Literary gamesmanship. (success factors in developing role-playing computer games) (Column)
by Steven Anzovin
Back-of-the-game-box copy you're not likely to see:
Experience the excitement and wonder of Little Women as it's never been played before on any computer screen! GirlSoft Productions presents the first role-playing game based on the genteel world of Louisa May Alcott's literary journey through a middle-class 1860s American girlhood! Battle for the attention of Laurie, the bashful boy next door! Race to buy a piano for Beth before she expires!
In the real world, Little Women is not prime computer-game material. Not only is it female-oriented, which makes it more alien to the typical male game programmer than any pixel-chomping star beast, but it lacks the fantasy/SF/epic adventure dimension deemed essential by many of today's top RPG designers.
I talked to the designers of forthcoming RPGs based on two well-known modern adventure fantasies, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune, about how and why these works were chosen for game development. David Bishop, director of game design at Virgin Games (18061 Fitch Avenue, Irvine, California 92714; 714-833-8710), is in charge of the Dune project. (The game itself should be out by the time you read this). The book was a favorite of Bishop's school years. "Herbert creates a wonderful physical environment, very richly talked about, with many different protagonists, each with his or her own values." So he jumped at the chance to work on a Dune game.
But the book ultimately played only a small part in the game design. Instead, the cult movie version, directed by David Lynch, was the property that Virgin licensed. "Our artists kept the excellent look and feel of the film, using elements of art direction, sets, costumes, even images of actors to re-create the arid look of Dune." Did anything from the original Dune book find its way into the game? "Officially, nothing comes from the book . . . . We tried to be as faithful to the original material as we could, but our first duty is to make a great game for buyers to play for 40 or more hours. Our second duty is to stay faithful to the license. It's quite a fine line to travel down to keep everybody happy. Whatever license you're working on, your creative brief is narrowed by what the license dictates." What are the most important aspects of a successful game? "Good versus evil is paramount," said Bishop. "The game should feed the ego of the player. Players need clear-cut goals and characters that they are controlling or have become, and they want to know who's against them." Hmmm . . . That doesn't sound like the Little Women I read.
While the Dune game is primarily a movie adaptation, Interplay (3710 South Susan, Number 100, Santa Ana, California 92704; 714-545-9001) is publishing a three-game version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy based solidly on the books themselves. (The first game, The Lord of the Rings, was released last year; The Two Towers will be in stores by late spring.) Interplay producer Scott Bennie told me that he and the other game designers didn't discard very much of the books; in fact, they added more than they took away, using elements from Tolkien's other works.
I asked Bennie, who is a student of Old English and modern fantasy literature, why Interplay chose to do a Middle Earth game now, when every second-rate D & D game pillages The Lord of the Rings left and right. "When you talk about modern fantasy," he replied, "you're talking about Tolkien or Robert E. Howard [creator of Conan the Barbarian]. Tolkien's books are the wellspring of modern fantasy. This is the pure stuff. If a creative property is to be adapted, why not adapt the best?"
What other literary works would he most like to turn into games? "The Iliad. I'd try to reflect the Homeric spirit. Of course, there'd be The Odyssey to do as a sequel, and somebody would probably come out with Aeneid as competition. How about James Joyce's Ulysses?" Would Little Women make a hit game? Or maybe Little Men? Bennie laughed. "There's a real need for games that a female can respect as much as a male, and, of course, we need more female game designers and marketers."
Adventurous game makers should take notice: Meg, Amy, Beth, and Jo await you.