Updated: Sep 16
The makers of video games wisely seek inspiration from various sources, such as films, TV shows, comic books and of course - other games. As all of these are visual media, they are sometimes a ready ‘fit’ for video games. But what about basing games on non-visual media, such as a book? How well would this work?
In the right hands, and with the right source material, this can work very well. The lack of a clear visual reference point can sometimes be an advantage, as it allows devs a greater degree of creative freedom, which can be useful when trying to adapt something into a video game.
Some games are direct official adaptations and tie-ins with books, whilst others are unofficial but *ahem* ‘heavily influenced’ by them. The games listed below are some of the standout examples of both categories.
1. Venom. Codename: Outbreak
GSC Gameworld’s 2001 FPS Venom. Codename Outbreak is ‘heavily inspired’ by Robert A Heinlein’s 1951 novel ‘The Puppet Masters’. In The Puppet Masters, alien parasites stealthily come to earth unnoticed in spaceships. Once landed - and the ships are hidden - the parasites start attaching to people’s backs and piercing their brain stems, which allows the parasite to control the unfortunate victim. They then begin breeding more parasites and begin a covert invasion, Body Snatchers style.
Humanity learns of this and starts to fight back. And what was our first weapon against the parasites? Mandatory public nudity! An alien parasite cannot hide under people’s clothes if they are not wearing any. Apparently, the French were very enthusiastic about this 😉
Eventually, we track the aliens back to Titan and build a spaceship to get there, because when dealing with hostile parasitic aliens nuking the entire planet from orbit is the only way to be sure.
Venom. Codename Outbreak has a similar theme. Unbeknownst to humanity meteors containing alien parasites fall to Earth in a remote area. Communications from the said area go dark. Teams are sent in to investigate. They go dark too. So, your team of spec ops soldiers are sent in, who are promptly attacked by the team that went before them.
After several firefights and some investigating your team finds out about the aliens and takes the fight to them. As far as I know, there is no weaponised nudity in Codename Outbreak. Instead, you are armed with a rather nifty weapon that can turn itself into a machine gun, flare, sniper rifle, laser, rocket launcher etc. at the press of a button.
Venom. Codename: Outbreak is an overlooked but decent enough game that is available on GoG.com.
My level of experience: I have listened to the audiobook version of ‘The Puppet Masters.’ However I have not yet played Venom - Codename: Outbreak, partly due to being distracted by GSC’s later games. Speaking of which…
Venom. Codename: Outbreak Gameplay
Trust. No. One.
2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl
To say that Roadside Picnic is ‘odd’ is an understatement. Several years before the story begins unknown aliens visit earth unannounced. They do not attempt to communicate or deliberately interact with anyone, and then they disappear just as abruptly as they arrived, leaving humanity scratching its head as to what just happened and what it all meant.
The aliens left their mark, however, either by accident or design. The areas where ‘The Visitation’ took place changed drastically, and now feature bizarre - and often lethal - anomalous phenomena, making these areas no-go zones.
However, these ‘Zones’ hold great treasures, the equally bizarre - and often very useful - items informally called ‘swags’. One example of a 'swag' being self-replicating infinite energy batteries. ‘Stalkers’ - criminal adventures - illegally enter The Zones to obtain these swags for sale on the black market.
One such Stalker - ‘Redrick "Red" Schuhart’ - learns of a fabled object that is rumoured to be capable of granting wishes. He searches for this to find a cure for his daughter, the aptly named ‘Monkey’, who is devolving into a simian due to Red’s *ahem* ‘seed’ being corrupted by his earlier visits to The Zone. Confused yet?
And why is it called Roadside Picnic? Because the visitation is described as being akin to humans visiting the countryside for a picnic, then driving off, but leaving some of their stuff behind, which the forest animals then find. Only this time the picnickers are aliens and we are the squirrels who come along afterwards trying to work out what a dropped iPhone is.
2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (not to be confused with the 1979 film ‘Stalker’, which is also based on the book but has nothing to do with the game) takes the basic premise of Roadside Picnic and swaps the alien visitation for a soviet mind-control experiment gone wrong.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Zone is centred on the pre-existing real-world Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which the fictional 2006 2nd disaster has made far more dangerous. Now ‘The Zone’ is not only radioactive, it now features lethal anomalies, mutated animals eating anything that moves and gun-toting paramilitaries vying for control of the Zone’s riches - most notably ‘artifacts,’ which are ‘swags’ in all but name.
The games in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series; Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat - and their plethora of mods - have become cult classics. If the sound of a semi-realistic open-world post-apocalyptic FPS shooter with emergent gameplay, survival horror mechanics and lite RPG elements sounds appealing, then you can pick them up on Steam and Gog.com - where they are often on sale for a bargain price.
My level of experience - I have read Roadside Picnic, listened to its audiobook version and played the games extensively. In fact, I quite literally ‘wrote the book on the subject’ 😉
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl Gameplay
NB – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Is best played with mods, such as this one - Autumn Aurora 2.1
3. Metro 2033
Dimitry Glukhovsky’s 2005 novel Metro 2033 and its book sequels, Metro 2034 and Metro 2035 are modern classics of Russian Sci-fi literature. They tell the story of the residents of the Moscow Metro system, who are now among the last people alive on Earth after a nuclear war. They survived because the Moscow Metro was built by the Soviets during the Cold War to act as the world’s largest nuclear shelter (True story.)
The survivors must now fight to survive against radiation, mutants, bizarre - possibly paranormal - anomalous phenomena and each other. Each station acts much like a city-state, and not all of them play nicely with their neighbours. Most of the book centres on Artyom’s ‘hero’s journey’ from one side of the Metro to another, a journey he must take to warn the head of a paramilitary troop about the impending danger from the mysterious ‘Dark Ones’.
The official game of Metro 2033 follows this story fairly closely, although there are some notable differences in nomenclature. Melnik' is called 'Miller' in the game, and the stations in the game have been re-named, presumably to make them more appealing to a western audience. (Personally, I preferred the original Russian names, but then I read the book first.)
The game captured the bleak and desperate atmosphere of the book perfectly and featured some of the most advanced graphics around at the time of its release. The later Redux version improved both graphics and gameplay and is highly recommended.
NB – ‘Metro’ is a multi-media franchise. To fully follow the overall story arc, you will need to both play the games and read the books. My No-Spoiler Book Review of Metro 2033 provides more details and the correct reading and playing order.
My level of experience: I have read all the books, listened to the audiobook versions and played some of Metro 2033 Redux.
Metro Redux – Launch Trailer
4. Dune, Dune 2: Battle for Arrakis
Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of science fiction. It is a heady mix of giant sandworms, global ecology, mysticism and a far-future space-faring feudal society that has banned A.I. and is dependent on a drug, the ‘spice melange’.
The ‘spice’ extends life, enhances consciousness and grants prescience - which is vital for interstellar FTL travel. “Whoever controls the spice controls the universe” as the saying goes.
Unfortunately, the Spice is unique to one planet, Arrakis, the titular desert planet ‘Dune’. Gathering it risks attack by Dune’s giant Sandworms and its less than friendly natives, the Fremen. Cue much infighting, intrigue and betrayal as warring houses fight, conspire and deceive to gain control of Arrakis.
Dune went on to spawn a mind-bending film and TV miniseries, with another film in development at the time of writing. However, its influence goes far beyond this, and not just in literature. For example, Star War’s 'Tatooine' was based on Arrakis, the 'Graboids' of Tremors were likely inspired by Dune’s Sandworms, Fatboy Slim’s song ‘Weapon of Choice’ quotes from it and the name of Jamiroquai’s album ‘Traveling Without Moving’ is a reference to how Dune’s FTL travel works. Bonus points if you can tell me Dune’s influence on Earthworm Jim 😉
Dune also spawned two games in quick succession. First came 1992’s ‘Dune’ adventure strategy game. It was received well enough, but its impact on gaming as a whole was limited.
1993’s Dune 2: Battle for Arrakis was an altogether different kettle of sand-trout, as it was the world’s first RTS game, and the spiritual ancestor to the Command and Conquer series. This was then followed by the partial remake Dune 2000 and its sequel Emperor: Battle for Dune
Whichever version of Dune you try out, remember this: “The Spice must flow!”
My level of experience: I have read Dune and its prequels and played Dune 2 and Emperor: Battle for Dune.
Emperor: Battle for Dune Gameplay Trailer
Open wide wormy, its dinner time!
5. The Witcher
The success of The Witcher on Netflix has spawned a resurgence in the popularity of the Witcher video games. But did you know that before both the TV series and the video games there was the Witcher book series and that the Netflix show is based more upon the books than the games? Since you are on this site, you probably did, and if not, well…you do now.
My level of experience: I have watched the TV series and I have almost finished the second book of the series. Once I have read all the books, I am planning on playing the three games in chronological order.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Official Launch Trailer
And there we have it, five video games based on books. Have you played any of these games or read any of these books? If so, what are your thoughts? Which versions did you prefer?
Do you agree that books can be a fantastic source of inspiration for video games, or should the mediums remain separate?
What about books based on video games such as the Halo and Mass Effect novels? Have you read these? If so, what did you think of them?
The list in this article is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure there are many others. If you have any suggestions of games based on books that could be added to a future ‘part two’ please place them in the comments section below.
EDIT: The results are in and can be seen in the next article.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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Roadside Picnic Inspired Art = andreevbox / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)