Tag: video games


Posted on by Steven Savage

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

OK everyone, here’s an amazing little game – the character creation engine is the game. So raise stats, unlock choices, play character – and this guy is looking for contributors/help!  So go on, try it then ask him how you can make it awesomer!


– Steve

Posted on by Steven Savage

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

I found Failbetter Games browser-based adventure game Fallen London via it’s Kickstarted sister game, Sunless Sea, a kind of nautical rogue like of comedy-horror-adventure. I quickly took to Fallen London’s playable-novel style of adventure (in fact, moreso than the brilliant but nerve-wracking Sunless Sea). As I played this game I began to wonder just why I had taken to it so much – enough to get a monthly subscription for extra elements. That’s where this essay comes in.

It’s clear this award-winning browser game has a certain something that compelled me and others. By getting my own thoughts together here I hope to make a small contribution to game analysis, as well as understand my reactions. Fallen London got me thinking about game mechanics in surprising ways, and a good analysis should help me – and others.

So let’s look at Fallen London – and what it does right. Join me, Delicious Friend.

The Basics of Fallen London

In Fallen London you’re a newcomer to the Victorian subterranean city, which was London some thirty years ago until it was stolen below ground by strange forces. Now under control of the mysterious if often friendly Masters of the Bazaar, nominally ruled by the “Traitor Empress” that made a deal with them, it’s a haunted, weird, scary, and wonderful place. Hell is nearby and has an Embassy, living objects come from distant shores of the underground “Unterzee” and previous stolen cities ruins lie around. Also, people are mailing cats.

You walk into this as a newcomer, arrested for some reason (likely just coming there), and upon escaping embark on your own destiny. Poet, spy, mercenary, investigator, and more all are available to you. As you progress you make connections, improve your character, find lodgings, unlock further secrets, and so on. Whatever you do is up to you.

All of this happens with very well-written text and story vignettes that really bring the half-horror half-comedic setting to life. Fallen London, bluntly, is probably better written than most any game and quite a few books, somewhere between Monty Python, Eldritch Horror, and Discworld.

As I analyzed it I was able to find six areas that the game did things right. These traits and mechanics, in combination, produce a marvelous experience.

Let’s take a look.

Fallen London’s Writing Writing: Expressive, Layered, Personal

It’s hard not to go on about the writing in Fallen London. Were it simply a series of novels or a comic series it’d be an epic experience on its own. The fact this writing is couched as a game makes it even more compelling as you live the writing. This excellent wordsmithing succeeds due to three factors:

Writing Comes First. It’s very clear that the writing of Fallen London is meant to be of the highest quality. The tale-telling clearly has come first over all else, bringing you into the setting, but also making the choices and usual actions of an RPG have a particular urgency and life to them. The writing is not just witty and illustrative – it makes your choices feel real, and the choices and plots are well-thought out.

Branching And Combining Stories. Various conditions unlock story options, stories have multiple resolutions with real impact, and the end of one of the tales may lead to several others. This produces clear choices that feel very real – and are often real as they will lock future choices on one hand, while opening others or at lest providing resources to open them.

Parts Of A Whole. Though there are many stories and “storylets” great care has been taken to make them part of a whole. A mysterious squid-faced man handing you a chunk of slimy amber isn’t a random event, but is due to a backstory. A marsh filled with giant mushrooms isn’t just a marsh, but the site of races as people have discovered that running across giant mushrooms is rather sporting. Everything is connected (finding these connections could occupy you quite a bit in the game).

Abstract Characters. One of the most curious elements of Fallen London is most characters are referred to by abstract names – the Wry Functionary, the Knuckle-Scarred Inspector, and so on. Instead of making them distant this abstraction makes them archetypical, giving them life, while also making the experience personal and unique. Everyone may encounter a Sardonic Music-Hall Singer, but it’s their own, personal one.

Attributes And Failure States In Fallen London: Clear, Abstract, Applicable

Representing characters with various numbers is a classic element of role-playing games. Fallen London is no different, but does it with a mix of generality, clarity, and precision.

Distinct Attributes. Characters are represented by four different Attributes – Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. These Attributes affect a character’s chance to succeed at an appropriate task with a simple random “roll,” and a success provides colorful descriptive text as well as various rewards This simplicity makes characters and characters easy to understand – but also distinct depending on how high that Attribute is.

Attributes Associated With Settings. Various areas of the setting are associated with the activities requiring a given Attribute or Attributes. A monster-haunted area may yield mostly Dangerous tasks, while a street of crime and mysterious couriers may have mostly Shadowy activities. The limited but distinct sets of Attributes in turn allows for easy definition of various areas of the game and the stories within, as well as what one may do there.

Distinct Failure States. Each Attribute has a parallel failure state called a Menace that usually increases if one fails a more severe challenge – for instance failing a Dangerous challenge may result in an increase to Wounds. One can usually guess the probable results of a failure state from the Attribute involved and the descriptive text. The failure states also contain witty descriptions, such as one where spending time with a Vicar raises the Menace of Scandal when said Vicar turns out to be a reporter in disguise who assumes less than pure intentions. Failure is a story.

Unique Results Of Failure States. The Menaces can be treated by specific actions, such as taking Laudanum to deal with the Menace of Nightmares. In addition, if Menaces get too high then the character you play suffers specific effects, such as being imprisoned for having too much Suspicion. Addressing these challenges leads to further stories, making the tale one experiences both appropriate and unique.

Acquired Traits: Linear, Distinct, Multiple

As the character adventures, they make friends, solve cases, advance in the ranks of clubs, and so on. Representing these is done distinct from the attributes in question, often as the result of an action.

Achievements By Simple Numbers. To represent the connections people make, achievements and reputations and so on, there’s simple number scores characters acquire. These represent everything from how good a thief they are to how well-connected they may be to the police. A character may have many of these or only a few – it depends on the activities of the characters. This simple method allows for very complex character differences all with different “piles” of simple numbers.

Reputation As Number. Depending on how a character dresses, their home, and how they comport themselves, they get reputations – Bizarre, Respected, etc. that also have simple number scores, much like Attributes. The items that influence these traits, of course, often have clever and witty descriptions.

Use Of Acquired Traits. Acquired traits open up new story opportunities or may even be used like Attributes in some occasions, such as using one’s Dreaded reputation to threaten someone. Thus these acquired traits become goals, rewards, and tools while just being simple numeric stores. The drive to upgrade them also helps propel some of the game, and may inspire players to upgrade equipment and Attributes.

Progress In Fallen London: Numerical And Relevant

Progress in various ventures in Fallen London is measured by numeric scores, much like the acquired traits.

Progress Is A Number. Progress in almost anything is represented by a simple number score, often raised by challenges against Attributes or exchanging certain items. One may be “Solving a Case” and solve it when one has a score of ten. Or one may be exploring an area and solve it when one has ten points of “Exploring.” These scores are like very temporary Acquired traits, and often reset when a venture is over. These provide clear, simple measurements of progress.

Progress Influences Story. At a certain amount of “points” gained towards knowing a character or group you may unlock options such as starting a romantic relationship. Other scores may increase the challenge, such as solving a case getting harder the further one progresses, with new challenges arising. The score becomes a signal of challenges to come as well as a goal (and a player may feel their heart race as a score climbs . . .)

Negative And Conflicting Progress. These progress scores may, at times be negative or even conflict. One may be trying to outrun a rival, and as “progress” increases the rival is closer. Or one may be trying to keep one score up and another down. A few simple numbers can lead to complex stories and decisions.

Inventory; Abstracted, Related, Storied

Having a large inventory of “stuff” is a time-honored RPG tradition, and Fallen London is no different. However it uses the “adventurer inventory” to cover a wider range of ground, representing possessions far differently.

Everything As Inventory. Anything in one’s possession is portrayed in inventory, but this goes beyond guns or treasures. Possessions can also include knowledge, stories, or insights (each with its own description). One may thus have 1000 Clues or 50 different seafaring stories from their ventures – treated and inventoried no different than 70 pieces of Jade or a mysterious pistol. By treating everything as inventory the game allows a unique way to measure progress and address challenges – one may need to blackmail and enemy, and that story requires 3 Blackmail Materials (which a handy intriguer may have handy).

Inventory Presents Story Options. An item in your inventory isn’t just something to sell or “spend” for a challenge, be it pearls or an Appaling Secret. Inventory items often provide other story options when you select them, from acquiring other items to opening more stories, to helping you solve mysteries. A single kind of item might open up multiple options, giving you different ways to use them – each with their own descriptive text or substorm. One of my favorite examples is having Appalling Secrets – one option in using them is to try and “forget” a few of them with the hope of reducing Nightmares.

Inventory Converts. Another brilliant innovation in the game is that related items, from treasures to knowledge, can often be traded up in the associated “story options” mentioned. Hints become Clues, Jade can be traded for artifacts, candles traded to a church in return for mysterious salts. “Trading up” and at times “trading down” is required to unlock stories or do tasks, and figuring this out is an interesting challenge that contains its own miniature tales. One of my favorites experiences realizing that treasures I’d gathered in a seafaring venture could be swapped up to get information that in turn I could trade for a map to let me continue my adventures.

Economics: Omnipresent, Clear, Varied, Storied

As noted, some of Fallen London is about swapping various items or literal pieces of knowledge to achieve different goals. The entirety of Fallen London is actually about economics.

Progress Is Transactional. All of the well-written stories in Fallen London are essentially accessed by a transaction. This could be swapping a “move” to achieve something, or as complex as figuring out how to “grind” for information to get a legal document in order to get your hands on some important books. As these transactions are clearly stated and often work in a similar manner, the game is very easy to pick up – but the challenge is figuring how to pull off the transactions. After all you may want to save those Whispered Hints to solve a bigger mystery later, or your need to get your hands on seditious material requires you to choose between stealing from a group of Devils or getting into a fistfight with a book-carrying critic.

Tradeoffs Requiring Thought. The economics of the game also require one to consider tradeoffs. One may reduce the Menace of Nightmares with a good cup of wine, but a drunken night may raise the Menace of Scandal, which is best addressed by spending a few turns going to Church.

And So Our Analysis Of Fallen London Ends

So those are my initial thoughts on what makes Fallen London work. To sum it up I’d say it’s a writing-centric game that uses a series of simple scores and inventory systems in combination to allow for complex tales, and has simple but interesting ways to portray common game mechanics and choices. That is, of course, a simple summary.

Now as for what else we can learn, let me see where my investigations – and you reaction to this essay – take us . . .

– Steve

Posted on by Steven Savage

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

As we eagerly await the drop of No Man’s Sky (OK, I am, but considering my hobbies it’s not surprising), I noticed a thread on reddit discussing the desire for a documentary on the game. I wanted to address this and more.

In short, as I expect NMS to be successful, and certainly groundbreaking even if flawed, and yes, it’s one we should know more about.

But a documentary is just the start of what we should see.

Yes, We Need a Documentary: The game itself has an impressive history, and it’d be great to see it documented. A good documentary should go beyond just the history, but also to the influences and impact – from 70’s concept art to he modern hype. There’s a great story to tell here if done right (and Hello Games could probably make more money selling one).

Management Interview: I deeply treasure the development interviews I read in Game Informer, as I learned a lot from them that I use to this day. I want to see an in-depth discussion in Game Informer if not a professional management magazine on just how Hello Games pulled this off.

Artbook: There’s tempting concept art we’ve seen, so let’s load it all into one book, have interviews with the artists, and sell it. Yes, again more money for Hello Games, but also the artistic insights that could be gained would be impressive. Plus, great coffee table or gift book.

Procedural Lessons: After making NMS, Hello Games teams could probably teach classes in procedural generation. So, do it! Imagine what people could learn with such folks as instructors.

Fandom Study: I’m expecting a huge impact from the game – not Minecraft level, but still intense. I’ve seen the hype, seen fans creating artworks and even role-playing. I’d love to see the fans studied respectfully if it is indeed the hit I expect. Great for general or academia.

So that’s what I want to see come out of NMS documentarianism (there’s a word). Things that will teach us something.

What do you want to see?

– Steve

Posted on by Steven Savage

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

Sorry this is late.  Busy few weeks, but now I’m back to my pre-release analysis of No Man’s Sky.  After all I love games and i love procedural generation.

We’re counting down to No Man’s Sky’s release in August.  We’re approaching the big release, and once again I’m seeing posts on the Internet asking if it will succeed or fail.  This is not unusual, but it’s time for another round of them apparently.

I’ve speculated on this possible failure before, but often concern’s about NMS focus on this component or that.  From the possible sameness of worlds to uninteresting space travel, there’s concerns about some elements, of the game.  These concerns are legitimate, but often they miss what No Man’s Sky Is about.  There’s a larger picture here for concern.

No Man’s Sky is a game about synergy, as is fairly obvious when you step back and look at the game.  Characters mine to get resources to craft new items to let their spacecraft travel farther.  Their adventures may require them to fight enemies with spacecraft that they hijacked by developing rare hacking chips, chips whose blueprints were found exploring a ruined building.  A strange technology, found in an alien ruin, may let someone survive on a toxic world.  No Man’s Sky is all about things coming together.

This is not surprising as video games are about synergy.  Good controls bring a character to live.  Clever mechanics entice the mind that learns them and influences the game experience.  Music and graphics work together to set the mood.  Good games depend on pieces working in harmony.

For No Man’s Sky, it’s even more dependent on the synergy – that’s really it’s selling point.  Where procedural worlds and exploration and crafting and all come together, the game offers a whole of an experience.  It’s not a game with clear boundaries, which is the point – it’s a supposed seamless exploration experience.  It just happens to be a very big one based on some very, very smart use of math.

This synergy is also where it can fail.

Because No Man’s Sky relies on the parts of the game coming together, there’s several possible modes of failure that can occur.

Poor Synergy: One way the game can fail is if the different parts don’t support each other properly.  Perhaps the ability to acquire resources makes the crafting parts too hard – or too easy.  Straightforward planetary exploration might contrast with hyperkinetic space combat, creating tone shifts that are hard for players to adapt to.  If the parts of the game don’t come together correctly, the game suffers because the synergy of the promise is gone – even if the parts are good.  This may be the biggest synergy risk of NMS because a dev and even a testing team would be unlikely to catch it due to being used to the product.

The Flaw: Another way I can see NMS fail is if one part of the game is done so poorly that drags the rest of the game down.  Planetary exploration is an area I’ve worried about, and if it is poorly done or dull, that diminishes the thrill of the rest of the game.  Truly egregious resource gathering could be another fun-killer as the rest of the game depends on that.  One poor part of the game could drag the rest down – the synergy backfires when one part fails really hard.

The Drudge: NMS also has to make sure that its individual components are good enough to support the game, because though one bad component might drag the game down, so can many mediocre ones.  The game may not fail on its many fronts, but if too many are uninspired or uninteresting, the synergy of them makes the game not good, but dreadfully mediocre.  The synergy of game component’s can be a double-edged swords when many are just uninspired.  I think people may be more forgiving of a game with one big flaw and ambition than one that just kind of plots.

Though I’m sure that Hello Games has thought of this, it’s worth considering for analyzing the game once it’s out, and for analyzing future games of its type.  Synergy is the strength of the gaming art.

It’s also a place where failure can happen, even if the parts are right or mostly right.

– Steve

Posted on by Steven Savage

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

So if you’ve been following No Man’s Sky, and haven’t heard that A) the game was delayed, and B) some people had a meltdown over it, you’ve been living under an extremely insulated rock.

So anyway, the game is delayed.  Though I’d like to address some of the bizarre reactions on it (including death threats to the lead and to a reporter), as I’m focusing on the game I’d like to discuss the delay.  Also there’s only so much I can write “stop it you morons.”

So, NMS delayed.  Good.

Why do I say good?  Because that’s a sign of two things:

  1. That Hello Games knows that there’s more work to be done.
  2. That Hello Games will admit there’s work to be done and do it.

First, as noted earlier, the NMS team seems to be doing everything right to actually make the game work.  Right focus, right methods, etc.  The fact that they can outright say “no, we need more time” means they’re aware enough of what they’re doing to take more time.

Secondly, the fact they will admit this in public, for a game whose hype has become a living thing entirely separate from their own efforts, is a good sign for the final product.  Unless the problems were epic, they probably could have gotten away with a flawed game with a day 0 patch or something.  They didn’t – that speaks to an honest about getting a good product.

The delay tells me NMS is probably going to live up to the (actual, not imagined) hype.  The team can say “stop, wait” as opposed to tossing out a game that – let us be blunt – would probably get a lot of love anyway.

I’m reminded a bit of Starbound, another game that I’m looking forward to (and that sadly, I will have to play through before OR after NMS because its pure crack to me).  The team has taken extra time to work on it, but as of the last beta I played – and I played through the game 3 times Early access – it’s evolved amazingly.  Time can make a better product (ask Blizzard).

The delay may be painful for some of us, but it’s just another sign we’re going to get a good product.

– Steve

Posted on by Steven Savage

We hear about Competitive gaming, but seriously, it’s a big thing.  Kind of weird, I know.

Makes me wonder if games can be more and more designed to BE competitive.  Games made literally to watch others play.

Thought-provoking, no?  Any ideas, gamers out there?

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick – wait, not so quick – series of adapting games to television and film. The series grew, but now it’s time to wrap up.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games
Part V – Adapting Games to Games: Tabletop RPGs

Wrapping Up

The core through the series kept going back to the key to adapting anything: respect for the original. In the case of games, there just happened to be a few elements that don’t exist in other media. Game mechanics do create a feel for a game; a game of Battleship should be different from a game of Parcheesi while a game of Clue should be different from a session of Vampire: The Requiem*. Video game adaptations also have to factor in that many viewpoint characters are there to represent the player and have no pre-determined personality. Tabletop RPGs allow the players to create their own characters. Boardgames may not even have a being beyond a marker.

Game adaptations have ranged from successful (Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), failures (Dungeons & Dragons, The Legend of Chun Li), and the in between (Battleship**, Street Fighter). When an adaptation works, the new work captures the feel of the original. The failures, though, seem to miss the point completely or have no respect for the fans of the original. Warner Bros. is developing a new movie based on D&D, with the project originally working on adapting the RPG’s predecessor Chainmail. With luck, the scriptwriter has played the game and can bring the feel through to appease fans while still not alienating the audience that doesn’t play.

This series barely scratched the surface. I focused on television and movies, but skipped past books. Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October began with the Games Designer Workshop wargame Harpoon. Red October would go on to be adapted as a movie, which then got adapted as a wargame by TSR. The Wild Cards series of books got its beginnings in a Superworld campaign with George R.R. Martin as the GM; in 2007, Green Ronin picked up the license for an RPG based on the setting. Works get adapted, then the adaptations are adapted. Pull one thread and the next thing you know, you have half of a different medium following like cats chasing a laser dot.*** With the proliferation of gaming, whether board, role-playing, card, or video, more and more creators are going to find inspiration in what they play. Amazon’s foray into publishing fanfiction (see Steve’s thoughts, parts one and two for more), we could be seeing more game adaptations in a few years.

Next week, an adaptation by any other name.

* Less blood drinking in Clue, ideally.
** Battleship wasn’t a bad movie in and of itself. It didn’t live up to expectations or to the budget it had.
*** There was a metaphor here, but it got lost.


Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Adapting Games to Games: Tabletop RPGs

Two weeks ago, I went through how to adapt boardgames and video games as other games, leaving tabletop role-playing games aside for later. A few minutes of quick, barely scratching the surface research later had me wondering just what, exactly, had I gotten myself into.

Back in 1974, Tactical Studies Rules released Dungeons & Dragons, based on a miniatures wargame called Chainmail. Since then, D&D has been the most popular and best selling RPG released, the 800 pound gorilla of the industry. When computer gaming appeared, many games, including Rogue and its imitators**, emulated the feel and, at times, the mechanics of the RPG. Similar adventure games, such as the Ultima series and the Bard’s Tale series, owe their existence to D&D. The influence of D&D is still felt today, with terminology*** appearing in games like The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Diablo, not to mention the concept of a Massive Multiplayer Online RPG (aka, the MMORPG). Two MMORPGS, Everquest and World of Warcraft eventually had tabletop RPGs released, both based on the Dungeons & Dragons third edition open gaming license. A third, Neverwinter Nights was an SSI-licensed game based on Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms and was available on AOL in the early 90s.

TSR and Wizards of the Coast eventually did license official video games. Strategic Simulations Inc, now owned by Ubisoft, created a series of games based on both the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings. At least one project, Curse of the Azure Bonds was created as a video game, an adventure module for the RPG, and a tie-in novel, with all three having good reception on release. When WotC bought TSR and released D&D3E, Bioware received the license and released the Baldur’s Gate series of games.

D&D isn’t the only tabletop RPG, though. Other RPGs have been adapted as well. White Wolf‘s Vampire: The Masquerade has had two video games released – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption. Hero Games’ Champions was the original inspiration for City of Heroes, which led to the Champions MMORPG. GDW’s MegaTraveller had two games, The Zhodani Conspiracy and Quest for the Ancients, both based on elements in the Third Imperium setting.

The goal, as it was back in Part III is to keep the feel of the tabletop experience. However, since many RPGs are simulating a genre already, care must be taken to avoid the added filter that the game might need. The game mechanics can be hidden away in the code; the player doesn’t need to know why he or she missed the dragon with the crossbow shot, just that the dragon’s full attention is now on the player’s character. Since there’s no guarantee on the type of character that will be played, since that will be the player’s choice, the writers will need to have the plot come from a non-player character, with the PC out to thwart the evil plans. If a game comes with a setting, the feel of the setting needs to be replicated. Fortunately, most RPGs come with illustrations, which should allow the video game designers to get a visual feel of the game. When done well, the game is successful. If not, fans of the game may avoid the video game.

This holds even if the RPG is being adapted as a boardgame. Vampire would not work well as a boardgame; the elements of the RPG include the struggle to keep the monster within in check, political machinations, and keeping the mundane world unaware that the supernatural exists and is hostile, none of which is easy to portray on a board. D&D, however, has had several boardgames based on the elements of exploring a subterranean maze and killing the evil creatures who dwell within. Ideally, an adaptation should fit within the setting, or one of the settings, of the game, feature iconic character types, and be representative of a typical game if possible.

Next week, the series wrap up.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Known as “roguelikes”, and includes Larn, Hack/, Nethack. and Diablo.
*** A non-exhaustive list of examples: Class, Level, Hit Points, attribute names


Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Adapting Games to Games

So far, I’ve looked at adapting games as movies and television. There is still one more way for a game to be adapted – as another game. Already, a questions appears; “Why? What’s the point?” A popular game, though, is ripe to be exploited.

Starting with boardgames, what usually happens is the game gets adapted as a video game. The main advantage is that the player can get a computer opponent when there is no one else available to play with. Another advantage is having an impartial judge, the computer or console, make sure that the game is played fair. With the integration of the Internet into day to day lives, updates to the game, in the form of new content, is easy to get. Trivia games, such as Trivial Pursuit, can add new questions and fix wrong answers with a patch instead of waiting for the next expansion pack to be published. A successful adaptation of a boardgame has to keep the gameplay the same in the video game; otherwise, why play the video game when the boardgame is within reach. Most boardgames have simple mechanics, relatively speaking. The rules have to be easily interpreted by the players to keep the game flowing and keep the number of arguments to a minimum. The computer opponent needs to be challenging but not impossible to beat. The experience has to be similar to the original game, though added details like animation are a plus.

Video games, usually ones that have become household names, do get adapted as board games. Sometimes, it’s a brand applied to another existing game, typically Monopoly**. Other times, there’s an effort to bring the feel of the video game to the board; the Frogger adaptation involves trying to cross a highway and the Pac-Man board game was a multi-player version of the video game. World of Warcraft has spawned boardgames, a trading card game, and a miniatures game. HeroClix, a miniatures game, has sets for Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, Gears of War, Halo, and Street Fighter. Again, the experience the players have must be similar to the original video game. Pac-Man‘s board is set out like the video game’s, with the players’ tokens looking like Pac-Man himself. There will be cases where it will be difficult to bring the video game experience to the table; first-person shooters will lose that perspective. The HeroClix examples, however, add a new dimension; all HeroClix sets are compatible. It is possible to find out if a team up of Master Chief from Halo and Chun Li from Street Fighter can win against Batman and Robin.

Video games have also been adapted as tabletop rpgs. Not many, the market for a tabletop RPG is already a niche, and the cost of licensing a title may be more than the game can bring in. That said, the three adaptations that come to mind are Dragon Age: Origins (adapted by Green Ronin), Street Fighter II (adapted by White Wolf; currently out of print], and Everquest (adapted by Sword & Sorcery Studio, an imprint of White Wolf; print status unknown). Adapting a video game to a tabletop RPG means that the coding used to play the game, especially determining success with tasks, needs to be made available to the players in a way that is understandable by a human, not a machine. As with the case of the Street Fighter II and Everquest games, a tabletop game company may use its house rules and try to fit the video game’s setting around those. White Wolf used its Storytelling system with Street Fighter; the fit wasn’t ideal; the Everquest tabletop RPG used the third edition Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License as a base, recreating the classes from the video game to fit. Green Ronin, however, created a new system for the Dragon Age RPG, one that reflects what happens during gameplay. The key for a successful adaptation is to have the tabletop RPG feel like the video game while still being approachable by both people new to the tabletop hobby and people new to the video game’s setting. Characters should be capable of doing what their counterparts in the video game do; Street Fighter didn’t manage to do this while Everquest presented the same type of character that a new player just starting the video game would get.

As for tabletop RPGs, the adaptation of those spans the history of video games and will be dealt with in Part V

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** When the Monopoly movie comes out, will there be a Monopoly Monopoly?

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Video Games

Video games are a visual medium. With console gaming, adapting a video game to television is just changing where the input comes from. Early video games were fairly linear; computing power and no storage for saved games combined to keep the play simple enough to avoid overloading the console but challenging enough to keep players interested. Over in the microcomputer world, graphics were still primitive, but games could be saved, allowing for longer play.

Console games did allow for recognizable characters. Icons such as Pac-Man, Mario, and Donkey Kong became household words, first through the video arcade, then through home console adaptations.** With the focus of early console gaming on kids, naturally the early adaptations were animated. Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Dragon’s Lair led the way in North America. Accuracy to the games more or less meant taking all the named characters and using them in similar roles as they had originally. Thus, Mario fought Bowser, Pac-Man dealt with Inky, Blinky, Pinky (no, not that Pinkie). The nature of the medium, though, meant that you just couldn’t show the game being played; at the minimum, advertising regulations would have to be ignored. In the case of Mario, the Princess needed to be part of the cast; she couldn’t be “in another castle” off-screen. Plots had to go beyond the game but still keep elements. Mario kept a cheesy Italian accent and had a boing sound effect whenever he jumped. Pac-Man became invulnerable when he ate a power pellet.

As the technology evolved, so did games. Graphics improved mainly because gaming demanded better. Eight bits gave way to sixteen, and sixteen to “holy crap, that’s a lot of pixels!” As storage became less of an issue, going from none for the Atari 2600 to external memory cards for the Playstation to gigabyte rated hard drives common today, more information could be saved. More information could also be stored on the game’s physical media, having gone from cartridges to CD-ROM and, later, DVD and higher density formats. This allowed games to go from basic plots such as, “Defend the Earth from invaders,” “Rescue the Princess from the castle,” and “Eat everything while running from ghosts” to more complex plots. Even 2D fighting games received elaborate backstory and each character had a history. Video games started to mature.

Adaptations of video games? Not so much. The early silver screen adaptations were Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter/.  Street Fighter is reaching cult classic status, mainly through Raul Julia’s performance. Super Mario Bros. wasted a good cast including Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper with a set that oozed brown. Double Dragon reached the worst rating at Rotten Tomatoes. However, Mortal Kombat reversed the trend, becoming the first Hollywood video game adaptation to keep the spirit of the original game and not drive audiences away. Meanwhile, on television, Pokemon became a juggernaut, expanding the world of the game while keeping to the gameplay.

The problem with adapting a video game is that the player has an active role in the plot of the game. By turning from an active audience (the players) to an passive one (the viewers), the onus is now to draw in and keep the audience. Characters have to be, if not pleasant for the audience, interesting. Few works have a dull protagonist.*** In a video game, though, the less personality a character has, the more the player can infuse, adding an extra level of enjoyment. In Mass Effect, the player has full control over Commander Shepard’s reaction to shipmates and events; the gameplay encourages the player to make these decisions. A Mass Effect movie focusing on Shepard would have to decide on which Shepard, male or female, renegade or paragon, even where the character was born, details that get decided by the player in the video game.

The next problem to deal with is the plot. Most video games have a plot of their own, one that the player either completes or abandons. Adapting the plot essentially spoils the ending of the game for the audience. Some games, such as the Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia series, are based around an activity that is repeatable, such as exploration. Franchise games can lend open up options; Mario may be a plumber, but Nintendo has managed to have him rescue princesses, race cars, and prescribe pills. Not all franchises can do this. The appeal of The Sims series is the open sandbox the games provide.****

I’ve touched on a few key elements – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. A successful adaptation of a video game needs to at least acknowledge these elements. Missing on one might not hurt the adaptation. Missing on all and the movie is an adaptation in name only; a good example is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. These days, the audience expects more from adaptations. Mediocre films don’t last in the theatres. Big budget busts such as Battleship, which recovered its budget plus some, are seen as exploitative of the fanbase. The fans already exist; that’s the main reason for doing an adaptation. Studios need to respect the fans.

Next week, part II looks at adapting boardgames.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** At some point, there will be an ourobouros of adaptations when a video game is made of a TV show based on a movie inspired by a video game that was ported from an video arcade game.
*** Insert Twilight joke here.
**** And yet, a Hollywood studio has optioned the game.

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