Drawing Inspiration

Part one. Turning books into games.

So you want to create a game with a gripping and compelling plot, but you don’t really have any ingenious ideas?

The most logical thing to do in such cases, albeit not often done, would be to turn to something previously written and transform it into a game. An option which is in most cases neglected is to turn a book into a game. To me, it is a mystery why – books, especially renowned ones, already have developed plots(unlike movies, acting and special effects can not save a book from failure), detailed descriptions and realistic characters, something you’d have to spend months on if you’re doing it by yourself. Of course, turning a book into a game is not as simple as that – you’d still have to think of how it should progress, what gameplay style you’ll use, etc, etc, etc. And if you are up for an ambitious project, you could try to create a game not based on a pulp fiction novel (“The Da Vinci Code”, “Day of the Jackal”…), but on a book with an acclaimed artistic value.

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As a matter of fact, I can only think of two games that tried that – The Dark Eye (Based on some of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories) and Return of the Phantom (Based on Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera”). “The Dark Eye” did everything remarkably well which resulted in a wonderful game, whereas “Return of the Phantom” failed in some aspects and did quite well in others, which resulted in a mediocre game.

And because it is always more enlightening to analyse the worse game, we’ll take “Return of the Phantom”.

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For those of you who haven’t read it, Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera” is a fundamental gothic mystery that has been adapted so many times (most notably in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical), that is often mistaken for some of its adaptations and its artistic value is very underrated. The plot revolves around the mysterious “Opera ghost” who threatens to do horrendous things if his demands are not met. He is also in love with a chorus girl and his demands are linked to his love interest’s opera career advance. He hides in the cellars of the Paris Opera house because he is physically disfigured and wears a mask to conceal his hideous face.

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“Return of the Phantom” does not follow the book closely. You are in the shoes of Christine’s (the phantom’s love interest) lover, Raoul. The beginning of the game is quite well constructed and draws you to its atmosphere admirably well. This is done by doing inquiries about the phantom, reading documents etc, which is basically what Leroux does in the beginning of the novel.

Where the merits of “Return of the Phantom” begin to lack is approximately in the middle of the game. From there, the pace of the game increases – this leaves the player with a feel of dissatisfaction, not to mention the impossible to pass without a walkthrough maze.

The biggest disappointment, though, comes from the severely flattened personality of the phantom. In Gaston Leroux’s most famous work where  he fundamentally is a complex grotesque character who would do anything for love, but forgets himself at a certain point. In the game we are analyzing, he is nothing more than a villain that could have been taken from Ninja turtles, since that’s what the unmasked character looked like in the game.

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Preserving the characters’ personality is vital when you are turning a book into a game – chances are that the author is better at creating characters than you are. Anyhow, the most important thing which leads partly from the characters is the message which the book delivers. This is what separates pulp fiction from true novels, and this is what should be the borderline in the games industry, although few people have realized that.

In “The Phantom of the Opera”, as in most fundamental gothic stories, for example R.L. Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Leroux subtly makes us think whether we are not in some aspects like the phantom, whether we do not forget ourselves and whether we do not wear a mask not to conceal an outer hideousness, but inner. At least, that was the message for me. In “Return of the Phantom”, it has been totally lost.

If you have the artistic and musical skills, it is nice to create the graphics and music in the style of the period which the book belongs. In the case of “The Phantom of the Opera” most appropriate would have been a haunting soundtrack and a lush and somewhat creepy graphics. What we have is a soundtrack undeserving of any attention and cartoony graphics with real actors as the characters. Decide for yourself what is better.

Creating games based on books is an underrated and underused concept. Of course, not every book can be turned into an adventure game. But when you find the one that can and will be a great one, don’t miss the chance.

 

 

 

Part Two. Film Noir.

 

Another source of inspiration that, as opposed to the previous part, has been overused is film noir. However, when I say overused I don’t mean used properly. It’s basically the same with the movies that fall into that category also.

Films noir are essentially, black and white mystery movies from the middle of the last century. The most clichéd ones involve a private detective, a murder, and a femme fatale. The true films noir involve moral battles, charismatic villains, compelling background and amazing ingenious cinematographic effects.

Needless to say, we’re going to stress on the second type.

Now, if you haven’t watched “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Third Man”, you should go and watch them and then return to this article, since it might spoil some of the best movies ever made.

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Both movies start as a rather ordinary story, albeit a gripping one. In “The Third Man” no sooner has the protagonist arrived in post-WW2 Vienna, where he was invited to stay at a friend of his, than he finds out he’s been killed in an accident. In Sunset Boulevard, a struggling screenplay writer is trying to save his car from his debts and ends up at a strange yet glamourous house on Sunset Boulevard.

The absorbing background in “The third man” is post WW2 Vienna. There are remains of what has once been(and today is) an aristocratic and beautiful city. It is divided into four parts between the countries that have won the war – Britain, USA, Russia and France. However, the true authority is the black market, since that is where most people get the vital things.

In “Sunset Boulevard”, the gripping background is the past fame of the silent movie star Norma Desmond – the house which resembles Miss Havisham’s (from Dickens’s “Great Expectations”), and Norma Desmond herself, living in her own world.

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Compelling background is an achievable thing in games, and even though few creators realize it, it has been done – some examples include “The Last Express” and “Fate of Atlantis”. It should be the foundation on which you build your plot.

The charismatic villains make a difference in such movies, as in games. For example, although Harry Lime (“The Third Man”) causes innocent people to die and is a misanthrope, he is strangely appealing to the viewers, even more than the good guy. This is because he is more than a flat villain – not only is he intelligent but he also has insight on the human nature itself and human society (the now notorious cuckoo clock speech, for example). In other movies, it is hard to say who the villain is. Often the villain hides inside the protagonist, who is supposed to be the good one. Take “Sunset Boulevard”, for instance. Joe slowly but surely steps into the swamp of Norma Desmond’s luxurious life and he cannot get out at the end – he dies. Even though Norma kills him, she cannot be called a villain – she lives in her own world and does not mean to do evil. Perhaps the closest to a villain is Max, who keeps Norma out of the real world by sending her fake fan mail daily etc. It is clear that the true villain is the vice that lies inside Joe, which leads us to the next point.

The moral battle is what Joe loses, and Holly Martins wins, even twice. Once when he accepts to help to arrest Lime, though he’s known him for years and is love with his ex-lover, who wouldn’t like him to be caught, and the second time when he saves him from perhaps torture and doubtless a death sentence by shooting him (A motive also seen in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”). Joe, nonetheless, is not as strong. He lets Norma’s money get the best of him, and even sacrifices his love for the luxurious life he has been unable to win himself.

A characteristic feature for films noir is that the protagonist is a realistic character, rarely an angel, and still, on the good side, at least before the aforementioned moral battle. If you want to say something with your games, an inner conflict is one of the best ways.

Last but not least, the cinematographic effects used to create suggestions in films noir are easily achievable in games today. Some examples include semi-open blinds, smoke, increased contrast/decreased brightness (which works especially well when in black and white). The most renowned name in that scope is doubtless Orson Welles. He invented many such effects and used them whenever he was allowed to by producers. The only movie where he was allowed to do whatever he wants, and it shows, is “Citizen Kane”. If you’d like to add similar effects to your game, you should watch the movie carefully and analyze them. Even though easily achievable nowadays, the matter where and what to put shouldn’t be underestimated too.

To be continued…

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