Q&A: Akella On Adapting Classic Russian Literature To Games
The Russian Strugatsky brothers are well-known for their sci-fi novels, adapted into cult movie Stalker - and now Russian developer Akella has adapted medieval sci-fi book Hard To Be A God into an intriguing PC game. Gamasutra talks to Akella's Ste
by Alastair Wallis
June 18, 2008
The Strugatsky brothers, as Wikipedia notes, "...became the best-known Soviet science fiction writers with a well developed fan base... Their most famous novel Piknik na obochine has been translated into English as Roadside Picnic in 1977 and was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker."
The brothers' 1963 book Hard to be a God, dealing with "an alien humanoid world passing the phase of Middle-Ages," is one of their most popular – it's been filmed twice, once in 1989 and again this year. It's also now been made into a PC hack 'n' slash RPG by developer Akella.
Akella formed in 1993, and claims to have released an astonishing 800 titles by late 2007. It owns the biggest localization studio in the region, working to bring titles like Neverwinter Nights 2, EverQuest II, Painkiller, Sacred, Fahrenheit, Test Drive Unlimited, Armed Assault, Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia to the Russian market.
It's also working on Postal III for Running With Scissors, intriguingly, and is known for its piratical titles such as Sea Dogs and Age Of Pirates, the sequel to one of which was morphed into a Pirates Of The Caribbean game.
Unlike most adaptations, the game makes the interesting move of setting the action after the events of its source text. “The Kingdom of Arkanar has been torn apart by internal wars, and the nobles have entrenched themselves in their castles,” notes Hard to be a God's press release. “Anarchy rules the world as an agent of the imperial intelligence organization is dispatched to the rebellious kingdom with an order to kill the leader of the insurgents.”
We used the game's North American release as an opportunity to talk to Denis Epifanov, the game's producer, Stepan “GKill” Vakhtin, its lead designer, about the challenges of bringing a book to an interactive medium, and whether or not there are people who are knowledgeable enough about the region's literature to have actually heard of of the source.
How did you go about getting the rights for the book?
Denis Epifanov: Books written by the Strugatsky brothers are very popular in the post-Soviet territories. When dev teams and publishing companies started purchasing well-known book licenses, Akella also embarked on these initiatives. We had to decide which licenses could be a good “pusher” for our games.
That’s when we got it – the Strugatsky brothers! We contacted Boris Strugatsky with the idea to transfer his and his brother’s universes to games. They agreed, and we acquired game publishing rights to such well-renowned novels as Hard to be a God, Inhabited Island, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, etc.
Are you planning on working on other Strugatsky books?
DE: Of course, we were very interested in working with the novels of the Strugatsky brothers - and that's why we have purchased several licenses at once. Besides Hard to be a God we have already released the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel and the Prisoner of Power trilogy, which included the quest Prisoner of Power: The Earthling, the 3D shooter Prisoner of Power and the turn-based strategy Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power.
Presently we are working on the quest based on another novel written by the Strugatsky brothers – Monday Begins on Saturday.
Was that before or after the announcement of the movie?
SV: We acquired rights to the book after Alexey German announced the same-name movie. Actually, no one remembers what influenced our desire to create the Hard to be a God game – our love for the Strugatsky brothers’ works or announcement of a new movie based on the novel.
Do you think the name is marketable in English speaking countries as much as it is in Russia?
Stepan Vakhtin: Well, if talking about Hard to be a God as a book, I’m sure it’s quite marketable in English speaking countries, as well. The Strugatsky brothers are classic sci-fi writers. A lot of people are familiar with their books.
I myself went across quite a few posts - after the game demo was released - and comments in various first look or hands-on previews for Hard to be a God. Many of these feedback posts make quite a comprehensive dig into the Strugatsky universe as a whole and Hard to be a God, in particular. It all makes me believe that the game based on such an esteemed novel will be a compelling experience for gamers across the world.
Why did you decide not to follow the narrative of the book directly?
SV: Frankly speaking, that’s a bundle of reasons that drove us. Firstly, we felt it could be quite boring and trivial to follow the narrative of the book just word-for-word. Secondly, we at our dev team are true fans of the Strugatsky brothers’ written heritage. We were always so much enthusiastic about following up on what they created, you know, what could happen afterwards, may be some time after the events described in the novel.
So when we finally embarked on the challenge, it became totally clear – our time had come to feature our own variant of what might have happened later. Incidentally, we received a great support in composing the storyline and dialogs, making the overall setting from one of the authors of the table edition of the Hard to be a God game.
What's the table edition?
DE: This is the tabletop RPG Hard to be a God. It is based on a non-commercial Russian roleplaying system The World of the Great Dragon, which, in turn, is based on classic Dungeons & Dragons. The game was created under the supervision of Dmitriy Knyazev - we had been working together on the computer-based version of the game as well.
The rules of this role-playing system cover the character creation, skills, weapons and equipment, typical NPCs and the bestiary.
How difficult was it to develop the storyline for the game, given the book's reputation? Was there an element of pressure involved?
SV: Yes, that was quite a challenge – adapting and adjusting the universe and book’s story to the rules relevant in computer games. We’ve re-designed the storyline three times.
Our main target was to keep the book’s atmosphere. First of all, we took all those characters we got used to while plunging into the novel from the book world to the game realm. We’ve re-created a great host of book-themed features: locations, traditions, etc.
Arkanar, the Drunken Den, Gnilovrazh'e, and so on – they are all included in the game. We did our best to combine the rich and vibrant scenery of this medieval planet, its people, and their relations with dynamic viewpoints the game will be fraught with.
Our script-writers and game-designers are sci-fi fans. And, of course, we are very well aware of every feature of the novel. So I must admit, we felt a great deal of responsibility, that’s why we were very sensitive to the story, dialog options and the overall setting.
If you mean some pressure from the part of the book author, we didn’t feel any at all – on the contrary, we always received Boris Strugatsky’s support. Unfortunately, Arkadiy Strugatsky died in 1991.
How much involvement, all up, has Boris Strugatsky had with the project?
DE: We had a very nice experience in working with Boris Strugatsky. Alas - he seems to keep his distance from the development of the video games. In one of his interviews he did mention that long ago, when his brother, Arkadiy Strugatsky, was still alive, they both tried to participate in the development of a game based on one of their works.
After two months of fruitless trials they did realize that game development is simply not their calling, and so they decided not to interfere with this industry anymore.
Does he seem interested in games as a medium for storytelling?
DE: As for his actual interest in the development of games on the basis of his books, I cannot be sure. But one thing is for certain - if Boris Strugatsky in fact disliked the whole idea, we would never be able to obtain a single license!
As a result, we received an exciting and comprehensive world of Hard to be a God.
Was there inspiration for the story taken from other places? It seems that a lot of fan-fiction associated with the book also sees Arkanar descend into anarchy.
SV: I’m not sure whether I can list fan-fiction among inspiration sources. I can definitely say that we fell under great influence of the Strugatsky universe. Some of its features were taken from the original novel; some were drawn from other books by the same authors.
Also, we derived a lot from the same-name table game. We developed the game’s storyline ourselves, though. Thus we can also be called fan-fiction writers.
Do you think that expanding on a book's fiction is the most effective way of developing novels into games? Do you think we'll see more developers working in this fashion?
DE: I think it is a good way to develop licensed games - in fact, we are surely not the pioneers in this area. Remember the Matrix series of games, based on the famous cinematic trilogy? As a player I, for, one, would prefer to relive some new episodes, watch the events from another point of view, something that is often different from the one presented in the novel or a movie.
Repeating what has already been done seems boring to me - not to mention that the creativity is severely restricted when one is tied by the bonds of the "classical" masterpiece.
And concerning other developers - I'm quite positive that many of them will use this approach to the use of creative works both in literature and motion-picture art in their future games. In fact, many already do so.
How interested do you think gamers in general are in expansive stories? Do you think they care about subtexts relating to Nazism, fascism and so on?
SV: No, actually I believe that’s not something that interests casual gamers. That’s the gameplay that drives them as they go through all the game challenges. And, you know, I can agree with their point. If you want to get deeper into the novel concept, refer to some special literature, documentary films, etc.
Was it difficult to decide which genre to work within for the game?
SV: We studied all the book peculiarities and thought that the most marketable genre would be a hack 'n' slash RPG. On the one hand, our setting is a medieval world; on the other hand, that’s a far off future.
Besides, despite being very extensive the universe still lacks a very thorough and detailed description. That delivers a great room for dreaming, inventing, developing in aspect of both story and game design.
Why do you think other book adaptations have been less than successful, for the most part?
SV: If you mean book adaptations in other game genres, we believe they could be fine, as well. We were just dreaming about creating a game in the ambience of both medieval world and hi-tech future. Well, RPGs are a great choice for featuring the scenery, people’s attitudes and relations, individual characters. That’s what we did.
Will gamers unfamiliar with the book still be able to follow the storyline?
SV: Through the storyline, we gradually introduce a gamer into what is actually going on. By completing missions, reading dialogs, delving into books and watching other characters’ behaviour, the character receives an immersive experience finding out something new every time. And he needs to use these new skills and knowledge.
We applied every effort to avoid gamers’ lack of info. That’s why it’s not necessary to read the book to play the game. However, if the player has read the novel he will still find a lot of compelling things to do in the game: he will meet familiar characters, locations and learn what’s next!