Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

Retelling Hamlet in Elsinore

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Retelling Hamlet 
in Elsinore

Julián Carrera 

October 2019

Elsinore, Golden Glitch Studios’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starts on a familiar note, dramatizing a version of the play’s second scene. Instead of starting at the court, however, the game starts with Ophelia, near a pond. Polonius is asking for her help convincing Claudius, the present king of Denmark, to speed up the process for Laertes to leave. He wants to ask for the king’s blessing, but Claudius is busy discussing the risk that Fortinbras poses to Denmark. 

Ophelia sets the gears in motion by getting Gertrude to tell Claudius, and Laertes is given the blessing to leave. The day goes on. At night-time, Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia get together to say a final goodbye before Laertes departs in the early morning. Once all is said and done, Ophelia goes to sleep. A horrible nightmare unfolds before her eyes: a ghost, a play, an uncovered murder, a madman, and herself in a pond, drowning.

The dawn of the first day: Hamlet in Ophelia’s room. Taken during gameplay on PC.

After her nightmare, Ophelia finds Hamlet in her room, speaking about the murder of his father. After this, he bolts out of the room, apologizing. The plot of Hamlet then goes on as it usually does, but some things are different at first sight, mostly in casting choices and the gender swap of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On a deeper level, however, some things have changed. No longer is there a troupe of actors playing “The Murder of Gonzago.” Instead, there is a one-man troupe, led by a familiar character: Peter Quince, leader of the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Peter Quince introducing himself. Notice his face. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Everything, at least during the first “run” of the game, plays out as it normally does. There are some more characters present, like Irma the cook and Lady Brit, Queen Gertrude’s lady-in-waiting, but apart from that, not much different happens. Quince puts on a one-man show of “The Murder of Gonzago” using masks, Hamlet kills Polonius, and Ophelia dies. However, she does not drown. Rather, at one point during the first run of the game, a hooded figure appears and, for no apparent reason, kills Ophelia. She then wakes up, only to find Hamlet in her room, once again speaking about the murder of his father, and once again bolts out of the room apologizing. Ophelia is trapped in an endless cycle that inevitably ends with her death and the deaths of the people who always die in Hamlet.

Ophelia has met with a terrible fate, and Quince somehow knows about it. Taken during gameplay on PC.

Something, however, is rotten in the state of Denmark. Time is looping, and it seems that no matter what is different in Elsinore, Ophelia always dies. On top of that, Quince seems to know much more than he is showing. No one else notices the oddness of time, and yet Ophelia can influence what happens every time.

Most —if not all— pieces of journalism about Elsinore end up comparing it to the film Groundhog Day, and with good reason: both are narratives that rely on the constant repetition of the same day (or, in Elsinore’s case, the same four days) to tell their story. While this comparison seems to have at least some ground, I think the comparison is not entirely accurate. Elsinore seems to be more akin to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, not because of any similarities in gameplay, but taking inspiration in repetition.

The Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask. Notice the similarities to Quince.

Taken from the listing for Majora’s Mask on Nintendo’s website.

Majora’s Mask has the player relive the same three days over and over while making progress in different parts of the game every time, under the premise that, at the end of the final day, the moon will crash on the fictional land of Termina and kill everyone, unless the player can do something about it. It is this game that Elsinore seems to draw the most from, considering the nature of the time loop and the knowledge the player accumulates as they go. Quince acts as a sort of guiding figure, giving the player hints on what to do, similar to the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask, who starts the player’s quest to, first, retrieve what was stolen from them, and then to retrieve Majora’s Mask, an artefact that was stolen from the Happy Mask Salesman. The most important connection, however, seems to lie in Majora’s Mask Bombers’s Notebook, an object the player can get that shows a timeline of all characters the player can interact with: it shows when the player can do things to help characters, it shows meetings, and it shows windows of opportunity. Elsinore takes this interface and turns it into a timeline that shows the player what things have happened, what events will happen, and in what window of time they will happen, letting the player keep track of their current time cycle. As players play more and more, and cycles occur again and again, Ophelia gets more and more information to try to save everyone and stop whoever is murdering her. Whenever a new cycle starts, Ophelia keeps everything she learned from previous cycles, allowing the player to try different things.

Elsinore interprets the story of Hamlet in different ways, and it takes liberties with the play, taking elements from many of Shakespeare’s plays and putting them in Elsinore Castle. So, for example, Horatio jokingly flirts with Ophelia saying, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” There is a small text the player can find, called “8 Signs Your Nobleman Might Be Treacherous,” a piece of flavour text poking fun at characters from Shakespearean plays like Brutus (“Stay indoors on March 15 if possible”), MacBeth (“Even the most heartening prophecy can’t revive this relationship”), Othello (“Stay away from pillows”), and Hamlet himself (“Sometimes he tells you to get to a nunnery. […] Send this uncouth boy sulking back to university!”) In other cases, characters travel through plays, not just Quince, but Othello, too.

A screenshot showing Othello speaking to Ophelia.

Courtesy of the game’s website.

Elsinore is full of multiple possibilities and endless retellings of Hamlet. In my own gameplay, during the second cycle, Ophelia lets Hamlet know that she overheard Claudius’s confession of murder at the altar, which gives Hamlet an incentive to kill Claudius before even staging “The Murder of Gonzago.” This change, of course, comes with its own set of problems.

All in all, Elsinore gives players an entrance into the world of Hamlet through Ophelia and gives them a chance at changing the play’s story. Though it is just a bit over 400 years of Shakespeare’s death, the bard’s stories are still produced and worked on, with love letters to the works, like Elsinore, still being produced.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Julián Carrera 

August 2019

Your phone rings. It’s a text message. “Majd …” it says. It is from your wife, Nour. “Do you remember the time we visited Harasta with Adnan and Qamar?” A few seconds later, an image appears on your phone: the ruins of a city, half-standing, through the window of a car. After Nour sends the image of the ruins of Harasta, the messenger layout rises, revealing three options of emojis: a disappointed one, a surprised one, and one with X eyes.

Bury Me, My Love, a video game by The Pixel Hunt, Figs, and ARTE France, follows Nour as she leaves Syria to find a better life in Europe. The player is cast as Majd, Nour’s husband who stays in Homs, and must communicate with Nour through the game’s WhatsApp-like interface. As Nour moves on her way to Europe, she must make decisions, often turning to Majd for reassurance or opinion. The play aspect of Bury Me, My Love thus relies on making choices. Alhough the action of choosing which emoji to send seems at first to be inconsequential, the choice may end up profoundly affecting Nour’s journey.

A still from Bury Me, My Love on the Nintendo Switch, taken during gameplay.

Some choices are more consequential than picking emojis: should Nour stay in Damascus and wait for a bus to Beirut, or go to Aleppo to try to cross the border to Turkey; join a refugee march that will walk from Serbia to Hungary, or spend what limited money she has to take a train instead. There are also some more light-hearted choices, like Majd telling Nour he remembers his mom’s way of fixing a zipper or he doesn’t. Sometimes, the player can choose between dialogues and emojis, showcasing the different approaches to one single situation that can alter how the story plays out. The last way that Majd can respond to Nour is by taking a picture and sending it to her, though the points where Majd sends a picture are limited, and there is no choice to be made: only the picture can be selected, but there is a small minigame where the picture must be focused. In instances where there is no choice to be made, Majd texts on his own. Since the player interacts when there is a choice to be made, it seems that taking pictures is more of a formality to give the player agency beyond words and emojis.

Bury Me, My Love’s interactive method of storytelling places it within the genre of the visual novel, a form characterized by the player’s control over the story through available choices. Thus, players read through the story and are then prompted to pick an option, making decision trees a defining feature of the genre. Bury Me, My Love, however, does not provide the sort of visuals one would expect from a “visual novel” (compare, for example, the still image of Bury Me, My Love with that of Ace Attorney shown below).

A still from Ace Attorney, Capcom’s popular Visual Novel

Courtesy: ace-attorney.com.

It would be more accurate to call it interactive fiction like one of its inspirations, the game Lifeline, in which the player receives a message out of the blue. It is from an astronaut, lost on a strange moon after their ship crash-lands. After a first introduction to what happened, the astronaut says their name is Taylor (it is never specified whether Taylor is a he or a she). From there on, it is the player’s role to help them survive and find out what happened. Given the decision tree, however, there are multiple endings to Taylor’s story. A handful of them result in death, a couple result in survival, and fewer yet result in answers to the questions Taylor has about what happened. Though both Bury Me, My Love and Lifeline feature an interface made to resemble texting and rely on an abundance of choices to move the game forward, the one aspect that Bury Me, My Love borrowed the most from Lifeline was its use of time. In Lifeline, the player gets messages from Taylor on a real-time (or pseudo real-time) basis: if Taylor is doing something, they won’t reply until they can get in contact again.

Bury Me, My Love uses this same concept of (pseudo) real-time to its advantage to add realism to Nour’s journey. Sometimes, the player must wait a couple minutes. Sometimes an hour. When she’s sleeping, eight to ten. There is a point in the game the player can reach where Nour goes silent for almost three whole days. By limiting Nour’s responses on a timed basis, the game shows the power that comes from being in contact and the anxiety that comes when a loved one goes silent.

A still from Lifeline, taken from the game’s listing on the Play Store.

Apart from Lifeline, another inspiration for Bury Me, My Love is the article “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp,” published in Le Monde by Lucie Soullier and Madjid Zerrouky. The article tells the story of Dana, a Syrian refugee whose journey from Damascus to Germany is chronicled through Dana’s WhatsApp conversations with her family. “Bury me, my love” (from the Arabic phrase of affection and endearment تقبريني يا حبي) is what Dana’s mom tells her for good luck. Both Dana and Lucie Soullier are part of Bury Me, My Love’s editorial team, though the game aims to tell a variety of stories about Syrian refugees. The website for the game states:

“Our two main characters, Nour and Majd, are fictional. They do not exist, or rather, they exist collectively. They are a multitude of men, women, and children. Dana, her mother, her brother-in-law… as well as thousands of others who flee their country —or watch their relatives flee— all in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.”

The story that Bury Me, My Love tells, paired with the way it tells it, shines a light on how the movement of people works in the cases of forced migration by focusing not just on those who left, but also telling the story of those who stay behind. Bury Me, My Love challenges conceptions of what stories video games can tell while giving the player an experience to learn that is not often presented in the medium.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Videogames; or, Literary Merit

Videogames; or, Literary Merit

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Video Games; or, Literary Merit

Julián Carrera 

February 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that video games are a form of media. Entertainment media, but media nonetheless. They share the stage with books, films, and plays. And yet, why are video games not being talked about in-depth? Different forms of media are analysed and given attention in academia. Why not video games?

Is it a problem with the games themselves? Or is it a problem with the fact that they’re games?

Video games are the black sheep of literary analysis. Techniques that used to limit themselves to different kinds of texts have been extended to other media such as cinema or theater. It was a natural progression: films and plays rely on written scripts, so they could be analysed through the lens of literature. But so do video games, so why aren’t they analysed to the same degree as films, plays, or books? Video games are another medium to express ideas. Look, for example, at Undertale or Doki Doki Literature Club, games that look beyond the scope and expectations of the genres they adopt.

Undertale, developed by Toby Fox—and thus called an “independent” or “indie” game—is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) that puts the player in control of Frisk, a human kid who fell from the surface to the underground, where Monsters live, and must find a way to get back home.

Most RPGs with a premise like Undertale would have the player use a weapon to kill all the Monsters that stand between the player and a way back home. Undertale took this aspect of the genre and flipped it. It is the RPG where “you don’t have to kill anyone,” according to the game’s website. Undertale gives the player the choice to be violent or non-violent, and judges the player based on how much violence he or she used.

Screenshot from Undertale.

Courtesy of undertale.com.

Undertale’s premise alone makes it an achievement of the medium in that it takes inspiration—and quotes through game mechanics—from games that came before it and flips the expectations of the genre by being an RPG where nobody has to die. Books and films and plays that do the same thing are analysed ad nauseam in academia, so why not video games?

Is it because Undertale stands as an exception?

It doesn’t.

Look at Doki Doki Literature Club, another indie game by Team Salvato, which is not an RPG, but rather a dating simulator. Like Undertale, it flips a fundamental part of the genre to deliver a message.

Dating simulators are text-based games that give the player two main choices: which character to date and what line of dialogue to say. They are not built to be deep, nor to pose a challenge to the player. After the player chooses someone to date, he (in very rare instances, she) will be given a choice of dialogue options, one of which will scream “This is the right thing to say,” while the others will be written to be the wrong choice.

Doki Doki Literature Club takes this idea and, given its literature club setting—in good dating simulator fashion, it is a club comprised of four girls and the player—turns the dialogue into a “poem.” The player is given a collection of words to “write a poem,” and next to the list of words, there are the three girls available to the player for dating. Whenever a word is picked, one of the girls will jump, signifying “progress” with said girl. It is a system that is easy to cheat, as one of the girls likes dark and long words, another likes cute and animal words, and another likes short and simple words.

It is also a system based on a choice that doesn’t matter. Regardless of the player’s choice, the game always progresses to the same end: a transformation into a horror game where all the player’s agency to choose is taken away. The player is forced to see and experience the horror, with no choice to avoid it other than by abandoning the game. The dissonance of a horrifying game with the aesthetics of an anime dating simulator creates a narrative style that unsettles the player.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.”

Apart from these flips to the genre and to the games from which it draws inspiration, Doki Doki Literature Club flips the expectation of the medium itself. Before the game transforms into a horror game, it uses every design aspect to make the player feel that there is something wrong with the game. The background music is off-key at times, the characters break the fourth wall by calling out a joke that doesn’t work in translation (even though the game is in English and isn’t translated from any other language), and characters reference everything that happens in the horror part of the game through obscure dialogue. After it transforms into a horror game, it uses everything it established in the non-horror part of the game and flips it. Characters sometimes stand in front of the dialogue box instead of behind it, images that took up the entire screen turn into covers for jump scares once the player clicks away, and the game starts using “glitches,” or coding mistakes, to unsettle the player. The music plays off-beat and distorts, backgrounds start twisting, character designs start garbling up, dialogues appear in different fonts or are a random string of characters.

At one point, the game requires the player to dig through the game’s files and delete one of the character files to progress through the game. It gamifies the logic of computers beyond the game.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.” So why is it not treated in academia like all the novels, films, or plays that did the exact same thing?

We need to look beyond what has been established and start seeing video games for what they are: another medium to develop ideas.

Screenshot from Doki Doki Literature Club.

Courtesy ddlc.moe.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
ARTND ART HISTORY

Pin It on Pinterest