Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 2

Writing about writing adaptations prompted telling replies from Carl Klutzke and Jonathan King.  Klutzke related some of his adventures (and misadventures) with adaptations while King delineated his appreciation for Battlestar Galactica.  These posts prompted me to wonder how other adaptations in other media are received by their audiences.

Unsurprisingly, most web posts on the subject focus on cinematic adaptations.  Fortunately for us, many core concepts in that medium apply to ours as well.


Jimmy-Akin150Jimmy Akin considered these issues from the eyes of a film critic in his What is a good adaptation? Regarding whether films should be judged differently if they are adaptations “Fans of the work being adapted often have a simple answer: A good adaptation is faithful to the original…[but] what constitutes ‘fidelity?’ Does fidelity mean following the original exactly, or are departures allowed? What sort of departures?”  Akin goes on to assert “a good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.”

Akin is on to something here.  Consider some of the themed games you’ve played which had no connection to the source material.  Even if the game were good, knowledge of the theme did nothing to enhance your experience as a player.  But we must acknowledge that the primary market for an adaptation is a fan of the source material.  That fan wants their familiarity with the original material to make a difference–to enhance her appreciation of the game.

michelle-kerns_largeMichelle Kerns extends this argument in her thoughtful 2009 essay What makes a good book to movie adaptation? Five great bookish movies….and five lousy ones that “This mystical combination is not the result of portraying the characters, plot, or setting with religious devotion. The key to a great book to movie adaptation lies in the film’s success at concentrating and magnifying the feelings readers have when they read the book.”  She then goes on to assert that a good adaptation should “boil the book down until the best parts are concentrated together in a way that multiplies what made the book great powerful and emotional enough to jump out from the screen and grab people who’ve never even thought of reading the book.”

Ashley RossAshley Ross’ Time Magazine article How to Turn a Great Book Into a Movie That Isn’t Terrible points to the importance of collaboration: “The difficulty of capturing that essence can be alleviated, though, when authors have a hand in the screenplay” and I couldn’t agree more.  We designers should urge our creators to be collaborators, to share their vision of characters and setting, of tone and pace.

Marshall_McLuhan_holding_a_mirrorThis is not to say that converting a property into a game doesn’t require concession from the creator as well; it certainly does.  As Marshall McLuhan asserted, the medium is the message–a game delivers story to its players not only by the content delivered in the game, but also by the characteristics of games themselves.

Consider some of the themed games you’ve played which had excellent connection to the source material but were terrible games.  Knowledge of the theme might have enhanced your experience but only enough to make that experience less bad, not enough to make it good.  We are creating game adaptations.  They must be good games.  They must take advantage of the features of our medium–player engagement through meaningful decision, active participation in the game’s story.

It is not enough for an adaptation to be a good game NOR is it sufficient for one to be loyal to the source material.  The adaptations we write must both be good games AND serve the source material.  These concepts will all need to be kept in mind as we begin discussing the process of creating an adaptation.

For further thoughts on this subject, steer your browser to James Hunt’s Top 25 underappreciated comic book movies does a solid job of looking beyond the surface of Hollywood’s torrid relationship with spandex at the films which were able to convey the core of the original text while still effectively serving their own medium.  The medium is the message indeed.  Besides, Hunt’s inclusion of some of the best non-action comic adaptations of all time–American Splendor, Persepolis and Ghost World earned him a special shout out.  Well done, Mr. Hunt.

What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.


Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 1

Comicpalooza was a few weekends ago here in Houston.  I seized the opportunity to approach several comic book creators, discussing with each an opportunity for game tie-ins to their comics.  The idea of having a new way to market their property excited several of these creators and we arranged to discuss these ideas further after the con.

Why seek these meetings?  Why write adaptations at all?  With a rewarding day job and no particular desire to abandon it for the life of a full-time designer, I am free to pursue any project that interests me.  Why specifically seek to attach my name to comic books, television shows or movies? Why not stick to proven game design ground–the politics of medieval Italy, trade in the Mediterranean sea, castle construction? Why should any designer take the risk of writing a game adaptation?

The answer lies in the summer of 2003. Kevin Horovitz and I were hanging out and generally shooting the breeze. Kevin noted that an excellent opportunity for game design to move forward was lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.  He pointed out that many American games of the time were endowed with highly marketable themes but mediocre (or worse) game design.  German games by contrast had superior design but  mediocre (or worse) themes.  How wonderful would it be for someone to put modern designers together with marketable themes.  Such games might change the public image of games for the coming generation.  This idea has been floating around my head ever since.

Kevin’s dream has begun coming true.  Today we have designers like Brian Yu, and Rob Daviau who have actively promoted good tie-in design through works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman: Gotham City Mystery.  Today we have solid tie-ins like Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones.

But for each Star Wars: Epic Duels or Spartacus, we still have hundreds of thin paste-ups with no ambition greater than cashing in.  These are the muggers of the game market, assaulting the buying public with a famous theme and disappearing with their cash, leaving them disappointed and sour to our beloved hobby.

So how do we do it right?  How do we go about creating the Spy vs Spy Boardgame rather than the Full House Boardgame?

Having written a few of tie-in games and worked with a few different IP holders, here are some starting thoughts.  Like many other topics, it is one to which we will be returning.


What To Adapt?

There are a huge number of properties in the world. You could easily spend the rest of your design career writing them. How should you select the right one? Before approaching any creator, three major potentials should be considered: (1) Can the fan base win? (2) Can the creator win?(3) Can you win?

The Fan Base Wins

The ideal property has an enthusiastic fan base. Offer those fans a new experience with the characters they love. Give them a new way to engage with those characters. Let them feel the setting. Let them be the characters. Achieve this and they will eagerly support your product.  If so, the fan base wins.



The Creator Wins

Many creators now work for themselves rather than for any large publishing firm.  They believe in their artistic vision and are willing to take the risk and bring their vision to the world.  Can your design create a new way to reach their fans?  Might fans of your work come check out the creator’s work? Will the added revenue stream helps keep them in the black, able to continue doing the work they love. If so, the creator wins.


You Win

Just like the creators, most of us game designers work for ourselves.  Very few do it for the money.  We know the joy a fun game can bring. One of the greatest rewards for a game designer is seeing players that joy. Can this property bring new players to your vision? Does this property give you the opportunity to expand your catalogue? To write the type of game you’ve always wanted? To push your favorite type of game into new thematic territory?  If so, the you win.


Fan base wins. The creator wins.  You win.  These are the reasons to seek before pursuing an adaptation. Next time, we begin discussing the actual process of creating an adaptation.

What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.