20 Awesome Books Ready For Video Game Adaptations
In an industry increasingly saturated by sequels and HD remakes, fresh franchises are yearned for by gamers. Sometimes these franchises appear out of nowhere and become hits like the relatively recent Dead Space series. Sometimes I wonder why there aren’t more adaptations of books into video games.
So this is both an attempt to help game studios look for potential new franchises, and an excuse for me to recommend you some of my favourite books re-imagined as games.
Book: James Clavell’s Asian Saga
Game format: Strategy
Similar Games: Crusader Kings 2
Why it would work: Clavell’s sprawling saga of dynasty and legacy begins in 1600-era Japan just before Tokugawa Ieyasu begins his shogunate, and with each subsequent book jumps forward in time to places like Hong Kong in 1841 and 1963, and finally culminates in the 1979 Iranian revolution. The major aspect tying most of the books together is Struan’s trading company.
The novels are mammoth sagas filled with complex relationships, intrigue, war, espionage, and populated by hundreds of characters all scheming against each other. The best way to sell it to a modern audience would be to say it’s essentially a precursor of sorts to the scale of politics and intrigue in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels.
Clavell’s Shogun, which is about an English ship pilot crashing on the shores of the country and becoming immersed into the samurai way of life, has been previously adapted to a word-based RPG back in 1989. But as a fully-fledged strategy game you would experience different eras of history not often utilised in video games. Shogun: Total War is a real time strategy game set in Japan during this period, but in Clavell’s take human relationships and factions would take priority over large battles.
In Shogun, you would help Tokugawa consolidate and become, well, shogun of Japan. In Tai Pan you must colonise pirate-infested Hong Kong which is ripe and for the taking. Revisiting Japan in 1862 you must deal with the yakuza and the end of the samurai era. Back in Hong Kong in the swinging 60s it’s all about corporate espionage with a three-way battle between the CIA, KGB and Chinese spies from the mainland. Finally there is the revolution in Iran and Struan’s attempt to exfiltrate its employees from the riot-torn country, while discovering untapped oil in the North Sea while fending off its rivals.
How you do in one era will inform what happens in the next, so hopefully replaying the game will always be a new experience, much like Crusader Kings 2. The ultimate hook is that of keeping a blood line alive and building up Struan’s company through the years into a force to be reckoned with while dealing with rivals and natural disasters. You start as a ragtag company bordering on piracy in the South China seas but by 1979 you are a powerful conglomerate and have to contend with the KGB and CIA interfering with your life.
The concept of building a business over time sounds familiar and done before, but Clavell’s saga is memorable for the complex relationships, and so to differentiate it from CK2 the games should focus on that aspect. Strategy games have made leaps and strides the last decade in that respect, but it’s time to bring characters more to the forefront, rather than small icons with captions.
Perhaps by the end gamers will have learned the nuances of business negotiations, becoming ruthless masters and manipulators of people and profit, while also learning about the history and culture of Japan, Hong Kong and Iran.
Book: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Game format: Indie, puzzle
Similar Games: Journey, Portal
Why it would work: Haruki Murakami’s works deal with surreal fantasy dreamscapes and seem perfect for immersing gamers into bizarre worlds that explore psychology and the nature of the conscious mind.
Hard-Boiled in particular features two unique worlds which you could explore, the cyberpunk-esque real world, and the Haibane Renmei-esque dream world.
I’m thinking Portal-esque puzzles, or Journey-esque landscapes that delve into philosophical areas, rather than a simple attempt to escape an environment. Perhaps each puzzle or area of the game reveals something, well, revelatory, and what you do with that information not only informs your character’s fate, but your own world-view. Wouldn’t it be nice for a game to challenge you like that? To not ask you to simply kill or not kill someone as most games do, but to offer you more complex choices. Knowing Murakami they might be psychological and sexual in nature. In dreams anything is possible.
Book: Altered Carbon
Game format: FPS or third person, investigative with action
Similar Games: Deus Ex, Cyberpunk 2077 (probably)
Why it would work: Richard K. Morgan’s Kovacs’ trilogy is gritty hard-boiled cyberpunk with visceral violence and mind-bending concepts. Imagine being able to upload your consciousness into other bodies, called ‘sleeves’. Imagine uploading your mind into a virtual space to have sexual adventures with someone, having months go by in there, while in the real world only minutes pass by. Imagine the reverse of that, being tortured in horrible ways for what feels like eternity, but in reality only an hour has gone by.
Imagine a neo-noir narrative sending you on a journey through rainy neon-lit alleys, getting into brutal fights and navigating through different virtual realities, all the while struggling to deal with the aftermath of such technology. A sub-plot in the first novel is that in a world populated by people for whom death is just an irritant, Catholics have spurned the technology and remained in natural human bodies. Added to that is the fact that the sleeve you’re currently occupying belonged to the husband of the woman who you’re meant to be working with on a criminal case. Awkward.
Imagine a FPS in the crime mystery genre, a game that elevates itself above action hijinks and has you somehow reconcile the convenience of technology with the criminal repercussions inherent to it.
Book: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series
Game format: Point and click adventure
Similar Games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword, Sam & Max
Why it would work: Pratchett’s Discworld series is the ultimate subversion and satire of the fantasy genre, going beyond it to lampoon all genres you can think of within the fantasy genre context. More than anything, they’re just damn funny novels, and what I feel is missing a lot in video games in this era is: humour.
When was the last time you genuinely laughed out loud at something occurring in a video game that wasn’t due to a bug, but because of genuine humour? These moments are few and far between, because games are so hell-bent on having us save the world from impending doom all the time. Everything has to be dark and gritty, controversial and edgy. Everyone’s wearing dark colours and scowls on their faces.
How about a game that does not take itself seriously like the very best of the 90’s, as we’ve seen with games such as Monkey Island and Sam & Max? (yes, I’m showing my age now) There have been several games based on Discworld, though it’s been over a decade since the last one. Time to fix that.
Game format: Exploration, cover-based non-shooter
Similar Games: Uncharted, Tomb Raider
Why it would work: Tintin is one of the world’s biggest and most well known comics, and is ripe for adaptation in the manner of Tomb Raider and Uncharted. A third person perspective, on a linear narrative following any of the 24 books, utilising lots of exploration and adventure.
What will make it stand out, other than the beloved stories, will hopefully be the banter and interplay between Tintin and his friends and enemies, as well as the unique locales from Peru to Jakarta, Tintin will ultimately be a nice counter-point to the adult nature of the two franchises mentioned above.
Not too cute, not too mature, but a nice in-between space where people of all ages can re-live Tintin’s adventures as high budget and hi-octane adventures that don’t rely on killing everyone in sight. There have been several games made from the franchise, with the most recent to coincide with Spielberg’s take on the character, but inevitably the game felt like a typical tie-in and very cheap. Tintin needs the Naughty Dog treatment. Snowy would agree.
Book: The Stars My Destination
Game format: RPG, cover-based shooter
Similar Games: Mass Effect, Dead Space
Why it would work: Often hailed as the first cyberpunk ever written, Alfred Bester’s book came out in 1956, but to this day still feels fresh and full of attitude. It’s one of the angriest books I’ve ever read, with an uneducated brute called Gully Foyle seeking revenge on the pilot of a space craft that floated by his own destroyed husk of a ship. Somehow he manages to survive his predicament, and sets about venting all his pent-up rage on whoever ignored him when he needed to be saved. Oh, also this is a world where people can teleport.
The world-building is brilliant because it attempts to handle the logistics of what a world would feel like if people could teleport. societies have to adapt to the weird ability. Suffice to say, games like Dishonored have handled that particular superpower, but that doesn’t make it any less cool when it becomes available to gamers.
This could be teleporting on another level, and combined with Bester’s subversive story, in the hands of a studio like Visceral Games, it could be another amazing narrative journey to send gamers on.
Book: The Diamond Age
Game format: Exploration, puzzle, cover-based shooter
Similar Games: Cyberpunk 2077 (please be good), Deus Ex, Myst, Minecraft, Game & Wario
Why it would work: In Neil Stephenson’s cyberpunk fairy tale, a young girl living in poverty comes into possession of an interactive book called the Primer, which was originally meant to be a present for a girl from the upper class. This strange e-book of sorts has an AI that evolves and caters for whoever the reader is, generating a virtual world and oblique lessons specialised to the individual. It ensures the girl receives an education that stimulates her mind in unconventional ways, and ultimately helps pull her out of the slums.
The Primer is the definition of a tutorial stage, but in a subversion of that it could continue throughout the whole game, evolving from a mere game tutorial to something bigger. Eventually Diamond Age would splinter into two concurrent games. The surface game revolves around Nell and her journey through Stephenson’s dystopia of New Chusan, avoiding her deranged step-dad and authorities intent on capturing her and throwing her into foster care. The second inner game would revolve around her avatar inside the fantasy genre of the Primer, learning everything a girl needs to learn in order to become a strong analytical woman. One world impacts the other, the more she learns in the Primer, the more she changes in the real world. Great potential abounds.
Book: To The White Sea
Game format: Exploration, sandbox stealth
Similar Games: Operation Flashpoint, Half-Life 2, DayZ
Why it would work: It’s 1945. Pilot Muldrow is flying a bomber over Japan and is shot down. He survives, but is now surrounded by a nation of Japanese. Now what? Author James Dickey’s ambitious novel charts an epic journey behind enemy lines and features a stoic character who doesn’t speak to a single human being as he struggles to evade the Japanese and survive long enough to get to safety. Safety for Muldrow means getting to the snowy landscape of Hokkaido up in the north, which reminds him of his upbringing in Alaska.
Stealth is the main angle here as you have to navigate your way through a war-torn country without being noticed by the populace. Utilising disguises, shadow-stalking and whatever means of transport available to you, this game would have the ability to force you into difficult choices questioning your moral code. Sneaking onto a farm to grab a chicken, you’re suddenly spotted by a child. What do you do? Run for it and hope you’re not captured, or deal with the kid in some way?
The novel does not paint Muldrow as a heroic character, there’s no hand-holding going on. He’s simply a hardened slightly unhinged character doing what it takes to survive.
With game mechanics forcing you to find protection and sustenance on your fraught journey, it could have the makings of a classic survivalist stealth game that descends into hallucinatory meditation on solitude and perseverance. Bit of trivia for you: in the 90s the Coen Brothers wrote a script adaptation that would have starred Brad Pitt, and would have featured no dialogue whatsoever for the running time. It would have been amazing.
Game format: MMO
Similar Games: The Matrix MMO, Watch Dogs
Why it would work: The cyberpunk novel that kick-started it all. Sure, other novels of a cyberpunk nature had preceded it, but this was the one that changed the game and ascended above its literary nature to become a part of pop culture. It would be too obvious to have it be a FPS or third person actioner, since we’ve had the likes of Deus Ex and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, so what else could we do with this property?
How about taking a cue from the novel and its pioneering use of a virtual world called the Matrix by emulating it with an MMO. A variety of co-op missions could involve teams of hardened cyber-criminals coming together to carry off the kind of crimes one would find in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.
Book: Rendezvous With Rama
Game format: Exploration, sandbox
Similar Games: Myst, Dead Space, Portal
Why it would work: Arthur C. Clarke’s mystery revolves around the inexplicable arrival of a cylindrical alien craft spanning 50 kilometres and devoid of its makers. A team of scientists fly up to investigate it and discover awe-inspiring sights and work to unlock the star-ship’s mysteries.
This could have the eerie ambience of Myst coupled with the tension of Dead Space and the puzzles of Portal. With narrative and dialogue from Clarke, gamers could be in for a fresh experience where you have no idea what to expect around every corner.
Game format: Stealth, Horror
Similar Games: Resident Evil (minus zombies), Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Heavy Rain
Why it would work: Dean Koontz’s thriller is set during a brief period of time where college student Chyna encounters a serial killer who massacres a family and as he drives away from their residence, Chyna finds herself hidden in the back of his motor home. While waiting for her chance to get away she discovers that the killer has a live victim back at his home, and so she decides to do something about it.
I think the most effective way to transition this thriller to the video game format is via first person stealth. The main character isn’t a muscle-bound crew-cut soldier, she’s a regular person scared out of her wits but somehow finding the courage to take matters into her own hands to save someone. The opportunity for goosebump moments experienced in games like Amnesia are numerous in this kind of story, with your character’s fear and stress emboldening the villain’s appearance and presence. It could be a great way to explore the nature of fear, and how it can control you and affect your perception.
Book: The Sirens of Titan
Game format: Point and click adventure
Similar Games: Broken Sword
Why it would work: As mentioned above with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, funny games have become rare in this wintery climate. We used to have humour in the 90’s with Sam and Max, etc., but now everything is so serious. With Vonnegut’s tale, there’s a chance for more offbeat humour as we follow Malachi Constant, the richest man in 22nd century America who crosses paths with Winston Niles Rumfoord, an unlucky chap who has a condition that causes him to turn into pure energy and materialise sporadically on Earth when he’s not materialising on other planets. He can also see past and future, and sets about sending Malachi on an epic planet-hopping journey that becomes a meditation on the nature of free will.
Sounds deep, but Vonnegut was an utterly merciless writer when it came to wit and irony, his brand of humour did not beat around the bush but explored seriously weighty topics with a deft touch. Telling the narrative via an old school point and click adventure game seems to me the best way to retain the story and keep a lot of Vonnegut’s prose and dialogue intact.
Book: Permutation City / Diaspora
Game format: Strategy
Similar Games: Populous, Sim City, Civilisation
Why it would work: Greg Egan’s novels are the most challenging, mind-bending works I’ve ever read. Incredibly hard sci-fi that scares off casual readers but rewards the patient ones willing to plunge through his dry style. there are concepts in these two books which are still so far ahead of not only their time of publication, but the time we’re living in. concepts involving virtual worlds, cloning, transhumanism, and evolution.
In Permutation City humans have the ability to scan their consciousnesses to a virtual world and live thousands of years in subjective time. the virtual world is so advanced, that alien life is detected by astronomers residing there, and first contact is debated by the virtual citizens. (as well as a debate whether the aliens would ever believe that their entire universe is a computer simulation)
In Diaspora, humanity has fractured into different states of being, from gene-enhanced humans, to their offspring robots, and to AI who live in virtual worlds. The main character is an AI who learns of a neutron star which will collapse, and send a burst Earth’s way destroying all life. What follows is an epic journey to migrate the AI community away from the planet and to find an environment where they can never be threatened by anything ever again.
Transitioning these ambitious stories to video game format is very challenging, but the world-building is so epic in both that you could just take a slice of a story and center a game around it. Maybe in both games it’s a strategy game format. In Permutation City you must build and manage a virtual world from the ground up, not in the manner we’ve seen before. In Egan’s story, Copies are scanned consciousnesses of humans, and yet are still at the mercy of economic inequality because Copies of wealthy individuals can afford more cloud computing power than the non-wealthy, which effects the quality of their life in a virtual world. Most strategy games are set in familiar universes, but in Permutation City anything is possible, its a world for solipsists and hedonists, you can build the Taj Mahal in your back garden if you wanted to. The most interesting aspect of the story is how even with immortality, humans still get bored and jaded.
With Diaspora, the strategy aspect is more obvious, having to relocate an entire species on another side of the galaxy while dealing with different factions with different motivations, colliding with new species and researching them to discover a way to essentially ‘hide’ from ‘natural disasters’ like collapsing stars. A journey that takes thousands of years.
Book: Only Forward
Game format: Exploration, action
Similar Games: Mirror’s Edge
Why it would work: Michael Marshall Smith’s brilliant debut novel is set in a bizarre city with surreal neighbourhoods. Reading the wiki page will give you an idea of the potential for gamers to experience unique sights, and I cite Mirror’s Edge as a similar game because the idea of first person parkour in a colour-cooordinated city while being chased by gang lords gets my blood pumping.
Some of my favourite moments of gaming are when the visual aesthetics of a game go bonkers, such as when your character in Far Cry 3 and Uncharted 3 starts to hallucinate changing the landscape and enemies around you. Doing that to an extreme degree would be a nice change from the drab brown landscapes modern games have us traversing.
Book: The Player of Games
Game format: Action, puzzle, RPG
Similar Games: Mass Effect
Why it would work: Ian M Banks Culture novels are set in the future and revolve around a strange utopia called the Culture that stretches across galaxies. Its gene-enhanced citizens live in comfort alongside robots and AI with attitude. In The Player of Games, Gurgeh is a genius who has mastered every game there is, but finds himself intrigued by a recently contacted civilisation whose society revolves around one particular game called Azad. The game dictates where in society its players end up, with the winner eventually becoming the ruler of the planet.
Needless to say, Gurgeh finds himself going there through circumstances largely beyond his control, and getting involved in intrigue and espionage as he learns to master the game, deal with spies and ultimately learn why he ended up fighting for his life on a planet light years away from the Culture.
Similar to the Diamond Age, this could involve a game within a game, as you not only travel to a new civilisation and make friends and enemies, but also need to master a game. Banks’ robots are some of the most amusing ever written, and are waiting to entertain gamers.
Book: Andy McNab’s Nick Stone series
Game format: Third or first person action, military, stealth
Similar Games: The Bourne Conspiracy, Splinter Cell, Operation Flashpoint
Why it would work: McNab is ex-SAS and attempts to retain realism amongst his character’s fictional exploits around the world as Nick Stone struggles to make a living post-SAS and do the right thing for the innocents caught up in the dangerous world of terrorists and intelligence services.
What I love about McNab’s series is how down to earth Nick Stone is. He’s no James Bond, just a regular guy down on his luck and scraping by one incident to the next through sheer determination and MacGyver-esque improvisation, drummed into him with years of training and experience.
For gamers, I imagine a cross between the brutal ‘one bullet can kill you’ nature of Operation Flashpoint, combined with the stealth of Splinter Cell. There are no fancy gadgets in McNab’s novels, beyond what currently exists in the world, and Nick has no back-up, he’s just a freelancer roped into dangerous missions to help people he knows or to score cash.
Book: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series
Game format: Third person, crime, detective, stealth
Similar Games: Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire
Why it would work: Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have helped introduce Jack Reacher to a larger audience, and as a fan of the novels, I can recommend the film for capturing the spirit of Lee Child’s series. Reacher is a pragmatic and professional character, much like McNab’s Nick Stone. Wandering America with no registered address, he leads a nomadic lifestyle and randomly gets involved in criminal investigations, thanks to his background as military police for the US army.
I envision an investigative game with sporadic action. The procedural detective work of games like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire, but without their annoying quicktime events. Reacher does get involved in scrapes, but his skill is his intelligence which people underestimate. It’s just that having brute strength is also a handy convenience for the 6″5 fella. Child’s stories range from Reacher using his analytical brain to connect clues one moment, to facing off against a sniper in a field at night the next.
Entering a small town like Rambo or Bruce Banner, solving a crime, dealing with bad guys either with fists or heavy weaponry, then moving on. It’s cool in the movies. Let’s experience it in video games.
Book: Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy
Game format: RPG
Similar Games: Dragon Age: Origins
Why it would work: There is a risk this could be a clone of Dragon Age, but I feel that Dragonlance has its own unique world and characters, enough to form its own identity and brand amid a cluttered genre. Sure there are wizards, dwarves and the like, but for a book primarily aimed at teens, I thought Dragonlance paid a lot of attention to a core group of characters who already have a rich history between them, and are reunited at the story’s opening. The way their relationships develop throughout the trilogy is vastly more compelling than defeating dragons.
I feel that RPGs have lost their way over the years and have become obsessed with statistics and combat, with character development and narrative falling behind. Games seem to be more about the G in the acronym than the RP. The work of Bioware has helped keep character interaction and choices in the limelight, but I’d really like to see an RPG in the truest sense of the word. To not have to worry so much about finding obscure materials needed to give a special stat to a sword, so you can retrieve an object that will boost another obscure stat in a hat you’re wearing. That stuff gets so overwhelming that the story linking all of your actions is just weak and generic like the tired plot in Skyrim.
I want to be immersed in another world where every action I take has a reaction, but on an emotional level. If Bioware could continue to experiment and build their conversation branches, it could lead to incredibly satisfying emotional journeys for gamers as they go on a quest with companions and build a connection with them, mourning them if any pass away. We all ‘mourned’ when a certain character from FFVII passed away, but I think a large part of that that was more a feeling of surprise, shock and disappointment rather than a tangible connection to pixels. I like the idea of an RPG that spans years and years, with all the characters getting older. The progression of time is something that’s missing in RPGs, even in a sandbox game like Skyrim, there was no real sense of change, either in a character’s age, a town’s appearance, or a society’s evolution.
I think the video game medium’s goal for the next decade should not be focused so much on graphics, but to affect gamers beyond what even cinema can rouse in us. Designers like David Cage are attempting to do this, with the likes of Heavy Rain, but he goes and ruins his impressive game with a hackneyed straight-to-DVD story and stupid quicktime events. STOP WITH THE QUICKTIME EVENTS PEOPLE.
Video games have the advantage of being interactive and including us in the narrative, and I think the RPG genre is the one with the most potential to pave the way.
Book: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy
Game format: RPG, strategy
Similar Games: Civilisation, Sim City
Why it would work: Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy is concerned with humanity’s mission to colonise and terraform Mars into a second home for humanity. So strategy is an obvious pick for the game format, not just in terms of managing resources and production, but in the different factions making up the initial small populace of the frontier base. As more humans arrive, the political landscape changes everything, and relationships splinter off or strengthen.
I think this could be a timely franchise considering our current preoccupation with the red planet, helping to foster more passion for the goal of getting there, while also being a cool game that spans three eras: establishing a colony and creating an atmosphere, melting ice caps and creating oceans, and finally growing forests and jungles. This would take hundreds and hundreds of years and hopefully give gamers a cathartic sense of satisfaction when years after first landing on a barren wasteland, you finally manage to form a planet with an atmosphere with fully functioning societies subject to terrorism and insurrection.
Book: Game of Thrones
Game format: RPG, sandbox
Similar Games: Skyrim
Why it would work: So, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Yeah, attempts have already been made to bring gamers into the world of Westeros (‘attempt’ being the operative word). They’ve all been mediocre. So, what do we want? Look, it’s quite simple: Elder Scrolls: Westeros. That’s it. An open world where I can have my own House and sigil, a world where I can wander around doing whatever I please.
I could begin as a child and grow up to be a young man attempting to become a knight. I could spurn my family’s wishes and just sail the seas off the coast of Pentos as a smuggler. I could turn evil and become a slaver near Meereen battling pirates. I could manage my own vineyard in the Dornish countryside. I could head to the Wall and work my way through the ranks eventually becoming Lord Commander and repelling wildlings and wights. I could just set up a blacksmith in King’s Landing and essentially play a strategy game, watching various wars affect my income through the years. Or I could raise armies and take the Iron Throne.
Just take my money.