreshadows Shadowrun. The Pong references are a cute touch, though…

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (PC, PS4, Xbox One, iOS; 2017)

Based on: The Pillars of the Earth (1989)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

Continuing the trend of adapting novels to point-and click adventure games is this title, though the developers poured a lot of love into making the setting of twelfth-century England shine. Like previous titles, the author’s voice shows in not only the story, as Ken Follett took the role of the Cantor for the game, putting his imprimatur on its production. Graphics and animation are stellar – there are some truly impressive vistas to be seen – and the story hews closely to that of the book, but gives players a chance to influence events differently in some ways.

Game development continues apace, of course, and as technology improves and developers flex their creativity, one wonders which titles will be adapted next. A point and click based on the diary of Samuel Pepys? A platformer starring Gilgamesh? A match-three game based on the works of Plato? The Brothers Karamazov: The RPG? A poetry-based first person shooter? Let’s make it happen!

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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