A couple of days ago I finished the final Harry Potter book. Kids’ literature and all that, I know, but I couldn’t help feeling a certain sense of loss. After all I’d spent seven books with these characters; I’d watched them grow and develop and shared a little in their adventures and it seemed a little dispiriting that I wouldn’t be able to read about them any more. There was once a friend of a friend of mine who moved to Hong Kong; I didn’t know the guy very well but it seemed kind of weird to think I’d never see him again. Finishing the books felt like that.
So, being the good gamer that I am my immediate reaction was to check out and see if there were any good Harry Potter games I could pick up as an extension of the books. I was completely unsurprised to find out that there weren’t. After all, games based on books and films don’t really have a very glorious history. They are, for the most part, crap. Why?
Well one obvious answer is that a goodly proportion of them are cash cows. They’re designed and produced quickly, with little regard for quality on the presumption that most of the people who buy them will be fans of the film/book and will buy them anyway regardless of how good they are. Sadly enough this presumption has been repeatedly born out by the sales figures for any number of poor-to-average tie-in games over the years.
But I think it runs deeper than that. The basic problem is that the requirements for what makes a good book or film are radically different from those that make a good game. Although they’re all entertainment commodities the basic premise of each is fundamentally different. In a book or film is you’re a passive consumer, whereas in a game you’re an active participant. Were that not bad enough as an initial design hurdle the bridge from book to game is also inherently unstable. The book tells me a story – as a fan, much of my enjoyment of that book comes from the long, slow revelation of that story and when the book is finished what I yearn for is its continuation. However, if I turn to a game for that continuation I’m going to be in for a disappointment. If the game just re-tells the story then it’s a poor game for sure, and if it doesn’t then while I might have a good game it isn’t going to give me the immersion that I crave.
So, is this problem insurmountable? Clearly not, because there are a tiny handful of incredibly good games which are book/film tie-ins. The majority of these cast off any pretence of trying to mirror or continue the story in the original and just use the world in which the book is set as a basis for building a thematic game. While good, we can ignore these for the present discussion because they don’t offer the entirety of what we’re looking for – a game which can truly feel like a continuation or re-telling of the story we fell in love with. These are much, much rarer but when a designer gets them right, the results are often breathtakingly good. I suspect I only need to mention the titles of the few games I felt belonged in this category to make my point – War of the Ring, Dune and Fury of Dracula. So I figured it might be a worthwhile exercise to sit down and look at what these games had in common, to see if we could tease out the recipe for designing the perfect game-from-story formula. Of course, if I were doing this properly then I’d have to have some sort of control games, rubbish ones, to make sure that what I’d identified didn’t exist in those games and was truly unique to the good ones. But that’d mean playing rubbish games, so clearly I’m not going to do that.
Besides, this is a blog post, not a PhD.
The first thing that leapt out at me is that they all asymmetrical setups in which the abilities and/or goals of the various factions in play are different. More importantly, a great deal of time and attention has been given to the mechanical design of this asymmetry to ensure that the broad style or feel of play associated with each faction ensures that their behaviour in the game mirrors that in the story without cramping room for creative decision making. In War of the Ring the shadow player must rely on military might to win, forcing him to attack aggressively against the higher wisdom of hunting the ring, just as in the book. Similarly the free people’s player relies on stealth and misinformation to win, distracting the shadow player from committing resources to the hunt whenever possible. Take some of the Dune factions – the Harkonnen player is the one who must rely on treachery to succeed, the Guild and the Imperial factions both rely on huge income gained from the expenditure of other players and the Fremen must rely on their innate connection to the environment of Ariakas. In Fury of Dracula of course the play mechanics around the two sides are completely different – Dracula moves secretly while he watches the hunters move and is much more powerful than his adversaries. This re-enforces the feeling from the story that the hunters are in a desperate search for a creature much more powerful than they, and only by banding together can they succeed. The count, meanwhile, can weave his nefarious plots across Europe because he’s in possession of powers and information the hunters do not have.
The second thing that I thought was a commonality between the games was that they all had a very careful eye for what elements of the story were really central and which were just window trappings, no matter how flashy they might be. The central elements needed direct representation in the mechanics of the game while the others could either be ignored or represented in an oblique reference, decoupled from the mechanics. The best example of this is the Balrog from War of the Ring. Everyone remembers the Balrog (even if most people seem to have fake pictures of a winged Balrog in their heads, including Peter Jackson). However, does the Balrog make an appearance in War of the Ring? Not in the base game, certainly. Instead his presence is relegated to the extra corruption point the Fellowship accumulates if it chooses to pass through Moria. This, if you think about it, is entirely in keeping with the central point of the story which is the gradual disintegration of the fellowship. The Balrog is merely an agent through which this is accomplished in the story and so can be mechanically ignored in the game. In Dune, the key theme of the story is the diplomatic and violent confrontations between the factions. Everyone remembers the Sandworms from the book and the film but they’re not actually central to the plot, they’re just an agent used to further it along. So, appropriately, they’re relegated to a card event which mechanically has nothing to do with sandworms – instead they’re just a token which allows the opening of negotiation between players. In Fury of Dracula the central plot theme is the hunt and chase for Dracula. However, the game does manage to work in a large number of other minor plot themes directly into the game through the creatures and event cards. However, wider plot themes about the investigation into the background and powers of the Count that are present in the story are properly ignored in the game. This teaches us a final important lesson about this aspect – plot elements to be dropped need to be ignored because they might mess up the flow of the game, not simply because they’re not central. I guess this is something that only playtesting will tell you for sure. However a lot of tie-in games have suffocated under the thematic weight of trying to include pointless-but-cool elements right there in the core mechanics of the game.
The remaining items all seem fairly obvious, but the number of crap tie-in games on the market attests to the wisdom of spelling them out. The most obvious is that taking the above steps isn’t going to save you if your game design is crap in the first place – in other words, don’t throw the basic principles of good design out of the window in the effort to make your game tie in to the theme. Another is that the core mechanics of your game need to make some effort to reflect the situation present in your inspirational story. The reason that the idea of Star Wars Monopoly inspires such extreme revulsion isn’t just because it’s another Monopoly clone. No, extra horror is added to the concept because it should be obvious to anyone who’s seen more than 10 minutes of one of the films that the story has nothing to do with property trading, making this an especially cynical cash-in.
I thought it worth mentioning that there might actually be other games worthy to wear the mantle of a genuine story continuation tie-in game. One I have never played, even though I own a copy, is A Game of Thrones. I’d be interested to hear from fans of the game whether it ties in with the criteria I’ve identified.
So now, armed with my perfect set of criteria for a cracking storytelling game I’m off to design the official boardgame to be based on the final book of the series. I’d let you in to the secrets, but of course I’m desperately concerned that you’ll steal my ideas off me. Well actually I’m far too lazy to bother doing the real work but the concept is there and explaining it would involve far too many plot spoilers for the book than I’m willing to risk revealing to potential readers. If that’s enough detail to convince any would-be publishers to get in touch, then please post in the comments thread :).
This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments .