Seven Public Domain Books That Would Make Great Games

Seven Public Domain Books That Would Make Great Games
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Once a work enters the public domain, it is no longer subject to copyright laws. A publisher can print their own edition of the Beatrix Potter books, a filmmaker can make a film of any of Shakespeare’s plays, and a game developer can adapt any of the characters, scenes or even whole stories from public domain works.

This post was originally published on January 2016.

This is what Inkle did with 80 Days back in 2014. The studio adapted Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days into a marvellous text adventure. Huge amounts of the material is new but the premise of a gentleman betting his club that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days is pulled straight from the book. As is the name of the gentleman, Phileas Fogg, and his manservant Jean Passepartout. It’s an excellent adaptation of a story which is still strong in our cultural memory.

A game adapted from a book doesn’t have to be a text adventure. Whilst we were writing Kotaku UK’s Adventure Games of 2016 list, a developer told me about one game, Kim, based on the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name. It’s a randomly generated world populated with the characters of Kipling’s book, and you explore the environment, talking to NPCs lifted straight from the pages of a book about British-ruled India in 1901.

I’d love to see more developers adapting books into games. There’s a whole library of our greatest stories that’s sitting largely unused on the internet. The Gutenberg Project is an archive of books that have entered the public domain; just glancing through its most popular list, I see a ton of books that could become great games. Here are seven that came to me.


A game of many parts (appropriately): on the one hand you play mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, creating creatures out of different body parts and animating his hotch-potch corpses. On the other, should your creation escape before you’ve had the chance to present it to your peers and win their adulation, you’ll have to chase it down and recapture it (hopefully before it kills anyone).

Don Quixote

One of the first novels ever written and still one of the richest. It told the story of a lesser Spanish noble, Don Quixote, sent senile by his obsessive reading of books. He began living under the delusion that he was a knight from the romance novels he would read. Quixote then set out to undertake quests across the land, but always under a misapprehension. He mistakes an inn for a castle, some monks for evil conjurers and, most famously, charged a set of windmills he believed were giants. In the right hands this story could become an open world game where you play Don Quixote, trying to solve quests in a world where nothing is what it seems and at any moment can alter and change into an enemy, a friend or a windmill.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

If Robinson Crusoe were to be published today you’d say it had come from the mind of someone who had played hundreds of hours of Don’t Starve. It’s the story of a shipwrecked man who washes up on a strange island. He manages to survive by foraging the island’s plants and exploiting the natural resources, trying to survive long enough to find a means of escape.

So far, a pretty good setup for a survival game. As a twist on the usual survival game formula, you can encounter, befriend and train the native residents to help you in your pursuit. In an entirely unproblematic way that won’t offend anyone, of course.

Jane Austen

Rather than turn a single one of Jane Austen’s books into a game, all her novels can conceivably inhabit the same world: a world of suitors, debts, mortal illness and walks in country parks. I don’t know about you but I think this complex social world is best captured by a Crusader Kings-style simulation. Just picture a map of England covered with eligible men and women, all with their own strengths and foibles from a weakness for gambling on cards to a tendency towards loose-lipped gossip.

And, of course, one’s family members can cast a shadow over even the most desirable of sweethearts. Somehow you have to navigate your character’s way to security, whether that be in marriage or financial independence.


You might know George Bernard Shaw’s play better by the name of the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. It tells the story of a phonetics professor who makes a bet that he can train a Cockney flower girl the airs and graces of high society so well that she may pass herself off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.

What a perfect setup for a game. You have 30 days to prepare your unpolished ward for the ambassador’s garden party. Each day you choose where they focus their time — phonetics, manners, names of the guests and so on. Sort of like the Persona games, only in Georgian England and with more focus on decorum than turn-based battles. Though, proper etiquette at the dinner table could certainly be handled like a round of Hearthstone.

Heart of Darkness

There’s already a game that captures the descent into madness that can accompany a journey of obsession. Instead of a boat travelling deeper and deeper into an African jungle, the game sees you journeying across a glassy subterranean ocean: The Sunless Sea. While that’s a game whose influences are more obviously Lovecraftian, it touches on a lot of the same ideas as the novel by Joseph Conrad.

Where the worlds would differ is that there’s no shore leave reprieve to be had in Conrad’s story; any stress gained stays with you until you eventually leave the jungle. If you leave the jungle.

Oliver Twist

Rather than tell the story of Oliver, an orphan trying to survive on the streets of London, a much more interesting character to base a game around would be Fagin: the man who runs a gang of child pickpockets. It could be the perfect fit for a management simulator, where you’re trying to recruit and train children to perform burglaries around Victorian London.

You’d need to avoid attention from the police and make sure none of your boys turned on you, but if any kids look like they’re going to turn evidence to the police, there’s always Bill Sykes to shut them up for you.

How about you? What public domain books would you like to see turned into games?

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


      • Possibly a reason its story is held in high regard, it had a great base to start from.

        I like the ideas in this article, the Jane Austin one sounds interesting.

          • I can remember at least one murder…But no, you’re right, he’s much more placid and philosophical than the mainstream reputation he garnered from the films.

        • There was a dating sim a couple of years ago that was based on the combined Jane Austen novels. The Pygmalion one also sounds like Princess Maker / Long Live the Queen set in Victorian London. Both of them you’d be building stats in proper etiquette and manners.

          Frankenstein could be a stealth-survival RPG from the monster’s perspective. If the villagers see you they’ll form a mob of torches and pitchforks. Karma is basically to either kill them all while defending yourself or run away.

  • Yeah, I’m not really sure the Oliver Twist game would survive a day after someone complains about it being a game where a grown man lures children to work for him and then threatens them with punishment if they tell anyone about “their little secret”.
    Also, Heart of Darkness is a great game. I wish it would come to PSN already.

  • When exactly does an ip hit public domain? I remember someone saying 100 years but that cant be right, is it when the owner gives their blessing or the family etc. ?

    • Life of the artist plus 50-70 years after their death. So 100+ years is totally possible.

      And people in most jurisdictions (Read, basically everywhere but the UK) cannot donate their work to public domain. The law is written in such a way that the rights to their work are theirs… Either indefinitely, or until it’d naturally expire (You know, 50-70 years after they’re dead).

      An artist can change the licence structure to one offered by Creative Commons (‘Some rights reserved’), the closest thing there is to modern public domain.

    • National Library of Australia has a pleasant table at the bottom of this link detailing how public domain is attained for various media:

      For literary works like the ones in the article, a work is in the public domain:
      – If the work is published while the author is alive = 70 years after the author has died.
      – If the work is published posthumously = 70 years after first publication.

      Copyright periods differ on a country by country basis: New Zealand is 50 years vs Australia with 70 years.

  • I’d love to see Frankenstein as a sort of horror survival game – you play Franky, trying to stay alive as everyone else is out to get you.

  • I don’t think it’d have much widespread appeal, but I’d play the hell out of Don Quixote.

    Either as mentioned, an open world RPG type where reality keeps bending, or even go Ocarina of Time style and play through different ‘realities’ of the same thing (having to fix the stuff you messed up previously).

  • I would love to see an open-world Pilgrim’s Progress. Would have some epic fantasy locations, as well as dragons, giants, demons, etc… So many places in that story I would love to explore in detail!

  • The Swiss Family Robinson might be an interesting alternative to Robinson Crusoe (“Robinson” is apparently an entire genre or castaway stories).

    A survival game with a cast of characters who can help forage and build, but who also need to be cared for. Coupled with a lighter tone, I’d imagine something like a cross between the Sims and any of the interchangeable survival games on the market, with a bit more focus on giving each character a defined personality.

  • Nice list, one of my long term projects is a game that draws on Pliny the Elder’s natural history, which is a fascinating read.
    It’s intended as an encyclopaedia, but is injected with the culture and understanding of its author, here’s a snippet from the one of the chapters on animals, clearly written from amalgamated rumour:

    “Catoblepas. an animal of moderate size, and in other respects sluggish in the movement of the rest of its limbs; its head is remarkably heavy, and it only carries it with the greatest difficulty, being always bent down towards the earth. Were it not for this circumstance, it would prove the destruction of the human race; for all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot.”

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