Books and video games. Two artistic mediums that are not historically compared, not in the same way that books are to movies, or indeed games are to movies. And yet, for countless people, these are two hobbies that overlap beautifully. That goes double for those of us who prefer single-player narrative video games and hate the idea of online play.
For book lovers, few other hobbies seem more appealing than that which allows one the opportunity to dive into a richly detailed world and play out a moving narrative in the shoes of a fictional character.
But what about those book lovers who have always been tempted by video games but don’t know where to begin? You don’t want to play online, play competitively. You want a heavy narrative with big themes. Or a gorgeously realised fantasy or sci-fi world. Maybe you want a linear story, superbly acted, that gives you the same feeling as being truly immersed in the world of your favourite novel. For you, there are plenty of games to scratch that itch. If you’re wondering where to begin with video games for book lovers, here are ten of the most rewarding and involving.
Note: These are not video games based on books (mostly), but rather video games that speak to lovers of literature, either through their themes, stories, or the worlds they build. Some are short and without dialogue; others are sprawling epics. All should appeal to book lovers.
Persona 5 is an immense and absorbing narrative video game epic. A Japanese single-player experience with lofty ideas and an emphasis on forming complex connections with unique and lovable characters.
It’s a role-playing game split in half: by day, you play the role of a student who must study and socialise and explore Tokyo. By night, you’re a Phantom Thief: a vigilante with the power to invade the psyches of corrupt individuals and purify their minds. A relaxed and engrossing life simulator meets a tactical dungeon-crawler with flashy mechanics and a pop-art style.
For readers who love a narrative focussed around a group of friends or a dysfunctional family, Persona 5 offers a diverse cast of young characters for you to form bonds with and develop relationships with. It’s a dialogue-heavy game that has been translated with skill and heart. Perfect for readers who love urban fantasy and a lot of witty, snappy dialogue.
The Witcher 3
I did mention at the top that these are not games based on books but, actually, The Witcher 3 is. Based on a long-running fantasy series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is a trilogy of video games set in a rich and sprawling medieval fantasy world populated by ghosts and monsters.
In this world, you embody protagonist Geralt of Rivia, a mutant mercenary known as a witcher, with the strength to slay demons. The world itself is one of complex political cogs turning this way and that, but with a deep and involving personal narrative that carries Geralt, and you, through this web of politics.
Now, the game everyone recommends is the third one in the series, and they’re right to do so. The first and second are not necessary, hard to get a hold of, and only half as polished as the third. However, there is also a phenomenal spin-off game called Thronebreaker which offers players the chance to play a prequel as a queen entrenched in the political muck that Geralt always exists at the fringes of. While The Witcher 3 is an action RPG, Thronebreaker is a card-based game with a narrative that is easily as involving as that of The Witcher 3.
What Remains of Edith Finch
After watching Knives Out and reading The Honjin Murders, I was eager to find a video game with the same focus on family drama mixed with death and mystery. What I found was a game I’d meant to pick up years ago: What Remains of Edith Finch. This is one of the very best games for book lovers.
This game falls into that genre often cynically called ‘walking simulators’, games with no risk of failure, where the plot unwinds around you as you move through the story. An interactive tale. But Edith Finch is smarter and far more immersive than that. Embodying the titular Edith Finch, you return to her family home as a late-teenager, as she recounts the story of her eccentric family, all of whom have died – often tragically young.
As you move through this strange and crooked house at the edge of a cliff on an island off the coast of Washington state, you learn of the Finches, a Norwegian family with a supposed curse. You visit each bedroom, investigate a shrine to that deceased relative, and then embody them as you play through their final moments. The game uses engrossing mechanics and narrative twists to tell several rapturous tales about a large family of unique individuals. It only takes a handful of hours and should be finished in a single sitting, like a movie.
The Walking Dead & The Wolf Among Us
Two narrative adventure games made by the same video game developer: Telltale. These two games are each based off of a comic book series. The first, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead, and the second The Wolf Among Us is based on Bill Willingham’s Fables.
These are beautifully drawn, cell-shaded video games that tell unique stories within their own comic book-inspired universes. They are all about making choices as you follow the linear narrative of the game. You are constantly moving from conversation to conversation, and making important choices within these moments that will affect how the story goes.
Similar to the choose-your-own-path adventure stories popular with kids in decades past, these video games use wonderful writing to lure you into an engrossing tale which demands that you care for its characters and pay close attention to events as they unfold. These games reinvented the adventure game genre and should be played by comic book fans of all ages.
Here is one of the lesser-known modern narrative video games, released in 2018, that embraces the absurdities of the B-movie style. Similar to The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, The Council is an adventure game all about making choices, but with the added angle that you’re a detective on a kooky island full of iconic real-world historic men.
Depending on the skills you develop, you’ll unlock different dialogue options that will affect the way the story plays out, so this is a game of listening carefully, involving yourself in the story, solving riddles and puzzles, and unfolding a mystery with constantly heightening level of absurdity. The perfect game for fans of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.
Professor Layton Series
Similar to The Council in some ways, the Professor Layton series of games puts you in the role of the British detective. Set around the turn of the 20th century, this is primarily a story-heavy puzzle game. You solve traditional puzzles which come up through the story in adorable and inventive ways, and everything is driven by the plot and its eclectic cast of characters.
What really sells the Professor Layton series is its presentation. These games are gorgeous; a Japanese studio drawing and designing a romanticised Europe with an English detective charming his way across the continent. Characters, setting, and cut scenes are hand drawn in a kind of Tintin style, and Layton himself is so sweet and charming that he carries the story forward. Lovers of classic detective stories will love this adorable series of games.
Flat-out, this is a Nineteen Eighty-Four inspired dystopian video game. It’s short (at just a few hours long), it’s cheap, it’s simple, it has no set-up, no dialogue, and no tangible story to follow. Everything is contextual. You play an anonymous child dropped into a terrifying and bleak dystopian world. He’s being hunted by the authorities and must make his way from left to right.
This is a puzzle platformer game with a very linear progression; you make your way quickly from one area to the next with a sense of dread and urgency that carries you forward. As you keep moving forward, the world around you spells out the story in its design and aesthetics. People acting like robots, an underground laboratory, mind control devices, police using deadly force. This is a dystopian story told entirely through events and visuals.
The gameplay itself is simple enough. All you have to do is figure out the puzzles, climb the things and make a few jumps here and there. None of the puzzles are particularly tough and you can have the game done in a single setting. But this dystopian world is so engrossing and textured that it demands several playthroughs in order to really appreciate the clever and silent dystopia they have built here. Smarter than most narrative video games, this one is about understanding the world through its visuals.
Read More: 9 Translated Dystopian Novels
Final Fantasy IX
Quite honestly, I’ll find any excuse to talk about Final Fantasy IX. This game means the world to me. It had a very big hand in getting me into reading as a teenager. If it wasn’t for this game (and my English teacher) I would not be a voracious reader today. The right video games can, and do, change lives in unexpected ways.
The Final Fantasy series has always been known for its intricate plots, dialogue driven stories, and ragtag casts of characters, but the cast of Final Fantasy IX is second to none. This is the video game for fans of fantasy novels. If you love magic, medieval fantasy, steampunk aesthetics, and stories about thieves, wizards, knights, and monsters, this is the video game for you.
There is, in my humble opinion, no video game with a better combination of top-tier music, character design, art, world design, writing, plot, and narrative. This game has it all, especially for players looking first-and-foremost for a good story in their video games. It’s the easiest Final Fantasy game with a particular focus on character growth, twists and turns, and plot progression. I adore this game more than words can say, and it is easily one of the finest narrative video games ever made.
My other favourite video game of all time is also one that’s perfect for book lovers. Playing this game led me down a deep rabbit hole of reading H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Bloodborne is a game dripping with gothic horror atmosphere.
Heavily Lovecraftian, Bloodborne drops you into a twisted gothic city on the night of the hunt; the streets are crawling with bloodthirsty mobs wielding torches and pitchforks, as well as giant crows that bark and crawl, and enormous ogres. As you move forward, the creep factor rises, and the plot slowly opens up in twisted and monstrous ways.
Despite not being one of the more traditional narrative video games because of its lack of a straightforward narrative, Bloodborne is a game all about atmosphere and setting. The story unfolds by listening to cryptic dialogue and reading item descriptions, but this is far more about the feel of the place, and the unknowable horrors that have taken hold of this world.
Red Dead Redemption 2
For fans of Cormac McCarthy, this is a sprawling cowboy epic set in 1899. The game is mostly praised for its enormous size and scope, and the almost absurdly realistic attention to detail (your protagonist’s hair and beard grow over time, and you must wait in order to change his hairstyle or trim his beard). But the game’s biggest draw, at least, for us lovers of storytelling, is its intensely smart and compelling narrative and dialogue.
This is a game about cowboys. You fill the shoes of Arthur Morgan, member of an outlaw gang who want nothing more than to be free men, living outside the law in a place they can call their own. It’s their search, their banter, their personal dreams and identities that make this game so rich and compelling. The dialogue is beautiful and the voice acting second-to-none.
There are few games with dialogue and stories as immersive and sprawling as this one. Fans of an epic tale or a story of brotherhood should not pass this experience up. Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the finest and most richly detailed narrative video games of the last decade.
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.