April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Game Changers: Books Based on Video Games

Illustration by Ron Chan

Illustration by Ron Chan

Love them or hate them, video games are a mass medium, with over 150 million regular players in the U.S. alone—about a quarter of whom are under 18, according to the Education Software Association. Like much mass media, video games often spin off into other platforms, including comics and graphic novels, providing stories about the characters and environments for gamers hungry to know more. What may be surprising to non-gamers is that many of these books are a pretty good read in their own right—even for those who know nothing about the game.

Video games with complex stories offer storytellers a rich palette of possibilities, some of which may be very different from standard game play. This has attracted some talented writers and artists to the field. Middle grade and YA novelist Matthew J. Kirby, for instance, is writing a series of young adult novels based on Assassin’s Creed, while in the graphic novel realm, a number of talents are writing stories drawn from video games, including Eisner Award winners Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (This One Summer, First Second, 2014); Paul Tobin (Bandette, Dark Horse, 2013); and Faith Erin Hicks (The Adventures of Superhero Girl, Dark Horse, 2014, and The Nameless City, First Second, 2016); as well as powerhouse writer Jim Zub (“Skullkickers,” Image Comics; “Samurai Jack,” IDW). Next month, Scholastic is launching a series of novels pitched at readers in grades three to seven based on the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMOPRG) World of Warcraft.

Assassin’s Creed author Matthew J. Kirby  hams it up in front of a mural at the  headquarters of game producer Ubisoft. Photo courtesy of Scholastic

“Assassin’s Creed” author Matthew J. Kirby
hams it up in front of a mural at the
headquarters of game producer Ubisoft.
Photo courtesy of Scholastic

Dialing Down Violence; emphasizing story

One advantage books have over the actual games is that they can tone down the violence and other aspects that often earn these games “mature” ratings, making them more appropriate for younger readers.

“From the moment I played the first Assassin’s Creed game, I thought it would work well as a YA project,” says Scholastic senior editor Michael Petranek, who edited Kirby’s Assassin’s Creed: Last Descendants, published last month. “The mature ratings the video games receive stem from the amount of bloody combat shown visually as the game is played. The events of Last Descendants are no more violent than what you might read in a nonfiction book about the historical events found in the story.”

Putting teen protagonists front and center also helped. “The book has all the [game’s] core elements of action, parkour, and combat,” says Kirby. “Some of the potentially darker aspects took care of themselves, in that the adult characters in the story recognize that they’re dealing with teens, and so the main characters are somewhat protected. In other words, while there are certainly deaths that take place, the teens aren’t asked to do the killing. That felt very natural and realistic in terms of the storytelling, so I didn’t feel like I was compromising anything essential to Assassin’s Creed.”

Similarly, in Street Fighter Legends: Ibuki, Jim Zub was able to write a stand-alone graphic novel about a teen girl, set in the world of the mature-rated Street Fighter martial arts game, by selecting a protagonist who could star in her own story, outside the continuity of the game. “Most of the other Street Fighter characters are tightly intertwined, and telling their story requires you to explain where they came from and how they know each other,” he says. “Ibuki’s story is adjacent to a lot of those. A few other characters appear as part of her story, but we were able to focus more fully on just her journey, making it a much more self-contained and satisfying story even if you’d never played the game before.”

Paul Tobin and Ron Chan were faced with a different challenge when they set out to adapt the game Plants vs. Zombies into a comic. The early versions of the game didn’t have much of a story, just rows of plants shooting at rows of zombies. So the authors used two characters from the game, Crazy Dave (who tends the plants) and Zomboss (the head zombie), and added two new child characters as the leads. “One of the problems I had moving Crazy Dave to the comics was that in the game, he really only speaks in gibberish,” Tobin says. “I invented Patrice Blazing, his niece, and since she’s family, she can understand what he’s saying. Mostly, this allows Dave to be crazy—but still understood. Then there’s Nate Timely, a boy who’s always adventurous and sometimes competent. They play off each other really well and allow me to explore the stories from different angles.”

Appealing to non-gamers

While fans of the games are a natural audience for these books, many editors and creators hope their books can be enjoyed by non-gamers, too.

“As the artist, I may work in direct references to in-game stuff here and there,” says Chan of Plants vs. Zombies. “But my priority is always to make the art as fun as possible in a way that prioritizes working well in the context of the comic itself, rather than a 100-percent adherence to the source material.”

Kirby agrees that adaptation is a balancing act. “I had to make the story relatable to people who aren’t familiar with the game, while making sure well-versed fans of the series are engaged,” he says. “The solution ended up being pretty simple. The story is told from the perspective of teen characters who are becoming aware of the larger conflict between Assassins and Templars for the first time. That means readers get introduced to that world through the characters’ eyes, which helps to bring new readers up to speed quickly, while also presenting everything to longtime fans in a way that, I hope, feels fresh.”

Hicks took a different approach when she co-wrote The Last of Us: American Dreams (Dark Horse, 2013), a prequel to the game The Last of Us, which is set in a world decimated by a pandemic. “We thought about maybe starting the comic with an infodump about The Last of Us world, but I’m glad we decided against that,” she says. “It can be more absorbing for a reader if you just dive into a character’s story without explaining anything upfront. I hope that readers will come along for the ride; so far, no one has complained to me about finding the story confusing.”

These books are all based on real games, and many of them have a gamer feel, with quests for magical objects, portals through space and time, and plenty of fights. All can be read and enjoyed by those who knows little or nothing about the game itself.


Assassin’s Creed: Last Descendants. Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic, 2016).

Gr 7 Up–The Assassin’s Creed video game hinges on an ancient rivalry between two factions, the Assassins and the Templars, as well as new technology that allows users to relive the past by reading memories imprinted on an ancestor’s DNA and passed down to them. In the book, six teenagers take a virtual trip back to the New York draft riots of 1863 in order to locate an important artifact. All this is explained by a teacher (a cool, renegade one) who also introduces the Assassins vs. Templars angle in what feels like a very natural teacher-student philosophical discussion. The lead characters have distinct personalities, and the way they deal with stepping into their ancestors’ worlds makes for fascinating reading. A second volume is due out in December.

Escape from the Overworld: An Unofficial Minecrafter’s Adventure. Danica Davidson (Sky Pony, 2014).

Gr 2 Up–Stevie, a Minecraft character, accidentally passes through a portal into a girl’s bedroom in the real world. Stevie and Maison quickly become friends, and he accompanies her to school—but the portal is still open. Soon, zombies and spiders are pouring in from the Minecraft realm and disrupting the school’s assembly. Stevie and Maison must battle the monsters and defend the school. The book’s humor stems mostly from the differences between the real and Minecraft worlds, but you don’t have to know much more about Minecraft than that it is made of cubes to understand it. The fighting is game-like, with the heroes throwing blocks and swinging swords, and the zombies and spiders disappearing when struck. The only term that is left undefined is “mob,” which is gamer talk for an enemy creature. The story touches on themes of bullying, particularly of kids who look different—as Stevie does in the real world and Maison in Minecraft.

Graphic Novels

Angry Birds Comics, Vol: 1: Welcome to the Flock. Jeff Parker et al. (IDW, 2014).

Gr 4 Up–In these goofy comics, almost timeless in their humor and style, the setup is simple: the birds are trying to keep the pigs from stealing their eggs. In one story, the pigs lure the birds away with a fake amusement park; in another, a bird named “Bomb” has the hiccups—and every hiccup makes him explode, causing chaos but no serious damage. This volume collects the first four issues of IDW’s Angry Birds series, and IDW has published three additional volumes.

Costume Quest: Invasion of the Candy Snatchers. Zac Gorman (Oni, 2014).

Gr 4 Up–Repugia is a sad place to live, because there’s no candy there. But it’s Halloween in the human world, and Klem and his misfit friends decide to make a trip there to round up some sweets—and boost their popularity back home. Along with plenty of goofy misadventures and ingenious saves, this comic has mean bullies and some serious reflections on friendship. Oni produced this as a gorgeous oversized hardcover, and it’s a great read at Halloween or any time of year.

1611-gamechangers_recread-cvs2Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate. Jim Zub and Max Dunbar (IDW, 2015).

Gr 7 Up–This one gets in on a technicality: it ties in with the fifth edition of the tabletop role-playing game, but there was a Baldur’s Gate Dungeons & Dragons video game as well. Not that you need to know any of that. Delina, an elf and sorceress, comes to the city of Baldur’s Gate to find her twin brother, who she believes is in danger. When Delina is attacked, her magic backfires and brings to life a statue of an oversized hero named Minsc and his pet hamster, Boo. Minsc has an imperfect understanding of present realities and an addled way of talking, and he and Boo bring a lot of humor to this action-adventure story. The trio meet up with some thieves who help them out, and there are all sorts of double-crosses and surprises.

The Last of Us: American Dreams. Neil Druckman and Faith Erin Hicks (Dark Horse, 2013).

Gr 10 Up–An epidemic has decimated the human population, leading to martial law and quarantine. In this grim setting (mostly rendered in dark blues and grays by colorist Rachelle Rosenberg), 13-year-old Ellie arrives at her new school, a rundown military academy surrounded by barbed wire. She gets in trouble and teams up with another student, Riley, to escape not just the physical walls of the school but the metaphorical ones of their existence. Riley is determined to join a guerilla group, the Fireflies, and she pulls Ellie along. The story is a prequel to the game, and it feels like it. Ellie and Riley fight through perilous situations, including an encounter with zombie-like infected humans, but the end feels like the beginning of another story. Despite copious violence and cursing, there’s a lot to be said for this story: it features two tough women teaming up in a hostile world and cementing their friendship at the same time.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Akira Himekawa (Viz, 2008).

Gr 1 Up–Link is a young boy who lives in the forest among the elf-like creatures known as Kokiris. He’s always been a bit of a misfit, but he finds his purpose when he’s called upon to help Princess Zelda keep the land of Hyrule from the evil Lord Ganendorf. This reads like a fantasy tale, with magical creatures and sacred objects, and while it loosely follows the game, it works just fine on its own. Viz is re-issuing this older series as a boxed set and has announced a new series, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, also by Akira Himekawa, debuting spring 2017. The stand-alone story The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Viz, 2015) by Shotaro Ishinomori, is better suited to readers familiar with the game, as the action moves more quickly and less background is provided.

Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon. Paul Tobin and Ron Chan (Dark Horse, 2014).

Gr 3 Up–Tobin and Chan turn the straightforward shoot-the-zombies game into more of an action-adventure story by adding two child lead characters. Patrice is Crazy Dave’s niece and is able to interpret his gibberish, while Nate tries mightily to keep up. The five books in this series all provide a good mix of humor and action, eschewing gore for slapstick and witty commentary.

Tomb Raider: Spore, Vol: 1. Written by Mariko Tamaki. illus. by Philip Sevy (Dark Horse, 2016).

Gr 10 Up–This new volume includes the first six issues of an ongoing Lara Croft comic. Croft is an archaeologist-adventurer with some serious fighting skills, and at the beginning of the story she is training with a woman who is almost blind. Lara’s insights from this session stay with her throughout the story, and Tamaki and Sevy show readers her thinking, which lifts this story above the usual standard. The plot is pretty basic—Lara and her partner, Jonah, accompany a professor on a quest to find the mysterious mushroom of immortality; meanwhile, they’re pursued by a pack of mysterious guys with a military look. This rip-roaring adventure story features lots of swinging from ropes, jumping off cliffs, and blasting away the bad guys, along with fun plot twists when the characters must use ingenuity to get out of tight spots.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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  1. Thanks for this great book list, I just purchased the first volume of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on amazon, I expected it to be more expensive than the 5.69$ they charge for it. Customer reviews are amazing.

    With the rise of E-sports, there is a book I would recommend to your readers, it’s a bit old (2008) but it’s just like a good documentary, it never gets old. it’s called Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time. The sellers on amazon are selling it used for 0.01$ on amazon, it’s REALLY good book for its price !