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A Shakespeare video game? Why not?

Video games have been adapted from just about every media there is. You have your licensed games based on movies (of varying quality), books, even music has had its own (now largely dead) genre of video games. But strangely enough, there aren’t a lot of video games based on works primarily performed in the theatre. I say this is strange, because video games can be incredibly theatrical. Many modern games with their richly detailed (or over-detailed) plots fit well into the genre of melodrama, others are simpler in their nature, relying on their iconic stature and well-known tropes to communicate things much in the same way that a comedy does. Not to mention, we routinely call levels or areas in video games “stages.” Okay, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch.

While you could certainly argue my statements about the theatricality of video games (I certainly haven’t explored that thought to its fullest), it does seem odd that the works of William Shakespeare have had such a limited presence in the world of video games. That’s not to say that there’s no presence, there is. It’s just so terribly minor. There’s the odd video game that’s named after one of his plays, but take little else from it. Examples that come to mind are a bad Mario clone called Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, which is a computer version of the board game Reversi. The board game has been marketed as Othello, so that’s not the fault of the video game. Then there’s Hamlet, which stars a scientist sent back in time and finds himself involved in the plot of the play of the same name (ignoring the fact that the play is almost certainly not historical). This is the closest we’ve gotten to a game based on one of the Bard’s works, and even the plot of that game bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s story. Saving Ophelia from Claudius is so inaccurate it almost hurts, but it doesn’t because accurately emulating Shakespeare was never the point of the game. The game’s full title is “Hamlet, or The Last Game Without MMORPG Features, shaders and Product Placement” (say that five times fast). The game isn’t about Shakespeare, it’s about parodying the current state of video games. So this leaves the field of Shakespeare video games pretty much wide open. Whether it should stay that way or not is another issue, so for the sake of this article, let’s take the position that games based on the works of Shakespeare should be produced. The question then, is what would this game look like?

One option, and certainly the one I’m least enthusiastic about, is taking the approach of games like Dante’s Inferno. This is similar to what has already been done. Make a game that isn’t entirely faithful to the source material, but relies on its imagery to provide action. The problem with this, and it’s definitely the problem with Dante’s Inferno, is that it becomes incredibly easy for any meaning the original work had to be lost. And when we’re talking about Shakespeare, meaning is everything.

Another option is to do a direct adaptation, but even that comes with its problems. While the act-scene structure might lend itself well to levels and worlds, the action of a play might not match the action of a video game well. Pontificating and soliloquizing would make for pretty boring gameplay. On the other hand, the war waging and sword fighting that is present in some of his plays would and already have resulted in engaging gameplay. So the main factor in a Shakespeare game when taking this approach becomes not what kind of game, but which play? A game based on Henry V, or any of the history plays really would be comparatively easy. Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, or The Taming of the Shrew? Not so much.

The option that is probably the silliest, yet the one I’m most in favor of, takes a bit from column A and a bit from column B. This idea is a fighting game crossover. You could have tight and exciting gameplay, but still technically remain true to the characters. Can you imagine Hamlet and Othello duking it out in the midst of the storm from King Lear? Or Benedick and Falstaff dueling to the death on the battlements of Elsinor? It’s a silly idea, but a lot of the best video game ideas are.