My first book, The Most Notorious Jailbreakers, which tells the stories of sixteen convicts who escaped from prisons all over India, was due to be published in April this year. Needless to say, Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works, delaying publication.

The book finally came out this September, and the world it was released in is vastly different from the one before, where conventional methods of selling books like store visits and book readings were essential. I found myself faced with a serious question: how could I make this book stand out in a market that has moved online and which suddenly seems inundated with thousands of books!

Perhaps it is a question that has always been valid: How do new and unknown authors increase the sales of their work and earn a living from writing books? The pandemic has made an already pressing question even more urgent. And what is the way out? Can books be used to generate other kinds of revenue?

Last year, I built a board game on the Indian elections called The Poll. It got me thinking: What if I launched my book by turning some of its content into a game? If I could turn Jailbreakers into a digital or board game, my book could reach a much wider audience.

My book is about convicts ,who, through devious intent and resourcefulness, make an attempt to escape from prison. Before the pandemic, I had thought of a physical escape room where those attending the launch would have to find clues in the room and strike alliances to find their way out. But now I must find a way to take this online. Sixteen characters, sixteen settings, and several challenges from the pages of my book – and all of this over Zoom!

Why games are like novels

There has been a long-standing question amongst people who study games: are games stories? Souvik Mukherjee in his brilliant book, Video Games and Storytelling, talks about how the line between games and storytelling is blurring. It is, however, contested terrain, and Mukherjee deftly summarises the debate between Ludologists – those who see games as a form of amusement, devoid of a story –and Narratologists, who see games as a story evolving over a period of time.

“The Ludologists argued that although some video games may have ‘artistic ambitions’, they are ‘fundamentally games’. The so-named Narratologists argue that video games are a storytelling medium because they ‘promise to reshape the spectrum of narrative expression, not by replacing the novel or the movie but by continuing their timeless bardic work within another framework.” 

Today we are living in a moment where these two worlds are colliding, fashioning complex multi-character narratives into immersive experiences. Even Hollywood’s scriptwriters are weaving games into their movies, such as Steven Speilberg’s Enders Game, the new generation of Jumanji movies, or even the recent Enola Holmes, all of which use games and puzzle solving as plot-enhancement tools.

No moment in history could be riper than the present to explore multi-format storytelling beyond OTT, television and films. The book-to-game adaptation market has countless possibilities. The gaming industry worldwide is at a curious moment, growing at an unparalleled pace. And as we stay at home more and more, “home entertainment services” such as gaming consoles, mobiles and board games will only gain in popularity.

The ubiquitous (and now banned in India) Player Unknown Battlegrounds or PUBG is a narrative game centre around a battle royal theme in an open world where several characters are dropped into a world and clash with one another to survive – a writing trope used in films and books too. It spread through India’s tier two and three towns and eventually into the villages like wildfire. The phone became a window into a world that was infinite and violent, where instant gratification found new meaning through points and an ever changing leaderboard.

There has been a recent wave of narrative and interactive fiction games set in India. On August 18, Raji, a game based on ancient Indian mythology, was released for the PC, Xbox and PlayStation. It is being touted as one of the most ambitious game projects to come out of the subcontinent, and has taken a local story to a global audience.

Another popular game is Death of Detective, which is set in British South India in 1940 and published by a Chennai based Studio, the Root Collective. A player must interact with the characters, ask them for clues and investigate various crimes from that era.

In 2010, there were only 25 game development companies in India. This number went up to 275 by 2019. These studios will slowly have to start acquiring local content, which in turn will create a demand for indigenous stories. International players are making a beeline for India too, with game companies such as Ubisoft and Phoenix Games acquiring gaming studios.

I build games for a living and run the Civic Games Lab, a studio attached to an NGO called Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART) that seeks to help build a civic responsibility and imagination through games. After my game on the elections last year, I am now building a new one on the idea of digital citizenship.

Last year, as I travelled through the country introducing my game to schools and colleges, I found that young people, whether students of classes 11 and 12 or university-goers, were hungry for learning through play– they quickly grasped complex game mechanics, and argued for hours on some of the most complex problems facing the country today: from failing agrarian systems to child labour, and a variety of other issues. It also occurred to me that Indians are itching to play their own story.

Books become games

The history of games and books shows that storylines, plots, and narrative styles have always been freely exchanged between the two forms. As early as 1987, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, fed up with a harrowing experience at a government office (while he was moving house) designed a video game called Bureaucracy.

An Interactive Fiction game is one where the story pushes players to make decisions that alters the outcome. In Bureaucracy, Adams pushes players to get their address changed in a government office, but they have to complete this task while keeping their blood pressure in check! In the process, they get to interact with several characters like a hungry llama and a paranoid weapons enthusiast, amongst several others.

One of the biggest game adaptations of a book series ever was the Rainbow Six franchise written by Tom Clancy, who back in 1997-8 co-founded a game studio called Red Storm Studios, which began the development of games based on his successful book series. The studio was later bought over by Ubisoft, the French game studio.

Ever since then, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have become some of the biggest and highest revenue earning games in the world. Ubisoft even bought rights to use Tom Clancy’s name on a whole host of games in perpetuity! These games have taken on a life of their own, so much so that a new generation of gamers have no knowledge of the books that these games were originally based on.

The Tom Clancy game products have more than 60 million active users. Ubisoft releases a new version every year, with updated storylines: Rainbow Six has 14 titles, Ghost Recon has 15. In fact, PUBG, not the original first-person-shooter game but most certainly its most successful online iteration, owes its birth to the franchise built by Tom Clancy.

The adaptation of books to game shows isn’t limited to action-oriented first-person shooters, but extends to the fantasy genre too. Some of the most notable titles that have been made into games are the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings franchises, but it all began with Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel Dune, which has been made into both cardboard and video games.

After David Lynch’s film adaptation of the novel, which garnered poor reviews, fans who were looking for a truer adaptation found their fix in the game Dune II, developed by Westwood Studios. The upcoming cinematic adaptation of Dune by Denis Villeneuve led to the announcement of a series of new games based on it by Funcom, makers of Conan Exiles and The Age of Conan and Secret World MMOs.

Horror and children’s books too have found their way into the gaming world. Goosebumps is a game series based on the successful book series by RL Stine, which began the process of “gamification” with alternative endings within the books. American McGee’s Alice is a psychological horror game based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Parasite Eve, a biochemical horror game, is based on the 1995 novel by the same name written by the pharmacologist Hideaki Sena.

The future in India

India’s gaming market is currently growing at 22% annually, which is ten percent more than the global market and is expected to grow to $3.75 billion by 2024. India’s publishing market is the second largest in the world. The bourgeoning sector of both large and indie game studios can find source material from the multiple book titles released every month in India.

Games have the potential to offer a lucrative, much-needed source of revenue to authors and publishers in the economically challenging post-Covid publishing world. They are not static and have the ability to grow and expand. Titles like Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings or Star Wars show how franchises consistently engage with their fan base by releasing a steady stream of games based in an extended universe.

Improved game development tools and software have allowed designers and scriptwriters to create new interactive virtual worlds with complex storytelling that was earlier impossible to realise. Authors, publishers and agents in India must look at exploiting this growing blending of the two worlds.

Gaming studios in India suffer from poor marketing and are unable to compete with big names. They end up becoming suppliers to international companies and eventually being bought over. There are very few Indian studios telling Indian stories. The way forward is to begin the process of working with authors who can work on the development of the games.

This initiative must come from the author or game designers who can give the story a different spin. Just like the Ramayana has been told from different perspectives, similarly games offer the creator an opportunity to reinterpret, expand and retell a story.

The pandemic has torn through the old publishing order, where the author was already struggling to survive on royalties from writing books. We can now expect long term behavioural shifts in the way people consume stories. One such shift has been towards gaming, which was big even in pre-Covid times, but has become even bigger now. As Adam Epstein wrote in “The pandemic has turned everyone into gamers”:

“These widespread increases in both game sales and usage likely can’t be sustained as consumers leave their homes more often and life slowly returns to some semblance of a prior normalcy. But they may fall back to a much higher baseline, as the pandemic permanently changes our entertainment habits, further steeping the world in gaming culture.”

A wake-up call for authors, if ever there was one?

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.