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Debate: What Shakespeare Play Would Make The Best Videogame PART 2

Part 2 of a debate between a father and son, literature teacher and game designer, respectively.

Bobby Lockhart, Blogger

May 30, 2012

19 Min Read

What follows is Part 2 of a dialogue between Rob and Kerr.  Rob is a video game designer in the Chicago area.  Kerr is a literature teacher in Newark, NJ.  Also, Rob is Kerr's son.  

Part 1 is also here on Gamasutra, and at Kerr's blog, which is here.

Their topic is: 'What Shakespeare play would make the best video game, and what would that game be like?' 

Kerr:  To begin with, I want to bookmark some ideas and return to them at a later post.  First, I would like to explore the idea of moving Julius Caesar to another setting.  This is a time-honored tradition in Shakespearean production.  I would say today it is standard practice to costume in modern business suits, and of course, Orson Welles created a landmark modern fascist interpretation in 1936.  I suppose I hadn't considered that possibility, and it opens up a lot more of the plays, especially those that have traditionally been reset in different times and places, such as Othello and Macbeth and the ever-lovin'Midsummer's Night Dream.  Personally, I would like to set all the romantic comedies aside, as the stakes, typically who will end up side-by-side at the altar, do not feel like a "fit" for gaming.  But we need to explore the idea of divorcing Shakespeare's narrative from its original settings -- and doing so gives license to ignore those pesky historical facts that troubled me so. 

Prospero & Ariel

Prospero & Ariel

Go, Ariel!  Confound these mortals by camping at their spawn point!
This does place a sideways finger on the inherent flaw in the entire concept--we are attempting to engage Shakespeare's power without his language.  I must admit that I cannot conceive how that can be incorporated, but I would like to see how we can.  It is true that Shakespeare took his received materials and wielded them into different, more complex, and more resonant narrative shapes, but that is still not why he is the most revered writer in the world.  It comes down to the very words themselves and we ignore them at our peril.  But I await instruction as to how blank verse and other Shakespeare text can be employed as an integral part of a game, and not just a decorative feature.  Could there be tasks or goals associated with language which are required to progress in the game? 
Back to The Tempest.  I am probably going to reveal the depths of my ignorance about gaming, but in my simple understanding, the most successful games are social multi-player games in which people explore a universe, rather than simply being a god controlling others.  That was my template for Tempest.  Certainly somebody would want to be Prospero seeking to regain his dukedom.  You could be Caliban seeking to perform tasks to achieve independence from Prospero or Ariel seeking to earn your freedom from Prospero.  You could be Alonso or Antonio, seeking Ferdinand and escape from the island.  You could be Ferdinand, seeking to perform the tasks to be worthy of Miranda.  You could even by Miranda, striving to become an independent adult away from her father.  And for any role not being adopted by a player, the game could take on that role from sets of pre-determined alternative tracks.  And Stephano and Trinculo can work as all-purpose troublemakers, available to thwart anyone's goals and plans.  The design trick is to figure out how these interact, and how, for example, an action of Caliban could alter the Antonio plotline, or something Miranda does could impact Ariel's quest. 
But maybe I am getting ahead of my self.  If I were directing The Tempest for the stage, I would never run down any of these story or even character rabbit holes until I had decided what the play was about.  Once I've landed on that, all my other decisions can proceed therefrom.  It is unecessary to come up with the final and definitive answer as to the meaning or themes of any given play; one simply has to latch on an idea or ideas -- no more than two or three, tops -- that are supported by the text and which can help the play sustain in performance.  So, for instance, Hamlet is about dozens of different things, but if the director decides the play is about Betrayal then everything everyone does can proceed from there.  The set, costume and lighting designer, the way the actors move and interact, the choice of goals within scenes --everything can be interpreted through the lens of "betrayal." 
So what is The Tempest about, and what would be a good choice for a game design?  We have already talked about freedom and confinement, as reflected by Caliban, Ariel, Ferdinand, Miranda and the enchanted passengers of the wrecked ship.  Prospero is even arguably confined by his desire to reverse the wrongs of the past, a desire from which he needs liberation.  That connects to another theme, reconciliation and forgiveness.  This could present serious challenges for a game driven by pre-determined logic, but perhaps receiving forgiveness can be broken into steps which need to be performed properly.  There is a conflict between the natural and technological worlds, if we interpret magic as a type of techonology.  Or we could look at magic as something between nature and technology -- man-made, but drawing on secret natural aspects of the universe. 
Why this English-class discussion of themes?  Because we need to decide why we're making the game.  We need some criterion to couch all the other decisions.  We need something that will keep us moving in a defined direction, because it is clearly easy to get lost in the woods. 
I don't know if what I'm imagining is technologically feasible -- a more straightforward story with clearly defined goals might be far better.  It's easy to come up with an adaptation of Macbeth as a first-person-stabber game.  But I am also looking to explore those aspects that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.  Nowadays, thanks to Joseph Campbell, we all know how to cook up a hero's journey by the numbers.  Thus I am drawn to the more particular, the more peculiar, the more inconsistent and the more complex elements that constitute Shakespeare, especially from mid-career on. 
Or am I just talking through my wizard's hat?

Rob:  I like that you brought up the language.  It is really hard to get rid of the great dialogue Shakespeare has given us.  I imagine that's why Baz Luhrmann refused to give it up in Romeo + Juliet, and later the same choice was made in Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, despite setting the story in contemporary California.  It's definitely an argument against re-setting any Bard-game in a different time and place.



Gimme that sword!

On the other hand, gamers are no strangers to 'thee's and 'thou's, so an adapting game developer probably wouldn't need to worry too much about translation to contemporary english, so you could really go either way (a more modern setting or an authentic one), and it's not an easy choice.

One great thing about using Shakespeare's actual words is that there are so many of them.  Since games are a series of choices which each, ideally, have different consequences, games require more content than plays or films do (not to mention the fact that they're currently expected to last about ten times as long).  For instance, Julius Caesar has a bunch of ghost which are mentioned as portents of Caesar's death (but never shown, presumably for budgetary reasons).  They might be cool to include in the game, but the play has given them no lines.  Luckily there are plenty of ghostly lines from Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth which might be perfect.

The Tempest as an online open-world multiplayer adventure is interesting (that's what you suggested, by the way, in game industry jargon).  There aren't many online multiplayer games designed for heterogeneous groups of that size.  That may be because people wouldn't play it, or because it's an untapped market; I'm not certain.

One thing I foresee as being problematic is the compliment of verbs.  In creating a videogame, an early decision is always "What verbs can the player character do?"  The verbs that some of the characters have at their disposal -- summoning fairies, invisibility, flight, hypnosis, meteorological control -- are a lot more interesting than the verbs other characters have -- gathering wood, getting drunk, stealing clothes, talking to your girlfriend's parents, etc.

If I can take your role a moment without hurting my own cause too much, I think the best strategy for adapting The Tempest would be to stick to Ariel as your one and only player character (or perhaps split her into multiple characters with the same attributes).  She is empowered enough to feel fun to play, but still has a master who she fears.  Her master gives her specific missions to complete, and then summons her to do more.  If she does well she is promised a reward -- her freedom.

In terms of the thematic approach you mentioned, I think it's a sound one.  I'd relate that idea to The Art Of Game Design's tenth lens, The Lens of Resonance.  There are a few one might pick as a kernel to base a Julius Caesar videogame around.  The best, I think, is loyalty.  The decision to kill Caesar is mostly a conflict of loyalties.  Loyalty to a friend vs. loyalty to the state is Brutus' dilemma.

If I were adapting Julius Caesar to a game today, I would spend some time establishing the comraderie between the characters.  I might include, as a level, the beautiful story Cassius tells in scene 2, line 90, of how Julius saved him from drowning, to establish the affinity of Cassius towards Caesar.  Then there would be a level where you would have to mitigate some of Caesar's tyranny, perhaps by saving a servant who he would have mistreated, in order to show how he damages the republic.

The Death of Julius Caesar

The Death of Julius Caesar

Ow, ow ow ouch, ow owie oo!

Then I would give the user a choice of whether to take part in the plot against Caesar's life -- in other words, to continue the story as Brutus or Marc Antony.  I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities in each of those decisions, and each are honorable men -- there are no true villains in this story, which makes it an even stronger choice, to my mind.  That's just a first instinct, though.

Veering off course a bit, some people in the comments of the previous installment had the (I thought, inspired) idea of using a minor character as the player character to explore the world of Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet without influencing (much) the main storyline.  I don't think it works so well with either of the plays we chose, but what do you think of that idea?

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