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