Making a game from book or film

I recently finished a great fantasy book that is just ripe for turning into a video game. I actually began writing a short review about Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, but it quickly turned into an examination on book and movie based games and how they're designed. I quickly determined that there are two common methods of taking the original source and putting it into a gamers' hands, and I pretty much just threw the rest of the review away at that point (I hope to get around to it someday, this site does have book reviews for a reason). For better or worse, here's my examination of the two design mechanisms chosen when creating a game from an existing franchise. There are many factors that come into play when deciding between them, and honestly I think they often make or break the game.

I believe there are two directions designers can go when taking a large, established world and making a video game out of it: I'll call them the Scene-by-Scene and New Hero routes.


Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince/harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince Cover

This is generally the most common way studios will move an established franchise into video game land, by recreating the book or movie as best (or worst) as they can. There are definitely advantages to this: you get to have the main heroes, you can use recognizable scenes from the previous media and transplant it for the player to enjoy, and the story has essentially been written. In the 90's, Disney pulled this off marvelously with The Lion King and Aladdin. More recently we have the Harry Potter games that coincide with the film release, when you hear the release date for the movie, the game announcement won't be far behind.

Of course, there are some obvious disadvantages to recreating a book or movie scene-by-scene: one of them is that there simply isn't enough material in the original source to encompass an entire video game. What do you do then? Make up levels and new scenes or try to cram non-action sequences into some sort of odd gameplay mechanic. Sometimes the filler stages can easily be imagined and their placement makes sense, but often the gamer is just scratching their head at their inclusion. I recently played through Kung Fu Panda, and half the levels had me exploring swamps and deserts. What? Why?

Lion King/the Lion King Snes Cover

Remember the "I Can't Wait to be King" stage from The Lion King? While the song made for a fun sequence on film, playing it was downright hell. Obviously the developers needed just one more level, so they picked one of the movie's songs and dropped it in the game and took the game from being a fun platformer to a seriously hard, obnoxious platformer. And it's the game's second level!

Another disadvantage to scene-by-scene recreations is that there is little surprise to the game's story. While having a pre-made story certainly speeds along development, you've suddenly lost the entire reason a lot of gamer's play games: for the story. There can be no more unexpected twists, and all the same characters have to live and all the same characters have to die. If you've seen the movie or read the book, you know the ending!

The New Hero

Knights Of The Old Republic/knights Of The Old Republic Cover

The other approach to making a movie/book-based game is to, surprisingly, start from scratch. Not totally from scratch though, you leave the established world and its rules, but wipe everything else away. This is a much more difficult route to go, but in my opinion, delivers a much more desirable product. What this really requires is a team of solid writers and flexible rights holders. No longer are you bounded into making a scene-by-scene rehash, but you have the freedom to focus on whatever aspect of the universe you'd like. There are unfortunately, very few successful examples of this, but the advantages are obvious. Create a new set of heroes, villains, locations, and lore, while taking advantage of a popular setting and structure.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is an excellent example the New Hero approach. There's the fantastic pre-established Star Wars universe, with the Force, Jedi, Sith, lightspeed travel, and everything else that comes bundled with the package, just set thousands of years before the movies. BioWare didn't have to worry about making The Hoth Level or try to cameo Luke Skywalker and Han Solo awkwardly. They just took the best parts of the Star Wars universe and combined it with what they knew best, making RPGs.

Lord Of The Rings Online/lord Of The Rings Online Cover

A lesser known example would be the The Wheel of Time game based off of Robert Jordan's series of books. It is a first-person shooter that takes advantage of the rules and magic he laid out for his epic. The characters are new and the game seems to take place outside of any happenings in the novels.

Massively multiplayer online games also seem to enjoy some success while designing in this direction. When developing an MMO, it is obvious that everyone can not play the main characters from the story it is based off of. The Lord of the Rings Online is set during the Fellowship of the Ring, but players create totally new characters in the world. Many of the books' characters are there as quest givers or even enemies, but seems to focus more on the people and struggles around Middle-Earth than the stories from the books. Lord of the Rings Online has the advantage (in my opinion) of having the rights to Tolkien's books instead of the films. If you compare the MMO to EA's Two Towers and Return of the King, Turbine has much more artistic freedom and wiggle room as they have an entire world to design off of, instead of a couple of three hour movies. Of course, the Scene-by-Scene games sold tremendously well.

Combining the Two

Star Wars Dark Forces/star Wars Dark Forces Cover

You can make a game based right from the original source, or you can create an original story from a pre-existing world, but is there any middle ground? I believe so. Here are a few games that don't seem to fall into either category.

A game I used to love was Star Wars: Dark Forces. It is a first-person shooter set in the Star Wars universe set parallel to the films. The game stars a brand new character, Kyle Katarn, but it almost wasn't to be. The designers originally started writing the game with Luke Skywalker as the main character, but realized there would be too many character limitations with a known persona. The Dark Forces storyline continued on with the Jedi Knight games with more original storylines, probably pushing it even further away from the Scene-by-Scene method.

And here's a weird one: The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. This game essentially copies the adventures of the movie's heroes, but with a brand new cast. And by brand new I mean there's a human, elf, dwarf, and wizard. It's a little bit baffling why they didn't use the main characters.


So while the inevitable video game of this summer's blockbuster will be released on every single platform plus the iPhone, sometimes gamers just want a bit more. Scene-by-Scene video games only do so much to quench a fan's thirst and with huge, detailed universes, it all just feels like the designers and publishers don't care about us. The biggest culprit of not giving us something really unique has to be EA and their handling of the Harry Potter license. Where's our Harry Potter MMO where we create a new kid and get sorted into a Hogwarts house? I don't care if it parallels the books or is just in a time of its own, I'm not interested in playing as Harry! While everyone is different, if you gave me the option of playing a scene-by-scene, level-for-level recreation of the original source, or playing a totally unique and new experience based off my favorite franchise, I would choose the latter nearly every time.