The Ryan Lambie column: the dawn of literary videogames

Ryan's balancing act between high and low culture might be coming to an end as the two meet - in the form of a videogame based on Kafka. Weird...


I sometimes feel as though my life is like a game of intellectual snakes and ladders. I’m constantly striving to be a more mature, cerebral grown up, to play videogames less and spend more time reading. I’ll sit and thoroughly enjoy, say, Sartre’s La Nausée or Camus’ The Outsider, and I’ll feel all clever and filled with a warm glow of superiority. But then I’ll get sidetracked by eBay and the Wii and World’s Craziest Car Chases, and I’m back to square one again, trapped in my garret of doltishness.

You’re probably wondering why I’d start a videogame column with a paragraph like that. What has my intellectual vanity got to do with gaming? Well, I’ve just found out that the makers of Killer 7 may be about to combine my two favourite pastimes.

According to a popular gaming website, Japanese developer Suda 51 is creating Kurayami (meaning Darkness) for the PS3, a game based on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Now I don’t know if you’ve read the novel, but if you haven’t, there are two reasons why this is a seriously odd choice:

1. The book was never properly finished.

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2. Nothing ever actually happens.

It’s certainly not like basing your game on a Tom Clancy novel, for example, where people get shot all the time, submarines get stolen or things explode, or any of the dramatic events you’d normally associate with videogames.

The Castle is about a land surveyor (known simply as K.), who is summoned to a strange remote village for some purpose that he never fully works out, and his attempts to gain access to the titular citadel are constantly thwarted by strange, bureaucratic officials and paperwork until, after many, many chapters, the book ends. Mid-sentence.

What keeps the novel interesting is Kafka’s typically hypnotic, opaque style of writing – and it’ll be fascinating to see if Suda 51 can translate this to the videogame medium. If the gleeful weirdness of Killer 7 and No More Heroes is anything to go by, he’s probably the only game designer in the world capable of pulling it off.

And who knows, maybe this will trigger a whole wave of games based on slightly esoteric 20th century literary masterpieces. Kafka’s Metamorphosis would make a superb XBLA platform game, with the player controlling the giant man/insect protagonist – and the apple-throwing father would make an ideal end of level boss. Similarly, The Trial (by the same author) could be made into the bleakest RPG ever created.

Or why not make a game based on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a book so wilfully obscure even individual sentences (and sometimes words) don’t make a jot of sense? For the uninitiated, here’s a random quote (and no, I haven’t read the whole book):

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“It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funanimal world.”

To simulate the source material’s bewildering nature, the game’s controls could change randomly, or maybe the game could spontaneously switch genres, or just crash entirely.

When you really start to think about it, the possibilities for literary novel to videogame conversions are endless – how about a homoerotic beat-em-up based on D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love, or a survival horror game based on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies?

With literary connections, certain games may eventually be accepted by the intellectual elite – they’d be critiqued and argued over on Newsnight Review by Kirsty Wark and Germaine Greer, the same as ballet or theatre or art.

Of course, with all this high regard would come pretentiousness, and everybody would be too scared to admit that they didn’t particularly like – or even understand – Konami’s latest FPS based on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, or Square Enix’s RPG adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in the same way that nobody in the art community will admit that, really, Damien Hirst’s stuff is a load of bobbins.

Thinking about it, maybe Suda 51 shouldn’t make Kurayami after all…

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Ryan Lambie writes every week at Den of Geek; you’ll find his last column here