The Big Idea: Douglas Sun
And now, just to shake things up, here’s a Big Idea about a video game — which is based on a book, so don’t panic, we’re not going too far afield. Today, Douglas Sun talks about some of the challenges of a adapting a literary work into a video game: Veiled Alliances.
When it comes to adaptations of novels, it’s a given among readers that the movie won’t be as good as the book. The movie is going to leave out a lot of cool stuff, because it just won’t fit. Movies don’t have the same narrative flexibility and depth as novels. Games are great in and of themselves, but for most readers, it’s rare that you’ll find a one that’s as satisfying as the great (or even good) book on which it was based.
Kimberly Unger and I are working on a Big Idea dished out in small pieces, and our goal is to create adaptations that are just as cool as the book. We aren’t making movies as such. Instead, we’re going to use video game technology to combine the visceral power of moving images with the psychological and intellectual depth of literature. We call it our “subtext engine” — just as video games use a software engine to drive 3D animation, we’re using a software engine to create movies that will have the richness of books.
Our first step in testing this idea is the pilot episode of a 12-part adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s novella, Veiled Alliances. This 6-minute “appisode” is embedded in an app for tablets and smartphones that will house and play the remaining appisodes in the series. I’ll admit up front that it’s a test run, and it won’t have the full set of features that we eventually want to include. We’re still looking for the resources that we need to fully flesh out our vision.
But we know that using a video game engine to drive the animation will open up new features that don’t exist in conventional cinematic narrative. The action plays out in a fully three-dimensional environment and you’ll be able to interact with it. You’ll have the freedom to move the camera around, so that you can view the main action from any angle you want, or even just explore the background. Additional features will use sound effects, audio tracks (think mini-soliloquies that overlay the action, instead of stopping the action) and dynamic visual symbology. In its final form, the subtext engine will produce machinima, but richer and with more contextual depth than a typical machinima (or animation, for that matter).
You’ll be able to customize your experience, so that you can turn off or ignore features that don’t interest you. You can just watch the video straight through, with nothing fancy going on, if that’s what you want. But we think this cognitive multitasking will create a richer experience that you’re used to getting with visual narratives — one that captures the feel of literature more than any other graphic or cinematic form.
Veiled Alliances turned out to be a fortuitous vehicle for testing the subtext engine. Kevin J. Anderson allowed us access to this prequel to his Saga of Seven Suns series because our experiment in multilayered narrative interested him, and it’s a good fit. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the story — as a prequel, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that hangs over the characters’ hopes and dreams, and there’s a lot of intrigue, where characters conceal as much as they say to each other. This is particularly true of Chapter 14, which we chose to adapt for the pilot. In it, a prince of the Ildiran Empire and a colonial governor with responsibility for a group off human refugees, returns to his homeworld to discuss what is to be done about them, only to find that the Emperor (his father) and the heir-designate (his brother) have cold-blooded plans for this newly-discovered alien race. It’s one of those scenes where what the characters say only touches the surface of what they bring to the discussion.
In writing the script, I had to make the usual decisions that come with adapting prose fiction to a visual medium. Not every little action or line of dialogue made it in. But the subtext engine will allow us to take much (if not most) of what gets edited and work it in through the interactive features, so that everything that the characters and their world bring to the present narrative moment can co-exist as they do in novelistic storytelling.
The modern novel (and its sibling, the short story) is an extraordinarily supple artistic form. It combines showing and telling to capture how the human mind multitasks, regarding itself at the same time as it reaches outward in space and time to give context to the here-and-now with unique grace. Kimberly and I are familiar with video game engines because we’re both hardened game geeks and industry pros, but our backgrounds are also literary — we’re both English majors (I followed that path all the way to the tenure track at Cal State Los Angeles before leaving the academy), we both harbor dreams of writing the Great Futuristic American Novel, and so for both of us, literature is that first love you never forget. Working on the subtext engine and creating the Veiled Alliances app completes the circle for us, combining literature with machinima to bring out the strengths of both.
We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far, and excited about what we expect to accomplish in the future, given sufficient resources. Our adaptation of Veiled Alliances will be available in the iOS store and Google Play, and will work just fine on either tablets or smartphones. We’ll also put a playblast trailer on our YouTube channel. Check it out; let us know if you think we’re onto something.
Veiled Alliances: Visit the game’s site.