Playing the Books

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Adapting Literature into Videogames

By Blanka Šustrová

Sony Playstation 3 controller can be also connected to PC
Sony Playstation 3 controller can be also connected to PC

“[Videogames are] any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or image-based, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles and involving one or multiple players in physical or networked environment” (Frasca in Newman 27).The first videogames appeared in the 1950s and since then followed the evolution of technology to create more and more astonishing and refined interactive adventures. Starting with a game of tic-tac-toe against an artificial intelligence on a 4-meter-tall computer that would fill up a whole room, games later migrated to arcade machines, consoles that one had to connect to their television to play (most notably Nintendo 64, Sega Mega Drive, Playstation, Xbox and Wii); personal computers, handheld video game devices (such as Gameboy and Nintendo DS) laptops, mobile phones and most recently virtual reality gadgets such as Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens headpieces that allow you to experience the game as if you were actually in it.

Saying that videogames are targeting children and teenagers is largely outdated. The gaming industry today is huge and offers dozens of genres, story-lines and forms for children as well as for adults. With its growing audience, videogames are a medium that should not be neglected and labelled as “trivial” as a topic in the cultural studies worldwide.

With its growing audience, videogames are a medium that should not be neglected and labelled as “trivial” as a topic in the cultural studies worldwide.


Are you immersed enough?

When talking about videogames, the term “immersion” is often used. According to Linda Hutcheon, the audience members always interact with stories and it does not matter if they are reading a book, watching a film or playing a game. What is more important here, is the level of immersion in these modes. “The telling mode immerses us through imagination in a fictional world; the showing mode immerses us through the perception of the aural and the visual . . ., the participatory mode immerses us physically and kinesthetically” (Hutcheon 22). However, videogames also share the immersion of the telling and the showing modes.

Early text games (also called text-based games) offered fictional worlds in writing. The texts had to be read and interpreted by the player in order to interact and chose their action to get into the next level, to proceed in the narrative.

In games where the characters are not dubbed, the player has to read the characters’ utterances in dialogue boxes or subtitles to move forward the story-line.

The showing mode (visual and aural immersion) constitutes a major part of today’s videogames. Nevertheless, as in art, theatre and film, an image must be “read” and interpreted. Therefore, the showing mode does not mean a passive consumption of images by the audience. “Narrative through images has been in play throughout human history, going back to cave paintings. Neither linear nor non-linear – for they do not have to be sequential– images tell stories that need to be interpreted by the spectator” (Ulas 77).

Virtual reality at DEAS Halloween party. Photo by Eva Růžičková
Virtual reality at DEAS Halloween party. Photo by Eva Růžičková

The audience is cognitively, emotionally and imaginatively active (Hutcheon 23). When reading a book, it takes a certain amount of time to imagine the environment. In the performance mode, be it a play, a film or a videogame, the description of the environment is compressed into a dense visual image and aural sensation. It offers a more intermediate kind of immersion, and yet, the experience “and the pleasure of the observing audience here are different from the kinetic and cognitive involvement of the interactive gamer” (Hutcheon 27). Why? The answer is rather simple: the player seems to be in control.

You can stop the game in any moment, you can set the music and sound options to a certain degree, or mute them; you create characters and environments that interact with you on a certain level, you can change the narrative by your actions and get to a different end every time you play, you can explore the environment as recommended by the game or you can use a subversive approach, finding out what you can or cannot do in terms of characters, space, time, narrative and interaction.

Of course, the real person in control is the game developer, who creates a world that gives the player the illusion of control, freedom and power.

“Mortensen proposes the phrase manipulating reader for the computer games, where the power of player is obvious: she can change, create and improvise like a ‘soloist in a large band’. She is more active in constructing the meaning of a work than a simple reader, has more control over the work, inwardly as an implied character and outwardly as agent of manipulation and she is limited only by the length of unfolding events, she can’t surpass the end of an action . . . The player’s status changes with her input; she can identify herself both with the villain and the hero due to multiple possibilities of joining actions, so she has more freedom to move inside the narrative than a reader” (Vesa 253).


Narrative (un)Limited

The player shifts from active playing to passive watching throughout the game, as games often employ pre-recorded passages, cut-scenes, flashbacks and backstories that help to develop the story and unfold character’s motivation, history and relationships, and to open new stages (or levels) of the game. The narrative can partly unfold itself. However, the story progresses mainly thanks to the player’s activity in the videogame environment and although a narrative arch has been designed by the game developer, it does not have to be followed precisely as intended. This makes the player a narrator of their story, driven by their decisions but also limits them by the narrative possibilities encrypted in the game by its developer and, furthermore, because the game as a fictional world has to display coherence.

“Unfolding events and pulling strings, the player looks like a puppeteer in the rendition of a spectacle, half outside the performance, half involved in the progression of story. So far, he or she is more like an author than a reader, but what elucidates his or her position is the constraints of game until its final fulfilment . . . The player’s involvement, often called interactivity, depends thus on the rules of the game which guarantee a logical and plausible narrative only if they are respected, otherwise we deal with a schizophrenic, split discourse” (Vesa 252).

The player is therefore simultaneously in the position of (limited) narrator and the reader of the game, that creates and interprets the narrative. The player exists outside the game world as well as inside the fictional world as “themselves” in 1st person view or as an “operator” of the character that interacts with them and performs their orders.  The player is extra-diegetic and intra-diegetic at the same time, which is not possible in the telling or showing modes (books, films, theatre performance) described earlier. Of course, the possibilities of narrative interaction and story control are largely dependent of the evolution of technology.


Playing the Books

“Seymour Chatman says that narrative is independent of its medium. He considers narrative as a type of text organization that needs to be realized – be it in written word as it is the case with stories or the movements of actors in a film or lyrics of a song. Ryan also argues that if narrative is a discourse that conveys a story, its definition should focus on ‘story’, and that as a concept ‘story’ is something that materializes independently of the medium” (Ulas 76).

A novel mutates into film, a film shapeshifts into videogame, a video game’s characters are materialized into toys and merchandise. These days, adaptation is not only an experiment in story transfer, it is also a huge business opportunity.

If we acknowledge that story and narrative can take on any form, then adapting stories from literature into video games is not only possible, but also natural. Adaptation is a strategy that allows the source material to manifest itself in various forms and it is popular because the audience is already familiar with it and identifies with it.

The player is therefore simultaneously in the position of (limited) narrator and the reader of the game, that creates and interprets the narrative

Nevertheless, not all of video game adaptations are created with the goal to use its medium form to the maximum to enrich the story and narrative possibilities. Videogames are often parodying their source text, they sometimes ditch the story altogether and use only the familiar characters and, yes, some of them are very badly done.  But that is all part of the natural process of exploring the medium form, of shaping, distorting, analysing and commenting on the narratives videogames adapt.

So let us have a look at some of them!


Turn On Your Computers!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy created by its author Douglas Adams with the help of Steve Meretzky in 1984 is a text-game where you play as the main character Arthur Dent, reacting on a text that appears on the screen of your computer. It is full of original content so you cannot rely on your knowledge of the novel to get you through the game. The players recommend to read the book first as it would be virtually impossible to pass the first part of the game.

Not a fan of sci-fi but would like to play a text-game as well? No problem. Try The Hobbit by Beam Software from 1982 and get on an adventure with Gandalf and thirteen dwarves.

If the worst video game ever made can score -50 points on a scale that does not go lower than that, which game do you think gained a score of -37 points? It was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a side-scrolling action video game made in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. You start the game as Jekyll, going to your wedding but you have to deal with obstacles on your way, like animals and people. Yet, everyone you meet makes you angry and when you reach a certain level of anger, you turn into Hyde and must fight monsters in a dark setting. You can read a detailed review of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here.

Leaving the Victorian era, we arrive in the year 1925 to experience the world of The Great Gatsby, originally a novel by Francis Scott Fitzgerald but since 2011 also a video game by Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith. The Great Gatsby looks as if it was a game from the early 1990s made for the Nintendo Entertainment System and then emulated for computers. But do not let the visuals confuse you. The game was developed to look like a lost eight-bit twenty-five year old gem found at a yard sale. You can read an interview with the developers here.

(2) The Great Gatsby title screen


Do you recognize the names of Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and a Benedictine novice Adso of Melk? These two a
re the main protagonists of Umberto Eco’s debut novel
The Name of the Rose from 1980. This historical murder mystery set in 1327 enriched with medieval studies, literary theory and theological disputation was recreated as a video game in 2016 as The Abbey of Crime Extensum (or, in the Spanish original La Abadía del Crimen Extensum) by Manuel Pazos (2) Nick Carraway is looking for Gatsbyand Daniel Celemín, who based it on a game from 1987 by Paco Menéndez and Juan Delcán. In The Abbey you play as William with Adso as your trusty sidekick in murder-solving.

The real person in control is the game developer, who creates a world that gives the player the illusion of control, freedom and power.

In Samuel Beckett’s absurd play, Vladimir and (2) Inside Gatsby's houseEstragon have been waiting for Godot since 1953. They have waited numerous times in various re-editions of this drama and on stage all around the world. Since 2010, they’ve been also waiting in a video game created by Mike Rosenthal. If you have read Waiting for Godot and were puzzled because you felt that nothing was going on, you can experience these feelings of confusion again on your computer screen. The game environment is rather minimalistic, containing a green lawn, a single tree and one or two of the main protagonists. Unfortunately, French lawyers representing the Beckett estate did not enjoy the parody videogame and demanded a change of the title which was identical to Beckett’s play so The Waiting For Godot became Samuel Becketttt’s Lawyers Present: Waiting for Grodoudou and later just The Game as Rosenthal explains in an interview. Luckily, you can still play the game here.

Moving from the old console visual style to (usually) multi-platform 3D games, the range of video games based on literature grows, as these games are developed by large companies as a part of a popular franchise. There are games based on the whole Harry Potter series (by Electronic Arts, 2001 – 2011) and even a Quidditch-focused game; games based on the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the newest being a 2016 detective crime thriller Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter and several versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, ranging from a point-and-click adventure for children (Alice: An Interactive Museum, 1991) to dark psychological horror thrillers (Alice: Madness Returns, 2011).

You can become Dante, reimagined as a Templar knight in Dante’s Inferno (2010) or Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher in one of three games (The Witcher from 2007, The Witcher2: Assassins of Kings from 2011 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt from 2015) based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s best-selling books series. But if fighting demons in a grim re-imagining of Hell or going on dangerous quests is not your cup of tea, you can always play out your fantasy to pick up Mr. Darcy in a ballroom. Ever, Jane is an online game that defies the usual classification of role-playing games as violent fantasy or sci-fi entertainment. Your task is to be invited to as many balls and gatherings as possible, to chat up ladies or gentlemen, earn some cash and buy yourself some lovely garments and a new carriage to “upgrade your gear”. Gossip is your weapon of choice and dinner rooms are your battlefield. Ever, Jane servers are back with an Open Beta update so do not hesitate to give it a try.

And whichever literary adaptation video game adventure you choose, enjoy it!


Screenshots of the games were used with the permission of the games’ owners – Charlie Hoey, Manuel Pazos and Mike Rosenthal.


Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routlege, 2006. Print.

Newman, James. Videogames. London: Routlege, 2004. Print.

Ulas, Ekber Servet. “Virtual Environment Design and Storytelling in Videogames”. Metaverse Creativity 4.1 (2014): 75-91. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 October 2016.

Vesa, Ileana. “The Future of Narrative between Folk-Tales and Video Games”. Caietele Echinox 20 (2011): 247-261. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 October 2016.