Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Witcher: how you can (and can’t) adapt famous fantasies into games

When 12-year-old Christian Cantamessa sat up in bed and read The Lord of the Rings, he never imagined he would one day have the opportunity to create his own story set in Tolkien’s world with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Brad Kane, walking down the aisle on his wedding day to the Game of Thrones theme song, also couldn’t imagine himself writing a Westerosi story of his own through the Telltale series. And the same goes for Marcin Blacha and Magdalena Zych of CD Projekt Red, who as children read Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books: Wiedźmin in the original Polish, where it’s practically required reading.

Each of these writers has created video game stories set in established and beloved fantasy epics, but even though the opportunities to do so are fantasies themselves (genuine dreams coming true), there are myriad challenges and pressures that come with it. .

Shadow of Mordor Bright Lord – Photo Mode Screens

Take The Lord of the Rings, for example. JRR Tolkien created a whole plane of existence with its own history, myth, politics, etc. He made it through not only the main series of novels, but also through countless smaller stories and unfinished tales, not to mention the myriad of adaptations that have added layers upon layers of lore.

Monolith Productions’ Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place amidst this complex web and lead writer Christian Cantamessa worked with the Tolkien Estate (the legal body that controls the late author’s work) along with a writer who worked on the film adaptations. of Peter Jackson and a literal Lord. of the scholar of the Rings to create an accurate history. “It was helpful to say, ‘hey, what you’re doing here isn’t going to work because this happens here or there’s a statement in the book that contradicts it,’ and we never wanted that,” says Cantamessa. .

A similar process is managed at CD Projekt Red, developer of The Witcher, as senior writer Magdalena Zych says staying true to the source material – a collection of eight novels dating back decades – is almost as important as creating a strong story. first. “Obviously we add to the material, we expand on it, sometimes we even change it, but the latter is never accidental,” she says. “It is vital that we keep the world of The Witcher intact, otherwise we would waste it and ruin what makes it so compelling: its integrity.

“When it comes to RPGs, the most important thing is the story,” Zych continues. “Regardless of what it is based on, it must first be mature, engaging, immersing the player, offering the right mix of emotions and presenting them with options that seem impossible to make. But staying true to the source material is a close second, especially when working on such a beloved franchise.”

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creative bureaucracy

Staying true to the source material can also be limiting, according to Brad Kane, co-writer of several Telltale Game of Thrones episodes and a canceled second season. Kane was a fan of the series for a long time, even before the hit HBO show, and says it was a dream come true to be immersed in Westeros and Essos every day. But having to write within someone else’s world was “probably more limiting and constraining than liberating,” he says.

“On more than one occasion we had pretty good ideas that HBO came back and said we couldn’t do, and it’s partly because that’s where they were going with the story. There was a very funny idea presented at the beginning of the program by [fellow writer] Meghan Thornton about this whole thread involving an ice dragon in the far north,” Kane explains. The Telltale series premiered in 2014, the same year that HBO premiered the fourth season of Game of Thrones and, therefore, spoilers, three years before he created his own ice dragon.

Of course, there are strategies to avoid stepping on toes in general, Kane says, and the main one implemented by the Telltale team was finding a minor starting point from George RR Martin’s novels that could then be used to create a space. new. The main characters in the game are from House Forrester, a family that is only mentioned once, and very briefly, in the books. “We didn’t intentionally go into any deeply established strongholds,” explains Kane. “We needed the freedom to create a sandbox game, have characters that could live or die, and do something that felt original within the world.

“We really can’t change much from Daenerys Targaryen or Tyrion Lannister,” he continues. “They’re known quantities, and we’re at a certain time period in the show’s timeline, so there’s not much we can do about where they’ve been and where they’re going. The challenge was how to make them not become these powerful and immovable forces of characters, but rather, have something that we could interact with and be part of the game experience.

Taking this gameplay into account is another critical part of a video game writer’s job, Cantamessa explains, as the task is much more complex than just writing a plot synopsis and a handful of cutscenes. Creating a character that fits perfectly into the story and world of the source material is not enough. “It also needs to serve a function for the game,” says Cantamessa, “and juggling all these things is a little more difficult.

“They have to be able to fit within the mechanics of that kind of story and that adds additional guidance. Once all those guidelines are in place, then you have a little bit of wiggle room, but you don’t have a lot.”

Room for maneuver

The main antagonist of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Black Hand of Sauron, is an example of the combination of these concepts, as Cantamessa explains how he and the writing team took a small starting point from the Lord of the Rings books. of the Rings and gave the character a purpose within his game. “That was actually [creative director Michael de Plater’s] idea, to personify a line in the book that refers to the black hand of Sauron.”

Although there is debate as to whether this line was referring to a literal body part or something else, the writing team adapted it to mean that “the Black Hand of Sauron is someone who is doing his bidding,” says Cantamessa. “We embodied the spirit that Tolkien was trying to convey with that sentence, with that paragraph, with that page of history.”

Some characters are a bit more obvious, he added, such as Gollum’s inclusion as a quest giver, though even this was thought through to ensure he would be in the right place at the right time in the larger Lord of the Rings story.

Using these familiar characters can often make a writer’s job easier according to The Witcher story director Marcin Blacha, and seeing familiar faces also helps establish the game’s authenticity in the wider lore. “There are three pillars to The Witcher books: characters, an original take on fantasy tropes, and the dialogue it has with our reality,” he says. “In an adaptation, it makes it easier for narrative teams because they can start working on a story with characters and the relationships between them without having to create or discover those relationships from scratch.”

Staying true to the source material

Although CD Projekt Red has implemented a strategy similar to Cantamessa’s Black Hand of Sauron with characters like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings’ Iorveth, who is only vaguely mentioned a few times in the books, they also promised to bring beloved characters straight from Sapkowski’s pages. This is headlined, of course, by the protagonist Geralt of Rivia, but the stories of Yennefer, Dandelion, Ciri, and many more have been extended in the game series.

Regis is another main character who was brought back in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Blood and Wine expansion, and one who (again, spoilers) died at the end of the main saga of the novels. “Having it regenerate and come back to life in the relatively short period of time between [the books] and Blood and Wine may have been a bit of a stretch in terms of The Witcher lore, but it was worth it,” says Zych.

“Of course with Regis we didn’t have the freedom [like] when it came to writing Iorveth: Regis was already a very different character, very well developed, and we had to be extremely careful to do him justice. The way he looks, the way he talks, his friendship with Geralt, the way he thinks, his points of view: everything had to be like in the books, otherwise he wouldn’t be himself.” .

While the end result is incredibly rewarding, getting there is tough, and it’s no wonder a writer isn’t incredibly eager to take on a project with so many rules behind it, not to mention impeccable prestige. This was certainly the case for Cantamessa before he began work on Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, who admitted that he was hesitant to write within a franchise as beloved and artistically hallowed as The Lord of the Rings.

“On one hand, I’m like, ‘hey, this can be done, it’s been done, it’s really hard and I’d love to do it,’” he says. “On the other hand, as a hobbyist, but also as a normally anxious person, I am very afraid that they might fail and that I might do a bad job and then not so much that it would reflect negatively on me, it was just something that very passionate. When you’re a fan of something, you want to make sure whatever you do doesn’t make things worse.”

Fortunately for Cantamessa, the game was very well received, so much of that pressure was removed. “As big fans, we certainly did our best to be respectful of the material, to create something new and make a good game,” he says.

Images of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

But what would Tolkien, who died in 1973 and thus long before video games became the narrative mediums they are today, make of his story? “Oh, God,” laughs Cantamessa. “I hope she’s not rolling over in his grave.

“There’s something in the back of my mind that makes me think that Tolkien would be happy with the work that we’ve been doing, that Peter Jackson has been doing and, frankly, all the newspapers have been doing.

“In one of his letters he says that he was creating this new mythology. And he says that he hoped that some of the parts that he had outlined would come from other minds and fill them with music and drama and poetry.

“Of course, video games didn’t exist, but it makes me think that he was open to this idea that other minds would come in and complete some of these sketches that he had done. He never wrote: ‘I hope nobody touches my things’. So we just take the parts he left sketched out and play with them, and at least I know I haven’t betrayed something he believed in.”

Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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