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The Weird and Wonderful World of Book-to-Game Adaptations

There are more worlds on the page than there are on the screen.



There is no shortage of movies based on books. From old classics like The Wizard of Oz to epics like The Lord of the Rings, to more modern hits like It, the journey from page to silver screen has practically been perfected and, in the right hands, these adaptations tend to be viewed as sure-fire hits.

In the past (though, decidedly less frequently now), these hit films were treated to a video game adaptation to coincide with their launch. Games which tended to range from mediocre at best to downright unplayable at worst. But very few books have made the jump directly from page to game. And with the gargantuan leap in storytelling games have made in the past few years, that feels like a tremendous missed opportunity.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been done in the past. Ever since the old-school point-and-click adventure days, developers have sought inspiration from the written word. Fantasy was (and still is) an obviously popular choice, with its tendency to incorporate all the magic and monsters and wide-open worlds that any reader would dream of getting lost in, but book adaptations needn’t be genre limited. Sci-fi, horror, political intrigue, and even 14th-Century poetry have found their way onto consoles and PC.

As with movies and TV shows, however, game adaptations of books can still be very hit-and-miss. So, while the book may always “be better”, here are a few of the best, the most disappointing, and the weirdest adaptations out there.

The Best Book-to-Game Adaptations

The Witcher

Adapting anything is never easy. But adapting a world as rich and complex as Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series, with its well-realized and interconnected characters, deep and complicated history and lore, and fraught political ideologies, is one mammoth place to start. Luckily, developer CD Projekt Red grew up with these stories and knew them all inside and out. They were the developers to bring this fantastic vision to life. And, while it may have taken a little while to get off the ground, the release of The Witcher 3 caused an explosion of popularity in the life and adventures of this silver-haired monster killer.

What started life as a short story called “Wiedzmin” (“The Witcher”) in 1986, steadily expanded into a world-conquering franchise. Even Netflix got involved. But, unfortunately, the streaming giant’s deviations from the source material resulted in a rather lackluster series and turned many off from its potential charms (including its own star, Henry Cavill). But where Netflix was reluctant to engage with the source material, CD Projekt Red embraced it wholeheartedly. And their real love of every character and the world itself shines through in each title.

The Witcher 1’s story was enjoyed by fans but its muddy visuals turned away many, whereas The Witcher 2 went over very well with critics and fans alike, but its difficultly and obtuse gameplay kept it from reaching a wider audience. But it was The Witcher 3 that hit that perfect balance of gameplay and story. With its stellar writing, story-focused main quests, and monster-hunting side quests, the game fits perfectly into the universe Sapkowski created.

Image: CD Projekt Red - The Witcher
The Best and worst Book-to-Game Adaptations
Image: CD Projekt Red – The Witcher


Scavenging to survive in the dangerous metro system of a post-apocalyptic Russia after nuclear war left the surface inhospitable sounds like the perfect pitch to a survival-horror game, so it may come as a surprise to find the Metro series began as a book. “Metro 2033” is a tense and atmospheric 2002 novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky and the 2010 game adaptation of the same name is a wonderfully faithful adaptation. While it was criticized at launch for some wonky AI and other bugs, it nailed the novel’s overwhelming sense of struggle and despair, while putting the agency and the desperate struggle for survival directly into the players’ hands.

The novel eventually received a sequel “Metro 2034”, and the game received two sequels, Last Light and Exodus–all three working in tandem with each other to expand the story’s universe and fill in the gaps of what happened to many of the series’ key characters. The Metro series is a wonderful example of cross-media storytelling done right. Like with CD Projekt Red, developer 4A Games really understood and loved the source material, and that passion can be seen in every minute detail of the games, particularly in the care they took to bring forth the themes of xenophobia and coming-of-age that the novel’s author strove for in his story.

Image: 4A Games - Metro Series The Best and worst Book-to-Game Adaptations
Image: 4A Games – Metro Series

The Disappointing Book-to-Game Adaptations

Game of Thrones (2012)

Not the Telltale episodic series of the same name–which did a competent job of adapting the TV series–but the 2012 action-RPG by Cyanide studio. The game came out during the very beginning of Game of Thrones hype, a year after the first season aired on HBO, but was more closely related to the books than the show. It borrowed places, people, and ideas from the books that the show hadn’t even touched on yet, but while it had great promise–with a dedicated team of lore buffs and a thumbs up from author George RR Martin himself–it failed to stick the landing.

The premise was great, with players taking roles of both Alester Sarwyck, a red priest of R’hllor, and Mors Westford, a ranger of the Night’s Watch, swapping between the two as their stories slowly unfolded. Both characters had deep and keenly “Thronesian” backstories, full of murder, betrayal, and family squabbles, and fit in nicely with the dark fantasy world GRRM has created, but things fall apart quickly when it comes to actual gameplay. The graphics and animations were poor and the voice acting was even worse, while the quests were uninspired and felt disconnected from the rest of the world, and the combat, despite its potential, was repetitive, floaty, and bland.

Image: Cyanide - Game of Thrones
The Best and worst Book-to-Game Adaptations
Image: Cyanide – Game of Thrones

Call of Cthulhu

Lovecraft and video games are a perfect match, when done well. Just look at Bethesda’s subtle nods in their Fallout and The Elder Scrolls games. But true cosmic horror is a fine line to tread, and one that can easily swing into the dull or the unintentionally funny if not told with precise care and reverence. Enter Cyanide’s 2018 Call of Cthulhu.

You can’t fault Cyanide on their ambitions, attempting to create intricate RPGs of the works of two seminal American authors, but it seems their development skills aren’t quite up to snuff. Adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, players take control of private investigator Edward Pierce as he looks into the case of the Hawkins family, who mysteriously died in a fire in the strange town of Darkwater. Players must solve crimes and try to keep their sanity in check as the morbid, monstrous truth begins to crawl out of the woodwork. Again, the premise and sheer love of the source material is great, but the gameplay quickly lets the game down. Many of the puzzles can feel either too easy or too obscure, the combat is hit-and-miss, and the stealth is incredibly uninspired. And most critics agreed, the RPG mechanics felt underdeveloped and the game as a whole felt largely unsatisfying to play.

Image: Cyanide - Call of Cthulhu 
The Best and worst Book-to-Game Adaptations
Image: Cyanide – Call of Cthulhu

The Weird Book-to-Game Adaptations

Dante’s Inferno

The phrases “14th-Century poetry” and “hack-and-slash action game” aren’t those you’d expect to find used in the same sentence. But somebody at Visceral Games clearly saw something most didn’t when they pitched the classic Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” (specifically part one: Inferno) as a God of War-esque hack-and-slasher. And thus, out of that strange union of ideas, players were gifted 2010’s Dante’s Inferno.

While loosely based on the narrative poem’s plot, with the author Dante on his journey through the nine circles of Hell, the game kicks things up to eleven. No longer a middle-aged Italian poet, this Dante is a totally ripped Knight Templar with a red cross sown into his bare flesh and who, at the very start of the game, kills Death himself and takes his scythe to use to battle demons on his quest to dave his lost love. While the imagery of Hell is lifted straight from the poem’s detailed descriptions, the rest of the game’s story and tone vary wildly. Dante’s Inferno got decent reviews but never sold well enough to warrant a sequel, which is a shame, as it would have been quite something to see this Kratos wannabe scything his way through Purgatory and Heaven.

Image: Visceral Games - Dante's Inferno
Image: Visceral Games – Dante’s Inferno

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Harlan Ellison’s depressingly bleak post-apocalyptic short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is not for the faint of heart, and not the kind of thing any sane developer would attempt to turn into a video game. However, the good folks at Cyberdreams did just that in 1995, and created a brilliant point-and-click adventure that perfectly adapted and built upon its source material.

The game, as in the story, takes place in the far future after a self-aware AI computer known as AM obliterated all of humanity (save five people) in a nuclear holocaust. These five survivors have been kept alive, mutated, and tortured by AM for the past 109 years. Players take control of each of these five people as they confront AM in the devious moral and ethical dilemmas it constructs, in an attempt to overcome their own flaws and, potentially, escape. Some of the story’s darkest themes were altered as it made its way to the digital world, but even so, there is a severe content warning for anyone hoping to brave the game today. And brave it they should, as despite its age, it’s still just as terrifying and thought-provoking.

Image: Cyberdreams - I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Image: Cyberdreams – I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Parasite Eve

Most video games either directly or indirectly attempt to adapt the book they are based on to best suit the needs of a fun, playable game, very few, though, serve as the book’s direct sequel. Sometimes a popular game will receive a novelization or two to fill in the blanks and let dedicated fans in on what happened after the credits rolled, but Parasite Eve did things backwards.

Parasite Eve”, the novel by Hideaki Sena, was released in 1995 and was a sci-fi horror that supposed human mitochondria were the dispersed cells of a God-like organism called Eve, and who, under the right circumstances, could reform and take over the world. It follows the story of a number of scientists attempting to bring about this “perfect being”, but ultimately failing. The game, released in 1998, acts as a direct sequel to the book and focuses on what would happen if someone eventually succeeded and Eve was brought back to true life. It’s a very “out there” premise, granted, but it makes for an intriguing plot. The game was received well worldwide and has developed something of a cult following since.

Image: Square - Parasite Eve
Image: Square – Parasite Eve

This was just a selection of the many weird and wonderful book-to-game adaptations out there, but there are still too few. And too many novels are just begging for a game adaptation that allows their fans to live their stories and worlds first-hand. Just imagine zipping around the Final Empire with your metal-based magic Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Or traversing the multiverse and fighting off mutants as the Gunslinger in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Here’s hoping more developers and publishers are willing to take a chance on the printed word, as there are so many more worlds out there to explore than those we see on screen.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.