Have We Entered an Era of Bad Literary Adaptations as Video Games?

I would love to know what’s going on over at Namco. It’s bad enough that they’ve released three titles with astonishingly similar gameplay in the last few months — Enslaved, Majin, and now Knights Contract— but the shameless way in which two of those three pay homage to classic literature has me questioning the taste level of its developers.

Both Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Knights Contract make deliberate allusions to classic fiction, the Chinese novel Journey to the West and German poet Goethe’s epic Faust respectively. Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, while not appearing to be based on any specific story, also alludes to the mythic traditions of several South American cultures. The way that these story elements get worked into the game differs from title to title but there is a remarkable continuity among the three in which an AI-managed tagalong character is in essence the center of the game’s narrative thrust, while the player character is merely his or her protector or harbinger. This serves the function of deemphasizing the player-character as a source of agency while emphasizing their role as enactor, much like the situation that Janet Murray presaged with her Tinkerbell scenario in Hamlet on the Holodeck (“Immersion”, pp.100-125. MIT Press, 1997).

The problem, unlike Murray’s example of the Peter Pan play, is that the referents in Enslaved and Knights Contract are muddled beyond all recognition. By simply assigning names like “Monkey” and “Tripitaka” to characters as far removed as these areligious inhabitants of a science fictional dystopia are from their source material ignores a great deal of the context Journey to the West occupies. Simply put, Journey to the West is not merely about a journey and to suggest that it is ignores the larger sociopolitical and religious condition in which the original legend is fixed — much like when a lot of otherwise areligious Western narratives throw in displaced Christian allegories. Though in Enslaved‘s case, you can’t say that the allusions are simply part of the Western culture of narrative, as allegories for Christ often are. Alex Garland was not pulling Enslaved‘s references out of a culturally embedded narrational subconscious; his writing represents intentional lifting from an older, culturally distinct literary source.

The moral ramifications of appropriating culture-bound histories and myths is not even at issue here. Transcultural remixing can be used to fantastically creative ends, as we’ve seen with something like Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008). The problem instead lies in taking these literary allusions and making the specific things that they allude to incoherent. Son Wukong might be the Great Sage whose servitude to Tripitaka becomes a way to redeem himself in the eyes of a distrustful, politicized Heaven, but Monkey is just a hypermasculinized generic entity existing to strong arm the situation.

But even Enslaved is a sterling example of literary adaptation done right compared to Knights Contract, which takes the interpersonal relationships established by Goethe’s Faust and throws them all out the window. We often talk about Japanese narratives as postmodern pastiche, but while I’d like to avoid getting into the complexities of race and culture politics, dismissing postmodern remixing as just what Japanese stories do excuses Knights Contract‘s gibberish as much as saying “Americans always have to rewrite stories to be about white people” justifies Enslaved.

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo, 2001, acrylic on canvas mounted on board, 141 3/4 x 212 5/8 x 2 5/8 in.

Takashi Murakami has made a career on creating postmodern works that are themselves, a critique of the shallowness of popular art. One only has to look at Murakami’s enormous wall-filling canvases of bulbous cartoon shapes and hyperdistorted bodies to know that this juxtaposition of overcomplexity and arbitrariness does not give way to meaning, but rather to an enormous, even nightmarish, void of meaning.

Unfortunately, most media-makers are not endowed with this degree of self awareness. What does it mean in Knights Contract that Gretchen has gone from Faust’s innocent paramour turned fallen single mother to a moralizing nature healer recruiting her own executioner to subvert Faust the generic archvillain? What does it mean that Faust’s first name, Heinrich, is now the name of Gretchen’s protector, when the duality between Faust and him is scant at best? What does it mean that the entire thrust of the narrative has shifted from Faust’s exploits in recanting and then returning to faith to Gretchen as the central figure, only to entirely replace Gretchen’s original plight with some needlessly absurd fabrication about vengeful witches? Allusions these may be, but allegories they are not.

If this is what we have to look forward to in the genre of literary adaptation games, can you blame certain critics for their skepticism? There was a time, following EA’s announcement of Dante’s Inferno, when many critical outlets questioned the motivations behind “updating” literature to the standards and iconography that core gamers are used to. By and large, those anxieties have fallen a bit to the wayside, but perhaps Enslaved and Knights Contract can serve as a reminder that there’s still plenty to fear.

Like many theorists, I’m not against the concept of games deriving their inspiration from literature. Although the resulting works that I’ve seen so far haven’t particularly enthused me — even Braid, whose great spans of literary text seem out of place in a medium far more preoccupied with seeing and doing. Nevertheless, the potential is certainly there even if the execution may lie in places other than the most obvious. Simply taking names and settings and pumping them full of testosterone and generic ludic cues, however, just reduces the entire exercise to a farce.

Pride: Ampersand Prejudice by Fireholly