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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Netflix
A New Stranger Things Video Game Is in the Works
Netflix
Netflix

The world of Stranger Things is ready to get the proper video game treatment. TechRadar exclusively revealed that the hit sci-fi series from Netflix will be coming to consoles, courtesy of Telltale Games. Though details are scarce, this seems to be the beginning of a working relationship between the two companies as it was also announced that Telltale’s popular Minecraft: Story Mode game will soon be brought to Netflix as a “5-episode interactive narrative series,” according to the site.

Though Minecraft will be experienced through Netflix itself, the Stranger Things game will be a traditional console/computer release. If you’re unfamiliar with Telltale, its brand of games tends to favor a branching narrative experience that emphasizes player choice over button mashing. These point-and-click adventures usually don’t have a standard release schedule, either; instead, they’re split up into parts and distributed episodically for download. The games are usually released on consoles, including the Nintendo Switch, as well as PC, Android, and iOS.

While the highlight of Telltale’s work is widely considered to be its Walking Dead adaptations, they’ve also found success with other blockbuster franchises like Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, and its latest effort, Batman: The Enemy Within. There’s no word on whether or not the Stranger Things cast will be involved in the game, or if it will follow the established Telltale formula. In a statement to TechRadar, a spokesperson for the developer said, “we're excited to reveal details on these projects later in the year.”

This might not be the end of Netflix’s foray into the video game world. While the company has no plans to enter the market itself, TechRadar did find a job listing at Netflix for a Manager of Interactive Licensing who will "use games as a marketing tactic to capture demand and delight our member community (ex: Stranger Things: The Game)." May your dreams of a Narcos economic simulator game be realized.

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Mike Windle/Getty Images for Bethesda
10 Surprising Facts About Fallout
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Bethesda
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Bethesda

On the surface, the pervasive violence, nightmarish difficulty, and dark humor of the Fallout series should have relegated it to niche status. But it’s that exact combination (along with the ability to have your very own handheld nuke launcher) that’s helped it become one of the most acclaimed series in the gaming industry over the last 20 years.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where mutants, cannibals, and raiders descend upon you in waves, the Fallout franchise has come to define the modern role-playing game, from its first iteration at Interplay Entertainment to its modern installments at Bethesda Softworks. As gamers anticipate the next entry in the series, Fallout 76, take a look at 10 facts about this iconic series.

1. IT’S A SPIRITUAL SUCCESSOR TO WASTELAND.

Before Interplay’s original Fallout came out, the studio already visited a war-torn nightmare of a world in 1988’s Wasteland. In this RPG on the PC, players took on the role of the Desert Rangers, a team tasked with roaming what’s left of the Southwest United States while battling any warring factions they came across.

When Interplay couldn’t pry the rights to Wasteland away from distributor Electronic Arts for a sequel, director Timothy Cain and his team crafted a brand-new IP that focused on mainly the same nuclear-scorched principles. Though a number of titles were batted around—including Vault 13—the team eventually settled on Fallout, which was a name suggested by Interplay head Brian Fargo.

2. THE POST-APOCALYPSE WASN’T THE FIRST SETTING DISCUSSED.

Fallout is defined by its setting—the war-torn streets, smoldering husks of civilization, and retro-futuristic vibe all helped make this franchise stand out from its competition. But this world wasn’t Cain’s first idea. According to a feature article on Polygon, Cain originally toyed with the type of traditional fantasy RPG that had defined the genre during the 1990s. The next idea was to let you play as time-traveling dinosaurs, which is obviously never a wrong choice. Eventually, though, the team settled on the post-apocalyptic theme that has stayed with the franchise ever since.

3. THEN THE WHOLE THING WAS ALMOST DERAILED BY D&D.

Though the team finally nailed down the world, it didn’t mean Fallout was a sure thing. At one point during production, Interplay got the rights to release games based on the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, and the company wanted to scrap Fallout and move the team onto the more traditional RPG title.

In an interview with Polygon, Cain said he actually had to beg the higher-ups to allow him to continue with his game. The same thing would happen again when Interplay wanted Cain to reconfigure the game into a multi-player RPG to piggyback off the success of Diablo. Again, Cain’s vision prevailed.

4. THERE WAS ALMOST A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FALLOUT 3.

After the success of Fallout 2 in 1998, Black Isle Studios—working under Interplay—began prepping a third installment, codenamed Van Buren. Like the first two installments, this one would be an isometric RPG in the Wasteland where the player takes control of an escaped prisoner who winds up attempting to stop (or help) a rogue scientist’s plan to “purify” society via an attack from an orbital nuclear missile system.

The project was canceled, and soon Black Isle Studios would be axed and the Fallout property would land at Bethesda. However, a tech demo of the original Fallout 3 did land online a few years back.

5. THE GAMES ARE STACKED WITH SCI-FI EASTER EGGS.

The Wasteland is littered with more than just burned-out buildings and scattered remnants of humanity; it’s also home to Easter eggs and homages to nearly every major sci-fi property in existence.

In the original game, for instance, players can stumble upon a familiar blue callbox that disappears into thin air—a callback to the TARDIS from Doctor Who. There’s also the sight of a post-apocalyptic wanderer traveling the wasteland with his dog from Fallout 3 that is an unmistakable homage to the Mad Max series. And if you stumble upon a refrigerator in the desert in Fallout: New Vegas, look inside—you might find the skeletal remains of Indiana Jones as a nod to the infamous nuke scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

And that’s just the beginning. If you take your time to really explore the world of these games, you’ll find shout-outs to Planet of the Apes, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Jaws, Star Wars, and countless others.

6. FALLOUT 3 HAD ISSUES IN AUSTRALIA AND INDIA.

When Bethesda took control of the series for 2008’s Fallout 3, the studio retained its high level of violence, profanity, and all-around sacrilege. So it was only inevitable when governments started to take notice.

In Australia, the game was faced with a ban due to the fact that the player could use, and get addicted to, morphine. Instead of losing this sizable market, Bethesda changed the name of the drug to the fictional “Med-X” after the Aussie government took issue with a player getting addicted to (and possibly even glorifying) a real drug. This change wasn’t just reflected in Australia but in every region, turning Med-X into part of Wasteland lore.

The controversy continued in India, where the game simply wasn’t released at all because of issues stemming from “cultural sensitivities.”

7. FALLOUT 4’S SCRIPT TOTALED 13,000 LINES OF DIALOGUE FOR THE MAIN ACTORS.

In previous games in the series, the main characters never spoke; they were voiceless protagonists in a world of fully-voiced supporting characters and villains. But in Fallout 4, Bethesda took away that ambiguity in favor of fully voiced heroes. They hired both a male and female voice actor for the job, depending on which character the player chose to create, and for its first foray into the voiced realm, the studio made their leads pretty talkative.

According to the game’s director, Todd Howard, each actor had about 13,000 lines of dialogue, which were recorded over the span of two years. That number goes up exponentially when you look at the game as a whole: One estimate put the total lines of dialogue for every character in the game combined at somewhere near 170,000.

8. THE SERIES BOASTS AN IMPRESSIVE CELEBRITY VOICE CAST.

Though the main characters are usually mute, the world of Fallout is populated by a roster of celebrities who have lent their voices to everything from super mutants to wannabe crime bosses. Most recognizable among them is Ron Perlman, who narrated the intros to Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3, Fallout Tactics, and Fallout: New Vegas. He’s become a fan favorite part of the story over the years with the opening lines, “War. War never changes.”

There’s also Liam Neeson as the main character’s father in 3, which also featured Malcolm McDowell as the president. And then there’s New Vegas, with Matthew Perry (an ardent franchise fan) as Benny and Wayne Newton as a radio DJ. Throughout all the games, you’ll also hear from the likes of Danny Trejo, Brad Garrett, Dave Foley, and Lynda Carter, who also wrote and provides the vocals for original songs in Fallout 4.

9. FALLOUT 4 EARNED $750 MILLION ON LAUNCH DAY.

The franchise was more of a critical success than a commercial one during the Interplay years, but once it made its way to Bethesda, it managed to hit sales marks that were previously unseen for the series. Fallout 3’s launch week saw 4.7 million units shipped, for a total of $300 million worldwide. Fallout: New Vegas saw similar success, bringing in over $300 million in its first month.

Well, Fallout 4 basically doubled those numbers within its first 24 hours on the market. The $750 million that the game made on its November 10, 2015 debut was a record at the time for the biggest entertainment launch of the year and one of the biggest single-day video game feats of all time.

10. FANS ARE CREATING NEW FALLOUT GAMES.

Bethesda has always been a haven for modders, those tech-savvy super fans that dive into a game’s source code to create something wholly original within the original title. A lot of these mods fix graphical issues and other bugs, while others add new characters or a dose of absurdity to the game, like the mods that turned all deathclaw enemies into Thomas the Tank Engine or Macho Man Randy Savage.

Some of these mods go well above and beyond, turning into full games in their own right, set in the Fallout universe and created by fans. There’s Fallout: Cascadia, which is a mod project that puts the series in Seattle; Fallout 4: New Vegas, which recreated New Vegas with 4’s upgraded engine; and Fallout: New California, an ambitious New Vegas mod that features all-new characters and stories.

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