Videogame libraries can fill the shelves of actual archives with rows of colorful spines; they’re so voluminous it’s easy to forget that videogames have touched on only a fraction of possible subjects–at least, beyond the usually soporific genre of “edutainment.” Shakespeare is one of them.
The Bard’s plays have been subject to many interpretations over the centuries, from postmodernist regietheatre, to TV shows, to Hollywood and Japanese cinema. Like great opera, Shakespeare’s plays are a rich field to explore, begging for reinterpretations that salvage their timeless aspects and foreground what is most appealing about them.
Elsinore, whose elevator pitch is “Groundhog Day meets Shakespeare,” looks set to take up the challenge with a time-looping isometric RPG take on Hamlet. You play as Ophelia. Less passive than Shakespeare imagined her, she responds to her nightmares by trying to alter the fates of her family and kingdom, and make one of the marquee Shakespearean tragedies less, well, tragic. In an added twist, Ophelia is caught in a time loop that forces her to relive the four days of the play’s plot over and over again.
I was able to play a demo at PAX East this year and came away impressed with its layered interpretation of the story. There are conversations you can have, but the core of the game is played out in real time, with the denizens of the titular castle going about their day, undertaking the events that Hamlet is world famous for. Ophelia can explore the grounds, following certain characters and overhearing their conversations or spying on their actions.
It does feel a bit incongruous for there to be certain, clearly secret conversations going on between two characters you’re standing next to who chatter away as if you’re not there. This was explained to me as an expression of Ophelia’s social status, and the fact that she would be deemed unthreatening and uninteresting. It’s an interesting take, one I rather like, but it could stand to be more effectively communicated by the game.
Even so, I was quite charmed. Ophelia works like a detective here, gathering clues and figuring out who to talk to in order to save the day.
There’s value in literary adaptations that go in completely different directions with their source material. Videogames have the virtue of enlisting the player as a co-author, however. To some, a quest to spare Hamlet’s characters from death and despair may be to miss the point, but the nature of a game so copiously and carefully written as this is to allow the nature of a videogame to prise open different themes and motivations. It also allows us to play with that classic storytelling convention from spec fic about how changing the past can lead to unpredictable (and not necessarily better) futures. The demo I played was quite long, and I had to move on before I could get further, so I couldn’t really assess the impact of Ophelia’s actions but I was told that tragedy remains a theme of the game.
It seems likely that Ophelia, rather than crafting a ‘happily ever after’ for everyone, is more in the business of choosing who lives and who dies–and dealing with the consequences. It’s rather in keeping with the overall theme, I think.
Adapting classic source material can be an easy way to find inspiration, but it’s worth remembering a few key things. First, one should have a good sense of why a particular piece of material should be adapted by you specifically; what do you bring that others haven’t? Secondly, understand what an adaptation can do and view that as your creative mandate. An adaptation of a work can 1) bring certain themes into the foreground to be explored more fully, 2) be more relatable to modern and/or more diverse audiences, and 3) do something dramatic that would, for one reason or another, have been impossible for the source material’s creator; this could be anything from special effects to altering some aspect of the narrative.
I think back to opera a lot; as a genre it thrives on adaptation. Though originalist stagings of opera can be found worldwide, just as many are updates that–while maintaining the original libretti and score–change their context through stage settings and costumery. One recent Met staging of Giulio Cesare, an 18th Century Handel opera about Julius Caesar’s storied romantic adventures in Egypt, updated it by turning into something more suited to Handel’s time and casting Caesar as a British general in India. The staging fused Bollywood dance to the orchestral strains that accompanied certain scenes. And it worked a treat.
For opera, where changing the score or libretti would be considered an unforgivable sin, the magic of interpretation lies entirely in the colors adorning the stage–and it does a lot to change or surface the meaning of events on stage, which can combine beautifully with the unique touch every performer and orchestral conductor gives their performance. It’s what can make two different performances of the same opera completely unique experiences.
What does this look like in videogames? Elsinore gives us some powerful hints for sure. There are some clever re-imaginings taking place as well–such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being itinerant women, or certain characters being related to Mediterranean and Near Eastern merchants. And unlike most educational games, it might actually be interesting to young people who are developing a taste for RPGs, providing an infinitely better way than Cliff Notes to engage with the Bard in a more compelling way.
Personally, though, I’m pulling for these folks to make a sequel about Macbeth.