Of mice and men: Soma Games on adapting YA book series Redwall into a top-selling video game

Increasingly YA novels are becoming a source of material for video games, the latest being Penguin Randm House's Tales of Redwall book series. Licensing.biz talks to Soma Games about the appeal of the decade-spanning IP.
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In an alternate reality, it would be I being interviewed by Licensing.biz over the video game adaptation of the popular YA book series, Tales of Redwall.

Yep, confession time. As a child I spent much of the mid to late 90s immersed in the fantasy world created by author Brian Jacques in which heroic mice fought their tyrannical rat oppressors for freedom in some of the bloodiest battles ever witnessed by a seven year old.

Imagine Game of Thrones meets Animals of Farthing Wood for some kind of visual context. Minus the sex.

I also spent an inordinate amount of time on Sunday evenings storyboarding my own take on a video game version of titles such as Martin the Warrior or Lord Brocktree. 15 levels I had plotted out, until one morning I happened upon the interview that would end my career in video game design there and then.

The creator of this savage animal kingdom had put it in black and white. The last thing he would ever wish to see, is a video game adaptation of his Redwall universe.

Writers can be so fickle. Some 20 years later, Jacques clearly had a change of heart and by 2010 his people were working with the team at Soma games on an adaptation that landed on consoles the world over late last year.

So what happened? How did this team of game developers end up stealing my career?

“The truth is, I wasn’t familiar with Redwall at all when the opportunity first came across our desk around 2010,” Chris Skaggs, founder of Soma Games tells Licensing.biz.

“Back then, Mr Jacques was still writing and we were first approached as an outside contractor for a different project. Other people inside of Soma Games, however, were already huge fans and once I’d read a couple of books I could really see the appeal.

“The whole series has got such great and timeless themes that fit hand in glove with what we were already enthusiastic about, but it was definitely a case of right time, right place for us and the license.”

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Eight years from the project’s conception and Soma Games has delivered two games and a soundtrack under the Redwall license. The plan is to finish off three acts planned for the game’s protagonists Sophia Ryemaid and Liam Rivermouse in The Scout.

From there, the team plans to diversify the gaming offering to reach a much wider audience with “more, smaller, more intimate experience, including VR and AR as opposed to a singular, but enormous AAA title.”

“Because of the way all the pieces came together when they did, we wound up with a very generous amount of time to get familiarised with both the source material and the existing fandom - and it was of the highest importance that we did,” adds John Bergquist, director of communications at Soma Games.

“The Redwall fans love this material and we knew it was absolutely critical that we treat it with the utmost respect and accuracy. That said, we were also stepping into the fascinating chance to make new Redwall material, we weren’t adapting one of the books to a game, we were creating new characters and new stories that had to fit seamlessly into an existing world and that was a real challenge.”

To that end, conversations between Soma Games and the books series’ publisher Penguin Random House and rights owners Redwall Abbey Co, were and continue to be ongoing. Not only this, but fans were involved in the process from the outset, too.

“We tried very hard to keep a very open and transparent development process so fans could basically look over our shoulders at every phase, provide feedback from day one and they were of tremendous help.”

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In fact, the project originally sprang to life as a Kickstarter campaign, calling on the world’s fans to back an initiative to adapt a series of books they had grown up with into a video game format. It was in line with a number of trends within the gaming space - firstly that of crowdfunding; building a pre-made fanbase around a new launch, and secondly, of adapting YA literature into the video game genre.

“The thing that makes a game qualitatively different from a movie, book, or play is what we call ‘agency’,” continues Skaggs. “This is the idea that a reader or viewer is observing the action from a safe distance and the director or author has full control over what happens.

“But in a game, it’s the player making those crucial and unpredictable choices that drive the game’s action, pacing and its interpretation or theme.

“YA books are so often those places in our adolescence where some fantastical world catches our soul for the first time and we’re enthralled. Given the matter of agency, gaming has a unique power to let a player enter that immersive world so fully and remarkably - not just as an observer, but a participant and recapture that bittersweet nostalgia over and over.”

It’s a poetically put description of today’s appeal for video game adaptations of popular IP, some of which - like The Tales of Redwall - span the decades.

Perhaps it was the advancement of gaming’s storytelling ability that swayed Jacques’ opinion on the genre almost one decade ago? It certainly goes some way to highlight how the manner of fandom has evolved over the course of time.

That's a subject that the brains at Penguin Random House know only too well, themselves.

"Our partnership with Soma Games on The Lost Legends of Redwall has not only delighted long-standing fans of Brian Jacques' much-loved stories, but also introduced the brand to a whole new generation," Emma Topping, senior lawyer and executive for film, TV and stage at Penguin Random House UK tells Licensing.biz.

"Clearly the opportunities to expand and re-energise the brand are endless, and we look forward to revealing more of Brian's extraordinary world through a wide rang of media, so watch this space..."

But how is that looking in practice? When asked for their thoughts on whether the game series will ignite a wider demand for the Redwall IP in the consumer products space, both Skaggs and Bergquist offer an affirmative.

“We certainly hope so, and frankly it does appear to be what we are observing,” Skaggs suggests. “Every day new crowds of people discover what we are doing and show up agape with words like ‘how have I not heard of this…’”

Yea, yea - rub it in Soma Games, that could have been me. 

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