If you want an example of how well a public domain property can be turned into an iconic video game character, look no further than the Castlevania series. While the first Castlevania game had Simon Belmont fighting against a whole army of classic horror fiction monsters, Dracula was still that game’s big bad and it didn’t take long for the series’ fiction to be built around him as the primary source of evil. Even though Count Dracula is one of the most popular and re-used fictional characters in history, his various incarnations throughout the Castlevania series have still felt fresh and not at all like stunt casting. What helps that, of course, is the lack in the Castlevania games of any appearance by the characters that typically accompany Dracula stories in other media, like Jonathon Harkin, Van Helsing, et al. To be fair, some Castlevania characters are distant relatives/ancestors/descendants of those people, but they’re never playable characters or featured prominently in the events of the games themselves.
I’m actually a bit surprised at how relatively little game developers dip into the well of public domain characters when creating games. Let’s be honest: isn’t as if video games are renowned for featuring nothing but completely original characters, and even when they do, they are often very unabashedly inspired by existing characters. Some of the most beloved “original” video game characters are basically tributes to beloved movie characters: Would we have a Lara Croft or a Nathan Drake without Indiana Jones, for instance? Or a Big Boss/Solid Snake without Snake Plissken? Without 70s and 80s action movies, who knows where video game designers would’ve turned for the entire first wave of human game characters. The point is, games are inspired by outside sources, and that’s perfectly okay. Video games are a little late to the character creation party, and movies, books, comics, et al had decades—if not centuries—to get a head start on covering most of the archetype bases, so we can’t really be too hard on video game makers for not completely reinventing the wheel with the characters they’ve created thus far.
Of course, there’s the matter of video games that are directly based on existing characters, be it a movie, a comic book, or whatever. And in some cases, video games have already brought public domain properties into digital form beyond the great Count Dracula. We’ve had video games based on Conan the Barbarian, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, and others. And video game makers have done some really interesting things with those properties, such as American McGee’s Tim Burton-esque take on Alice and Wonderland—about 15 years before Burton did his own Burton-esque take on it. But far too often, when video games go the public domain route, it feels like it was shoehorned into a generic game that didn’t warrant a “real” licenses. A recent example of that is the 2007 Conan video game, which received only lukewarm reviews and poor sales and was generally considered to be a second-rate God of War rip-off. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, as taking a public domain franchise allows you full creative freedom but also no license holders to maintain quality control, the latter of which is often to a game’s detriment.
The other problem is that so many public domain properties are available that have either never had a video game adaptation, or have had very few (and most of them were early generic platform games), with the same few being all that are ever utilized in gaming. The story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster could use a modern reinterpretation on the level of American McGee’s Alice, where the player could either play on the “bad side” as Frankenstein and the monster, or they could serve as an interesting antagonist to the player’s character(s). Ditto for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which could be a game where the player is forced to alternate between hero and villain as the doctor’s personalities shift back and forth. I also think a Don Quixote game could be really fascinating, where the player sees the world through Quixote’s eyes and actually sees the windmills as the monsters. The works of William Shakespeare also provide a vast amount of material on which to build interesting game experiences, much in the same way that Akira Kurosawa brilliantly retold many Shakespeare stories as samurai epics.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Rather than just continue to make games that are thinly veiled re-tellings of classic movies, or licensing the same obvious comic book characters, there are a lot of great characters out there for the (free) taking that can be translated into interesting video games. And in some cases, it would be reviving properties that have largely—and unfortunately—been forgotten by the world in general. Maybe a video game is just what some of these stagnant properties need in order to be relevant again—and maybe the video game adaptation could become their most iconic version. When you picture Frankenstein, you most likely picture the classic Universal movie version. How great would it be the most iconic image of a classic character like Dr. Jekyll, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Long John Silver, Beowulf, Gulliver, Dorian Gray, or Tom Sawyer was its video game version? With the right game, it could definitely happen.