Shakespeare’s seen a lot of revision: annotated versions, abridged versions, anachronistic versions, film versions starting Leonardo DiCaprio, many other versions softened for audiences not from the 16th century. But softening the impact of Shakespeare is the last thing lead writer Katie Chironis and the Golden Glitch team behind upcoming game Elsinore want to do. No, this time-bending retelling of “Hamlet” looks to build upon the famous tale’s less-developed characters, especially the tragic Ophelia. It all culminates in a tangled web of altered timelines and decision making that can either keep the kingdom at peace or just let it all burn. It’s Groundhog Day meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
You’d be forgiven for only remembering Ophelia as the dull wallflower turned crazy tornado, drowning by the play’s end. Once on the sidelines, she’s now the main character in this reinterpretation, even though that doesn’t stop the original tale’s scenes from occurring with or without her. Ophelia isn’t just a little unhinged, she’s also stuck in a four-day time loop that repeats over and over until the inevitable tragedy hits.
“Honestly, instant reactivity in the player is the biggest thing because a lot of Shakespeare’s stories are about these long, slow, dramatically building arcs,” Chironis said when I saw Elsinore this week at the GDC 2016 Indie Megabooth. “But that doesn’t necessarily make for good gameplay. Players want to present something to someone and see a reaction right away, and so we have to kick off that arc really quickly and say over the course of four days ‘hey, player, this is still happening because of something you did.’”
I quickly elected to play Ophelia as I did all my characters in high school theater: obnoxious and blunt to the point of being deranged. With an easy chat system that lets you inform, listen to, or just outright ignore other characters, much of Elsinore’s progression hinges on what you don’t say as much as what you do. But no gossipy tidbit was too good to pass up for my Ophelia. Had a strange dream that seemed to predict the future with eerie accuracy? Might as well let father know. Hamlet’s being an uppity prat? Same deal, buster, and each option promises a significant impact on the overall direction the story takes. What someone doesn’t know can indeed hurt them, it seems. The only harsh jump in realism is believing that Ophelia could breathe enough to chat after sprinting a thousand yards down to the docks.
“The two differences between 'listen' and ‘inform’ is just that listening to characters will allow them to tell you what they’re thinking, which changes depending on what’s just recently happened,” Chironis says. “So if a character has murdered somebody, what they’ll tell you is drastically different than if they just met you at a garden party. And that’s how you get all this new info. You can present your findings to someone at any point. If you tell the king of Denmark that you know he’s a murderer on day one, it’ll be dramatically different than if he confesses later.”
Chironis (whose credits include work on Ori and the Blind Forest and the Nancy Drew adventure game series) and the Golden Glitch team aren’t aiming for any sort of traditional “choose your own adventure” story. It’s all about giving players that sense of agency in a story defined by centuries of rigid analysis.
“If you were to make Hamlet the protagonist of the story, where you can change the official story, you wouldn’t be able to accomplish much because he’s booked every second of the day,” Chironis says. “Ophelia’s only role is to be there and die, so she’s this perfect stealth protagonist who’s going around whispering in everyone’s ears. Ophelia’s arc learns that her dad has been murdered and suddenly she goes totally crazy and kills herself. I was always like, ‘that doesn’t seem to add up to me.’ There’s a lot of theories that she’s pregnant or something, but I toyed with the idea of ‘what if she’s in a time loop?’ and she’s only crazy because she’s seeing everyone she loves die and she can’t stop it?”
Grim words, but the atmosphere surrounding Elsinore (set for a 2016 release on PC, Mac, and Linux) comes across as immensely positive. It’s a love for classic storytelling and a willingness to chuck it all at the same time that keeps Elsinore an engaging premise.