I’m Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games. If you were to follow me on twitter, I’d be grateful.
Any adaptation from one form of media to another is bound to cause friction. If you travel in the circles I do, you’ll come across people who greet the various adaptations of the stories they love with either love or hate (and very occasionally indifference). You might meet someone who loves The Lord of the Rings films, but not care for the books, and disdain the mention of The Lord of the Rings Online MMO. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that a good adaptation is one that preserves the spirit of the work, rather than the specifics.
Recently, I’ve embarked on a project that combines two great loves. It is an educational videogame which borrows tone and themes from some of the greatest YA fantasy novels I’ve encountered. Researching that project has given me the opportunity to make observations about videogames, fantasy novels, and the commonalities between them.
In this blog post, I’ve undertaken to map some popular games to books which I feel carry the same spirit, if not the details. And while Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones inspired games of their own, many great games and novels in the fantasy genre have never crossed media boundaries. Lets take a look at some great games that might suggest some great books to read. Basically, I think if you like the game on the left, you’ll like the book on the right.
A quick note: Some of the games on this list are pretty violent, and I’m not endorsing the violence in these games. But, given the reality that teens are playing these games, I’m perfectly comfortable using them as touchstones for book recommendations. Please consult the ESRB and PEGI ratings of a game to determine whether it is age appropriate.
Fable -> The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Both Fable and The Name of the Wind depict a young boy, adrift and nearly alone in a hostile city. That is the lowest that the main characters get. From there, the characters use their wit and their skills to escape poverty and the city itself. After that, they learn to use magic, and to defend themselves against others who know magic, too. They also share a frame story – that all of this is a tale being told of a legendary hero.
Even beyond the plot, Fable and The Name of the Wind share a fundamental tone. There is, for example, an underlying optimism in both. A layer of tension and dread coats it over at times, but is always scraped off to let the hope shine through.
World of Warcraft -> The Icemark Chronicles by Stuart Hill
Much has been written about this 10-year-old online gaming phenomenon, but there is much to learn just from the title. Though you may choose to play otherwise, the primary occupation in the World of Warcraft is War. War is also the subject of the Icemark Chronicles. In both cases, the war is turned mostly by diplomacy, as treaties must be made between factions in order to tip the balance of victory. In both cases the world is full of truly odd creatures (and you might be one of them).
Dishonored-> Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Dishonored is a fairly recent game about an assassin who gains magical abilities. In Mistborn, Vin finds out she has magical abilities and uses them to become, in essence, an assassin. Both have stealth and combat as major components of the experience, and the magical abilities wielded by the main characters are very similar in function. From what I hear, Mistborn is also set to become a videogame of its own. I can only hope they are as successful in portraying the power and the vulnerability of being Mistborn as well as Dishonored unwittingly did.
Bioshock Infinite -> His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass etc.) by Philip Pullman
In all the most superficial senses, these two have nothing in common. The reason I paired them was because they both have a deep sense of–the word that comes to mind is brokenness. Both of these tales introduce a self-consistent world, and then break it. Only tiny cracks appear at first, but over the course of the story, the reality that the author has created comes away in shards and reveals a deeper reality beneath.
God of War -> Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
I haven’t seen the ‘Percy Jackson’ films, but two aspects of the books are, it seems, totally indispensable. The first is the presence of aspects of ancient Greek mythology. The second is the feeling of taking on an invincible enemy and, against all odds, winning. Battling Gods in forms that are a hundred times larger than oneself and infinitely more powerful is an exhilarating feeling (with the safety and security you can only get by experiencing a work of fiction), and both of these works illustrate that feeling exceptionally well.
Minecraft -> Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Minecraft has certainly become a phenomenon. You can hardly swing a pickaxe these days without hitting a grade-schooler playing Minecraft. Narratively, there’s almost nothing going on in Minecraft. Players fill that void with stories of their own, literally crafting their experience to taste. So how, in his right mind, can someone recommend a book — a linear narrative — based on that?
Firstly, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an excellent book, and I hardly feel I need a reason to recommend it outside of its own merit. However, there is something I think that makes the link between them a logical one: The feeling of exploring a world anew and learning to shape that world, bit by bit. In the game, that’s the virtual space you find yourself in. In Ms. Clarke’s novel it’s the realm of the supernatural that Jonathan Strange dives into. In both cases, that new realm is a hostile one, but after earning a measure of mastery one begins to delight in its strangeness.
Final Fantasy -> The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
An epic and well-loved series of games deserves an epic and well-loved series of books. While there have been a few games set in the world of Narnia, none truly captured the feeling of managing a group of people with unique strengths and weaknesses. Final Fantasy games are often chess-like in their tactical decision-making, and The Chronicles of Narnia, too, often feel like a game of chess being played against the White Witch.
The Legend of Zelda -> Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Legend of Zelda is one of the longest-running game franchises, created by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto (who also created Donkey Kong and Mario). The franchise stands apart in its depiction of a high fantasy world with an innocence that few others match. It’s fairly unique to have a hero who wields so many deadly weapons and yet commits so few acts of actual violence. I think Redwall shares that innocence, not because it casts the characters as field rodents and other small animals, but in the manner of adventures they have. Freeing, unambiguously righteous, and always more about love than hate.
Skyrim -> Beowulf by Anonymous
Admittedly, Beowulf was not written as a work of Young Adult Fantasy. However, there are several modern translations which bring the prose into a similar milieu as The Wizard of Earthsea or Juniper. It is clearly a fantastical tale of heroism, with a healthy dose of Messianic prophecy. It’s also a sprawling tale, involving travel to the bottom of a lake and across Scandinavia. Both are also primarily concerned with the business of kicking butt, including Dragon Butt.
Dark Souls -> The Abhorsen Trilogy (Sabriel, etc) by Garth Nix
Behind enemy lines,the main character must use unique abilities to defeat hordes of undead enemies. The fate of the world depends on the ringing of a few magical bells. At this point, I could be talking about either Dark Souls or The Abhorsen Trilogy, which is why I think fans of Dark Souls will enjoy Garth Nix’s fantastic series.