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Stories That Would Make Excellent Games
Have you ever read a book which made you think it’d make a better game? Every so often I come up with a book that fits this category. In a novel you follow one path, that of the hero. Events unfold once, and whatever the setting, whatever the wider world of the book, you only ever see how things play out once.
In a game, your options open up. You can run the experiment over and over again and see what other outcomes are possible. Tolkien says of The Lord of the Rings that, had he wanted to make it a retelling of World War II the Free Peoples would have allied with Saruman and used the One Ring as a weapon to ultimately defeat Sauron. Would that have worked? Could they have done it with the alliance but not with the Ring, or the other way around?
Not every story makes a good game. You could speed-run Hamlet: The Video Game by stabbing Claudius the first time the two of you are on stage together. While I’d devour a Starship Troopers bug hunter first-person shooter, I think it’d be lacking the political philosophy that imbues the book. Sometimes though, and this happens most often in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, the setting is more interesting than the story. Sometimes an author is better at coming up with interesting problems than compelling solutions for them. Sometimes the conflicts that determine the fate of nations and civilizations beg for more thorough analysis than one case study can provide. Let’s look at a few.
Case 1: The Cosmic Computer, by H. Beam Piper
Conn Maxwell is returning to the planet Sorisende after six years attending university on Earth. Half a century back, the Terran Federation had used Sorisende as a forward base in a civil war. They had imported trillions upon trillions of credits of war materiel. Then, abruptly, the war ended. The planet is covered with bases and guns and tanks and supplies that it’s no longer economical to ship back out. The Federation abandons them there.
Half a century on the entire economy of Sorisende is based off of salvaging this abandoned war materiel, with the people wearing old uniforms and driving old scouting vehicles and so forth. Conn had gone back to Earth to research this war, to learn of possible locations of other depots worth salvaging, and in particular to find the secret computer Merlin which the Federation had used to win the war.
I won’t spoil the plot, but pretty soon there’s a battle with space pirates, and a damsel to be rescued, and I just want to get back to the salvage operations. Space pirates are great and all, but I was really enjoying the prospecting.
As a video game, this would work with a pretty standard economy builder setup, using the abandoned paraphernalia of a sci-fi war as your set dressing. Acquire loot. Sell loot. Buy upgrades that let you acquire loot better. Occasionally fight off space pirates. It’s a fairly standard loop, but none the worse for wear.
Case 2: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by John Ringo.
This is book four of Ringo’s Council Wars series, which is science fiction so far into the future that it’s bent back around into fantasy. For example, in the first book — before civilization collapses — a teenage girl turns herself into a unicorn with all the foresight today’s teenager puts into a body piercing. It has to do with nanites.
In book four, we learn that the civilization powered itself with sixteen fusion power plants, which are supplied by one spaceship going out to Jupiter to harvest hydrogen. The ship is piloted by robots, it has sixteen longboats that robotically reenter, resupply the power plants, and return to the ship, and nobody’s bothered fixing or upgrading or really even thinking about the system for centuries. Until suddenly, that power becomes a critical war asset. If you could take control of the ship, you could starve the other side of power.
Eight boats are coming down into allied territory. Fill the boats with your people for the ride up. Eight will come down into enemy territory. Who are they going to send? You need pilots to control the ship, you need soldiers to fight their party, and each side gets one wizard.
The boats dispatch to power plants in a random arrangement, so you don’t know where your teams are docking in the ship. You can control all the ship’s functions from the bridge, but you can shut the engines down manually from engineering, but even with the engines shut down you can maneuver the ship somewhat by turning on engines in the (now docked) longboats …
It works all right as a story. It would make a really excellent two-player board game.
Case 3: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I’m a steadfast admirer of the Lord of the Rings, and I don’t think I could make a game that’s half as good as these books are. I’d go so far as to say that 98% of the story couldn’t be done better as a game. As I’ve been reading through them again, I find my mind dwelling on certain points, things that would make for wonderful video games. Let’s talk about Moria.
Advance time past the end of the series. Sauron is cast down, the strength of Barad-dur is broken, and Elessar reigns as high king over Gondor and Arnor. There are still dark things in the world, but they are fleeing and hiding. The time is now ripe for the assembled Dwarves of the world to retake Khazad-dum.
I would design this as a computer game, where you have an army of dwarves that you have to keep supplied. Start at the western gate of the mountains. You tutorialize the game with a brief battle with the orcs for the first hall, and then you come to the now bridgeless chasm where Gandalf stopped the Balrog, and have to build a bridge across in order to continue the conquest.
Your host is initially supported with patronage from the Lonely Mountain, but soon you must rely on trade with the elves that remain in Lothlorien, with the Beornings to the north, and further afield with the other peoples of Middle Earth. To do that, you need to start the mines and the smithies up again even as you’re conquering the orcs and mountain trolls that remain. Even though Durin’s Bane has been cast down, there are still things fouler than orcs in the depths of the world.
I would play the heck out of that video game. And the DLC where you hire dwarves to dig through the ruins of The Dark Tower to see if any treasures might be salvaged.
Case 4: Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper
At this point, the Galactic Civilization has collapsed. The Sword Worlds were settled by people that wanted to get far enough away from the galaxy that the Terran Federation couldn’t tell them what to do. By the time the Sword Worlds made contact with the federation again, they found worlds that had descended into barbarism. They do what any self-respecting Viking would —loot!
The story follows a gentleman named Trask; he’s setting out into the galaxy in pursuit of revenge, but it’s almost impossible for him to find the man he’s searching for. He bides his time setting up on the planet Tanith, building a civilization out of the pre (or perhaps post) industrial natives. He raids some neighbors, and trades with some neighbors, trading with some that he previously raided building up his own planet, all the while waiting for rumors of his nemesis.
The vengeance plotline is okay, but again, I’d rather play that video game. You start with one planet, you have the option of raiding your neighbors, or trading with them. Trading is worth more in the long run, but if you trade with them you’ve got to protect them from the depredations of other Space Vikings. You can sell your services to other Space Vikings and trade with your home world, but you’ve got to be careful that they don’t just plunder you either. Vikings gonna Vike.
Case 5: Cytonic, by Brandon Sanderson
For reasons I won’t get into, our hero Spin is trapped in a world of floating islands. Each island is a different biome torn out of some other reality and set floating here. The empire (there’s always an empire) has a station in this universe where they mine the floating stone. It’s useful in lifting any number of things, particularly space fighters.
There are four bands of pirates. Because of the peculiar nature of this universe you don’t need to eat there, so they don’t really raid each other for resources, more for entertainment. Star fighters are highly prized, so they’ve ritualized combat such that ships are disabled rather than destroyed, and the agreed-upon wager for a single skirmish is the transfer of one ship from the losing pirate faction to the winners. But ships are only as good as the pilots you can put into them.
This setting is already so much like a board game I can almost see the pieces. Instead of a board, sell it with a stack of hexagonal tiles like Settlers of Catan. Shuffle the tiles and flip them up randomly and you can create a new archipelago of floating islands each time you play. Four pirate factions, four players. You start with a given number of ships and pilots of various grades. What doesn’t come naturally is a reason to go exploring.
I’d set it up this way; each person starts with seven hexes, one for their base, and the six surrounding it. Then you can go exploring, which flips up new hexes from the box, which get interlocked into your grid. These hexes can come with random lost wanderers, whom you can recruit as pilots or ground crew, and maybe even a brand-new ship. If you get too close to one of the other players they can ambush you, or you could go and try and ambush the empire (which I’d have play as an NPC). The game ends when one player has conquered another pirate faction or beaten down the empire outpost.
What Else is Out There?
Do you have anything to add? What games would you like to play? Maybe the fierce infighting of the Landsraad over CHOAM directorships entirely unconnected with the maneuverings of the Atreides and Harkonnens over the planet Dune. Maybe the same thing, but in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers, where nomes from Housewares plot to steal the domain of the Lady del Icatessen, and from there are poised to seize control of the entire store? Maybe you think that Battle School was rigged in Ender’s favor by setting the other teams to work with questionably effective formations. Maybe Asimov’s Foundation series should be a scenario in Stellaris.
What games would you like to play?Published in Literature
This game sounds amazing.
I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to write a modest sequel to LOTR: Radagast decides to pull a Gandalf for his last hurrah before fading into oblivion–and to help Men stay humble and not inherit the whole earth too quickly.
He recruits a Hobbit, a son of Samwise, to join him and a small band of Dwarves in an adventure to reestablish a strong Dwarf civilization in Khazad-dum. No Balrog, but plenty of room for trouble. The Watcher might still be in the waters, and maybe a local group of Orcs worships it or something. I don’t know exactly.
Most of those games you suggest don’t sound very entertaining to me. But I’m probably not the best person to ask.
The main problem I see with such things is, how much flexibility can there really be in many of these games? What if in some Lord Of The Rings game, you want to start doing something earlier – or later – than it happened in any of the books? What if in the game, you take X or Y days to get somewhere, versus the Z days postulated in the books/movies? What if you sent Hobbit A somewhere instead of Hobbit B? What if you sent BOTH Hobbit A and Hobbit B somewhere, instead of just Hobbit C? What would happen? How would you KNOW? How could the game figure it out? How much is actually more or less random? And if it is somewhat random, how entertaining is that game if things change even if you do your part the same each time?
To me at least, the answer is “not very.”
When I was in college some friends and I developed a board game based on Space Viking. So, your instinct is good.
Lost to the ravages of time, alas.
There are things you can simulate and things you can’t. Still on Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s journey through Mordor couldn’t be done in a video game. You can’t make the character feel a burden the player doesn’t feel. “Okay, the weight of the One Ring is gnawing at me. I make my willpower save, and can we advance time until there’s combat or something?” If I were to make a game out of it he’d run all the way, fight fifty orcs at least, and he’d have to jump over lava to get up the side of Mount Doom. By making it into a game that’s worth playing you have to change everything about the story except for the names.
Look up the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adventure game some time. If you take too long getting out of your room the bulldozer knocks down your house. If you take too long getting to the pub the Earth gets blowed up with you still on it. If you take too long getting the babel fish you get thrown out of the Vogon ship without poetry. The game appeals to a certain narrow class of masochist but for most of us that doesn’t make for an interesting game.
Most narrative games advance time at the speed of the plot. If, having completed the third dungeon in Ocarina of Time, you race to castle town you’ll get there just as Zelda is escaping. If instead you spend three months chopping the tall grass for rupees and poking through holes to find spiders, you’ll get to castle town just as Zelda is escaping. It kills any sense of urgency in the game, but it makes for a more fun experience overall. But the mine conquering game isn’t a narrative-based game and wouldn’t work in the same way at all.
If I were making it a game each character would have a sheet with statistics that tell you how their character would be affected. Maybe Frodo has a higher Will score than Pippin does, so if I gave the ring to Pippin and sent him to Mordor he’d fail along the way. In the background the computer would roll a number of dice, where if you fail the check something bad happens. Pippin would fail more checks since his rolls are harder since his stat is lower and be less likely to win. You’d still as a player have a choice — which hobbit to send — which would affect the outcome of the game.
Again, I don’t think that’d make a particularly interesting game, and that’s not at all the Lord of the Rings game I proposed.
Shame that. I would be interested in hearing how it worked.
By the nature of the game I proposed you’d have the Watcher as something of an end game boss fight. If you start at the easternmost entrance and have fought your way all the way to the westernmost entrance you’re pretty much done with the game, so he’d pretty much have to be.
Well, I was going off on a tangent about how the books would go.
But . . . heck yeah!
The end credits could contain the entire text of Lost Tales.
I never played that one, but I played “Starcrossed.” On a Compaq “Portable” in fact. “HHGTTG” seems like it wouldn’t make much if any difference if you did things quicker rather than “too slow” as you mention, but “Starcrossed” seemed more balanced in that sense at least.
Even the stats lists that you mention might too rigid for my argument. I don’t know much about LOTR but I would have to think that, for example, having some character do something might have differing results – time used, etc – depending on whether you have them do it before or after some best-friend character is killed. For example. And whether or not that happened in the books or the movies, you would have to be able to change the order of things in a game. IRL that could easily make a big difference, but how do you account for it in a game?
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of exactly two Infocom games I actually finished it’s both similar to and different from the books. The scenarios you described are both overcome in the first fifteen minutes of play. I don’t recall many other time-based (really turn-based) puzzles in the game.
That said, I actually possess (here in Mexico) an Avalon Hill board game of Starship Troopers. It’s not great: it has way too many pieces and requires the “bug” player to take longer setting up his defenses than it actually takes to play. But it exists.
It would make a better video game. If Doom and all of the subsequent FPSes didn’t exist.
I’ve heard of games that work like you’re suggesting, but I don’t think I’ve ever played one. The way they tend to work is that each character pairing has a ‘relationship’ stat that you don’t get to see that affects things like that.
Take an example, Merry and King Theoden of Rohan. In the book Merry is charmed by Theoden’s politeness, he offers his sword in service, Theoden accepts but releases him from service a few days later, acting against Theoden’s expressed wishes Merry tags along with Dernhelm to the battle, Theoden is killed in battle, and Merry stabs the ringwraith in his mighty knee.
In the game version you’d play as Theoden (Merry, being more protagonisty would be a better choice generally but it doesn’t work in the example here.) When you meet Merry in the ruins of Isengard you’d have dialogue options; Merry would speak his piece and then you’d get one of four responses. Politely inquiring about herb-lore would add +2 to the Theoden/Merry relationship variable. Telling him to go soak his head would give you -3, or something like that. Continue on, if you, as Theoden, keep making choices that Merry likes you increase that stat. Then you come to decision points.
If the relationship is positive when you get to Helm’s Deep then Merry offers service. Otherwise he rides with Aragorn & co. If the relationship stat is negative when you get to Edoras, then Merry hangs out there rather than tagging along, and effectively that character drops out of the story. If the stat is high enough, when Merry sees Theoden fall in battle then something happens. Spurred on to greater deeds he stabs the ringwraith.
In the real world supposing he received an emotional shock like that he might go berserk, or catatonic, or something. I could draw up a “losing your loved ones” emotional reaction table, but negative or uncontrollable reactions don’t make for fun gameplay. If I the player have gone through the work to keep Merry at the relationship level where my falling in battle spurs a reaction, I’m going to be annoyed if that reaction screws me over. If a game is too realistic to be fun then no one plays it.
It sounds like you’re asking “What if Merry sticks around in Edoras, but we needed him to stab the Witch King?, only you didn’t know that last chapter so you were rude to him and now three hours of gameplay on I can’t win the game because the character I needed isn’t here anymore?” To which I’d say “design the game differently.” Either rig the system so that Merry can’t be left back in Edoras, or so you get clear warnings about pissing him off, or so that there’s a different way to beat the Witch King without Merry present, or something. Games are supposed to be fun. Games that treat you like a girlfriend who’s mad at you because of something you did in her dream aren’t.
You’re better at guessing the words the game wants to hear than I am. I didn’t get much further than the babelfish before giving the game up.
Adaptations are hard. Making games that don’t suck is also hard, even when the players aren’t coming in with expectations from a book they loved.
Sierra was terrible at that. In the original Leisure Suit Larry, if you didn’t pick up a battery on the first screen and carry it arounf through the entire game you couldn’t win the game. There was no way to go back to the beginning.
Remember that i played HHGttG in 1987. It was a lot fresher in the cultural Zeitgeist then, so the vocabulary was more accessible.
On the other hand, when I played Trinity soon after it took me weeks to learn that it wanted “pram” or “perambulator” instead of “baby buggy”.
HHGttG likewise screwed me with “analgesic” instead os “aspirin” because I had no idea that aspirin was still trademarked in Europe.
There was a Lord of the Rings RPG back in the 80s published by Iron Crown Enterprises. It had interesting game mechanics but nothing you could not have done with the AD&D rules. Since D&D and AD&D came out of the early 70s Tolkien craze anyway, the question raised by ICE´s game was “why bother learning a new set of game mechanics”? Its only advantage was that it was officially licensed by Tolkien´s estate, so you had “official” stats on the Witch-King of Angmar, Ancalagon the Black, etc. The weapon hit results table was a hoot, though. “Your arrow pierces your opponent´s eye and embeds in his frontal lobe. Unable to cope with this loss, your opponent twitches briefly, then expires” and the like.
And in college we did repeated scenarios based on Lovecraft using Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium and various Known Space or Macross-like adventures using rules from the Star Trek RPG from FASA or Battletech. Great fun was had by all.
Most anything can work as tabletop RPG fodder if you’ve got a solid dungeon master and some willingness to work at it. I once spent some time trying to design a campaign around the exploits of Herbert Kornfeld.
These days I read a pulp novel and get suspicious that things are going the other way; that perhaps this is the story of someone’s D&D campaign.
Baen among others have posted in their list of desiderata for submissions “not your gaming notes” and similar statements. This seems to be a commonplace problem for traditional publishers in the SF/F field today.
Teenage girls turning themselves into unicorns is the female equivalent of using your time machine to go kill Hitler. It’s not a good idea, but it’s going to happen anyway.
You also have to make sure the fox doesn’t eat the goose and the goose can’t get at the grain.
Also that’s basically space chess but you get to pick the pieces.
There’s a pretty big overlap in that Venn diagram.
Given that we were just talking about it in the PIT I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention young Aragorn as a possible video game as well.
Not much in the way of mechanics is springing to mind. Still, it’s hard to go wrong fighting corsairs.
Basically the Starcraft 2 Zerg campaign. Probably a little more on the genre shifting because some of the missions would have to be first person.
Because they never understand that going to kill Hitler is always what CAUSES Hitler.
I adapted the tables for the lord of the Rings RPG to be critical hit tables for D&D at one point in time. A lot better flavor than just double damage.
Surprisingly this one is still open: The Isle of Doctor Moreau RPG.
When I was a kid a bunch of us made a tabletop game out of the zero gravity “laser tag” training scenes from Ender’s Game. We put the rules together with a bit of AD&D, Car Wars, and Top Secret and played on graph paper. For a Y axis we’d put tiny squares of construction paper on each team member to tell us what elevation they were in but we only had five or six different colors of paper so our Y axis was limited. Each player had their own team and we had a bunch of different “courts” with obstacles in place and played tournaments. It was fun.
The problem came when we started messing with ways to allow our teams get better over time. We started keeping stats for individual characters and awarding experience, but each team was made up of ten characters and we had five or six players so that meant fifty to sixty characters. We were twelve years old. There was no way to police that many stats and accusations of cheating and stat pumping started flying. I bet we’d have played longer if we had computers and a shared database instead of notebooks that went home with the individual players and pencil eraser marks that may have been legit earned player changes but kept us suspecting that so and so’s standout sniper was just a little too good. Too many arguments.
Nah. That´s a Call of Cthulhu scenario if ever I saw one. San check!
I tempt fate and I tempt fate but do I get a running cutlass battle with swashbucklers? No.
That game sounds pretty cool. And you’re right, if you’re going to keep stats on sixty characters you’re best off using a computer. But then if y’all have computers then I bet you can find easier ways to spend your time.
Computers on a broader scale have been the death of the sort of Avalon Hill strategy game dear to @Seawriter’s heart. In elden days you’d array tanks on a hex grid and contemplate how the elevation bonus affects your chance to hit, or whether your opponent might run a tank of his own into the space you’re defending and whether waiting for a better shot against an armor type more favorable to your guns is an acceptable risk as opposed to taking a sure shot against some low value infantry now. Then when we trained computers to take care of all the rules details you’d get games where you’d move tanks around a hex grid on your turn and maybe you stop and consider the same decision, but maybe you just move the tank, fire the shot, and let the cards fall where they may. And then you get real time strategy games where everything happens in continuous time and you don’t have a chance to make drawn-out decisions about these things.
Effectively you’ve replaced chess with speed chess. That’s not to say that speed chess is a less noble game than chess, but it is a different one. I don’t know of any modern computer games that offer you the hex-based Avalon Hill experience, though if you’ll take a mid-nineties version you can get Panzer General II from gog.com. I think if you want that experience now your best bet is to go with the various offerings of Paradox games, Hearts of Iron or Europa Universalis and the like. I haven’t played those myself, partly because my patience is never what it should be, and partly because if it were I’d get sucked into a hole that would devour hours by the hundred.