Friday, May 22, 2015

Of Babies and Bathwater

It probably doesn't come as any surprise that there are piles and piles of paperback novels with the potential to be adapted into interesting video games.  The Witcher series is one of the most famous examples, but for most works of fiction, nobody has even bothered to snatch up the rights yet, let alone make a video game adaptation.  The reasons can vary a great deal, but usually it comes down to some sort of obstacle that would keep the property from having anything more than niche appeal.  Allow my to illustrate...

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson was written way back in 1907, but is set in the distant future.  The sun has burned out and on the surface of the Earth the atmosphere has all but bled away.  What remains of humanity has gathered together in a colossal four-sided pyramid structure located at the bottom of a deep vapor-filled chasm.  Inside "The Last Redoubt," as it is known, are lower levels dedicated to agriculture and infrastructure (some of which is well below the ground).  The middle portion contains a number of "cities" on different levels, while the top is occupied by a scholastic order dedicated to observing and recording all that happens outside in great detail.  The protagonist of the story is, of course, one such individual, but is special in that he is gifted with a rare form of telepathy that allows him to get in contact with a similarly gifted girl living a "Lesser Redoubt" far to the north.  Sorry, but the princess is in another castle.  Worse still the smaller pyramid's power source is failing.  Barring extreme circumstances though, nobody leaves The Last Redoubt because of its self-sufficiency combined with the fact that it's constantly besieged by all kinds of monstrosities, including six monolithic "watchers," which maintain a constant vigil.  Previous Nintendo jokes aside, the setting feels more like a sci-fi version of Demon's Souls or Dark Souls than anything involving Mario.  People who do leave the safety of the great pyramid don armor and wield a kind of melee weapon called a "diskos," basically a cross between a rotary saw, battleaxe and lightsaber.  Once players rescue the damsel in distress though I think gameplay would shift to something more akin to Ico or The Last of Us.  So, why hasn't this fictional property ever been made into a game?  Well, aside from geothermal activity such as erupting volcanoes, The Night Land is pretty dark.  Metaphorically that isn't a problem, but literally speaking, it is.  The frequent mention of sporadic fire-pits and fire-holes in the text gives the impression that the landscape of this world has more in common visually with a starscape than anything else.  Imagine a vast open world like Skyrim, but with the lighting level of the Tomb of Giants.  Personally, I'd be down with exploring ancient ruins and wrecks lost to time in pitch-black dried up ocean beds, volcanic badlands, or forests of moss and fungi.  However, I think most people would quit playing the moment they realize that adjusting the brightness on their monitor does nothing to improve on-screen visibility.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay is a low fantasy novel set in not-Italy.  I'm serious, the name of the peninsula where everything takes place is "The Palm," because the topography looks vaguely similar to a hand print (you know...just like how Italy looks kind of like a boot...).  Anyway, this fictional landscape is being fought over by two sorcerer-kings and one of the provinces falls under a powerful curse designed to slowly erase the culture of that region from living memory.  The pseudo-medieval trappings combined with a lack of elves, orcs, or hobbits might invite comparisons to Game of Thrones, but the truth is Kay has a somewhat different focus than G.R.R. Martin.  Sure there's a big bloody battle at the end, torture devices called "pain wheels," a fair amount of intrigue, and a sex scene or two, but all that plays second fiddle to relationships between the various characters and the thoughts running through their heads.  Pretty much all of Kay's fantasy works are similar in this regard, placing emotional spectacles over physical ones.  This might seem to make his work well suited to an adventure game.  Especially since attempts by Telltale Studios to incorporate action into titles such as A Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead have had less-than-stellar results.  So, what's the hang-up?  Simply put, the prose in Tigana are largely dedicated to complex feelings and emotions that don't translate well to a visual medium.  Certain paragraphs could be boiled down to a carefully animated facial expression or particular kind of body language, but much of what makes his works interesting would be lost in transition.  Perhaps more could be retained by resorting to internal monologues.  However, I don't think that's a very elegant solution to the problem.  Stories told one way don't work when told another way if they're unable play to their strengths.  In the case of Tigana, too much would be lost, or perhaps I should say, forgotten.

La Horde du Contrevent or "Horde of the Counterwind," when translated to English, is a French science fiction novel by Alain Damasio.  Published in 2005, it's supposedly regarded as one of the top twenty sci-fi novels written in that language.  Not being fluent in French, the particulars are a bit difficult for me to fully grasp.  Based on what I can gather though, the story takes place on a desolate windswept world.  Gales can (and often do) become so strong that getting from "point A" to nearby "point B" is oftentimes a major endeavor.  In order facilitate ease of movement, people travel in formations that help break up the force of the winds (somewhat similar to how migrant birds travel in an aerodynamic delta-V over long distances).  It's actually a fairly intriguing idea that could lead to some unique gameplay experiences.  Apparently folks aren't quite sold on the concept though because, unlike the previous two examples, there was an attempt to Kickstart a video game based on this particular IP.  The title was Windwalkers, and it failed to even make it halfway to its funding goal.  I think the lack of support was understandable given the unfamiliarity of...well...everything.  The original novel has only been partially translated to English, and starts off in-media-res with a large cast of characters using jargon unique to the setting (there's a glossary of terms which is nice, but still...).  Talk of a movie and comic book adaptation in the works strikes me as a case of trying to do too much too quickly.  The property really needs to establish itself with a proper paperback/Kindle release of an English version of Alain Damasio's novel before attempting to migrate to other forms of media.  All the same, I wish the creative team behind the game all the best.  Hopefully they will find success in their future endeavors before the concept is blown away by someone else's derivative work.

Normally, I'm the kind of guy that thinks art should be done for art's sake, but in the case of the three above examples the practical part of my brain has to acknowledge that some obstacles are either insurmountable or so effectual that to "overcome" them would ruin the appeal of the IP in the first place.  That is, unless somebody can come up with an exceptionally clever solution.  What?  Don't look at me!

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