Monday, November 2, 2009

Books as Games

Here's an essay I wrote for my folklore class; it was a fluff class but surprisingly fun. Well, enjoy:

Folklore as Presented in Gaming

How does one translate a story from printed paper to an interactive visual experience? Such is the job of many companies hoping to skip the hassle of writing a story for a videogame by using an already written one, though such a choice has its ups and downs. Some of the books we have read this semester would probably make good games, some probably would not; additionally, much of the folklore is easily implementable whether or not the main story of a novel makes for a good game.

To begin with, a good videogame ought to have a goal-oriented plot, where the player understands what he is working towards by at least halfway through the game. Thus, books that have a plot you might call "slice of life" (that is, a story not about swords & sorcery or conspiracy or mystery; a story about regular people) like Their Eyes Were Watching God and Four Souls tend to be difficult to implement into video games. Neither book really has a clear conclusion that you could really call "achieved." At best, one could imagine Their Eyes Were Watching God like a romance game (such as the Japanese eroge Clannad or Air) where the gameplay consists of making choices and attempting to woo one of the three men that Janie had married in the book. Such a game would lose the sense of character development and gain of freedom that is taught via Janie's progression through the three men in the novel, however; furthermore you'd have to design at least six separate endings (success and failure with each romantic endeavour) which, aside from a good ending with Teacake, would have little to do with the original novel. So, Their Eyes Were Watching God would not really fit well on a videogame shelf, in general.

As for Four Souls, it has the same problem as said earlier with not having a clear goal for the player to aim for, though the way Fleur is portrayed is also troublesome. If you have a character that is only ever seen through the eyes of other characters, and her own thoughts and purpose in life are blocked from the reader ... how do you begin to imagine turning her into a playable character? If you were to implement a back-and-forth switching between Nanapush and Fleur, and kept Fleur more as a side character it would be doable I suppose, but I struggle to imagine what kind of game you'd be playing as Fleur. Doing laundry and other chores to get into the good graces of Polly Elizabeth only to suddenly pull a knife on the man of the house in the night hours? I don't think that would really work so well. At least with Nanapush as the protaganist, you could make an adventure game with a lot of item puzzles (setting the snare, gathering materials for medicine) and ending with a set of speech choices (for that last major scene of Nanapush's in the book, where he has to speak before a gathering of his fellow Ojibwe). So, again, not really an easy choice if you were trying to make a game out of a book.

Now that we've looked at two books that are not really all that viable as concepts for videogames, it would be interesting to look at one that is: Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now here's a book that you could easily imagine as an adventure game or a sidescroller. There's plenty of potential item and conversational puzzles, and the setting is a lot more fantastic and magical. For examples, let's look at the bus station scene (for a conversational puzzle) and the shadow ship scene (for an item puzzle). At the bus station scene in the book, we find Haroun deciding to sit down and watch instead of trying to desperately secure a seat as the other people are trying to do; this nonconformity gets the attention of Butt, who Haroun convinces (could almost call it a bit of trickery with words) to make the race to the valley of K. If we say that the use of a bus as passage to the Valley of K is the objective of our conversational puzzle, we could design a discussion with specific conversation choices you would have to make with Haroun to get Butt to let you onto the bus to the Valley of K. As for the shadow ship scene, in the book Haroun uses an almost-forgotten about bottle of gold wish-water to get rid of all the shadows by wishing for the moon of Kahani to rotate such that the Sun was directly over the spot where the ship was. Therefore, it's easy enough to imagine an item puzzle where you would need to pull the golden wish-water out of your inventory and make a wish. You would then be prompted with a list of choices about what you wanted to wish for. Just to add in some excitement the whole operation would need to be done before shadow priests closed in on you. All that having been said, I think we can conclude Haroun would make for a reasonably good game.

Since we have examined how some books would do as videogames in a general sense, let us look at some of the more specific folklore elements present and how we could turn them into a gameplay element. 'Alchemy' is the usual name for combining items to make a medicine, curse or similar magical object in videogames (some good examples are the Atelier games from Gust or the Kyrandia games). I think we could classify the majority of the folklore activities in Four Souls and Bless Me, Ultima into that category. In Four Souls Nanapush on several occassions and Fleur at least once in the story practice a form of Native American medicinal folklore. Nanapush uses it to make a love potion for himself and Margeret as well as to curse his arch-enemy Shesheeb. Fleur uses it to cure John Mauser. While we don't get a really clear view of what exactly is done we do get the idea that in the first case it is a combination of various items, and in the second that it is something akin to acupuncture or chiropracty. All in all, it'd be relatively easy to implement Nanapush's activities as a kind of 'alchemy' item puzzle. Fleur's chiropracty-like activity ... maybe we could make some kind of gameplay element similar to the Operation! board game.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God there is a folklore activity commonly referred to as "playing the dozens;" basically an insult game, as well as the dice game and references to the "John the Conqueror" and "the town mule" folktales. Insult games are basically conversational puzzles, where you might have a set of responses to choose a reply for a specific insult. The best example I can think of for this is the Monkey Island games from Lucasarts, which is all about pirates and swashbuckling. Instead of a combat system for all the sword-fighting and arm-wrestling and what-not, Lucasarts decided to implement an "insult-fighting" system where you would have to respond to such quips as "You fight like a dairy farmer!" with "only because you're a cow!" So "playing the dozens" is easy enough to implement. The dice game we're not really given a lot of information on, but there are entire videogames all about different ways to play with dice, so it is not all that hard to imagine per se. The allusions made to the various folktales are probably the kind of thing you would implement not really as a major part of the game except in terms of setting, mood, and atmosphere, perhaps leaving hints to other item puzzles in the game by using the folktales; similar to the hints left in a fairytale book as to how to beat the first boss in Silent Hill, or the similar use of a fairytale to explain how to clear an obstacle in Silent Hill 3 when you first enter the Otherworld. Therefore, it is easy to imagine how to implement most of the folklore elements, in and of themselves, into a video game.

In conclusion, videogames are often designed from plots, taken in part or whole, from books. Out of the books we've studied over this semester, it seems fair to say that Four Souls and Their Eyes Were Watching God would not really
make very good videogames due mostly to the way the plot is developed in both books, and somewhat as a result of being "slice of life" types of stories. Haroun on the other hand, has all the basic elements to fit the usual criteria, and is certainly more marketable with its Dr. Seuss-like magical setting. As we examined a few of the more specific elements from the various folklore contained the books, whether it was "playing the dozens" or collecting herbs and making medicines (for good or ill), most of them have already been represented in some fashion in videogames, and as a result it's not hard to imagine how we could interpret an interactive framework to include them in.

No comments:

Post a Comment