When the first classics of speculative fiction were written, modern computers were no more than one of the figments of a science fiction writer's imagination. A machine that could mimic the thought processes of a human being was as unthinkable as a manmade object reaching the moon.
Times have changed. The information technology (IT) industry is now one of the world's largest employers, and people use computers to play games as well as to work and access information. The insatiable demand for technology has surged ahead. In 1990, a 486DX 33 was the standard desktop. Today, machines clocking over 1 Ghz (1000 Mhz) are commonplace.
The computer games market has been pulled along by the advances in IT and become a multi-billion dollar industry itself. Not all advances have been good. Consolidations and mergers are an accepted part of the industry. Electronic Arts, best-known for its EA Sports series, has aggressively and successfully acquired other developers. The computer games market is now dominated by a few major players, including Electronic Arts, LucasArts, Sierra Online, and Infogames.
The computer games market was born in the late 1970s, went through its infancy in the 1980s and matured in the 1990s. During the infancy of the computer games market, speculative fiction authors played little part; this new entertainment medium seemed an ostensible threat. Granted, the figures on the balance sheet weren't yet remarkable and computer games were enjoyed by only a hard-core few, but the popularity of the trend was growing. What's more, computer games were replacing table-top games -- including the pen-and-paper role-playing game (RPG) -- as the interactive entertainment medium of choice.
The original makers of Dungeons & Dragons (which is now owned by Wizards of the Coast) were some of the first people to realize the impact of the arrival of the computer game. They started releasing computer games to complement their pen-and-paper RPGs. They also began contracting authors to write stories set in the Dungeons & Dragons worlds -- an early example of borrowed inspiration working in reverse, with an author using a computer game developer's "world."
The progress of computer RPGs might have taken much longer to develop were it not for a young man working at a Computerland store in the summer of 1979. The man used to write little computer programs with names such as D&D7 and D&D8 (he was a big Dungeons & Dragons fan), but his first retail game was a little-known title called Akalabeth. His name was Richard Garriott, aka Lord British. Computer game enthusiasts will better know his Ultima series.
Garriott founded his own company, Origin Systems, with the Ultima series as his flagship product. Character development would not blossom until later in the series, but the early games had interactive enjoyment and above all, tremendous playability. Graphics and sound capabilities were sadly inadequate, but for the first time authors had reason to fear. Would this new entertainment medium displace the power of the book?
Other works influenced by speculative fiction started appearing. Electronic Arts' The Bard's Tale, set in a generic fantasy world, achieved immense popularity during the 1980s, and is considered by many to be the precursor of modern computer RPGs. Origin Systems released Wing Commander in 1990, a game reminiscent of the Star Wars films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1990, a little known company named id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the world's premiere first-person 3D shooter. It has since become a classic. 1992 marked the year the computer games market left its childhood and entered its adolescence. Origin Systems released Ultima VII: The Black Gate, with a top-down graphical perspective and excellent sound for the time. The year before the company had released Ultima Underworld, a first-person 3D scroller spin-off from the Ultima series. Reviews were unanimous -- Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld both received critical acclaim and numerous awards.
Speculative fiction authors now had reason to fear: computer games were not a passing fad; the figures on developers' balance sheets were growing at a tremendous rate; and graphical and sound capabilities were now reaching a point where players could suspend disbelief, which made computer games much more of a "threat" to speculative fiction authors than they might have been ten or even five years ago.
It was time for speculative fiction authors to adapt.
Authors Experience a Sea Change
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out two awards for screenplays: one for the best original screenplay, and one for the best adapted screenplay. The Academy recognizes that many films are adapted from books, and the author must be given due credit.
A similar situation applies to computer game developers: they need ideas just as much, if not more so, than film producers. It might be less expensive for a developer to option the works and "world" of a speculative fiction author than develop an idea themselves; optioning a best-seller might be more expensive, but a famous author's name behind a computer game can sell units and help a fledgling developer off the ground.
Frank Herbert was one of the first places French developer Cryo (under the banner of Virgin) turned for inspiration. His Dune series has captivated readers since the publication of the first novel in 1965. Cryo created a strategy game that hugged very closely to the first novel. The graphics were excellent for the time, and unlike David Lynch's 1984 movie, the Cryo artists didn't interfere with Frank Herbert's vision of his characters: trainer Duncan had the tiny mole on his face, Duke Leto was clean-shaven, austere and stern. They did, however, cast a Kyle McLachlan look-a-like as hero Paul Atreides.
The second installment was very different from the first, but still kept close to Frank Herbert's original idea. Developed by Westwood Studios, Dune 2 went down in history as possibly the best real-time strategy (RTS) game ever released. It borrowed from the technological side of Frank Herbert's writings -- structures, weapons and vehicles -- rather than the first version's relationship with the Fremen and battle against the Harkonnen. In the second installment, you could be any of three warring families: the "good" Atreides, the "bad" Harkonnen, or the mysterious Ordos. Frank Herbert was dead when Virgin released Dune, but now living authors began realizing they could sell game developers the rights to their characters and "worlds" in much the same way that film studios optioned their works.
Stephen King -- who is now well-known for experimental Internet publishing -- granted a games developer the rights to his work The Dark Half. He shouldn't have. What followed was a unsophisticated adventure game, and reviews went something along the lines of "Why did they bother?". J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings got the same treatment by developer Interplay, and the game was almost -- but not quite -- as bad as the quasi-animation Lord of The Rings film.
While the gaming industry may not be as lucrative for authors as film and television, it has one great advantage: it can more effectively portray an author's work through special effects and animation. Game developers can portray the author's actual vision; film production companies have budgetary restraints. This makes the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres excellent talent pools for developers to dip into.
Under the banner of Sierra, Dynamix created Betrayal at Krondor, a fantasy RPG based in Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia. The author, who actually helped design pen-and-paper RPGs before turning to full-time authorship, assisted with storylining the game. Reaction was mixed, but overall good. It wasn't an Ultima or Elder Scrolls, but Dynamix had effectively translated the author's vision. Feist published a novel entitled Krondor: The Betrayal to accompany the game, a la Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn't of the same quality as his Riftwar and Serpentwar sagas -- or even his one-off dark fantasy, Faerie Tale -- but the book was workmanlike and recorded firm sales. Betrayal at Krondor was successful enough to warrant a sequel, Return to Krondor. The sequel ironed out many of the first game's problems and was applauded by the gaming community.
With the success of Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Origin Systems), Lands of Lore (Virgin), Betrayal at Krondor (Sierra) and The Elder Scrolls: Arena (Bethesda Softworks), game developer Microprose decided to get in on the action. The company produced Darklands, a game the merits of which players still argue about today.
Darklands was set in the Holy Roman Empire (greater Germany) of the 1400s. The developers were brave enough to use their own foundations rather than an author's premise, and it worked. The idea was original and the packaging on a par with the best RPGs. This RPG was historically-based, and the company used an author's trick to make the game realistic: exhaustive research. Everything from weapons and armor, to the state of the clergy, to the political maneuverings of the nobility at the time is historically accurate. Unfortunately the game was not favorably received everywhere, and has been forgotten by most.
When well-known science fiction author Harlan Ellison allowed Unknown to develop his short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" into a game, people knew the symbiotic relationship between game developers and authors was here to stay. Harlan Ellison was known as an open critic of computer gaming. . . . It would be remiss of us to speculate on what changed his mind. Released in January 1996, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill graphic adventure. It took up 115mb of hard disk space (full installation) and the gameplay was simple point-and-click. Despite multiple endings, the player quickly tired of it.
Still coasting along the dark fantasy/horror vein, Sierra released Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. Think New Orleans, Anne Rice, Cajun food, and voodoo magic. The game helped Sierra fight back against the wounds Origin Systems and LucasArts (best-known for its adventure games and flight sims) had inflicted upon it during the early 1990s. It was original and contained enough gameplay to be a hit for Sierra.
Those who know of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series will also know that it would be difficult to create a game of comparable vein and humor. Somehow, Perfect Entertainment did that with Discworld and its sequel Discworld Noir. Discworld was a fun but unrevolutionary game focusing on the exploits of bumbling magician Rincewind.
Discworld Noir was so-named because the game emulates the film noirs of the 1950s. Perfect took an unfamiliar platform for a fantasy series -- the graphic adventure -- and made it their own. The city of Ankh-Morpork and characters such as Death, Commander Vimes and The Patrician came to life; Perfect Entertainment had successfully conveyed the feel of the books in the game. Unfortunately the game was littered with bugs, and Perfect Entertainment has since gone bankrupt.
Ultima IX: Ascension was a breakthrough in graphics and sound, one of the first games to play almost like an interactive movie. Throughout the game, it was clear that Origin was borrowing from fantasy literature. The city in the trees, Yew, reminded fantasy fans of Elvandar (Raymond E. Feist), and archetypal characters popularized in books -- the benevolent, old and wise king; the canny pirate woman; the returning hero; the merry drunken friend -- appeared with regularity. These touches improved rather than detracted from the game. However. . .
. . . Electronic Arts bought Origin shortly after they released Ultima VII: The Black Gate. Critics and players alike panned Ultima VIII: Pagan (Origin's first release under Electronic Arts), and even Origin boss Richard Garriott said the game was six months unfinished when it was shipped due to shareholder pressure. Ultima IX: Ascension suffered a similar fate. It could have been the greatest game ever made, but the numerous infuriating bugs sabotaged it. Game players were not pleased.
Robert Jordan followed Raymond E. Feist's lead, and his Wheel of Time series was made into a game by Legend. A Wheel of Time multi-user dungeon (MUD) could already be found on telnet, but the retail game boasted beautifully rendered graphics, strong gameplay and good sound. It wasn't a classic, but a solid performance.
Vampire: The Masquerade, based on the roleplaying game of the same name, was released in late 1999. The game mixes role-playing and action, and players are transported from the 17th century to the present day through the cities of Europe. It is available in a collector's edition with an Anne Rice (whose influence is clear) novel included. . . . The game is good, but again, not a classic.
Two games based on authors' works have just been released. The quality of the idea behind American McGee's Alice is up there with the ideas behind Gabriel Knight and Darklands: Alice has gone insane from what she witnessed in Wonderland, and now she must return there, knife in hand, in a glorious 3D slice-em-up. Critics have widely agreed the premise is marvelous and the graphics superb, but expressed concerns over the quality (or lack thereof) and repetitiveness of the gameplay.
Clive Barker's Undying is another slice-em-up heading your way. The game is set in 1920s Ireland, and a young man named Patrick Galloway must battle the four undead siblings of Jeremiah Covenant, the last descendant of a noble family. Developed by Dreamworks Interactive, the game uses a modified Unreal Tournament engine. It boasts excellent graphics and the gameplay is great, but not revolutionary.
U.S. game developers, including Electronic Arts, are currently recruiting Ivy League graduates to lecture their staff on literary classics such as Beowulf, Macbeth, and Ivanhoe. The developers hope these lectures will assist staff in introducing plot, character and narrative tension to their games.
Why? Despite the massive technological advances in gaming over the past decade, the quality of gameplay has dropped. It has always been rare to see a strategy game or graphic adventure on the consoles; and shoot-em-ups are beginning to dominate the PC game market, too. If it were not for LucasArts with its Escape From Monkey Island, the point-and-click graphic adventure would now be dead.
The argument is that public demand is greatest for shoot-em-ups and sports/flight simulators, but this means developers are neglecting significant chunks of the market: women, who want something a little more intuitive; and the general population over 30, who want something more constructive than your average Doom, Half-Life, or Quake.
Black and White is the latest game of the moment, and while the graphics and sound are groundbreaking, the premise is similar to that of the ancient (in gaming terms) Populous. Could an author's work have been used here? Game developers can obtain licenses to use author's characters and worlds as much as they want, but to make a successful game they must pay attention to what makes a novel great: plot infrastructure, realistic and flawed characters with whom you can empathize, an original storyline and driving narrative. Game developers must realize that characters and worlds are the just the husks of an author's work; the story itself is the meat.
JEM's (Jamie Edward McGraw) work has appeared in various publications including Australian PC User, internet.au, OUI and FilmInk. His fiction has appeared in various places and he currently has a fantasy trilogy under contract with ebook publisher Abby the Troll. He is 22 years old. Visit his Web site to read more of his work.
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