With the world on lockdown, with increasingly stringent restrictions in place on our daily lives, video games may seem to be a strange answer to the world’s problems, but there’s no doubt that they will play a role. But at the risk of sounding like an old man, there’s only so long in a day that I spend staring at a screen, at the risk of developing square eyes, as my mother used to say. Now, I am, and have always been as long as I can remember, a very keen reader. If only there was a way to combine my love of reading with my love of video games, and somehow shoehorn my love of writing into an article. What’s that? There are novels based on popular gaming franchises? Hold my coat, I’m going in!
A little disclaimer before I do go in however: this article is based on the gaming books that are on my bookshelves, and is in no way a complete list. There are many, many, many more books out there that I haven’t read, I’m sure, so please don’t take this as an exhaustive list of gaming books. With that out of the way, in we go as we take a look at some of the best novels based on games.
1Gears of War
Gears of War is, on the face of it, a perfect gaming franchise for having its universe expanded.
In the first game, we have to rescue Marcus from the notorious Slab prison, and re-enlist him into the COG. Why was he there? What happened to him while he was in there? How did he get that massive scar down his face? What about what happened to Marcus and Dom before the Locust emerged, way back into the days of the Pendulum Wars?
Well, all these questions and more are answered in a series of books by an author called Karen Traviss. She was given access to the whole operation back when Cliffy B was in charge at Epic Games, with the stories of the games being laid bare to her, letting her take the narrative ball and run with it. From operations in the Pendulum Wars, when Dom was a commando and involved in some very dangerous missions, to his relationship with Victor Hoffman, to how Hoffman gained his reputation for winning at all costs, to how Marcus fared in prison… all this is explained in loving detail in her five books.
She really got under the skin of Marcus in particular, giving life to what, let’s be honest, was a fairly one dimensional character, at least in the first game. As the series went on, we see more of the human side of Delta Squad, except for Baird, obviously. Who can forget Dom finding his wife, or Dom’s heroic sacrifice in the third game, as an example. What the novels did is take the story of the games, expand it and flesh it out – in the process creating some very memorable moments. It’s never going to be studied in university the way Shakespeare and Dickens is, of course, but not everything needs be high brow to be fun.
With the new generation of Gears heroes, JD, Kait et al, a new author has stepped up to bear the mantle of writing stories from the Gears Universe. Jason M Hough has one book under his belt already – Gears of War: Ascendance , and his new novel, Gears of War: Bloodlines is currently in my hot little hands as we speak – keep your eyes peeled for a review soon.
With the new broom, so to speak, the focus has shifted away from Marcus’s generation to his son and his friends, and their histories. With troubled pasts, particularly with JD opening fire on unarmed civilians in the not so distant past, these threads are woven together very skillfully in the novels so far, and I am looking forward to seeing what happens in the future under his stewardship.
With there also being a series of graphic novels based in the Pendulum Wars to read, coming from DC, there is no shortage of material to read and expand your knowledge about the Gears universe. And if you are anything like me, these novels will help to fill in holes in the story, and when you do replay the games, as I do fairly regularly, the way that the books help to flesh out the story is very welcome indeed.
The Assassin’s Creed games cover another franchise that would benefit from some extra exposition, as the universe that is created is a large, rich and complicated one. Aliens, artifacts, assassins and, just to ruin my alliterative flow, Templars make for a compelling mix. Having some backstory would be a welcome diversion.
I do have a confession to make about the Assassin’s Creed games though, and please don’t judge me, but here goes: I have never finished a single game in the series. Some, like Assassin’s Creed 3, I haven’t even played. The most I completed was the second game, as I found the character of Ezio, with his friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, very interesting. I can’t say why I never stuck with a game long enough to finish it, but the fact stands. So, luckily for me in this case I guess, the novels based on the games are pretty much just a retelling of the events that happen in the games.
There is a book for each of the games, except for the newest three, strangely, all by the same author, a chap by the name of Oliver Bowden. What he does is tell the story of the games, but obviously with more access to the characters’ inner voices, fleshing out their motivations more. For instance, the story of Ezio’s mother and sister is explored in more detail, as his sister in particular grows to become a valuable ally, despite learning a lot of what she knows from the madames of brothels!
These books, while sticking fairly rigidly to the games on which they are based, do however provide some welcome relief from the real world in these difficult times, and honestly I can’t think of a better use for fiction than that.
And then if you want to go even further, you’ve also got the likes of Titan Books’ Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide and the smaller Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection from Hachette Partworks.
Could there be a better match than a novel featuring the rich and varied universe of Bioware’s Dragon Age games?
Well, how about if the author of the books worked for Bioware, having access to the whole team who were putting together the games? David Gaider, the author of the Dragon Age novels I am currently looking at, had these advantages and put them to great use.
He took a similar approach to the authors of the Gears of War novels, taking the universe that had been created and then expanding it, creating stories that complement those in the games but not being based on any of them. The first book I read of his series, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, is a prequel to the first game, showing how Loghain came to change from friend to foe, and how the whole span of the story came about. As these things often are, in both real life and games, the falling out between Loghain and his King, Maric, was based on their shared love of a woman, and the choices that she had to make for the good of the country and the kingdom.
Other novels in the series are based around the Grey Wardens, who are pretty much the heroes of the story arc. As anyone who has played the games will know, the way that Grey Wardens get their powers is to drink the blood of Darkspawn – a process that kills many potential recruits. A side effect is that as the Warden ages they start to be affected more and more by the blood they imbibed, and at the end of their lives they are required to go into the tunnels and mines under the country, the Deep Roads, and fight Darkspawn until they are killed.
In the second novel, a commander of the Grey Wardens makes the journey, only to be swayed by an intelligent Darkspawn, who wins her around with debate and argument instead of violence, with predictably disastrous consequences. The third book that was written by Gaider is called Asunder, and deals with the difficult relationship between the Mages and the Templars who guard/control them.
With David Gaider being the lead writer for the games, it’s clear that he has a deep and passionate understanding of the world of the games, and the way he expands on them and adds to the story and the understanding of certain events in the game series is masterful.
I have a lot of time for the scarier games in the Xbox’s huge library, as my next two entries will show.
When you think of scary games on the Xbox, and I mean properly scary, not just blood and gore scary, then Visceral’s Dead Space games have to come high up the list. What could be more horrific than creatures that used to be human, but that have been twisted and mutated into monsters, and that can only be killed by dismembering then? The games were very creepy and jump inducing, featuring terrifying creatures jumping out of darkened corners, until every sound had you twitching at the prospect of another monster trying to bite your face off.
Trying to reproduce that feeling in a book would be a tricky prospect, and so that’s not what B.K. Evenson, author of two Dead Space novels, tried to do.
No, the approach he took was different, focussing on the Marker, the strange alien artifact that seems to have been at the root of all the trouble. He wrote two novels, Martyr and Catalyst, and while there are others available that bear the Dead Space name, I haven’t read them and so cannot comment. However, the two that I have read are more suspense novels than out and out horror.
The novels deal with an outbreak, to give it a name that has a lot of resonance right now, and the events that lead up to that point. In both novels, the Necromorphs don’t really come into it until the last third of the books, but the rest of the story is so well written that the eventual appearance of the bad guys feels almost like a natural evolution. The Marker, the effect it has not only on people’s bodies but their minds as well, the worship of the Markers, and the cults that arise all are dealt with in these books, rather than blood and gore everywhere, and I for one actually appreciate them more because of this approach.
It would be easy to describe a Necromorph pulling someone’s arm off and beating them to death with it, but to describe how minds are warped as the Markers influence grows? That is harder, but Mr Evenson makes it seem easy.
An evil corporation, a mutating virus and tons of zombies. What more do you need to make a great game? Well, not much it turns out.
Ever since my first experience of playing Resident Evil (or Biohazard as it was called on my grey import, Japanese version of the game where you had to part boot the Playstation before ripping the disc out and swapping it for the game disc) in Japanese, in the dark, I’ve loved every entry in the franchise – even the dodgy light gun games. The moment those dogs break through the window in the first game means the feeling of fright has never left me, and to this day I jump every time, even when I know it’s coming.
I also have to acknowledge that, to me, the best Resident Evil games were the early ones, before the series later relied on becoming a third person action game, rather than survival horror.
Anyway, with the building blocks I outlined at the top of this section, the game is ripe for a fictional approach to be taken, and luckily people have done just that. The example on my shelves is by an author named S.D. Perry, and it follows the exploits of the S.T.A.R.S. team, led at first by Albert Wesker, and the way they deal with the outbreak. She went on to write seven books between 1998 and 2004, with some being new, original works, such as Caliban Cove and Zero Hour, which are set around the events of the games and seem to focus on Rebecca Chambers, a peripheral character in the games.
Other novels, such as Nemesis and Code: Veronica, are novelisations of the story in the games. Again, these books offer a window into the wider world of the Resident Evil storyline, filling in blanks that were left in the narrative. For example, although I remember searching a desk 50 times in Resident Evil 2 to find a picture of Rebecca Chambers, she didn’t make much impact on me until I was able to see the story through her eyes, thanks to the writing of Ms Perry.
Seeing the outbreak in Raccoon City from a fresh perspective is always fun, and while these books aren’t the longest I’ve ever read, they do contain a good amount of action, and so I have no hesitation in recommending them to any Resident Evil fans out there.
So there we go then – this was a trawl through my bookshelves in order to recommend some reads for you all to enjoy, to help waste away the hours spent in jolly isolation. But how about you guys? Do you have any particular favourites in the gaming fiction genre you feel like sharing? What do you think we should be reading? Let us know in the comments!