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7 Video Games Based on Works of Art (or a John Hodgman Podcast)

Video games often feature dumb premises: plumbers must save a princess from a dragon/turtle monster? What's going on there?! But what happens when video games are based on great works of literature, music, film, and theater -- does great art make a great game? Read on for some of our favorites.

1. The Great Gatsby: Based on a Book

Programmers Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith crafted an old-school Nintendo game based on The Great Gatsby, spending an entire year on their project. The game is playable online (or in an NES simulator), and is a traditional four-level NES platformer full of references to the iconic work of American literature. A promotional poster reads, in part:

It's the roaring 20s, and trouble's in store for Nick Carraway. It's hard to enjoy a party when you're being chased by wacky waiters, dizzy drinkers, and crazy dancers! Now you have to find Gatsby, the mysterious man you saw disappear on the hillside...or did he?

You play as Nick, throwing a boomerang hat at various enemies and picking up coins, drinks, and power-ups. The dizzy drinkers toss bottles at you, and the place is simply crawling with wacky waiters and flappers. "Only for Nintendo, Old Sport!"

You can play the game online. You may enjoy the manual as well -- watch out for Boxcar Bill! For the nerds in the crowd, the game is open source so you can adapt or improve it if you like. The game's creators have said that they considered making a Jane Eyre game next, but decided to open source their Gatsby NES code instead -- let some other coders take a crack at Eyre!

2. 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness: Based on a Song

John Cage's composition 4'33" ("four, thirty-three") is a minimalist musical work in which no audible musical notes are performed. It includes a detailed score, instructions for performance, and is routinely performed around the world.

Petri Purho created the game 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness for Windows. The game launches, starts a fullscreen black and white progress bar, and checks online to see if anyone else is "playing." If anyone else in the world is currently playing, or launches the game while you play, you "lose" and the game quits. You can only win if you pass four minutes and thirty-three seconds without anyone else attempting to play. It's a game in which multi-player interaction is crucial to the gameplay (indeed, is the gameplay) in much the same way as in 4'33", music and audience/performer dynamics are critical to the performance. The game also features "music" (4'33", naturally) by John Cage. Here's a screenshot:

433 Screenshot

Game designers also include Heather Kelley and Jonatan Söderström. (Yes, it took a three-person team to create this.) You can download the Windows game and learn a bit more about its creation on that page as well.

3. Twenty Lines: Based on a Movie

Twenty Lines screenshot

Twenty Lines is a surprisingly complex combination of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and Tetris, with some core Tetris gameplay mechanics changed. In the online game, you attempt to create the 2001 monolith using all-black tetrominoes, while viewing scenes and listening to music from the film. The game is maddeningly difficult (partly because the tetrominoes are initially tiny), and requires that you form 20 lines in order to complete the monolith. Emily Short wrote a detailed column about the game, including this bit:

Instead of trying to get rid of lines of blocks, you're now trying to build the black monolith. Completely filled lines sink to the bottom, exposing lines that still have holes in them. Problems rise to the top, so that they're easier to resolve. There are no hard sides to the game space, either: if a block sticks out past the borders of the monolith, the extra squares simply vanish.

Cinematic effects change the way the player perceives the game, as well. At first the monolith is distant from the player, placed in an alien environment, a bit difficult even to see clearly. The first lines of the game vanish into a hole in the ground, only half visible, and surrounded by gibbering primates.

Read the rest for an excellent critique of the game-as-art, or just start playing.

4. Which-Way Adventure: Based on a Series of Books

Which Way Adventure screenshot

Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Now they've been reimagined as an online video game (warning: not for kids). In J. Allen Henderson's game, your path through life ends in all sorts of bizarre corners (many of which involve, as pictured above, battling a manticore -- and we all know that doesn't end well). Much like the books, the game predictably ends pretty quickly, and you sometimes get caught in strange loops going from place to place. It's frequently violent, occasionally profane, and always bizarre. Try it...if you're over 18 and can handle the weirdness.

5. Waiting For Grodoudou: Based on a Play

Waiting for Godot screenshot

Based originally on Waiting for Godot (before a cease-and-desist letter from the Beckett estate caused a slight name change), Waiting For Grodoudou is a game of extreme inaction. It has tons of levels and even "boss battles," but all you can do is move your character back and forth on a blank field with a lonely tree to one side. As the game levels progress, a cloud slowly moves across the sky. Perhaps there's more to this game (there are rumors of a "surprise" at level 99), but I could only stomach five minutes of walking back and forth. And believe me, I love Beckett.

Created by Mike and Jeff Rosenthal, this is an Atari 2600-style masterpiece. Does Godot (sorry, Grodoudou) ever arrive? You'll just have to keep playing to find out. Mike Rosenthal said in an interview with The Rumpus: "The game is pretty difficult in a way, but rather than testing your reflexes, it tests your patience." Indeed. Play it here (requires download of a Unity plugin) or just check out this YouTube video for a taste of the, uh, gameplay. You might also enjoy this interview with Mike Rosenthal.

6. Hamlet: Based (Loosely) on a Play

Advertising "epic boss battles," "innovative puzzles," and "bizarre point-and-click adventuring," Hamlet is actually a fairly successful game for iPad, iPhone, and PC. It's not even remotely true to the original play, but it is a fun game in its own right, with high-quality cartoon art and some tricky (or frustrating, depending on your point of view) puzzles. The marketing material says: "Guide the man from the future as he embarks on a mind-bending mission to save Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia, from the clutches of the evil Claudius." Ahem: "O! what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!"

You can read a review here and there is a free "Lite" version available for iPhone and iPad.

7. George Plimpton's Video Falconry: Based on a Podcast

While a podcast may not be a great work of art, this one is so weirdly meta that it deserves a mention.

Journalist George Plimpton was (among many other things) a pitchman for the Intellivision game console. Author John Hodgman (a former pitchman for Apple) now stars in the Judge John Hodgman podcast, in which he gives a sort of TV-judge treatment to trivial disputes, delivering justice and jokes in equal measure. In episode 22 of the podcast, Hodgman made a brief joke about the (fictional) game George Plimpton's Video Falconry; the subject of that podcast episode was a dispute about the legitimacy of video game strategy guides.

After hearing this fleeting mention of the fictional Video Falconry game, programmer Tom Fulp actually created a ColecoVision-style game in Flash, along with faux promotional and historical videos. The game itself is challenging and funny, though the fake TV ad for it is probably the best bit:

You can play the game online, or learn more fake Plimpton history, if you dare.

What Did I Leave Out?

What's your favorite video game based on great art? Let us know in the comments. Or just share how awful Waiting For Grodoudou made you feel.

See also: “Twin Peaks” as an Atari Game.

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Unraveling the Legend of Polybius, the Most Dangerous Video Game of the 1980s
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For several decades, a creepy urban legend has circulated in the darker corners of online forums devoted to vintage video games. The tale goes that in 1981, a game with some unfortunate side effects appeared in a few suburban arcades in Portland, Oregon. The game was said to have been housed in an all-black cabinet, and while playing it was fun, gamers soon noticed they were feeling terrible after their sessions—suffering from extreme anxiety, seizures, night terrors, and an obsessive desire to continue playing. Some were even said to have attempted suicide.

To make matters even weirder, men in black supposedly visited the cabinet every few weeks to collect some kind of data—not money—from the back of the machine. And just a few months after it appeared, the game was gone. Its name: Polybius.

Some said the game was connected to MKUltra, a (real) CIA program experimenting with behavior modification techniques and LSD from the 1950s through the '70s, although no evidence of that was ever found. Recently, Great Big Story's series "8 Bit Legacy: The Curious History of Video Games" set out to investigate Polybius, and found some surprising truths behind the mystery. They also found some fans attempting to recreate the game—hopefully minus the ill effects. You can learn more below:

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8 Clever Ways to Recycle Your Old Nintendo Equipment
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For retro game players looking for a simple fix, the recent arrivals of Nintendo’s official NES Classic and Super NES Classic game systems have been an exciting purchase. The systems—when you can find them in stock—boot up dozens of classic games via an HDMI port. That’s left a pretty big inventory of original consoles and cartridges collecting dust in attics.

If you’re crafty and you dig the Nintendo aesthetic, check out these ideas for how to repurpose your old game gear into something new. (A word of caution: Modifying electronic components carries risk of electric shock, so we recommend being careful and using good judgment.)

1. AN NES ALARM CLOCK

A Nintendo console is shown after being modified into an alarm clock

Instructables user arrmayr0227 uploaded this tutorial on a better way to wake up. You’ll be splicing together a gutted NES console with a digital alarm clock, then rewiring the controller to set the time. The reset button acts as a snooze bar and the power button sets the alarm.

2. AN NES LUNCHBOX

Video game artisan Fluctifragus offered a step-by-step breakdown of hollowing out an old NES console to make room for your tuna sandwiches. The interior components can be removed with a screwdriver; the remaining screw posts can be clipped and filed down with a rotary tool. Two small hinges will keep the top and bottom tethered together.

3. A CONTROLLER WALLET

(Or coin purse, if you prefer.) Instructables user Zenilorac detailed a controller hack that involves separating the part by removing the back screws and then gluing a fabric-based zipper around the edges.

4. A ZAPPER LASER CAT TOY

Lehmeier at Instructables perfected a new way of antagonizing your cat by rigging a laser diode and 9-volt battery into the NES’s light gun accessory. Pulling the trigger will allow power to pass from the battery to the diode.

5. A CARTRIDGE WALL CLOCK

For Mario, it’s always time to eat mushrooms. Your schedule is probably a little less predictable. He can still help you tell time with this tweak from Instructables user BeanGolem. The clock hands are spray-painted, while the cartridge is split in half to allow for a clock mechanism (available at most craft stores) to be installed.

6. ADVANTAGE CONTROLLER GUITAR PEDAL

A Nintendo Advantage controller is used as a guitar pedal
wenzsells, Instructables // CC BY 2.0

The joystick-equipped Advantage controller was one of the earliest peripherals available for the NES. Using this guide from Wenzsells, it’s the perfect size to double as a chassis for a pedal kit. The “turbo” knobs control volume, while the A button acts as power switch.

7. A SUPER NINTENDO CARTRIDGE WALLET

A Super Nintendo cartridge is used as a wallet
stalledaction, Instructables // CC BY-NC-SA 2.5

Who doesn’t want to show a bartender their ID by flashing a Super NES game cartridge? Instructables user Stalledaction crafted this conversation piece by fitting a transparent plate to the front and adding space for keys and a USB drive.

8. A GAME PAD MOUSE

A Nintendo controller is operated as a computer mouse
Courtesy of Ryan McFarland

Ryan McFarland came up with a novel use for an old controller: turn it into a PC interface. An optical mouse is inserted into the chassis, while the A and B buttons serve as the left and right selectors. You’ll need, among other things, a Dremel tool, a hot glue gun, and about four or five hours’ worth of patience.

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