by Ella Nagle
At its most simplistic description, Elsinore is a click-and-point adventure game where the player embodies Hamlet’s Ophelia. As the game unfolds, your abilities as a player expand. At the start, you learn that you are living through Shakespeare’s tragedy but you are able to interact with it by clicking on the characters around you and either following them or talking to them. You can only talk to people about information that you gather from others, stored in your electronic journal as “hearsay.” You also gain hearsay by following characters and listening in on their conversations. One of your main sources of agency in the game comes from your ability to distribute information to characters that might change their course of action— something we often long for as viewers of tragedy, when we want to warn Romeo that Juliet is simply sleeping or tell Hamlet that it’s not his uncle behind the curtain.
Another large source of agency comes at the end of Saturday (the story of Hamlet begins on a Thursday morning) after Hamlet has mistakenly killed your father, a hooded and masked figure simply titled “The Spy” (who you’ve likely heard about from listening in on royal meetings) walks up to your character and murders you. A black screen with a small animation of a lily pad and skull pops up and offers that you try again. You wake up in your bedroom as Ophelia on Thursday morning before all the tragedy has transpired.
You realize that you are somehow moving outside the flow of time and you gain the ability to both fast-forward time and to reset the time loop. The timeline feature that the player is introduced to in the first cycle suddenly takes on a new meaning. As you hear about events in the future or even set them into motion you will see them pop up on your timeline, if you want to jump ahead to this event you can simply fast forward your time to it. If you set something in motion that is unlikely to occur (perhaps it’ll be after the Norwegian Army invades or your father won’t go to a meeting because Hamlet will have killed him at that point) a faint blue X will appear on the timeline, indicating to the player that if you really need this event to happen, you’ll have to try again after a reset.
In addition to having a timeline, your character also has a map that you can click on at any point and see where all the characters are. If you haven’t overheard someone talking about an event that’s about to transpire you might be able to find out it’s happening by seeing a collection of characters meeting at a location and go there and listen in. The map allows you to go to virtually every space in the game, however, occasionally you will need to convince people to let you into spaces, for instance you are not allowed to leave the castle walls and go into town until you catch the guards gambling at night and basically blackmail them into letting you come and go as you please. You cannot enter the Queen’s chambers until you do a favor for one of her ladies and they tell you where the key is hidden.
Seven-hundred words later, it’s obvious that the mechanics of this game are complex. However, the even more complex part of the game might be your character’s objective. One helpful way to unpack the objective of Elsinore might be through some of the various lenses that Janet Murray writes about in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
Elsinore as a Contest Story
When you are first murdered and the game resets, the natural conclusion is that you are now playing a contest game. Your obvious adversary is the spy who killed you, so now, to save yourself from dying and presumably win the game you need to eliminate the spy. However, once you find and eliminate the spy the game doesn’t stop. You are able to arrest the spy and live to the next day but time keeps looping. Moreover, Peter Quince, who is the playmaster who Hamlet invites to put on a replica play of his uncle killing his father in order to get him to confess, moves from a background character to the foreground. After your first reset it’s revealed that he is also moving outside the flow of time, and he often discusses tragedy and how to craft a tragic story with Ophelia. After you finish the time loop where you get the spy arrested and evade your own death, Quince appears and says he’s bored of that plot line and eliminates it, meaning that the spy is no longer trying to kill you. He then gives you a new objective, to find the Book of Fates, and in order to do this you must befriend your old murderer, flipping the idea of the contest story on its head.
You could also view the game as a contest story in light of the original play. Hamlet and his allies being the good guys versus murderous King Claudius, and you as Ophelia can try to warn everyone in the castle of Claudius’ misdeed or even get him killed. However, this isn’t your only option. Murray writes, “We need to find ways of drawing a player so deeply into the situated point of view of a character that a change of position will raise important moral questions” (Murray, 147). Indeed, you have the agency to switch sides, to seduce King Claudius and even marry him and become the Queen of Denmark, and the more you conversate with him and listen in on him you realize that his brother he murdered was not innocent or even benevolent, thus further complicating the idea of a bad opponent and a righteous hero in a contest. Every character is dynamic and has both moral and immoral qualities.
Elsinore as a Kaleidoscope Narrative
When explaining the concept of kaleidoscope narratives Murray compares them to an interactive dinner theater, one where you are sat at the table of the actors and are able to hear their different stories. In many ways, this is exactly what Elsinore is: a play made to be interactive. The key difference is that in a dinner theater the actors are still ultimately going to proceed with the same ending regardless of your interaction and in Elsinore you have the ability to change what will transpire.
Murray also writes about how kaleidoscope narratives require the viewpoints of multiple people to understand it fully. She writes, “In order to find the whole story, they have to take the trip again, making different choices” (Murray, 159). Obviously the time-looping features on Elsinore not only make this possible but requires it, in order to get some information you might need to be in a scenario where someone dies but is alive in the next time loop.The reset is imperative to finding out others motivations and discovering the full narrative.
Elsinore as a Rhizome
Murray also invokes Gilles Deleuze’s rhizome model of thought where all the points are connected. Elsinore undoubtable fits into this category, mainly because there is no end. There is a way to get a credit roll, if you are able to find the book of fates you can choose one you lock into it and stop the time looping, but the game doesn’t restart after that. If you want to keep playing you don’t restart Elsinore but rather return to it, and while you are returning Hamlet’s father’s ghost keeps warning you not to come back and not to reopen the book. You could, however, play out each of the 11 possible fates, or try different secret endings like burning the book or killing Peter Quince, but if you wanted you could just keep living in time-looping Elsinore Castle for eternity.
Murray writes that, “As we navigate its tangled, anxiety-laden paths, enclosed within its shape-fitting borders, we are both the exasperated parent longing for closure and separation and the enthralled child, lingering forever in an unfolding process that is deeply comforting because it can never end” (Murray, 134). Indeed, as a player it can be both frustrating that there is no tangible objective in sight, no complete and satisfying narrative end, but there is also comfort in the rhizome. The game itself often nods to this, after it’s necessary for you to, for instance, let your father die in a time loop, Ophelia will often say to herself something to the effect that she’s sorry but it won’t matter for long and that she’ll see him in a couple days. The deaths lose a lot of their gravity that they have in Hamlet because you watch them happen over and over, but it always resets.
Elsinore as the Ultimate Tragedy Game
As I mentioned previously, there is no real ending to Elsinore but there are 11 different fates from the Fate Book that you can choose to play out. These fates all have one thing in common, they are tragic. Every fate is structured as a trade, for instance if you choose the path of marrying King Claudius the fate is called “Trade Innocence for Power”. Even if you opt out of the Fate Book endings, the secret endings still have tragic ends. In Murray’s imagining of the ultimate tragic video game she writes that by the end, “The reader would have both enacted and witnessed the decision and feel the sense of understanding, inevitability, and sorrow that we call catharsis” (Murray 177). Indeed, this is what every (non)ending of Elsinore provides, the agency of choosing your own fate and still experiencing a kind of tragedy.
Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet Horowitz Murray, The Free Press, 1997, pp. 126–182.