Friday 10 September 2010

Adapting Games From Books: An Exercise

Lined up by my ever industrious agent, Sidelines (check out their ad in the latest Develop, p.25), I was packed off yesterday to go pitch for a new AAA project that's based on a very famous line of books (and spin off comics, films, breakfast cereals most likely). A pitch is effectively a job interview, though works quite differently - it's largely about the dev team selling the game concept, with the narrative designer then pitching their ideas for how they'd like to develop it.

It reminded me of an exercise I like to do. It's widely referenced in indie circles that games struggle for imagination, but it's a difficult situation to escape. Just as if you've spent an entire career writing horror it'd be hard to switch into romantic comedy, the commercial games we produce are done so in the context of thirty years of shooters, platformers and dialogue trees. It's difficult to think outside of the language and tools imposed on us.

This exercise is meant to combat that.

The idea is that, rather than trying to pull an entirely new game mechanic from thin air, we take something wholly unsuited to traditional video game archetypes and work out how we'd render it interactive. Let's think, for instance, about Sophie's World. Clearly we could take the central characters, we could take the world and some of the dialogue, and then insert ten hours of third person platforming.

This would be rubbish.

So the first thing we do is work out what makes Sophie's World Sophie's World. What can we strip away to provide us flexibility, and which elements are central to the thrust of the licence? Well, it seems to me like the alternate world concept is pretty core, and it's easy to point at Sophie as well. More crucial, though, is the focus on historical academic philosophy, on free thinking and open mindedness. It seems to me, in fact, that a game which loses Sophie but succeeds in interactivising (not a word!) philosophy would make for a truer Sophie's World game than the platformer that looks and sounds right but revolves around jumping on people's heads.

So now we're seeing a picture of what the gameplay has to deliver, and what strengths we can play to. Exploration is something we do well, and thought experiments are something central to understanding critical thinking, so let's say we're looking to explain and test understanding of utilitarian ethics (chapter 21). Instead of a dull monologue we can put the player and two NPCs in a cave attempting to find their way out. He discovers a small tunnel, but his fat friend goes first and gets lodged. He's left with two options: do nothing, meaning he and the other NPC will asphyxiate, but the fat guy will survive; or use the dynamite to blow their way out, saving the two but taking the life of the one. Ongoing dialogues can provide him moral theory to inform his decision, and it is his action, his decision, which demonstrates his understanding of the philosophy.

I've never seen a game like that.

What other books would make for impossible traditional games? Something like Tristram Shandy - a deconstruction of writing - arguably has an interactive form in something like :the game:. What about Anne Frank? Is that a survival horror stealth game? Would that successfully translate the utter terror and the lunacy of the time and place? Perhaps we need something more leftfield - a persistent world with non-recoverable game over. And how would we capture a romance without resorting to rescue the princess or abstraction?


  1. Those aren't rhetorical questions ;-) I'd be interested to hear your ideas.

  2. For some reason, the first thing I thought of was The Time Traveller's Wife. Each level would be a short cinematic scene (think Heavy Rain) in which you'd have to find some clothes and figure out where and when you are, based on environmental clues and talking to NPCs. Then you'd disappear and flash to the next level after a random amount of time.

    You'd also occasionally meet your wife/future wife, but at different points in her timeline. So you'd have a dialogue mini-game where the aim is to remember not to give away bits of information that she doesn't know yet.

    This would all lead up to a tragic ending which you can possibly prevent, but only if you've collected enough information and pieced the clues of the different timelines together.

    Forgive me -- I'm babbling out loud. :)

  3. A game whose interaction could provoke critical thinking would really be something. All too often the meat of a game's meaning or purpose lies in the extraneous stuff around the interaction which is a shame and doesn't really push the medium forward.

    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would be nigh on impossible to play as a traditional game. I'd envisage the game being more of an exploration of Bauby's memories, like a painterly montage punctuated by his debilitating reality. I've no idea how you could interactivise the actual writing of his book short of putting the player through a grueling one button mini-game where letters are individually read out to you... that would certainly get across the horror of penning a whole book with nothing but a blink.

  4. @Xander Bennett
    Babbling is what this post is for, although in marketing speak we call it 'brain storming' and give ourselves all a pat on the back.

    That's a beautiful picture. There's often a dificult line to tread when it comes to 'art games' which intentionally debillitate the player - it's a powerful trick that perhaps can easily be over used. This, of course, would nonetheless be the ideal application if ever there was one: there's something genuinely beautiful about the idea of of breaking that monotony with vibrant internal experiences and memories.

    I might argue, however, that even if we were comitted to that approach, it might actually belittle the story we're telling. Modelling the blink (wink if he's only got one eye?!) based communication might shout 'boredom' to the absence of all else - fear, resentment, passion...

    So what can we do with that? What if, instead of letters we were able to choose words using the same system? As a game we need some control of what sentences the player can construct, and so by using this sytem and focussing on character dialogue (as opposed to the writing of the book) we could pitch a whole new conversation system - one in which every word is vital and must be selected laboriously. This both communicates the challenge the man faced, as well as providing relevant gameplay and highlighting how fundamental his relationships with other people became.