Literary Video Games, Part Two

By Thomas Vose

In the previous article in this series, we looked at games based on books from earliest written history up until the 16th century. As we move on into the early modern period, one big-name author immediately stands out…

Elsinore (PC, 2019)

Based on: Hamlet (c. 1600)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

There don’t seem to be many games based on the works of Shakespeare, interestingly enough, but this one plays with the text in a very cool way. Ophelia gets to take center stage in this clever, nicely inclusive and well-written Groundhog Day-esque reinterpretation of Hamlet. Trying to prevent the tragedies that take place throughout Shakespeare’s play, and prodded by a mysterious figure named Quince, Ophelia relives the same four days over and over, interacting with characters, learning their motivations, developing new relationships, and trying to stave off the death of pretty much everyone she cares about. Of course, no ending is perfect, especially in a Shakespeare play, and the choices she makes can take a well-known story into some… interesting directions.

Super Don Quix-ote (Arcade, LaserDisc, 1984)

Based on: Don Quixote (1605)

(Screenshot sourced from Dragon’s Lair Project)

Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, of course, describes a delusional old man’s escapades across a Spanish countryside devoid of the fantasies he imagines for himself. This game ignores all of that and instead depicts a young knight named Don with rad sideburns killing a lot of mythical beasts to save a scantily-clad damsel in distress, in an apparent effort to achieve maximum irony. Rather than roll with the absurdity and social commentary of the book, this Dragon’s Lair clone (in which players input directions timed as the animation unspools) tells the story Cervantes’ hero was seeing in his head, only played straight.

Also, the dash in the title is incredibly aggravating for no especially good reason.

Arabian Nights (PC, 2002)

Based on: The Thousand Nights and a Night [The Arabian Nights] (18th century)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

There are quite a few games based on the Arabian Nights, as there are quite a few stories in the Nights to choose from. In addition to the mediocre Prince of Persia knockoff linked above (which really doesn’t draw too much from the stories apart from the setting), there are also: a very nice-looking Amiga platformer in which you control “Sindbad, Jr.;” The Magic of Scheherazade for the NES, an RPG which again has very little to do with the story but at least gives you a fun and unique gaming experience; Tales of the Arabian Nights, a top-tier Williams pinball machine with amazing music that actually does reference many of the stories; and many more.

Ever, Jane (PC, 2016)

Based on: The works of Jane Austen (d. 1817)

(Screenshot sourced from Ever, Jane official website)

While this massively multiplayer online RPG is based less on a single work than on a pastiche of the world she described so well, it contains many of the characters she created and encourages its players to attend dinner parties, gossip about one another, and develop their own elaborately beautiful Regency estate. The game is still a work in progress, having been in open beta for the last four years, but allows players to inhabit an Austen-esque world and play out their own stories – a bit like Second Life, only tasteful and theoretically with fewer utterly despicable people.

Frankenstein’s Monster (Atari 2600)

Based on: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

There are quite a few games based on Frankenstein, but most are closer to other sources than to the original. A 16-bit platformer and a pinball machine were made based on the movie “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” and of course the 1931 movie basically solidified the Monster’s depiction in popular culture and informed everything to follow. There are, however, some examples more closely tied to the book, such as an interactive book for iOS is available, and, of course this Atari masterpiece – after all, who can forget the gripping passages in Shelley’s masterpiece in which a lone villager lugs stones across the dangerous countryside to slowly wall up the creature before it comes to life? A more literary attempt can be found on the Commodore 64, which put out a text adventure based on the book in 1987.

The Three Musketeers: The Game (PC, 2009)

Based on: The Three Musketeers (1844)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

A small developer, Dingo Games, released this ambitious and respectful take on the novel that covers a lot of the book’s main plot points, tries to fill out the world of 17th century France, and has an engaging graphical style hampered somewhat by mediocre animations. Additionally, there is a cartoonish platformer starring Porthos that was released for WiiWare in 2009 to poor reviews, but my memory of the book unfortunately does not extend to a bulbous-nosed Porthos having to jump through obstacles to rescue his friends from captivity.

Nantucket (PC, 2018)

Based on: Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

This game positions itself as a sequel of sorts, putting the player in the role of Ishmael shortly after the wreck of the Pequod and letting them loose on the high seas to pursue their own whaling career. Players recruit and manage a crew, obtain supplies and plot courses to explore the Atlantic, and the actual battles with whales are often fatal reminders of what powerful animals they can be. Impressively illustrated and atmospheric, the game manages to convey some of the fascination with the sea and the lifestyle it fostered found in Melville’s book.

Walden, a game (PS4, PC, 2017)

Based on: Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1854)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

An incredibly relaxing experience, this game was developed with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the effort put into it shows. While there is a great deal of irony to swallow in playing a video game based on a book that decried materialism and served as a paean to simple outdoor living, the experience itself is definitely worthwhile. As Thoreau, players can wander the beautifully rendered woods, visit Emerson’s house or the village of Concord, boat on the lake, fish, pick berries, or take note of the local flora and fauna, all with flavor text drawn from the book itself – at the end of every day, Thoreau’s experiences are collated in a way that feels like the player is writing their own version of the book. Players may even decide whether to pay their taxes or accept consequences for their disobedience…

ArmJoe (PC, 1998)

Based on: Les Misérables (1862)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

The Japanese translation of Les Misérables translates as “Ah, Cruelty,” or “Aa Mujou,” which explains that, even if it doesn’t necessarily explain the existence of a game in which the book’s characters beat the hell out of each other. Still, one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as the game itself is actually pretty good, with impressive sprite work and the crazy, over-the-top sort of moves found in Capcom fighting games of the 1990s. Also, it has a robot version of Jean Valjean, an inexplicable bunny named Ponpon, and the incarnation of Judgment itself as the final boss.

80 Days (PC, iOS, Android, Switch, 2014)

Based on: Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

A very clever interpretation of the book, this game puts players in the role of Passepartout as he attempts to help his employer, Phileas Fogg, make it around the world in eighty days to win his famous bet. Of course, in the game, one is not restricted to the path Fogg chose in the book but can range all over the globe, and depending on the routes chosen and people met along the way, the story can unfold significantly differently (and a dollop of steampunk technology not found in the book adds some spice that Jules Verne may or may not have appreciated, but his contemporary Wells would have). This title is a definite standout, and is fortunately easy to obtain for those wishing to try it.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (NES, 1989)

Based on: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

(Screenshot sourced from MobyGames)

There are actually two games from the 8-bit era based on Tom Sawyer. The first, pictured above, is a forgettable platformer in which Tom (and Huck, if two people are playing) travel through a dream Tom is having in which all wildlife is attempting to murder him (par for the course in games of the era) and he has to whip rocks at them, as well as the occasional pirate, ghosts or dragon to save Becky from Injun Joe, present as a cringeworthy Native American stereotype. The second, Square’s Tom Sawyer, is a role-playing game that leaned even more heavily into the racism, and was never released in the US, due at least in part to the infamous caricature of Jim the developers somehow thought was a good idea to include.

In the final installment of this series next week, we’ll move into the twentieth century, where some surprising books managed to find themselves adapted into a playable form…

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

2 comments

  1. I very much enjoyed playing The Three Musketeers: The Game (PC, 2009) and wished there were more games like this out there. Everything was pleasant, the graphics, soundtracks, gameplay and the story.
    Nowadays people wonder if story rich single player games are ever going to be anything like before.

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