To celebrate the release of The Great Gatsby, Slate posted this cute little Gatsby video game. While their game is tongue in cheek, classic literature is a surprisingly common source of inspiration for developers. Some of the literary games that have been produced over the years are classics in their own right, while others are… well, they tried. Check out one of the following the next time you want to add a touch of sophistication to your gaming session.
7. The Great Gatsby
Slate actually wasn’t the first to make a game based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. In addition to the incredibly dull Classic Adventures: The Great Gatsby, which features all the raw thrills of poking around for hidden objects and practicing your typing, there’s also a brilliant, NES-inspired platformer that’s free to play online.
Players control Nick Carraway as he looks for Gatsby and tosses his hat to take out every waiter, partygoer and flapper in his way. It’s a clever game with a catchy soundtrack, charming 8-bit graphics and hilarious references to the novel that have been adjusted for the strange world of video games.
The developer claims it’s an obscure unreleased localization of a Japanese game, and while The Atlantic debunked that, the developer made some great NES style manual pages to support his lie, so let’s pretend to believe. Keep it in mind the next time you’re bored – it’s a good way to kill 15 minutes even if you aren’t a fan of the novel.
6. The Divine Comedy
Dante’s Divine Comedy is an allegorical poem about man’s journey towards God. Because the first part takes place in Hell, with all of its monsters and madness, the subtext of the story is often dropped so the focus can be on how awful the underworld is. For video game purposes, that’s okay.
Countless games have included references of varying degrees of obscurity and pretentiousness to the Divine Comedy. Devil May Cry, Halo 3: ODST and Final Fantasy IV, just to name a few, have characters and locations named after those found in the poem. But only two games are actually directly based on the work, or at least the first third of it.
You’re probably familiar with 2010’s Dante’s Inferno, a visually stunning but otherwise mediocre God of War rip-off that’s best remembered for its hilarious marketing campaign. In addition to staged protests calling the game sacrilegious and a pre-order discount of $6.66, items based on various sins were mailed to game journalists. One was a $200 check, invoking greed, while another was a box that played annoying music until you smashed it with the hammer that was included, making it feel your wrath.
You probably aren’t familiar with 1986’s Dante’s Inferno, an adventure game for the Commodore 64. Each layer of Hell is a maze, and as you navigate it you’ll encounter landscapes, enemies and other characters based on the sins and sinners described in the poem. As a game it hasn’t aged well, but it’s a remarkably accurate representation of Hell as envisioned by Dante. So you can play it for the poetic education, then play the modern take for the hacking and slashing. It’s the best of both realms of the damned!
5. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the novella, is an iconic Robert Louis Stevenson story about the duality of human nature. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the video game, is infamous for being one of the worst pieces of crap to ever darken the NES’ proverbial doorstep.
The side-scroller finds Dr. Jekyll on the way to his wedding, and for reasons unexplained every asshole in town is getting in his way. They attack or otherwise inconvenience him, angrying up his blood until he’s turned into the nefarious Mr. Hyde. The level then inverts and you “battle demons with Hyde’s psycho-wave,” just like in the book. As you kill demons, your rage simmers down and eventually you transform back into the good doctor. But if you take too long to defeat the forces of evil you’re automatically struck down, overcome by the darkness within you and also a random bolt of lightning.
It’s not a bad idea in theory, if a bit nonsensical. But awful controls turn what would already be boring gameplay into a frustrating mess, forcing me to recommend Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to only the hardest of hardcore Stevenson fanboys. All three of you reading this.
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Ever since the success of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland film, the entertainment industry has been trying to recapture the bizarre vibe of the beloved children’s novel. Movies like Tim Burton’s dull Alice in Johnny Depp Land have failed, but the video game world picked up Hollywood’s slack. American McGee’s Alice took Wonderland and turned it into the setting for a dark, twisted psychological horror.
Set shortly after the second novel, Alice’s house burns down, killing her family and leaving her confined in a mental asylum until she’s pulled back into a broken, macabre version of Wonderland driven mad by her own insanity. Yeah, it’s a little darker than the books. Trying to make a children’s story edgy is usually a recipe for unintentional hilarity, but it works here because Alice in Wonderland is already so messed up to begin with – an adult version just seems like the natural progression.
The gameplay is a touch repetitive, but the visuals were gorgeous for 2000 and still hold up well today, as does the creepy atmosphere. A 2011 sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, is also worth checking out if you just can’t get enough of making one of your favorite childhood characters stab the bejesus out of monsters.
3. The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers seems like it would be prime material for a video game. Duel your way through the streets of Paris in an action-adventure! Choose your favourite musketeer or control one of their foes in a Soulcalibur inspired fighting game! Relive the novel’s story in an RPG!
Unfortunately, none of the three Musketeers adaptations (get it?!) quite get the job done. First there was a 1987 Commodore 64 graphical adventure that’s been all but lost to history. Next came Touch?: The Adventures of the Fifth Musketeer, a 1995 PC game that’s mildly amusing but basically just a second-rate Monkey Island, and it doesn’t have much to do with the novel to boot. (If you’re confused by the title, The Three Musketeers is actually about four musketeers. Astonish your friends with this fun fact!)
Then in 2006 we got a family-friendly side-scroller, which also made it to WiiWare in 2009 under the title The Three Musketeers: One for All! Unless you have little kids that you’re trying to train in 19th-century French literature, this one’s a definite pass.
So come on, game developers! Give us a good Musketeers game already! Oh, although there is also a game based on the classic cinematic adaptation, Barbie and the Three Musketeers. So we’ve got that.
2. Fahrenheit 451
This 1986 graphical adventure is most notable for having been made with the insight of Ray Bradbury himself, making it an unofficial sequel of sorts to the sci-fi novel. In the game, protagonist Guy Montag is on the run, hiding from the authorities and looking to make contact with an underground resistance fighting against their oppressive government.
The story is complex and involving, at least by 1986 gaming standards, and since making contact with the resistance involves the appropriate use of literary quotations you’ll feel smart playing it (although it does have its dumb moments, like random tiger attacks if you wander too far off the scripted path).
Video game storytelling is often criticized for being subpar compared to other entertainment media, so it’s interesting to see how some graphical adventures, a now-all-but-dead genre, managed to get it right back in the day. Games like Fahrenheit 451 were important for showing what storytelling in games was capable of, and the fact that the famed author of the novel himself eagerly endorsed the game makes it an all-the-more impressive achievement. It’s a shame that the modern gaming industry is unable or unwilling to attempt to tackle literature in a serious way, because if done well such games could neatly fill a niche and give gaming more mainstream credibility as a method of storytelling.
1. Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. The epic struggle between three states as they strive to replace the collapsing Han Dynasty contains so many characters that it makes Game of Thrones look like a children’s book, and their political and personal intrigue spawned dozens of video games.
The best games are often also the ones with the least mainstream appeal – the long running strategy series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, has seen 12 main entries and a variety of spinoffs. Hardcore strategy fans who don’t mind perusing endless menus, putting up with a vicious learning curve and waiting ages for their complex tactics to slowly pay off will happily sink hundreds of hours into a Romance game, while everyone else will fall asleep before finishing the tutorial.
The most well-known games based on the novel are actually a spinoff of that series – the Dynasty Warrior series, which is composed of roughly 8 billion titles, replaces endless tactical depth with endless hacking away at hordes of generic enemy soldiers.
Despite being, well, pretty damn terrible, the Dynasty Warriors games have sold nearly 20 million copies, easily making it the most successful literary based gaming franchise. But that’s just the tip of the Chinese iceberg – there are tons of other games out there. You can find everything from MMORPGs to beat ’em ups to Japanese porno games inspired by the timeless story, although most haven’t found their way to western shores. Kessen II and Destiny of an Emperor are two good ones that did if you’re looking to try one out, although it probably isn’t hard to find a translated version of the porno game, Koihime Mus?, if you enjoy your literary inspired gaming with a side of boner. History and jerking off, together at last.