Shaking Up Shakespeare’s Balance of Power in the Upcoming Game Elsinore

April 11, 2016

In Hamlet, almost everybody dies. Even those who aren’t too familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy know this much. It may as well be set in stone; Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes and others will meet the same fate in every production of Hamlet you ever see, the characters powerless to change the course of events that result in their demise yet again.

But what if one character were made aware that these tragic events were repeating themselves? What if, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or Link in Majora’s Mask, Ophelia had the ability (or perhaps the curse) of reliving the events of Hamlet over and over again, and was empowered to try to alter her own fate and the fates of others? This is the concept behind designer Katie Chironis’ upcoming game Elsinore. I spoke with her and members of her design team last month at GDC, where Chironis described how the game emerged from her own background in literature and game design.

“I was a writing major in undergrad,” she says. “I read Hamlet multiple times in high school and again in college, just breaking it down, and at the same time that I was reading all these tragedies and dissecting them, I was also starting to make games. And so it was kind of like, ‘What if we combined this concept of the power fantasy where all you do is win win win, with a tragedy where all you do is lose lose lose?’”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t get to do much. This is partially why Chironis felt that she was the right choice for the protagonist of Elsinore. Hamlet, she notes, is “booked every hour of the day,” while Ophelia spends most of her time offstage, freeing her up to do other things while the play goes on. In Elsinore, you don’t change the course of events by poisoning people’s goblets or stabbing them in the back with daggers, though your actions might get other people to do such things. You do it by gathering information—often by eavesdropping on conversations—and then deciding when and with whom to share that information.

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How is it that Ophelia can get away with skulking around? “Ophelia is kind of the ideal stealth character,” Chironis explains, “because nobody pays attention to her and nobody expects her to do anything. She’s so unimportant to the major events of the play, and so in some way, she’s the perfect person to be whispering in people’s ears.”

Even though information is your tool and your weapon in Elsinore, the game is much more complex than a standard series of dialogue trees. As engineer Eric Butler describes it, “What we wanted to do with Elsinore is to make some of it a simulation instead of a standard choose-your-own-adventure. So what we have is kind of a melding of these two; it’s not just a branching narrative and it’s not a wide-open simulation where you’re playing in a sandbox. What you’re doing is influencing parameters that then make certain events possible, certain events impossible, eventually changing the outcome.”

In those terms, it may sound kind of dry, but when you think about the very high, very human stakes for Ophelia and everyone else involved in the events at Elsinore Castle, it’s anything but.

“For instance,” Chironis says, “in the play, Gertrude’s whole arc is that she just kind of sits at the king’s side and then is poisoned and dies at the end. But what if you were to tell her that her husband actually murdered her last husband to get where he is? Would she try to get her revenge against him? There’s all these different paths, and because you can present information at any given point in the time loop, you have to account for that, given what the character knows right now and what they would do with that, given their mental state at the moment.” Or as Eric puts it, “Your actions don’t directly control what happens. Your actions control how the NPCs are thinking and feeling, and how they’re thinking and feeling controls what happens.”

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This, the designers hope, will work to subvert any attempts to play Elsinore as a kind of power fantasy. Chironis says, “We’ve seen a lot of frustration from players where, I think their mental model when they start playing is, ‘If I gather all this information, I can have this perfect mastery. I can play puppet master.’ But you can’t because the characters are still really fucked up people with their own aims and ambitions that will get in the way of your best intentions.” So you might present a character with a piece of information that you expect will have a very positive result, only to see them twist it into something horrible because of their mental state, with the results being something you had no intention of bringing about.

Players may not exactly enjoy this, but the team is okay with that. Engineer Kristin Siu says, “It’s very disempowering for the player but for us, it’s pretty satisfying. It also fits in very nicely with this idea of tragedy. Tragedy is all about watching characters that you empathize with do things you don’t want them to do. You can try to present all this information to characters but they may not necessarily behave in the way that you want them to behave. And so part of experiencing the tragedy is seeing them take the information that you gave them and twist it into something terrible.”

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But Elsinore isn’t all doom and gloom; as the time loop repeats, Ophelia learns things, and you actually can use the knowledge you gain to have a positive impact on the course of events. The game also takes a playful but subversive approach to its interpretations of characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Chironis says, “I grew up going to Shakespeare productions with my parents and it was always an all-white cast, and back in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-white, all-male cast. Now I think it’s interesting to reinterpret Hamlet for a modern audience that, I hope, doesn’t want to see an all-male, all-white cast.”

So Ophelia and her brother Laertes are biracial. Additionally, Chironis explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women of color. And I don’t want to go into too much detail but a lot of the characters have fluid sexuality and gender identification. People think of history as being predominantly white and male but it actually isn’t, these people have been here all along. We’re gonna talk about their stories and their experiences through the lens of Hamlet.”

Elsinore is scheduled for release later this year. You can subscribe to the game’s mailing list on the official site.

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