Saturday, April 23, 2011

Literature in Video Games: Rediscovering the Classics

So in an earlier post (Day 21: Game with the Best Story) I talked about Dynasty Warriors and how it is based upon one of the Four Great Chinese Novels.  I thought it would be interesting to research this a little further.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which DW is based on, is regarded as one of the greatest books in Chinese history, and I wanted to see what else has had a similar treatment.  Because there are lots of minor games based on books:,75/so,1d/  on everything from Dracula to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter, and because I am looking specifically for great interpretations of classical literature, I’m going to stick to only a few examples.  Ok, Dracula should count really, but I’m not big on horror.  I may come back to this another day, but for now, I think I’ll keep to two.  Otherwise we’ll be here all day.

After some rooting around on the internet, I’ve found a game series that I really want to play now: Suikoden.  These games have been coming out for years now, and revolve around the 108 protagonists called the Stars of Destiny.  For those of you who don’t immediately spot the reference there, these games are based off of one of the other Four Great Novels: The Water Margin.  To be fair, I only know about this because we have the box set of the 70’s TV show of The Water Margin, which was fantastic and hilarious.

Basically, the Water Margin is about 108 heroes who fight against the corruption of the Chinese government at the time.  Coming from all sorts of backgrounds, they gather in the marshes and are labelled bandits by the government.  It’s a really cool story.  Suikoden apparently takes this and puts it into game form.  I have to see how this works...

Then we come to Alice in Wonderland.  This story has been taken in more directions in more manners than pretty much any other story in existence.  I played an 8 bit educational version of it in school when I was 8.  Wikipedia lists around 20 different games with elements based on the story, and at least 4 or 5 direct interpretations.  American McGee’s Alice is perhaps the most famous of these in recent years, taking the whole story through an incredibly dark, Sucker Punch-esque twist.  There is also now an American McGee interpretation of most of the Grimm fairytales, which also look interesting.  I’m rapidly discovering lots of games I have to play today, but back to Alice now.  Alice in Wonderland is just such a delightfully bizarre story that it seems to lend itself to the reference-laden, mystery-filled world of computer games. 
What is interesting about this is that while we may not get the references to Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Water Margin, at least not in the Western Hemisphere, we all know and recognize Alice when we see her, and know what things to look out for as a result.  In Kingdom Hearts, when you go to Wonderland and you enter a room that looks like a giant kitchen with an enormous glass table, you immediately know two things.  First, there’s a bottle on that table.  Second, there’s a talking door somewhere around.  A mushroom will change your size.  Its an interesting thing to consider, how games rely on concepts and rules that we already know to make the task of leading us through the gameworld easier.  But I digress.

Literature clearly makes some great video games.  It can provide the background and set up to some fantastic stories.  It’s amazing to me that more of the Greek classics like the Odyssey haven’t been made into more impressive games.  There have been a few, most commonly interpretations of Dante’s Inferno.  But I’d like to see more.

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