Editorial / Fine literature and videogames: Why not?

I have two passions in life: videogames and fine literature. For years now, I’ve waited for a good meeting point for these two art forms, with no luck. To me, it seems like classic literature is a ripe crop ready for the videogame developers to come a-picking. There are some of the greatest stories that have ever been conceived of, already fully fleshed-out and ready to be digitized. Of course, not every novel would translate well. My favorite work of literature, Vladimir Nabokov’s still controversial Lolita, would be the most disturbing videogame this world has ever seen. But there are many that would work perfectly and even fit it with some of the styles that are used today. While this is a fairly obvious fact, there have been few attempts, and no true successes. This can easily be seen by taking a look at the highest profile game based on a work of classic literature; Visceral Games’ 2010 game Dante’s Inferno.

Dante’s Inferno is based on, obviously, 14th Century poet Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is a work that has many levels: that of a political satire; that of a theological allegory; that of a man’s search for meaning to his life. It is a masterfully crafted story, full of subtlety and imagination, and, as such, is one of the most highly regarded works of literature of all time. Dante’s Inferno took a decidedly different path on the story. Dante is a general in the Crusades, as opposed to a poet. He is raging against the demons of the Inferno, rather than being led through as a passive observer, searching for a way through life, as he is in the poem.

The largest departure, however, is the character of Beatrice. In reality, Beatrice was Dante Alighieri’s muse, a woman (technically, girl) that he worshipped from afar, although they only met twice during the course of his life. In The Divine Comedy, Beatrice is Dante’s salvation; she initiated Dante’s trip through the three realms of the afterlife, and ultimately is his guide through the realm of Paradise, where Dante finds the answers he has been looking for. However, in the videogame, Beatrice is the standard “damsel in distress” figure; Dante, who was in a relationship with Beatrice when she was taken by demons, tears through the Inferno to save her from Lucifer. Gone is the idea of Beatrice as savior; Dante is actually her savior. This, in my eyes, is the major issue. I understand that certain liberties must be taken to make a decent game; I can see that a wisp of a poet does not make for a good lead videogame character, at least by today’s standards. But the issue of Beatrice is a complete subversion of the source material; it carries a completely different message than the original story. This, and the complete lack of artful storytelling, is why I feel that it fails as a good interpretation of classic literature.

There are few other attempts worth talking about. American McGee’s Alice is a pretty interesting take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it changes the story and meaning of the book to such an extent as to make it almost unrecognizable. However, a majority of videogames that are based on books are, in reality, based on movies, such as The Lord of the Rings games and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While a few of the LotR games are pretty solid, they draw most of their inspiration from the movies, which have already taken liberties with the novels. However, there were some made in the mid-80s and the early 90s which were based on the books. I have yet to play these, so I’d love to hear from someone who has. Other than that, classic literature seems to have a negligible part to play in the videogame medium, other than working as an artistic inspiration.

However, I believe that there are a multitude of works that could make wonderful games, with minimal tweaks. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Odyssey– This would lend itself to a God of War style game. It already has the levels and bosses laid out: the Cyclops, Circe, the Lotus-Eaters, etc. This one is a pretty obvious choice.
  • 1984– A book about a dystopian future where everything and everybody is tightly controlled, both in mind and body. With just a few tweaks, this could fit right in with all the other dystopian games we have.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front– This would make a wonderful first-person shooter, similar to Call of Duty. It would concentrate much more heavily on the impact that war has on the soldiers, and how it changes a person. It also has potential for a wonderful Red Dead Redemption style ending.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo– A classic tale of revenge, this could easily be adapted to an extremely interesting RPG or adventure game with the potential of having one of the best main characters ever.

And there are many more where these came from: The Iliad, Heart of Darkness, The Three Musketeers, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and a lot of stories by Shakespeare. Pretty much any of these could easily be adapted while keeping the soul of the story intact. And I’m positive that there are many more that I can’t recall at the moment.

I respect creativity and innovation, and that’s one of the things I love about videogames; the industry is still pumping out new ideas all the time. However, there’s something to be said about the classic stories. They have been read as long as they have for good reason; they speak to people. They make their readers contemplate their own situation, and, sometimes, re-think their lives. A great piece of literature can literally change your life, however cliché it sounds. I honestly think that the videogame industry is missing a great opportunity by overlooking the classics as a game concept. Fine literature has the potential to help create a gaming experience that is all too rare; a game that speaks to your soul; that can change the way you think about things. All I’m trying to say is, “Why not?”