There have been video game adaptations of pretty much every major movie franchise and brand name. Even Cheetos of all things has a game. So, why not Shakespeare? The bard’s themes are universal, yet also allow for interpretation on the audience’s part. Surely a smart game designer could find a way to insert intriguing game mechanics into a Shakespeare story. It turns out they can, and developer Golden Glitch did. Elsinore re-imagines Hamlet as a supernatural point-and-click mystery, and delivers a fine fusion of gameplay and story.
Tragedy, Thy Name Is Ophelia
Elsinore starts at the beginning of Hamlet, the day before the titular prince sees his father’s ghost. Most know the story from there. Hamlet will learn that his uncle killed his father the king to steal his throne and the queen. From there, Hamlet will confront mortality and the meaning of life as he decides if revenge is warranted. That’s not the focus of Elsinore, though. Not entirely. Instead, we play as Ophelia, Hamlet’s former lover who takes her own life. Except that turns out to be a lie.
Ophelia was actually murdered by a spy who seeks to tear Denmark apart. Now, she’s caught in a time loop, forced to continuously redo the events of the play while trying to prevent her death and the ensuing carnage. It makes for a new kind of tragedy. One that’s more focused on Ophelia’s fight against the inevitable.
The most interesting developer choice in this game full of many is the decision to make Opheila the protagonist. This role gives her a depth unseen in the original play. It also gives us a chance to see the other characters – mostly the women – through a new lens. Playing as Ophelia, we experience firsthand how women of the time went unheard. She has all of this very important information, which no one will believe. In order to change certain events, she often has to get a man to deliver the news for her or manipulate things from afar. Likewise, we see how other women 0f the Elsinore court are undermined when they could decide the fate of everything. That’s not to say the male characters are underwritten. Everyone gets layers added to them, even the villainous King Claudius.
Still, it’s Ophelia who is the star. Having to see her family and friends die repeatedly takes its toll, and we see that. There’s some great character development in seeing her both gain some edge and also remain determined to break out of this time loop while saving everyone. It’s a hard task, writing in Shakespeare’s world, but the writers mostly pull it off. My one complaint is that the characters talk in a more modern way. This is fine, many players don’t want to spend 20 hours reading an attempt at ye olde English. The problem is that sometimes the game will use actual quotes from the play. It’s a little jarring to see Hamlet talk like a modern emo dude then suddenly burst into “to be or not to be.” It’s only distracting in those moments, though, and doesn’t take away from the otherwise solid script.
The (Game)Play’s The Thing
Ophelia’s time loop journey takes the form of a point-and-click adventure game. Ophelia wakes up Thursday morning, and is murdered sometime Saturday afternoon. As the clock constantly ticks, players click to guide the doomed heroine to different parts of Elsinore castle. Clicking on a character initiates a conversation told through text boxes and character portraits. Ophelia can share rumors or evidence gathered in the previous time loops. Depending on what you tell someone, they may be spurred to take immediate action or avoid their usual habit entirely. Share clear evidence that Claudius murdered the king, for instance, and he’ll be brought to justice. But what happens then? Will Hamlet be crowned king? Is the sulky, indecisive boy really the best choice?
The bulk of the gameplay is sharing information and watching these what-if scenarios unfold. If you’re not into games that require a lot of reading, planning, and waiting, Elsinore won’t change your mind. There are handy fast-forward and restart options to reduce the wait, but the late game is still a lot of running out the clock to trigger that specific event you missed last loop. For fans of the genre, and of Hamlet specifically, there’s a lot of fun to be had working out just how to get everyone to act the way you want them to. They’ll often surprise you, and not in a pleasant way.
Visually, the game relies more on the art than the graphics. The character portraits are expressive, successfully boiling their essence down to a bust. The models are simpler, and you can’t actually see their faces. While the environments are very well drawn, you also spend a lot of time looking at them through a fixed camera. It’s all well-presented, it just won’t blow any minds.
Worthy Of Applause
Elsinore is a game with a specific audience in mind. Lovers of Shakespeare and point-and-clicks will enjoy unraveling mysteries and creating alternate endings to Hamlet. While the game probably won’t entice anyone outside of that core audience, it still solidifies Golden Glitch as a studio to watch. This game proves that they’re a creative team with a talent for weaving story and gameplay together into a compelling whole. Hopefully, they don’t get to a nunnery, because we need more games from them.
A PC review code for Elsinore was provided to TheGamer by Golden Glitch Studios. Elsinore is available now for Windows, Mac, and Linux.