In February, Electronic Arts and Visceral Games released a video game loosely based on the first book of The Divine Comedy. The release of Dante’s Inferno was met with a good amount of criticism - not just for deficiencies of the graphical and gameplay varieties, but for the developer having the gall to take inspiration from Dante’s classic work. On one hand, I think this is totally valid, as the game has some pretty lackluster story and storytelling according to most reviews. Apparently, it’s tough to craft a rough-and-tumble action game based on a book that’s mostly about an author following a poet around. On the other hand, it’s kind of disappointing to see how some observers from the literary world used the release to dismiss the ability of games to tell good stories at all.
I think this dismissal is a bit misguided, although probably not ill-intentioned. The fact is, a lot of folks still think of games as kids stuff, and games like Pong and Rampage didn’t have a lot of story to tell (although Ms. Pac-Man did have some cute intermission scenes). In the four decades since home and arcade video games started appearing, the storytelling in games has evolved to something nearing the level of film and prose - albeit in an interactive rather than inevitable form.
As I wrote for Laws of Play, the audience that plays games has also evolved. Sixty-nine percent of American heads of households play games, and the average gamer isn’t a teen or child, but 33 years old. This maturation of the audience means that there’s room under the umbrella of video games to tell adult stories for adult players. Studios like Rockstar Games, Bioware and Quantic Dream have used the platform of video games to create fantastic, involved and interactive fiction for a mature audience.
This post is an attempt to get readers to put their toes into the pool of video games, as well as turn gamers on to a couple books that might remind them of their favorite games.
If you liked The Road, The Passage, and other post-apocalyptic stories…
…then check out Fallout 3.
A reason that I loved both Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joshua Cronin’s The Passage is the fully developed world that exists in each story. Although you never find out exactly what destroyed most of humanity in McCarthy’s book, the main characters provide a fully fleshed-out post-apocalyptic life, from the culture existing among the survivors to the razed American landscape. The Passage does an even better job of this - it was truly one of the best pieces of worldbuilding I’ve seen in literature, and Cronin does a fantastic job creating a robust, believable and utterly fascinating world 100 years in the future.
Similarly, Fallout 3 is probably the most interesting and full world I’ve seen in a video game. The game takes place in the year 2277 on the East Coast of what used to be the United States of America, mostly in Washington, DC and following a third World War. Due to the intense radiation and killer mutated creatures roaming the metro area, many survivors retreated to massive underground bunkers called Vaults. The main story of the game follows a Vault-dweller venturing out into DC after his missing father. The world of Fallout 3 is a destroyed, retro-futurist take on our Washington, and there are virtual miles for you to explore, all packed with interesting plot threads and stories.
If you like A People’s History of the World, A Mental Floss History of the World, or general world history…
…then check out Civilization IV or Civilization Revolution.
The Civilization games really speak to the history geek in me. All of the Civilization games (the first was published back in 1991) are turn-based strategy games, and you build an empire from ancient times to the near future. If you think video games are all mindless button-mashing, Civilization is a game that will prove you wrong. All of the games follow a similar pattern - you pick a civilization (America, France, Russia, etc.) and found a city. From that point on, it’s a balancing act of settling new cities, researching to uncover new technology, building improvements to your cities and units to attack and defend, and conducting diplomacy with the other empires in the game. Every bit of this teaches you history, and the in-game encyclopedia describes the history and significance of everything from the phalanx to SETI.
If you like Batman comics…
…then check out Batman: Arkham Asylum.
OK, so this one might seem obvious, but hear me out. There have been video games based on comic books and superheroes for over three decades now. Most of these games have sucked. In fact, if you were a comic book fan I’d take extra care to steer you away from games like Superman 64 and Aquaman, just in case they were to sour you on the character. Yes, those games were that bad. Superhero games are so nearly universally bad that Batman: Arkham Asylum was all but written off for most of its development. Thankfully, Rocksteady succeeded in not only making a good Batman game, but making one of the best games of last year.
There are so many good things about Arkham Asylum that it’s hard to think of them all. The story, penned by Batman The Animated Series writer Paul Dini, feels like a Batman story. The voice acting is superb throughout, and the game offers tons of easter eggs and trivia about Batman, his allies, and his extensive rogues gallery. The gameplay is tons of fun, and the combat system is both intuitive and robust. More than anything, the game makes you feel like Batman. The Dark Knight isn’t invincible - face a couple enemies with guns, and you’re toast. However, you keep to the shadows, confuse the thugs in Arkham, always feel prepared for every situation and strike fear in the hearts of your enemies. In other words, you’re the Goddamn Batman. That alone makes this game worth playing for anyone with even the slightest interest in the character.
If you liked The Mist, V for Vendetta or 1984…
…then check out Half-Life and Half-Life 2.
Combine the otherworldly invaders of The Mist with the oppressive government control of 1984, and you’ll end up with a story quite close to Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Heralded as two of the best games of all time, the Half-Life series puts you in the shoes of Gordan Freeman, a scientist armed with a crowbar with a world to save. The story is told entirely in the first person, without cut-scenes or changes in perspective. From the first moment of Half-Life to the last screen of Half-Life 2, you never leave the body of Freeman, and time never skips ahead. If you’re a fan of storytelling in general you need to play the games - if only to enjoy such a well-executed experience.
The setting and story of the Half-Life universe are wholly original, but drawn inspiration from lots of classic science fiction and horror. If you’re a fan of Orson Welles, George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, you can see their influence in everything from the “set” design to the characters, and the game feels like one of their stories writ large. The Half-Life games represent, in my opinion, some of the best storytelling in video games, and deserve to be held up alongside the best science fiction in film and literature.
So, those are four pairings to start with. What other games suit fans of certain pieces of literature. What books do you enjoy as much as your favorite games? What do you think of my choices? Let me (and everyone else) know in the comments.