When 12-year-old Christian Cantamessa sat up in bed reading The Lord of the Rings, never imagined having the opportunity to create someday his own story set in Tolkien’s world with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Nor did Brad Kane, walking down the aisle on his wedding day to the tune of Game of Thrones, imagine himself writing a story of his own through the Telltale series. And the same can be said for Marcin Blacha and Magdalena Zych of CD Projekt Red, who read Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher books as children.
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 come true), there are a myriad of challenges and pressures that come hand in hand.
Let’s take The Lord of the Rings as an example. JRR Tolkien created an entire plane of existence with its own history, myth, politics, and more.. He did it not just through the main series of novels, but through countless smaller stories and unfinished tales, not to mention the myriad of adaptations that have added layers and layers of insight.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, from Monolith Productions, takes place in the midst of this complex fabric and the lead screenwriter, Christian Cantamessa, has worked with the Tolkien Estate (the legal body that controls the late author’s work) alongside a screenwriter who worked on the film adaptations of Peter Jackson and a literal Lord of the Rings scholar to create a story true to tradition. “It was helpful to say, ‘hey, what you’re doing here isn’t going to work because this happens here or there’s this statement in the book that contradicts it,’ and we never wanted thatCantamessa says.
The Witcher developer studio, CD Projekt Red, follows a similar process, as head writer Magdalena Zych says that staying true to the source material (a collection of eight novels dating back decades) is almost as important as creating a strong story. “Obviously, we add to the material, we extend it, sometimes we even change it, but the latter is never accidental.“, dice. “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“, continúa Zych.”Regardless of what it is based on, the first thing is that it is mature, captivating, immersive, offers the right mix of emotions and presents players with options that seem impossible to make. But staying true to the source material takes second place, especially when working on such a beloved franchise.“
creative red ribbon
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 longtime fan of the series, even before the hit HBO series, and says it was a dream come true to be immersed in Westeros and Essos every day. but have to writing inside someone else’s world was “probably more limiting and restrictive than liberating“dice.
“On more than one occasion we had really good ideas that HBO came back to us and said we couldn’t do it, and it’s partly because that’s where they were going with the story. There was a very funny idea put forward at the beginning of the series by Meghan Thornton (his fellow writer) about this common thread involving an ice dragon in the far northKane 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 creating its own ice dragon.
Of course, there are strategies to avoid treading water, says Kane, and the main one deployed by the Telltale team was find a minor starting point from the novels of George R. R. Martin that could then be used to carve out a cool space. The main characters in the game belong to House Forrester, a family that is only mentioned once, and very briefly, in the books. “We did not intentionally get into a deeply established stronghold“, explica Kane. “We needed the freedom to create a game, have characters that could live or die, and make something that felt original within the world.“.
“We really can’t change much about Daenerys Targaryen or Tyrion Lannister.“, keep going. “They’re familiar characters, and we’re in a certain time period in the show’s timeline, so we can’t do much with what they’ve done and what they’re going to do. The challenge was not to make them immovable and powerful forces of character, but rather something that we could interact with and become part of the gameplay experience.“.
Taking this gameplay into account is another fundamental part of the work of a video game writer, explains Cantamessa, since the task is much more complex than writing a synopsis of the plot and a handful of scenes. It’s not enough to come up with a character that fits perfectly into the story and world of the source material. “It also has to fulfill a function for the game“says Cantamessa, “and juggling all these things is a little harder“.
“They have to be able to fit within the mechanics of that kind of story and that adds an additional guideline. Once all those guidelines have been established, you have a little bit of wiggle room, but not 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 and gave the character a purpose within his game. “Actually that was the idea. [del director creativo Michael de Plater]personify a line from the book that refers to the black hand of Sauron“.
Although it is disputed whether this line was referring to a literal body part or something else, the writing team adapted it for it to mean that “Sauron’s black hand is someone who does his bidding“says Cantamessa. “We captured 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 the inclusion of Gollum as the quest keeper, though even this was thought through for make sure you were in the right place at the right time in the larger story of The Lord of the Rings.
According to The Witcher story director Marcin Blacha, the use of these well-known characters usually facilitates the work of the screenwriter, and seeing familiar faces also helps establish the game’s authenticity in the overall story. “There are three pillars in The Witcher books: the characters, an original take on fantasy tropes, and dialogue with our reality.“, dice. “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 figure out those relationships from scratch.“.
Staying true to the source material
Although CD Projekt Red has deployed a strategy similar to that of Cantamessa’s The Black Hand of Sauron with characters like Iorveth from The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, who is only vaguely mentioned a handful of times in the books, it has also committed to bring beloved characters straight from the pages of Sapkowski. Of course, the protagonist Geralt of Rivia is the most prominent, but the stories of Yennefer, Dandelion, Ciri and many more have been expanded in the game series.
Regis is another of the main characters who returned in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Blood and Wine expansion, and who (again, spoilers) was left very dead by the end of the main saga of the novels. “Cause it to regenerate and come back to life in the relatively short period of time between [los libros] and Blood and Wine may have been a bit of a stretch in terms of The Witcher lore, but it was worth it“, dice Zych.
“Of course, with Regis we did not have the freedom [como] When writing Iorveth: Regis was already a very defined and well-developed character, and we had to be extremely careful to do him justice. His appearance, his way of speaking, his friendship with Geralt, his mentality, his points of view… everything had to be the same as 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, let alone impeccable prestige. This was certainly the case for Cantamessa prior to starting work on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, who admitted that hesitant to write within such a beloved franchise and artistically sacred like The Lord of the Rings.
“On the one hand, I think: ‘hey, this can be done, it has been done, it’s very difficult, and I would love to do it’“, dice. “On the other hand, as a fan, but also as a normally anxious person, I am very afraid that they might fail and that I will do a bad job. When you’re a fan of something, you want to make sure whatever you do doesn’t make it worse.“.
Fortunately for Cantamessa, the game was very well received, so much of that pressure dissipated. “As big fans, we try our best to be respectful of the material, to create something new, and to make a good game.“, dice.
But,what would tolkien think, who died in 1973 and thus long before video games became the storytelling medium they are today, of their history? “Oh GodCantamessa laughs.I hope he’s not turning 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 that everyone else has been doing.”
“In one of his letters, he says that he was creating this new mythology. And he says that he hoped that other minds would come along and fill with music and drama and poetry some of the parts that he had outlined.”
“Of course, video games didn’t exist, but it makes me think that he was open to this idea that other minds would come and fill in some of these sketches that he had done. He never wrote: ‘I hope nobody touches my things’. So we took the parts he sketched out and started playing with them, so at least I know I haven’t betrayed something he believed in.“.