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Lindsay Meaning on analyzing game adaptations of literary works

Lindsay Meaning gave a Brown Bag talk on the process of adapting a literary text into a video game on Tuesday, October 16. Meaning is a second-year English PhD candidate whose research interests include video game adaptations and representations of settler-colonialism and imperial ideologies in roleplaying games.

According to Meaning, game adaptations are often looked down on - misconceived as "cashing in on a popular franchise". And when game adaptations of literary texts are studied, they are frequently analyzed for how faithful they are to the source material.

Meaning argues we must move beyond studying their fidelity and treat the adaptation as a text in its own right. She framed this talk as an inquiry into creating a methodology for understanding how literary texts are translated into games:

How does the procedural rhetoric of video game adaptations shape the translation of the themes and underlying ideologies in the original literary texts?

She began with an examination of Kim (2016), an indie RPG adaptation of Roger Kipling's 1901 classic novel. Then she discussed Shadow Of Mordor (2014) and Lord of the Rings Online (2007), two game adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary works.

Kipling's classic novel was set in India during the British Raj and was dense with imperial and colonial ideology. However, that ideology was obscured by Kipling's desire to portray a colonial utopia. Meaning analyzed the mechanics in the game Kim (2016) to discover how they embodied the underlying ideology:

I was looking for whether or not [the 2016 game creators] succeeded in resisting Kipling's imperialism or if, through the procedures of the game, they reinforced the lionization of the British Raj.

In the game, killing, murdering and stealing are rewarded with better scores. You can play the game without committing colonial acts, but Meaning found that such an approach makes it more difficult to advance in the game.

The conclusion here is very interesting. On the one hand, there is a direct association between colonial behaviours and rewards, suggesting that the game reinforced the colonial-imperial ideology. But on the other hand, the game adaptation allowed the book's underlying ideology to come to the fore, opening it up to more nuanced scrutiny and criticism.

Meaning contrasted her analysis of Kim (2016) with her examination of Shadow Of Mordor and Lord of the Rings Online to provide the audience with another take on how to study game adaptions of literary texts.

Shadow Of Mordor and Lord of the Rings Online adapt the same source material but with very different results. Shadow Of Mordor is very combat-oriented. Meaning found that the main game mechanics are "all in the service of violence":

You gain experience points and abilities for killing. These, and other procedures are centered around combat and go against Tolkien’s central theme [from the original trilogy].

Lord of the Rings Online gives players more opportunities to explore Middle Earth. There is also more potential to pursue non-combat oriented lifestyles. However, Meaning found that all the gameplay strategies still contributed to players' abilities to fight more:

For example, you can be a healer, but in the end you're healing so others can fight more. This is different from what Tolkien means for 'healers'. In the game adaptation, healing is tied to concerns of combat. This is a dramatic thematic reversal from what was reflected in the narratives of the Lord of the Rings books, which is that the greatest heroism is sacrifice.

How did she tie it all together? For Kim (2016), she argued that the game adaptation allowed us to see themes that were obscured in the source material. For the Lord of the Rings adaptation games, the result was the drastically different because the games’ mechanics reversed the altruistic theme of sacrifice that was central to the narratives in Tolkien’s trilogy.

Meaning used these observations as evidence of the importance of studying game adaptations within the broader Adaptation Studies discourse. Game adaptations of literary texts are rich with potential for research inquiry.

Meaning concluded that the next step in her research is to ask "what is the causal relationship between procedural and thematic shifts?" 

When we move away from analyzing adaptations through 'fidelity' we can start to observe and examine how the procedural rhetoric of the games works in concert with their narrative.