Video Games Should Better-Utilize Public Domain Characters

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief

 

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.

American McGee's Alice

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.

Akira Kurosawa - Ran

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.

___________

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Video Games Should Better-Utilize Public Domain Characters

  1. I vote for Beckford’s Vathek. That’s a character that should be better utilized in EVERY sort of media, given that it offers a broadside of crazy ideas and possibilites only rivaled by works like Alice in Wonderland.
    Oh, and Poe. Even the mere quotation at the beginning of Eternal Darkness was amazing. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean. Most “horror games” successfully left true horror behind.
        One problem with Poe would be that his horror is more of a psychological nature, and that’s a direction video games unfortunately neglected to explore further. Eternal Darkness did some interesting things and the enigmatic Wii project “Sadness” was very promising in theory, but over the last 10 years the industry didn’t make much progress in developing psychologically engaging games.
        In the domain of film or audio book, there are already decent attempts of combining several short stories of Poe into one greater narrative (something a video game necessarily would need to do as well). Or some indie adventure game based on Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym… Damn, even a mere point’n’click adventure would have great potential!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed ‘Sherlock Holmes: crimes and punishments’ last year (looking forward to ‘the devils daughter’), so it can be done, but I agree that often it is a poor attempt, and that could be a reflection of their public domain status (ie. It’s seen as an easy target).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. As it stands, Around the World in 80 Days’ sole video game representation is the GBA game that tied into the Jackie Chan movie. Jules Verne deserves better than that. And moreover, that’s pop culture’s most recent adaptation of that book in general. A great game could change that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t seen the Chan movie, but I did see that older one that was on Netflix, from the 60’s or so, methinks. Heck, a lot of Verne’s work would be awesome if properly adapted. Just don’t let someone Burtonize it like they did to poor Alice! Not my jam lol

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Right?! See, the thing is Alice in Wonderland was the first novel I proudly finished on my ownsome as a wee lad. I was extremely excited when they announced they were making that first Burton film. Then I saw it and felt like I had been urinated on. It was embarrassing to take my baby brother to. I think Burton and Depp both need a time out. Not a fan of predictable creep-factor and his limited color-palette.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s