Hard Project: The Dark Tower
At the heart of everything lies the Tower. The Beams lead to the great Tower, the heart of all worlds, the spoke upon which the wheels of existence turn. The tower is the heart of the battle between the White, the Red, and the Black, a conflict between forces that would preserve life and those that would see it serve more sinister powers or even cast off into nothingness. It would make, I think, a pretty great video game.
I don’t need to point out that we’ve never actually gotten a proper game based on The Dark Tower, do I?
Stephen King’s sprawling story about Roland Deschain has seeped its way into a lot of his other books. Several comics have been made chronicling the time between Roland first becoming a Gunslinger (essentially a paladin with revolvers) and the quest outlined in the books, tromping across the world to seek out the source. It’s been in development hell for an adaptation for years. And it’d make a pretty satisfying game… but I don’t think we’re ever going to get to play one. For some very good reasons.
Not a whole lot of challenges
Two things basically define Roland. The first is that he is absolutely relentlessly set upon his course, and he will allow absolutely nothing to sway him from his quest to reach the Tower. He willingly allows one of his traveling companions to die in order to further his goals, and up until the very end of the last book he’s quite willing to let such an event happen again. But he’s also defined by the simple reality that he is beyond deadly with his guns.
This is the essence of being a gunslinger, we’re told. A gunslinger picks up a weapon and knows how to use it on an almost instinctive level, kills as easily as most people breathe, and can stand against seemingly innumerable foes. The first book in the series shows Roland gunning down an entire town of people attacking him at once without taking more than a slight cut in one leg. Even among other gunslingers, Roland is uniquely gifted, far younger than others who successfully earn their guns.
All of this makes for an interesting protagonist, but it also creates some of the same problems you can see in a Batman game. You can’t really put combat challenges ahead of Roland. You can’t put a lot of challenges in front of Roland, since his approach to them is always going to come down to “try and use manners, and if that fails, shoot it.” It’s easy to write around Roland’s problems in a novel, and King does so elegantly; unfortunately, in a game, it becomes a lot more challenging.
Of course, there’s nothing saying that you have to set the game around Roland. But that leads to a major setting issue.
Who do you know?
By the time we meet Roland in the first book, Gilead has fallen. The gunslingers are as much of a legend as the Jedi were if you ignore the fact that the prequel films make Jedi about as legendary as soda jerks. It’s the state of the world, said many times over – it’s rotted away, decayed, and even during Roland’s childhood the world was struggling to repair itself amidst the general slump of what had been forgotten. Electric lights are a luxury of a bygone time, and we never are given even the slightest hint of what caused Roland’s world to just slowly fade and break down.
Welcome to the ticking clock hanging over any other story.
Setting the game as a prequel or with a different group of gunslingers almost has the same feeling as a session of Call of Cthulhu. You’re not saving the world, not even saving what’s left of the world. No matter what you do, Gilead will fall, your efforts will be for nothing, and the world will continue its slump into emptiness. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s not even much peripheral stuff to be done surrounding that unavoidable collapse. Yes, you can try to clean up around the edges and make the time before the fall more pleasant, but Marten Broadcloak will still one day come to Gilead, the Beams will break one by one, Farson’s men will rise… you get the idea. Jericho Hill looms large on the horizon, and nothing can be done for it.
Playing any other character settles you into the role of also-ran with no real impact on the swing of things. The prequel comics do a good job of setting up this central event and investing you in the characters, but you know by the time they’re over that all of the characters save Roland are going to be dead. This is the nature of the setting, and it’s hard to make that into an engaging story despite inevitable doom.
Dealing with the King
Of course, you can’t just make a game based on these books without dealing with the author. King himself is still very much alive, he’s stretched the threads of this series of novels through any number of of his other novels, and he has a great deal of feelings about these characters and this setting.
And, it seems, he’s in no hurry to give up that control.
I do not know Stephen King, but I’ve seen it said in enough places that he can be contentious to work with. He’s walked away from publishers before because he’s been dissatisfied with contracts. The man has enough name recognition that he has complete control over his creations. And I don’t doubt for a minute that if he really wanted the Dark Tower to be brought out in a game form, he would do something about making that happen.
He hasn’t. Logically, I don’t think he really does. He released a little interquel book in 2012 and he seems quite satisfied leaving the story where it is. Which is perfectly fine. With all of the various connections that the Dark Tower already has to his other works, with two more novels that essentially serve as a side story to the main event, it’s a very personal thing for him. It’s consistent. It’s what he wants it to be, and so it stays without a game.
It would be a pretty awesome game, though. Heck, you wouldn’t even need to know it from the name… all you’d need is Sai Roland in the background to cast everything in a new light.