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Does great literature make for great games?

Although it’s not uncommon to see movies adapted into video games, several new games got their start, instead, as works of literature.
Image: Dante's Inferno
Dante ... is that really you? The developers at Visceral Games had to make quite a few changes to the revered poem known as "The Divine Comedy" if they were going to turn it into a video game. "Dante's Inferno" for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP is just one of several new video games based on works of literature.Winda / Electronic Arts/Visceral Games

Play the “Dante’s Inferno” video game and one thing quickly becomes clear ... this is not your great-great-great-great-great-great grandma’s “Divine Comedy.”

In this latest adaptation of the 14th century Italian poem about a man’s descent into hell, gone is the soft-hearted scribe protagonist — a man who cowers and even faints when faced with the infernal beasts before him. Taking his place: a fearless, muscle-bound warrior who slices and dices one wicked monstrosity after another.

Gone is the epic, allegorical poetry and artful contemplation of theology, morality and politics. In their place: non-stop, over-the-top action and brutal hack-n-slash combat.

Also gone: the tender tale of a man’s courtly love for a woman ... replaced, instead, with some seriously steamy scenes, an abundance of booby shots and some to boot.

Welcome to the world of literature adapted for video games. Be sure to leave your pre-conceived notions at the door.

Although it’s not uncommon to see movies adapted for video games, several recently launched games got their start, instead, as works of literature.

In addition to Visceral Games’ translation of “The Divine Comedy,” THQ recently launched “Daniel X: The Ultimate Power” — a Nintendo DS game based on James Patterson’s sci-fi “Daniel X” novels.

Meanwhile, casual games publisher I-play just launched “Nora Roberts: Vision in White,” an adaptation of author Roberts’ first “Bride Quartet” romance novel. They have also published three “Women’s Murder Club” games based on Patterson’s famed detective novels and several games based on Agatha Christie novels.

But perhaps most surprising, Tony Leamer, VP of marketing at I-play, revealed that they are in the midst of creating a game out of one of the greatest American novels of all time — “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he says this is just the first in what the company hopes will be a series of casual games based on famous literary properties.

As any bookworm can tell you, readers are frequently disappointed with the way their favorite works of literature are translated onto the silver screen. So the question is: Can video and computer games really do any better? Are these book-to-game adaptations merely desecrating the written word for the sake of fun and profit? Or are they quality translations for a new generation?

Game developers and publishers acknowledge that it’s no easy task to take a beloved literary work and transform it into a game that not only treats the source material with respect but is also fun to play.

“It’s an exciting but somewhat daunting challenge,” Leamer says of their “Great Gatsby” project. “This is a precious piece of American literary history and we understand that.”

But he says, “We feel there is value in telling these stories in a contemporary way.”

A novel approach to games
These new book-to-video game adaptations are certainly not the first. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was translated into a text-based adventure game for computers waaaay back in 1984. Meanwhile, Her Interactive has been turning “Nancy Drew” books into girl-friendly games for more than a decade. And, of course, over the years there have been quite a few books that have been adapted into movies that have been adapted into video games (the “Harry Potter” games for example.)

But not every book is going to make for a great video game. (Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying?” Not so much.) The “Inferno” portion of “The Divine Comedy,” however, seemed ripe material for a game, says Jonathan Knight, Visceral Games’ executive producer.

Sure, it’s a 700-year-old poem — but it’s a 700-year-old poem that describes hell as a place with nine distinct levels and unique boss-type characters. Knight likes to joke that Dante Alighieri — the Italian poet who penned “The Divine Comedy” in the 1300s — was the first “Dungeons & Dragons” map designer.

“Alighieri does more than just tell a story,” Knight says. “He’s remembered as the guy who mapped hell. He calls out the geography, the landmarks, the monsters, the characters and the encounters. That’s what really drew us to this poem more than anything.”

When deciding which books to adapt for games, Leamer says I-play looks for works that have visually evocative and varied settings, narratives that make readers wonder what is going to happen next and “characters that are well drawn but not detailed to the point of not having any flexibility to accommodate the medium.”

I-play’s casual games often contain hidden-object gameplay elements and plenty of puzzle solving, so it’s easy to see why Patterson’s popular “Women’s Murder Club” detective novels and Agatha Christie’s novels have made for good source material.

As for “The Great Gatsby,” Leamer says it appealed to them because of its roaring 1920s setting. “We felt like we could portray that in a really interesting way in a game.”

At the same time, the novel — a love story and a meditation on the American Dream — presents their biggest adaptation challenge to date.

“It’s a dark story with some fairly heavy metaphors and lessons,” Leamer says. “So we want to treat that with respect. That’s the challenge — to maintain the integrity of the story and yet still make it a fun interactive experience.” (They’re not yet releasing specifics about how the game — scheduled to launch in July — will be played.)

The “Dante’s Inferno” developers also faced a challenging adaptation conundrum. That is, while Dante’s vision of hell made for near-perfect video game fodder, the poem’s lily-livered protagonist — the poet Dante himself — did not.

“We just couldn’t have a fainting and terrified poet as an action hero,” Knight says.

Consequently, the Dante from the game bears almost no resemblance to the Dante from the poem. The developers replaced the terrified writer with a hulking he-warrior so immune to fear and pain that he sews a fabric crucifix into the flesh of his chest during the opening scene.

That's not how it happened in the book
Yes, when it comes to adapting a piece of art or entertainment for another medium, creative liberties will have to be taken.  That means game developers have to make some tricky choices — what to keep from the book, what to toss out, and what to create wholesale from scratch to suit the game.

Leamer says many of those decisions can depend on the involvement of the authors themselves.

“It really just depends on the author and how committed they are to specific elements of the story or the character set,” he says. “James Patterson, for example, is very specific about certain things around his characters in the stories he creates, but he was very interested in working with us to create new stories based on these existing characters.”

In the case of “Dante’s Inferno,” the source material was old enough to be in the public domain — so Visceral Games didn’t technically have to answer to anyone. Well, anyone except for the author’s bazillions of fans.

Their adaptation has been met with both cheers and jeers from Dante scholars. For example, on Public Radio’s Future Tense program, Arielle Saiber, associate professor of Italian literature at Bowdoin College, praised the game’s true-to-the-poem depiction of hell’s geography and its inclusion of many of the characters and creatures Dante originally put there. But she also criticized the developer’s use of the tired man-saves-woman video game trope. After all, it’s the woman who saves the man in the poem.

“I would just say that we did what made the game the most fun to play and that was our guiding principle,” Knight says.

What about the gamers then? Are they finding these adaptations fun to play? After all, most seasoned players know that, for example, movies adapted into video games frequently stink to high … hell.

So far, it seems, literature-based adaptations haven’t developed a reputation one way or another. The gameplay aspect of “Dante’s Inferno” has received mixed reviews, with MSNBC game critic Todd Kenreck praising its masterful art direction while criticizing its repetitious combat. “Shadow Complex” — a 2D side-scrolling shooter adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel “Empire” — was launched on Xbox Live last year to rave reviews. Meanwhile, I-play’s new “Vision in White” game has earned good marks from casual game critics as did last year’s “Women's Murder Club: Twice in a Blue Moon.”

Ultimately, both the world of literature and the world of games have something to gain from these adaptations.

Knight points out that the video game version of “Inferno” is merely one of many interpretations of Dante’s epic poem — a poem that has been translated into illustrations, paintings and sculptures and has been re-imagined by artists as varied as Rodin, Botticelli, Salvador Dali and Gustave Dore.

But no matter how players and critics feel about the specifics of this most modern adaptation, he says: “it introduces a new generation to this great poet and this great work of literature.”

Likewise, Leamer hopes that adapting a work like “The Great Gatsby” might bring gaming to a whole new crowd.

“I would love it if somebody who has never played a casual game before or never thought of themselves as a gamer sees there’s a game based on Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’ and that piques there interest enough to give it a try,” he says.

Winda Benedetti is writing the great American novel right here on Twitter ... 140 characters at a time.