For many kids born after 1984 with indulgent/negligent parents, video games were the primary providers of storytelling in the early years (even if the “story” involved blasting suddenly soaring ducks with a toy gun so a giggling dog could snatch them out of the reeds). And though we won’t know the long term effects of extensive staring at 8-bit graphics or mashing plastic controllers for a few more years, we do know that video games are also a gateway entertainment to more adult entertainment like books. But sometimes, even when nose-deep in a great book as a Refined Adult, it’s hard to keep the Zelda theme from worming into your head. That’s why we’re combining two great forms–great games and their dream authors. This list is entirely hypothetical, but hopefully it will turn some gamers to some great authors and turn some readers to some great games.
Resident Evil 4 - Written by Stephen King
The greatest horror game ever should belong, naturally, to the greatest horror writer ever. If you’re a King fan, it’s worth your time to check out what RE4 had in the way of horror: Chainsaw Sisters, Regenerators, Dr. Salvador, U-3, Plagas (aka The Tentacled Monsters that Sprout out of Your Head), and that terrifying monster that lives in the lake. The game is action-based and blowing these horrible things away is par for the course, but the series was always about limiting your ammo so that you had to choose when it was better to fight or run. A King adaptation would be all the more frightening with even less ammo.
BioShock – Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s tempting to say Ayn Rand because of the game’s objectivist themes, but BioShock has more soul than all of Rand’s books put together, and the game’s philosophical aspect is only part of its layered story. BioShock is about identity. Part of the game’s appeal is the fully-realized world of Rapture: a lost underwater city, ruined half a century ago by irreconcilable ideals. Its dilapidated art deco living rooms and empty hotels signify much more than nostalgia–they evoke a place with two layers: a past golden age and the haunted present that’s been dropped over it. For those reasons, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be a fascinating choice. No one can capture a doomed present moment, not yet passed, with so much clarity. He’s probably not as equipped to write about the monsters hiding around Rapture, but the action in BioShock was never what made it memorable. It was the atmosphere and the moral choices. Imagine how Fitzgerald would tackle the kill or let live question of the Little Sisters. “Would you kindly?”
System Shock 2 – Written by Stanislaw Lem
Few writers better captured the clash of philosophy and technology than Stanislaw Lem, and no game better fits Lem’s aesthetic than System Shock 2. Lem was a trailblazer in his genre, System Shock 2 reinvented what first person shooters could do. The game’s plot could’ve been written by Lem: a soldier wakes up on his military spacecraft, which is escorting a faster-than-light starship, on its maiden voyage. One problem: the ship has stopped off at a remote planet and found some strange eggs. Now the crew is acting kind of funny and are insisting you refer to them collectively as “The Many.” System Shock 2 was praised for its disturbing atmosphere–imagine Lem getting his hands on this top-rate tale of science’s defeat of humanity.
Metal Gear Solid 2 - Written by David Foster Wallace
Respective complex narratives of Metal Gear Solid 2 and Infinite Jest aside, both actually have a lot in common: both have a younger protagonist going in the footsteps of a more senior protagonist, both have deadly weapons at their centers that threaten Life as We Know It, and, ultimately, both pose questions of what being human means. Also, both love to halt plot for long discursive talks. DFW would be like a kid in a candy store exploring MGS2′s coiling themes of philosophy, conspiracy, censorship, the nature of reality, and the illusion of free will. What would be a challenge for most other writers would be fun for Wallace–think what he could do with the rollerskating pyro Fatman and the walk-on-water villain Vamp.
Super Mario Bros. - Written by Italo Calvino
If the cities in Invisible Cities were made into Super Mario Bros. levels, the world would be a better place.
Limbo - Written by László Krasznahorkai
Limbo is a black-and-white game with no dialogue, no music, and no life bar or energy meter cluttering up the screen. It takes place in a foggy, ghost-like world in which a boy’s only known goal is to go from the left side of the screen to the right, along the way avoiding traps (and a giant spider) that can cause his gruesome death. If you aren’t familiar with Krasznahorkai, the master of the long sentence, his books (like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance) also feature characters that are both driven and wayward–they want something, but that something is elusive. Similarly, Limbo is both direct and vague: it has a straightforward goal but very little explanation about why this goal exists, or even what this world exists for in the first place–and why is it so hostile? That simplicity/complexity dynamic is a perfect description for Krasznahorkai’s writing, which begins innocently enough but turns and twists on itself until you’re left with a narrative knot and a deep itch to figure it all out. One could imagine a big smile on the Hungarian writer’s face playing through Limbo, recognizing his own aesthetic in the game’s insidious sense of dread.
Shadow of the Colossus – Written by Herman Melville
Shadow of the Colossus‘s closest analog is Moby-Dick: they’re both about a solitary man undertaking an epic quest to defeat leviathans. But, more than that, they’re both steeped in spirituality–the wonder of existence and the constant threat of it being taken away–and they’re both set against a gorgeous, evocative environment (Moby-Dick has the expansive ocean; Shadow of the Colossus has an unpopulated territory of cliffs, caves, lakes, and deserts) that dwarfs each story’s respective characters and puts them squarely in their place. Much of what Shadow (which is being made into what will probably be a not-very-good movie) gets by on is its silences–imagine Melville’s beautiful balance of naturalism and existentialism (“Bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death”) filling in the wordless gaps of perhaps the most naturally existential game ever made.