5 Video Games that Would Have Made Better Novels

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Image of Penguin-style covers for games by James Bit

We’ve debated whether movie adaptations are better than books for too long. It’s time to look farther afield for frivolous controversy. I almost proposed that we rank novel adaptations of video games, but then I got scared. I mean, movie buffs and literary types are vicious enough in their own right, but gamers are a different species entirely. Spend just one afternoon listening to the verbal abuse tossed about by the 12-year-olds on any given multiplayer platform, and suddenly you run out of reasons to ever talk to them, let alone bring up games in public.

Let’s make it a little safer for the comment moderators. Let’s talk about something more hypothetical, just to give everyone that comforting buffer of “what if?”

So here is a list of video games that would have made better novels.

First, let’s set a couple ground rules, because this could get out of hand quickly. To be eligible for this list, a game must NOT have:

  1. a game novelization, or tie-in novels set in the game universe
  2. a movie adaptation, or be adapted from a movie

These rules eliminate quite a few great franchises and storylines, but it also keeps us from getting bogged down in discussions about Lego Harry Potter games and Mortal Kombat movies (shudder). In other words, the less precedent, the better. We want wild speculation about things that can never be empirically proven. This is a humanities debate, after all.

Also keep in mind that we’re considering more than game narrative here. We could discuss the merits and flaws of any game story, but this list takes a broader view, covering everything from bad player experience to terrible mechanics to disappointing execution, all in defense of the idea that a novel version would be more interesting and enjoyable than the game. Fear not, though; we’ll still cover a few examples of games that fumbled a potentially awesome narrative.

And now, on to the list of games that would have made better novels.

Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever, the dirty sewer rat of games

Duke is basically our 21st century Holden Caulfield, here to explain in lurid fashion that everyone and everything is phony. Just look at the way the developers used visual irony to display a sense of … I’m sorry, I just couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. This is definitely not that kind of list.

In short, anything would be better than Duke Nukem Forever. This franchise brought to life in any other medium, including macrame, would have been more enjoyable and enlightening than this disgusting, prurient, unnecessary, unplayable game. I’m not sure even Kurt Vonnegut could rescue something this absurd, but I’d rather see him try than play the game.

Lair

Lair, the almost dragon riding game

This had all the hallmarks of a great game. The premise is so breathtakingly awesome, and the preliminary visuals were stunning. But Sony hamstrung it with terrible controls and glitchy gameplay. They promised to let you ride a massive dragon into battle, which easily trumps flying a fighter jet for two reasons: 1. flying flamethrowers, and 2. less buttons and switches to worry about. This game should have been tremendous in every way! And yet it’s widely recognized as a failure. In fact, things got bad enough that Sony identified sites that posted negative reviews of the game and then sent them a guide on how to review the game more positively. 

It’s pretty obvious how this could have been a better novel. Epic fantasy is a staple in your local bookstore, and you know you wouldn’t whine about Temeraire novels ditching the whole Napoleon alt-history schtick. Especially if it means more guys with awesomely implausible helmets burninating everything on the battlefield from atop their fearsome dragon steeds.

Too Human

Too Human, when science fiction and Norse mythology tried to have a baby

This role-playing game failed for many reasons, not the least of which being that the developer’s CEO essentially stole code to make it. In the end, a court ruled that every copy of the game should be destroyed, ruining any opportunity for a sequel that might resolve the huge cliffhanger at the end. But the reason this game would have made a better novel is because of the missed opportunity with world-building.

Too Human combines science fiction and Norse mythology, two topics that register at least 9.3 on the Hope Scale of Interesting Things to Write About (or HSITWA), which should have resulted in mind-blowing stories and astounding action. But it never did. Forget the game, someone take this universe and start throwing pilcrows and quotation marks into that bad boy.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, now with more Russians!

There are two ways of looking at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. From a multiplayer standpoint, CoD:MW2 was an enormous success. From the single-player standpoint, it was underwhelming at best. Oh yeah, there is one more way to look at it: From a financial standpoint, it was a colossal, market-eating, executive bonusing, bank engorging success. So I think you can guess whether CoD fans care about single-player storylines.

The question is why the developer even bothers to make a single-player campaign. Just give the masses what they want (i.e. jingoistic multiplayer battle with period-accurate weapons) and leave out the single-player campaign all together. Then commission a tie-in novel from a recognized name in military thrillers. Heck, Tom Clancy already has his name emblazoned on a few game franchises. He must have a ghost-writer who could write a good CoD novel.

Dark Void

Dark Void, the only time aliens and jetpacks ended up being tedious

This game is similar to Too Human in that it was a missed opportunity. Dark Void combines Rocketeer-style dieselpunk with an alien invasion in the Bermuda Triangle. If that doesn’t get your little narrative feelers twitching in anticipation, I don’t know what will. While it sure was fun to have a jetpack, the plot was uninspiring, the combat was repetitive, and the controls were too wonky. It would be much more satisfying to let an author play around with those plot elements and let us read the result.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

What’s the point of positing hypothetical situations if don’t go off the rails a little bit? Here are a few honorable mentions; games that wouldn’t necessarily have been better as books, but are still fun to think about.

BIOSHOCK

Bioshock, a.k.a. the drowning of Objectivism

This game breaks my first rule because there’s a tie-in novel. But pipe down, ye naysayers, because this needs to be said. Bioshock is a classic, and we can’t complain that the narrative wasn’t good because it’s widely cited as one of the strongest parts of the game (well, certainly the end, anyway). But that’s just the problem, such a great narrative is undermined by the gameplay.

In other words, a thought-provoking analysis of faux-utopias, power balances, and how they affect the way we treat people is completely overshadowed by the traditional FPS tropes of “gun down anyone and everyone that gets in your way” and “choose x or y” morality. Instead of giving us time to think about and explore the implications, we’re thrown back into the familiar scenario of deciding whether we should shoot someone in the face or find a healing station first. These themes and settings deserve to be fully explored in a book, one that would make Atlas Shrugged look like a kids book (assuming you don’t already think Ayn Rand wrote middle-grade fantasy).

Final Fantasy [pick a number]

Final Fantasy Something. Wait! Aeris dies?!

I won't pick a specific game from the franchise because the last thing I want is someone in the comments telling me that Final Fantasy 3 was actually Final Fantasy 27 in Japan, and Final Fantasy 7 was actually Final Fantasy -3.1415 in the Ukraine. Just take any Final Fantasy game before they started using voice actors. With all the dialog text and cutscenes, the developers already wrote a novel’s worth of words for each game. You were reading all that text anyway; might as well have printed that sucker out. And the worlds are strange and fascinating enough to be worth exploring in a book.

Any LucasArts Adventure Game

Day of the Tentacle, the only time travel tale you'll ever need

Every last one of these games was perfect, and I will fight anyone who suggests otherwise. But they could have made entertaining books, too. Don’t you ever wonder what would have happened if Douglas Adams had written a Day of the Tentacle novel?

Duck Hunt

Duck Hunt, promoting hand guns and emasculation via dog since 1984

Video games are not the proper medium to explore the sociopathic tendencies of our hunting dog companion. There are layers there that require at least 80,000 words, wherein we explore the dichotomy of the troubled canine who one moment is relishing the dive into the tall grass, searching maw-first for the soft, yielding flesh of a dead duck, holding it aloft with pleasure, and the next moment is equally delighted that the player failed to kill the bird, shaking with mirth, mocking the impotence of your weapon. I’m telling you, he’s crazy.

That’s enough for now. It’s your turn to weigh in. Which game do think would have been better as a book?

Daniel Hope

Column by Daniel Hope

Daniel Hope is a writer, ukelele player, and unrepentant nerd. He has worked as a technology journalist (too frantic), a PR writer (too smarmy), and a marketing writer (too fake). He is currently the Managing Editor of Fiction Vortex, an online publication for science fiction and fantasy short stories. At FV, he's known as the Voice of Reason. That means FV staff members wish he would stop worrying all the time. He thinks they should stop smiling so much.

Daniel Hope lives in California and dreams of writing more. When distraught about his output, he consoles himself with great beaches and gorgeous weather. He recently published his science fiction novel, The Inevitable, on the Kindle Store and Smashwords. Find out more at his site: SpeculativeIntent.com.

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Comments

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing September 19, 2013 - 5:01pm

From the Wikipedia entry for Fallout 3:

Fallout 3 takes place in the year 2277, 36 years after the setting of Fallout 2 and 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse that devastated the game's world in a future where international conflicts between the United States and China culminated in a Sino-American war in 2077, due to the scarcity of petroleum reserves that ran the economies of both countries.


The player character is an inhabitant of Vault 101, a survival shelter designed to protect up to 1,000 humans from the nuclear fallout. When the player character's father disappears under mysterious circumstances, the Overseer, or the leader of the vault, initiates martial law, and sends security forces after the player, who is forced to escape from the Vault and journey into the ruins of Washington, D.C. to track him down. Along the way the player is assisted by a number of human survivors and must battle a myriad of enemies that inhabit the area now known as the "Capital Wasteland".

Trixy Lokisson's picture
Trixy Lokisson from the harsh shores of the Black Sea is reading code, and getting pretty sick of it... September 19, 2013 - 5:27pm

What about Fahrenheit: The Indigo Prophecy?

Or Mass Effect?

Or TES 5: Skyrim for that matter?

I proud myself on being an avid gamer and I can't imagine all the games listed in the Top section are superior in story potential to Bioshock.

Dan Hope's picture
Dan Hope from The Eagle Nebula is reading Leviathan Wakes September 19, 2013 - 6:15pm

Don't get me started about Mass Effect because we don't have enough time to dissect my rant about authorial intent, choice in games, and the weapons micro-economy of my favorite store on the Citadel. Plus, there are already plenty of books in the Mass Effect universe. Let's rank them according to the order they were released and leave it at that.

Keep in mind, we're not just looking exclusively at story potential, and we're not just looking at games that would have made good books. We're looking at games that would have been BETTER as books. In other words, they disappointed as a game, but still had narrative potential.

Trixy Lokisson's picture
Trixy Lokisson from the harsh shores of the Black Sea is reading code, and getting pretty sick of it... September 19, 2013 - 7:18pm

Then let me suggest a recent title: Warframe.

I for one find the Grineer to be scifi gold.

There is little if not NO fan fiction or story development to this.

But the potential the race and some characters have is immense.

Skygrotto's picture
Skygrotto from Southwestern Ontario is reading Europe: A History by Norman Davies September 19, 2013 - 7:22pm

Hitman: Absolution, which strayed from the freedom of earlier games to tell a simple and sentimental tale of a clone who rescues a young girl clone from scientists, businessmen, and assassins.

bachunderground's picture
bachunderground from DC is reading tea leaves September 19, 2013 - 8:54pm

The Dragon Age series, especially the second game. Origins was a great game in addition to a great story. Dragon Age 2 had better writing but was less fun to play. Both struggled with the integration of story into the game itself, relying on cutscenes and drawn-out dialogue playing out in murky, repetitive environments. But from a quality-of writing perspective, not only is it a cut above the industry standard, it's better than many fantasy books.

Josh Lowery's picture
Josh Lowery from Florida is reading Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk September 19, 2013 - 9:01pm

I vote Dishonored ... great game, and would've been a great novel with the right author.

bohemianonrye's picture
bohemianonrye from Pittsburgh, PA is reading Love in the Time of Global Warming September 19, 2013 - 9:20pm

Heavy Rain. Totally. Don't get me wrong, the game was great and fun and all that. I do feel like some of the characters' stories were lacking and a bit incomplete. I also have a sneaky suspicion that if someone had to write out what was going on with the only female character you could play as, maybe they would have said, "Wow, yeah, this is some pretty sexist shit, isn't it?"

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands is reading Brian Evenson's Windeye September 20, 2013 - 3:47am

I can't remember playing it, but Douglas Adams designed a computer game called Starship Titanic that came out in 98 (of course, he's also responsible for the Hitchhiker's text adventure). And Terry Jones from Monty Python wrote a novelization based on the book. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Perfidia September 20, 2013 - 10:33am

I always thought the dog from Duck Hunt was a dick.

CaremTran's picture
CaremTran from PDX is reading Tess Gerritsen's STOLEN September 21, 2013 - 5:28pm

Duck Hunt rocks.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands is reading Brian Evenson's Windeye September 22, 2013 - 9:35pm

It's fun to rig it up so you can play the same game of Duck Hunt on two different screens at the same time.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill September 23, 2013 - 2:11pm

I'd love to have The Last of Us in novel form.

I thought Bioshock was highly overrated, hinging entirely on the social commentary and twist ending, which was admittedly brilliant, but the story lacks any other kind of substance and really is as plot-driven as any other game on the market. Granted, a novelization of it might bring in these badly needed developments that would have made it awesome, and it would have spared the reader the experience of having to walk down the same glass-encased walkway with crates in it twenty times.

Dan Hope's picture
Dan Hope from The Eagle Nebula is reading Leviathan Wakes September 23, 2013 - 3:07pm

I agree, Tim Johnson; the traditions of game development were limiting the impact of the story in Bioshock. The potential to make the whole thing more unsettling and thought-provoking (instead of just the first 30 minutes and the last 5 minutes) is much greater in a prose format. I'd love it if a game developer proved me wrong, though.

Amanda Roberts's picture
Amanda Roberts from Hunan, China is reading American Gods September 24, 2013 - 8:37am

I would add Fire Emblem to this list. Well, it is great as a video game. One of the reasons it is one of my favorite games is because of the story. I think the story would also work well as a full-length novel. 

fatmat426's picture
fatmat426 from Brooklyn, New York is reading Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings September 25, 2013 - 2:45pm

The entire "Half Life" series by Valve should have been on this list (the first game won Game of the Year back in '98 and it is still being played & updated today by numerous fans) especially since we would finally be able to hear Gordon Freeman's voice as part of the narrative element of the novel, and this would also allow us to finally have some closure regarding HL3 which seems like it will never be created or released.

Justin Parran's picture
Justin Parran September 25, 2013 - 2:47pm

Definitely agree with you on the Final Fantasy games (especially VIII and IX). The Parasite Eve and Chrono franchises (two more Square creations) and the Soul fighting game series would make awesome novels, too.

Randys MarshmellowMan's picture
Randys Marshmel... September 25, 2013 - 3:23pm

Broke my heart the day duke nukem forever was released. How can i game going from being so great to being so god damn awful? Still play Duke NUkem 3D.

Bryan Williams's picture
Bryan Williams September 25, 2013 - 3:31pm

Definitely Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. Such an interesting story and absolutely amazing sound design. It's just a shame that it was attached to a horror franchise. It could have been better if it had been explored in another way.

Hannah Shaw-Williams's picture
Hannah Shaw-Williams September 25, 2013 - 4:25pm

This might have been mentioned before, but Bioshock should not be on this list. The metanarrative in that game was very specifically about the experience of playing a video game and the issues of free will that arise from actions made by the player within a linear narrative. The strongest moment within the storytelling, and the moment that everyone remembers, is a very direct comment on the relationship between the player and the game. 

The FPS aspect does not "overshadow" the narrative; it's a major part of the narrative. The whole point is that the player does not think about the implications of shooting the splicers, because the game then later throws that lack of thought and questioning right back in your face and challenges the notion that we should automatically obey when we're told to kill an enemy.

Daniel Donche's picture
Daniel Donche from Seattle is reading Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas September 25, 2013 - 4:51pm

I have been trying to get Bethesda to open up tie-in novels for Fallout for years. I know it's not on this list, but they're missing out on a huge market. And so are all the people interested in writing those.

Phil Keeling's picture
Phil Keeling from Savannah, Georgia is reading Virtual Ascendence September 25, 2013 - 5:19pm

I'm with Hannah Shaw-Williams on this one all the way.  Bioshock was absolutely meant to be a video game--there's no question.  And though I understand the author's intents here, as an enthusiast of both literature and video games, I can't help but feel a tad insulted on behalf of games here.

 The creation and play of a video game is a completely different work of art, and to make any of these into novels would be a completely different animal, wouldn't it?

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading WAR stories (x126) September 25, 2013 - 5:46pm

Oregon Trail. Though it probably already was.

Sarah Brush's picture
Sarah Brush September 25, 2013 - 7:27pm

Pretty much any of the Elder Scrolls games would make awesome books, but they're also amazing games, so I don't think they really fit the bill. ;) They've got some really interesting books in them too (seriously, the Unofficial Biographies of Barenziah have some pretty wild stuff going on, especially if you read the version before the Empire censored them). But I better stop before I go into full Elder Scroll nerd mode. :)

Kirk Harris Seaman's picture
Kirk Harris Seaman September 26, 2013 - 12:03am

Perhaps someone mentioned this but Final Fantasy breaks your rules because there is a Final Fantasy movie (two of them).

Dalty's picture
Dalty from East Bay is reading Stephen King On Writing September 26, 2013 - 12:06am

Way to be Captain Obvious, everyone.  Go with obscure and interesting:

Earthworm Jim

and

Leisure Suit Larry!

Charles Francoise's picture
Charles Francoise September 26, 2013 - 6:24am

Thanks for mentioning BioShock. I'm currently plowing through the incredibly repetitive and unoriginal FPS gameplay just to get the amazing story.

At the very least, this game would have been so much better as a third-person, cutscene-ridden action-adventure game.

Alex Brown_2's picture
Alex Brown_2 September 26, 2013 - 6:34am

I find the idea that the weird and wonderful worlds of Final Fantasy games would be "worth exploring in a book" a bit weird. That seems backwards to me; when I read a brilliant sci-fi or fantasy novel with an imaginative setting I always think "I wish I was exploring this world in a video game." 

 

Elise Nedal Helgesen's picture
Elise Nedal Helgesen September 26, 2013 - 8:06am

The half-life universe could better be told through books, in my opinion!

I disagree with the Bioshock one though. While its true that the universe of Rapture needs some more exploring and needs to unfold in a better way, the "plot-twist" of the game really didn't need, or would easily translate, to a different media. To avoid spoilers- the "would you kindly" aspect of it is what made it really work as a game, and it really used the platform in a way rarely seen by making you question things like free will. Which is a turn many times seen in books, so I feel it would lose its uniqueness from it.
Rapture however, do need some more debt to it, but the prequel book does that nicely!

May Echevarria's picture
May Echevarria September 26, 2013 - 2:31pm

The Portal series are one of my all-time favorites, and besides the puzzles that made me try over and over until I figured it out, the whole storyline was a nice mystery to solve. Not to mention the characters are the best part. Had this series been in novel form, the characters would have that much more to love.