Round Table Entry 1/09: Putting the Game Before The Book

CorvusE, over at Man Bytes Blog, does a monthly Round Table on Games and Gaming. Here’s what he challenged with for January ‘09:

Putting the Game Before the Book: What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Feel free to ignore the technical constraints of the era in which the book was written. In fact, feel free to ignore the technical constraints (within reason) of today and push the envelop a bit. Also notice that I didn’t specify video game. Feel free to imagine a board game, card game, RPG, or sport, that could have been created during the same time period as the book in question. Be as vague, or as detailed, about the design particulars as you like. Work together with another blogger, or work alone.

When I originally read the above, I started to think about the book I’d most like to see turned into a game. I had an entire blog post about it. Then I realized, based on closer reading of the above, that I had missed the question. It’s not “What book do you want to see as a game?” but rather, “What kind of game would engender the same reactions and responses that your favorite book would?”

This makes the playing field much larger for me. There are definite books I’d like to see as games, and many I can’t quite see an adaptation working out so well.

So, I need to start out with a quick discussion of what kinds of books I read, and why. Let’s start with the genre. Science Fiction, abbreviated SF to set it apart from the more mainstream film/television term, “sci-fi,” has long been my favorite genre to read. It seems as thought there’s been a resurgence of the style in the past 10 years, based on my own highly-unscientific observation of there being tons more new SF books in the library and in book stores.

I like all kinds of SF (remember, this is the written kind). These days, I particularly like what’s being called New Space Opera, with grand themes and at least an attempt to stay within the bounds of known and speculative physical reality. I also enjoy what’s known as “Hard SF,” which is much more rigorous in it’s depiction of science and speculation limited to known scientific fact or theory. However, the kind of Hard SF that I most enjoy is typified by writers like David Brin, Ian McDonald, and Greg Bear: SF that is scientific, full of cool astronomical reality, but is extremely concerned with the human experience within the greater scheme of reality. These books are typically character driven, and the technology never overshadows the very real emotions and motivations of the central and supporting characters. These books also rate high on my wonder and awe index: they tell stories that bring me face to face with the incomprehensibly large, alien and fantastic. Call it escapism if you like, but this is what makes my brain sing and my heart race.

So which of these folks is my favorite author? None of them. I would have to admit that overall, my favorite author in SF has to be Orson Scott Card. He is definitely not a hard SF or New Space Opera writer. He tends to defy categorization. He writes in many modes, from literary horror to SF to more Fantasy/Alternate History. My favorite story of his, of course, is the SF classic, Ender’s Game, and it’s host of sequels.

Why is Card my favorite author? Well, he does the two things I appreciate in my fiction: he brings a sense of wonder, and he respects the character, and by extension, humankind. As a Mormon, Card has specific beliefs about religion and politics that I do not share. But his writing, even the overtly religious writing, never devolves into what I would call moralizing or preaching. He has a profound respect for people in all their diversity, and a strong sense of younger characters and women characters. His characters are not always perfect; in fact, they are usually far from perfect, full of the same conflicts, desires and contradictions that we all have inside our fragile, funky human bodies and minds. In one early novel, Songmaster, the main character is overtly and specifically homosexual within the story. I always found it incredibly wonderful that a religious person could write such a book. My experience with highly religious people has never been that they are very open minded. It was refreshing to meet one, albeit through his books.

So, what kind of game can I envision that respects human kind and brings the sense of wonder and awe that I crave? Why not actually make it a video-game, since that’s what I mostly write about here. And let’s make it a super-high rez, current or next-gen (next-next-gen? gen-cubed?) gaming experience, with high end TV set, sound, and incredible broadband connectivity. What could such a game look like?

The one thing I really want to see in a video-game is a cooperation component. Not a two man team gunning down hordes of enemies and progressing through what essentially is a single player story line, but true cooperation. I believe that this true interactivity is what bring s gamers to Role Playing games in the first place. It’s a way to involve each other in a shared story, and bring the human element in. Us with our petty, noble, confident, insecure selves.

My video game would be set in a science fictional universe, and while I’m at it, let’s put it in the Ender’s Game universe. And please, let’s not just recreate the Battle Room.

How about we do this: we make the game have two essential components: an acting/roleplaying component, and a cooperative battle component. Just to keep the violent sides of our nature appeased along with our creative sides.

Let’s take the basic universe and storyline from the first book for our first game. Keep in mind that we can do this with many of the sequels. In the novel version of Ender’s Game, there seem to be two main story streams: one about Ender Wiggin, and his progression from youngest child chosen for Battle School to final hero of Humankind, and one about his siblings, Peter and Valentine, who are fairly genius themselves, and their rise from stars of the world network to rulers of the Earth government.

In my dream game, we can use all the story streams and characters, because here’s how it would go. Keep in mind I’m not a game designer. I’m an ideas guy. So here we go.

Our acting / role-playing sections would be all about the narrative scenes from within the book. We would take each player involved in the game, up to 8 at a time, and let them choose, or assign them, a role. They can play specific roles in the scene, or they can be the director, camera operator, and score musician. The actors in the role would have to manipulate their avatar/characters to best interpret what was on the page (yes, reading is required for my dream game). The behind the camera folks would, in real time, direct and score and move the camera around to best capture the performance. I’m guessing this all could be captured procedurally, like MIDI captures music performance. The performance files are then placed onto game servers, where online friends of the players will be allowed to rate and judge the final scene. There might also be options for other fans of the game to start rating and judging performances online.

Like any acting production, there would need to be large amounts of preparation, rehearsal, and…cooperation. It would be interesting to see if traditional roles would inform the play styles of individual gamers. Would the Directors be auteur-focused, keeping track of all the details and running the story with an iron-vision? Or will we see collaborative scenes, built with little to no preparation into live-streaming performance art? How far off book will people go, and what are the potential for worldwide, language-barrier cooperation to ensue? The mind boggles.

For the second part of my dream game, we’ll do something a bit more traditional, with a twist. Imagine, if you will, a typical Battle Room scene in the book: there are two armies of 4 – 8 individuals entering a giant sphere with no gravity in it (or sometimes gravity, or unpredictable gravity, just to mess with the participants), and no up or down. It’s a space battle fought in spacesuits, with varying obstacles and penalties for being “hit. think of a game of laser-tag in space. Let’s design our game to force people to cooperate. It’s how Ender ultimately promotes through the ranks: by creating cooperation and helping his team think creatively and quickly on the battlefield. This is a traditional game experience, in that it would have leader boards (team based, only) and online rankings, and the like. The twist is that there are 4 – 8 individuals in that space, each with their own sense of space and field of vision, all trying to work together to cooperate to win the simulation. They may have voice communication ability in one battle, and none in a different battle. There may be lights on in one simulation, off in a different one. Gravity conditions fluctuate, as do the amount of penalty at being hit. Some suits might freeze up in the middle of play, some might lose control of specific limbs.

The gamers in this kind of game will need to figure out ways, built up over time playing with each other, to communicate, cooperate, and ultimately direct themselves in battle to meet the conditions of a win. I would love to see the varying personalities play out. Who would dominate? Would there be Generals created, each nurturing or terrorizing teams to win battles and move up the ranks? Will ad-hoc groups be able to compete with well-rehearsed tactical groups? What happens to the lone gunmen of the groups? Can they survive long as a member of any team?

Record these battles with the same procedural MIDI-esque system as the acting ones, and then have a third component to the game: movie editing. Create your own version of the book, edit together a completely different version. Create a Pulp Fiction style anti-linear narrative and change sound effects and voice overs to create whole new meanings. Join an editing team and build a fantastic feature length movie, which can then be submitted to the Gamerdance Channel, and voted on by millions of players all over the world.

Seriously, though, this is the game that could inspire a novel, or six. It would be a new way to role play that doesn’t involve giant manuals of dice tables. It could be a platform for all kinds of interactive storytelling and genre -skinning. imaging the Star Trek TNG mod, where the team must act out episodes from the beloved television series, and then cooperatively pilot a Starship in a battle with an equally piloted Romulan vessel. Think of all the horrible fart jokes that could be edited into a very serious production of the third chapter from Ender’s Shadow.

Granted, i have NO IDEA how to design, create, and/or market such a game. But with incredible visuals, well-created acting and production tools, this could bring that sense of awe and wonder that I crave from storytelling, along with the tools and support to tell some amazing stories along the way. Finis.

Because this blog is hosted on, the iFrame code that would give you a cool looking drop down menu to all the other blogs posting on this topic isn’t showing up. Instead, hit the link below for the entries for the month of January, 2009.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.



  1. Intriguing. So this would be like an online cooperative version of The Movies, right?

    I had a similar idea once. It would be difficult to pull off as the technology involved is daunting but it would be the YouTube of machinima. Great concept!

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