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

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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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10 Fast Facts About Pac-Man

by Ryan Lambie

When Pac-Man emerged in the early 1980s, nothing else looked or sounded quite like it. Whereas most arcade games of the era involved shooting marauding aliens, Pac-Man looked like a miniature, interactive cartoon: a comical tug-of-war between a round, yellow character with an addiction to munching tiny white dots and a quartet of roaming ghosts with big, anxious eyes.

As we now know, Pac-Man was a massive hit, and its grip on pop culture is still strong today. But Pac-Man's success was far from certain; its designer initially had no interest in games, and the public reaction to it was initially mixed. Here's a brief look at some of the fascinating facts behind Pac-Man's making, its impact, and its legacy.

1. PAC-MAN DESIGNER TORU IWATANI HAD NO TRAINING AS A DESIGNER OR PROGRAMMER.

When then 22-year-old Toru Iwatani started work at Namco in 1977, he had no particular interest in designing video games. In fact, Iwatani initially expected that he'd work on pinball machines, but instead ended up designing the Breakout-inspired paddle games Gee Bee (1978), Bomb Bee and Cutie Q (1979). Two years after Pac-Man's release in 1980, he designed Pole Position.

2. PAC-MAN WAS DESIGNED AS A RESPONSE TO SHOOTING GAMES LIKE SPACE INVADERS.

Japanese arcades of the late 1970s and early 1980s were dark, masculine places full of space shooting games inspired by the success of Space Invaders—including Namco's own enormously successful Galaxian. In response, Iwatani began thinking about a concept which ran counter to those games.

"All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type—war games and Space Invader types," Iwatani said in 1986. "There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a 'comical' game women could enjoy."

Iwatani began thinking about ideas based around the word taberu, meaning "to eat." And gradually, the concept of a game called Pakku-Man (derived from paku paku, a Japanese slang word akin to chomp) began to form.

3. PAC-MAN'S PIZZA INSPIRATION IS ONLY HALF TRUE.

By Official GDC - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

One of the great creation legends of game design is that Iwatani, while eating a pizza, looked down at the pie with a missing slice and used the outline as inspiration for Pac-Man's distinctive shape. The story was furthered by Iwatani himself; when Pac-Man fever was at its height, he even posed with a half-eaten pizza for a publicity photograph. But in a 1986 interview, Iwatani admitted that the legend was only "half true."

"In Japanese, the character for mouth [kuchi] is a square shape," Iwatani explained. "It's not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out." And thus, Pac-Man was born.

4. PAC-MAN'S GAMEPLAY AND GHOSTS WERE INSPIRED BY COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS.

As Iwatani continued to develop the idea of a game which involved eating, he added the concept of a maze, and then came the power pellet (or power cookie), a special item that allowed Pac-Man to eat his enemies. Iwatani later revealed that the power-up idea was inspired by Popeye, who often defeated his arch rival Bluto by eating spinach.

Pac-Man's ghosts were also inspired by comic book characters. "Pac-Man is inspired by all the manga and animation that I’d watch as a kid," Iwatani told WIRED in 2010. "The ghosts were inspired by Casper, or Obake no Q-Taro."

5. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST GAMES TO INTRODUCE CUT-SCENES.

Pac-Man's action is occasionally interspersed with simple cartoonlike interludes, where an enormous Pac-Man chases a terrified ghost across the screen. Iwatani dubbed these "coffee breaks" and imagined them as a means of enticing players to chomp their way to the next scene. Iwatani's programmers initially resisted the idea, arguing that the interludes added little to the game, but Iwatani ultimately won the battle.

6. THE GAME WOULD BE NOTHING WITHOUT ITS ENEMY AI.

Although Iwatani was the creative force behind Pac-Man, bringing the game to life fell to a team of four staff, including programmer Shigeo Funaki and sound designer Toshio Kai. Development of the game took around 18 months—an unusually lengthy production for the era—with the ghosts' behavior posing the greatest challenge.

As Iwatani himself admitted, "There's not much entertainment in a game of eating, so we decided to create enemies to inject a little excitement and tension."

One of the most ingenious aspects of Pac-Man is that each ghost behaves differently—one simply chases the player, two try to attack Pac-Man from the front, while the fourth will chase and then abruptly change course.

"It was tricky because the monster movements are quite complex," Iwatani said. "This is the heart of the game ... The AI in this game impresses me to this day!"

7. THE GAME WASN'T EXPECTED TO BE A HIT.

The first ever Pac-Man machine—then called Puck-Man—was installed in a Tokyo movie theater on May 22, 1980. As Iwatani and his team had hoped, the game was popular with women and the very young, but seasoned gamers—who were more used to the intensity of shooting games—were initially nonplussed.

The uncertainty continued when Pac-Man was shown off at a coin-op trade show later that year. Many of the American arcade operators in attendance thought that another Namco game at the show—a driving game called Rally X—would be the more popular of the two due to its faster pace. Ultimately, Pac-Man was picked up for American distribution by Bally/Midway. Its name was changed from Puck-Man to Pac-Man, and the game's journey to global popularity began.

8. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL ARCADE GAMES OF ALL TIME, YET ITS CREATOR DIDN'T GET RICH FROM IT.

Selling 350,000 arcade machines within 18 months, generating millions in profits and yet more revenue from merchandising, Pac-Man was an international phenomenon. But Iwatani, like many designers and programmers working in Japan at the time—including Space Invaders' creator Tomohiro Nishikado—didn't directly profit from all that success.

"The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man," Nishikado said in 1987. "I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind."

9. THE HIGHEST SCORE POSSIBLE IS 3,333,360 POINTS.

Although Pac-Man doesn't have an ending as such, an integer overflow makes the 256th level impossible to clear. This means that if every dot, power pellet, fruit, and enemy is consumed on each of the 255 levels, the maximum possible score is 3,333,360 points. The legendarily dextrous videogame champion Billy Mitchell was the first player to achieve a perfect Pac-Man score.

10. IT'S STILL INSIDIOUSLY ADDICTIVE.

To celebrate Pac-Man's 30th birthday back in 2010, Google placed a playable version of the game on its homepage. According to a report issued by a time management company, the game's brief appearance managed to rob the world of around 4.8 million working hours. Google's first ever playable doodle, the search engine's anniversary version of Pac-Man can still be played today. 

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15 Surprising Benefits of Playing Video Games
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Complex, challenging, and ambitious, video games have come a long way since the simple arcade titles of the 1970s—and evidence is mounting that the benefits of play go well beyond entertainment and improved hand-eye coordination. In honor of Video Games Day (today), here are 15 ways games are programming better people. 

1. THEY'RE PRODUCING BETTER SURGEONS.

While you may think you want your surgeon reading up on the latest medical research instead of playing games, you might want to reconsider: a study of laparoscopic (small incision) specialists found that those who played for more than three hours per week made 32 percent fewer errors during practice procedures compared to their non-gaming counterparts.  

2. THEY MAY HELP PEOPLE OVERCOME DYSLEXIA.

Some research points to attention difficulties as being a key component of dyslexia. One study has shown dyslexics improved their reading comprehension following sessions of games heavy on action. The reason, researchers believe, is that the games have constantly changing environments that require intense focus.

3. THEY COULD IMPROVE YOUR VISION.

“Don’t sit too close to the television” used to be a common parental refrain without a lot of science to back it up. Instead, scientists are discovering games in moderation may actually improve—not strain—your vision. In one study, 10 weeks of play was associated with a greater ability to discern between different shades of grey. Another had participants try to play games using only their “lazy” eye, with the “good” one obscured. Those players showed significant, sometimes normalized improvement in the affected eye. 

4. YOU MIGHT GET A CAREER BOOST.

Because certain genres of games reward and encourage leadership traits—providing for “communities,” securing their safety, etc.—researchers have noted that players can display a correlating motivation in their real-world career goals. Improvising in a game can also translate into being faster on your feet when an office crisis crops up. 

5. PLAYERS CAN BECOME FASCINATED WITH HISTORY.

Many games use actual historical events to drive their stories. Those characters and places can then spark a child’s interest in discovering more about the culture they’re immersed in, according to researchers. Parents who have obtained books, maps, and other resources connected to games have reported their children are more engaged with learning, which can lead to a lifetime appreciation for history. 

6. THEY MAKE KIDS PHYSICAL.

While some games promote a whole-body level of interaction, even those requiring a simple handheld controller can lead to physical activity. Sports games that involve basketball, tennis, or even skateboarding can lead to children practicing those same skills outdoors. 

7. THEY MAY SLOW THE AGING PROCESS.

So-called “brain games” involving problem-solving, memory, and puzzle components have been shown to have a positive benefit on older players. In one study, just 10 hours of play led to increased cognitive functioning in participants 50 and older—improvement that lasted for several years. 

8. THEY HELP EASE PAIN.

It’s common to try to distract ourselves from pain by paying attention to something else or focusing on other body mechanisms, but that’s not the only reason why games are a good post-injury prescription. Playing can actually produce an analgesic (pain-killing) response in our higher cortical systems. The more immersive, the better—which is why pending virtual reality systems may one day be as prevalent in hospitals as hand sanitizer.  

9. YOU'LL MAKE NEW SOCIAL CONNECTIONS.

Gamers are sometimes stigmatized as being too insulated, but the opposite is actually true. The rise of multi-player experiences online has given way to a new form of socializing in which players work together to solve problems. But studies have shown games can also be the catalyst for friends to gather in person: roughly 70 percent of all players play with friends at least some of the time. 

10. THEY MAY IMPROVE BALANCE IN MS SUFFERERS.

Since it is a disorder affecting multiple nerves, multiple sclerosis patients often have problems with their balance—and no medications have been conclusively proven to help. However, one study showed that MS patients who played games requiring physical interaction while standing on a balance board displayed improvement afterward. 

11. YOU'LL MAKE FASTER DECISIONS.

We all know someone who seems to have a faster CPU than the rest of us, able to retrieve information or react in a split second. For some, that ability might be strengthened through gaming. Because new information is constantly being displayed during play, players are forced to adapt quickly. In one study, players who were immersed in fast-paced games were 25 percent faster in reacting to questions about an image they had just seen compared to non-players. 

12. THEY MAY CURB CRAVINGS.

Players preoccupied with indulging in overeating, smoking, or drinking might be best served by reaching for a controller instead. A university study revealed a 24 percent reduction in desire for their vice of choice after playing a puzzle game. 

13. THEY'LL REDUCE STRESS.

While some games are thought to induce stress—especially when you see your character struck down for the umpteenth time—the opposite can be true. A major study that tracked players over six months and measured heart rate found that certain titles reduced the adrenaline response by over 50 percent. 

14. GAMERS MIGHT BE LESS LIKELY TO BULLY.

Though the stance is controversial, some researchers have asserted that action games may reduce a bully’s motivation to—well, bully. One study that had players assume the role of both the hero and villain showed that those controlling the bad guy’s behaviors displayed a greater sense of remorse over their actions. 

15. THEY CAN HELP ADDRESS AUTISM.

Gamers using systems that incorporate the entire body to control onscreen movement have been shown to be more engaged in celebrating victories with their peers, which runs counter to the lack of communication people with autism sometimes present. A study also showed that sharing space with multiple players can also lead to increased social interaction for those with the disorder.

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