By Dan Griliopoulos
Saturday April 23rd 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, arguably the world’s greatest playwright. Oddly enough, despite video games’ love of plundering the treasures of literature and film for inspiration (*sadly shakes his head at Dante’s Inferno and God of War*), our medium has mostly avoided The Bard and his spotless reputation. Perhaps that’s because his language is too archaic, perhaps his plots are too heart-on-sleeve, or perhaps developers have simply preferred less highbrow inspirations. There’s the rub.
So many of the best Shakespeare plays are missing from the video game world. Yet, while there aren’t that many games drawn directly from the master’s quill, there are others that are Shakespearean in their content or their tone. I’ve hunted all corners of the world for the ones that fit his plays best and listed them below.
Finally, this isn’t the end for Shakespeare in games. The UK’s wonderful GameCity Off The Map event is challenging developers to fill in those gaps this year, asking people to make Shakespearian games using material from the British Library’s archives. So hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll be able to celebrate the bard more than ever.
To Be, Not To Be, or To Save Scum
Hamlet, let’s be honest, is a wuss. The lily-livered Prince of Denmark knows his uncle has left his dad as dead as a doornail at the very start of the play, has usurped the throne and has now married Hamlet's mum. Hamlet has been told all this by his dad’s ghost and ordered to get revenge. The entire play is him trying to get more proof of the murder – which is really a way of avoiding his duty, because he’s read too much poetry and philosophy. Meanwhile, the armies of the inimical king of Norway, Fortinbras, are on the border, poised to invade.
There’s no game that’s a direct Hamlet parallel - however, there are some adaptations. For example, 2010’s Hamlet or the Last Game without MMORPG Features, Shaders and Product Placement - which is a Flash point and click adventure that’s about an alien who accidentally flattens Hamlet and has to attempt to replicate his role. Sadly, the title and concept are pretty good, but it’s really not as funny as it should be and is ageing badly.
A better prospect is the yet-to-be-released Elsinore, seen above, a time-looping adventure game, where you play as Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia. In this version, she’s had a vision that every last soul in Elsinore castle will be dead in four days time - and she’s the only one who can stop it. Lie low, and she’ll have to relive the four days again and again until she finds an acceptable future. It’s due out in what the Danish call ‘vinter’.
Unfortunately for Elsinore it can’t be the best Hamlet adaptation, because that’s already been made. Ryan North (the over-talented creator of Dinosaur Comics and the much-missed Galaga webcomic) wrote an adventure game book of Hamlet back in 2013, which was turned into an app by Tin Man Games last year. It’s called Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be. Words you could use to describe it are ‘hilarious’, ‘knowing’, and ‘meta’. It’s a game where not only can you play as Hamlet or Ophelia, but also Hamlet’s dead dad (who can apparate inside his treacherous brother to explode him) and even Ryan North himself, writing the gamebook.
Is This a Nuke-Carrying Robot I See Before Me?
Macbeth is the play that invented the face-heel turn. It’s also one of Shakespeare’s best and has been adapted into every medium going – indeed, both Marc Ecko and the Dante’s Inferno team have pondered making it into a game. In the play, the Scottish king’s most loyal, hot-blooded and popular general is corrupted by a prophecy that he will be an invincible king – and persuaded by the realpolitik arguments of his wife into making it come true. Where Hamlet is frankly wussy, paralysed by philosophical musings, Macbeth sees the futility of his doomed position almost from the first moment, but plunges on in anyway.
Given their somewhat black and white morality systems and WWE-quality storylines, Blizzard’s writers love this type of anti-hero. Arthas from Warcraft III is the best example. He turns from being a good man and true, faced with bad choices (wipe out a city to stop an undead plague spreading), into a stony-hearted monster making bad choices because that’s what he wants (stab your dad when he’s about to hug you because, uh, it’s what evil people do). It’s an archetype that Blizzard has used over and over – see also Sargeras from WoW, Arcturus Mengsk from StarCraft, Neltharion from WoW, Kerrigan, and all the heroes in Diablo. In Blizzard’s worldview, every hero is just one step away from toppling into darkness.
But there’s one game character who matches the MacBeth archetype even better than the half-arsed Arthas. And that’s Metal Gear’s Big Boss.
After all, Arthas might have started as a goody, but he wasn’t exactly affable, and nor was he a particularly good leader of men (he couldn’t help but butcher them). Big Boss on the other hand starts, like Macbeth, as an affable badass, working for the right thing, and is pushed by circumstance and opportunity into becoming an insane tyrant who just wants to be understood - and for the world to be endlessly at war.
After all, Big Boss starts as a loyal, much decorated member of the US army, but is forced to assassinate his mentor, The Boss, before finding out she was set up by the US government. Despite that, he’s so loyal, he doesn’t even turn against the government when they charge him with treason for spearheading a rebellion he wasn’t involved in. He stays loyal and even when he’s involved in setting up The Patriots mercenary army, it’s with the somewhat-noble aim of removing the military from the control of Machiavellian governments. Sadly, that aim soon falls apart, and over the following thirty years, he gradually becomes a mercenary terrorist, running his own country, and obsessed with a world perpetually at war, before he ostensibly dies at the hands of his own clone Solid Snake…
Games have only recently managed to embrace romance effectively, and still far too few pull it off convincingly. And Romeo and Juliet is The Greatest Love Story Ever Told™. Admittedly, it has some unusual twists – the often-Bowlderised fact that both of the protagonists are children (Juliet is 13), that their families are in a lethal feud, and that they accidentally end up fulfilling a suicide pact.
There isn’t really a direct game conversion of Romeo and Juliet (ignoring the appalling Romeo: Wherefore Art Thou?). But if you’re looking for an equally-painful and doomed in-game romance, you should look no further than To The Moon. Here, you play a pair of maybe-romantically entangled doctors attempting to implant a happy memory in a dying man’s brain - but you’re blocked by his troubled relationship with his deceased wife.
Final Fantasy IX does have a passable Shakespearean romance in it – there’s a play by Lord Avon (a thinly-veiled analogue of the Bard himself, who was from Avon) called I Want To Be Your Canary, which features two star-crossed lovers and a classic number of Shakespearean deaths and betrayals.
The best version, though, is in Knights of the Old Republic. Your Jedi is exploring the world of Dantooine when he happens across a boy’s body in the wilds, with a diary on it. You quickly find out that there are two warring families called the Matales and Sandrals, who are living in neighbouring heavily defended compounds. This dead boy had gone missing from the Sandrals. They thought the Matales had kidnapped him and so took the Matales’s son in revenge. However, while the son of the Sandrals was in captivity, the daughter of the Matales has fallen for him, and they ask for help escaping.
Whatever you do, the situation ends up with a huge Mexican stand-off between the Sandrals and the Matales and their heavily armed droid gangs. And this is where it turns into Star Wars proper. If you’re playing light side, you can try to talk them all down. Succeed and they all end up friends and you ride off into the sunset. Even if you fail, the kids will elope together anyway.
But if you’re playing Dark Side, it gets much more Shakespearean (and you basically become Iago from Othello.) You coax them into fighting (they’re surprisingly reluctant even when you start shouting the word ‘kill’ repeatedly) then you lie to them about who murdered the boy, and then you personally massacre everyone who’s left standing. Suffice to say, you get lots of Dark Side points.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows the adventures of some fairies, some peasant actors attempting to put on a romantic play that’s a bit like a rubbish Romeo & Juliet, some star-crossed aristocrats who all drink love potions, and, for some reason, Theseus and Hippolyta. That makes it a hodge-podge of Greek myth, contemporary satire, romantic farce, and Middle High German epic poetry. In contemporary lingo, it’s Shakespeare laying intercontinuity crossover on with a trowel.
Surprisingly enough, no one in video-game land has made anything that farcical. Though Kingdom Hearts could be argued to have made something equally ridiculous. And there are love potions in lots of games, like Fallout 3.
But Shin Megami Tensai II apparently did attempt to replicate it. Now I’ve not played this, as it’s a Japan-only release, so forgive me if I get it muddled. But the game is set in a world overrun by demons, where humans all live in one totalitarian version of Tokyo, everything is packed full of biblical symbolism and God has an evil plan.
So the antagonist Daleth wants to get rid of the protagonist, Aleph. He chooses to do this by getting an ‘infidelity sap’ (a love potion) from the trickster fairy Puck (taken straight from Shakespeare) to give to Aleph, so he’ll fall in love with another fairy Hanoun. Instead, the plan screws up and the love potion affects another party member, Hiroko, who falls in love with Daleth, and starts chasing him around. Meanwhile, while Aleph is healing Hiroko, Daleth is hit by the love potion and falls in love with Hanoun – who already loves him. And they all live happily ever after. (Except for that ending bit where you’ve got a choice between genocide or killing God.)
There are tonnes of video games called Othello, but they tend to be the least faithful adaptations EVER. Shakespeare’s version isn’t about black and white tiles – it’s a story about a hero misled into murdering those he loves. The other important character is Othello’s sidekick, ‘honest Iago’, an utter prick (and probable psychopath) who is determined to cause chaos and destroy Othello. And he succeeds, resulting in the deaths of almost everyone in the play.
Playing as a psychopathic Sith in any Old Republic game is a pretty good representation of Iago. Persuading otherwise innocent people to do terrible things and revel in their destruction fits with his modus operandi. For a comparable role of Othello himself though, which raised racism as a topic even in the half-hearted way of the 17th century, perhaps only Telltale’s The Walking Dead’s has dealt well with it, with the once-respectable Lee, brought low by rage and jealousy.
Lear is a sad tale about a green eyed monster of a king who is too susceptible to flattery, and is driven to madness by treachery. There are plenty of dysfunctional royal families in games - the Elder Scrolls series has some pretty bad ones, especially in the backstory. And there’s always the frankly bonkers King Radovid from The Witcher III.
But the game for this is Crusader Kings. It’s the only game where a mad king could disinherit his daughter then be betrayed by his other two daughters, before the first daughter invades his kingdom with her new husband and his huge army. And everyone ends up dead, and some third-rate nobody succeeds to the throne. That’s not only possible in Crusader Kings II – it’s normal.
Richard III is a bit like Iago, but ruling England, so much more successful. The play has Richard, the ambitious Duke of Gloucester, murder his way to the throne of England, including knocking off his two nephews, while putting a smiley face on it all, before the whole England rises up in arms and revolts, and Richard dies at the moment of his victory.
Though, again, Crusader Kings II is a good model for this, there’s one person in games who’s a perfect two-faced analogue of Richard. He’s in Jade Empire and (mega-spoilers, but the truth will out) it’s your pure-as-the-driven-snow Master Li, who apparently gets kidnapped at the game’s start.
Get two-thirds through the game and you’ve defeated the evil Emperor, who Master Li tasked you with revenging yourself upon. Do that, and Master Li is freed. Yet it turns out that he wasn’t your Guardian, but the Emperor’s brother, and he plotted the whole story out. He also trained you so that you had a flaw in your technique, and he kills you with one blow. And picks up your amulet, and becomes Emperor himself at last.
Then you return from the dead, where you’ve removed the source of his power, and strike him down in the moment of his triumph. Richard, on the other hand, lost his horse and was buried under a pub car park. (I’ve run out of parallels, let’s face it.)