Zachary Putera Jia Hao Lee
Elsinore: All’s Well That Plays Well
There are few things that pierce the heart quite like missed potential. Within this group of heartbreak, one particular subset exists as the most offensive— the sort that lies just short of greatness. The kind of thing possessing a flaw that, if singly addressed, would completely overturn the negatives associated with it.
Elsinore is one of these things.
I had terribly high hopes going into Elsinore. As an English major who has played and enjoyed many games within the time loop subgenre, I was excited for what Elsinore had to offer. On paper, it had everything that I was looking for in a game— a novel premise, a focus on storytelling, and just enough literary pretension for me to wish I were an English/MAAD double major instead of an English/Economics one. That sensation, unfortunately, was short-lived. In a mere ten hours, any hopes I had had for the game were dashed—repeatedly and identically—by the mechanical inadequacies of Elsinore’s time loop experience. On the bright side, the feeling allowed me to identify more closely with Ophelia’s plight. We shared a common despair, marked by the same initial highs, deflating repetitions, constant frustrations and unhappy conclusions.
While I had a less-than-stellar experience with the game, it would be unjust to simply call it bad. There is, rather painfully, a tremendous amount to love about the game. The characters, while one-dimensional, fulfill their purposes well, and fill out their roles in the main plot and their own, smaller stories excellently. The cast is also very diverse, replete with underrepresented demographics fitted sensibly into whatever roles would most suit them, and all within the short “screen times” that they were allotted.
It doesn’t stop at the characters, though; Elsinore knocks its thematic goals out of the park. While Elsinore does an excellent job discussing death, metaphysics, time, and relationships, I was most struck by what it had to say about sacrifice. The tale of Elsinore reminds players that, in many cases, choices that require sacrifices must be made. The narrative draws attention to the impossibility of endings so happy that no one loses out— a pertinent reminder that befits the tragedy the game is based on. To drive this point home, the game even goes so far as to delete the player’s save file once an ending is reached, emphasizing the finality of any difficult decisions made by them throughout their playthrough. Very few games can fully make use of meta devices to elevate their narratives— Elsinore is one of those games.
While Elsinore is far from a perfect game, it stands as a meaningful and novel exploration of the cross section between video games and literature by developers Golden Glitch. The opportunity to explore Middle Age Denmark through Ophelia’s eyes is a wonderful love letter to the Shakespearean canon that should at least be given a try.
Unfortunately, it only takes a handful of mistakes to sap the enjoyment out of even the most carefully constructed time loop game. Elsinore fails where its mechanics begin. Despite the best efforts of Elsinore’s developers, the level of scrutiny demanded by the time loop subgenre proved to be too overwhelming for Golden Glitch to handle. To the developer’s credit, many strides were made in an attempt to provide players with the best possible experience, including a loop-resetting button, the ability to speed up time, and a detailed timeline, among other things. However, this was not enough. The team bounded over the glaring hurdles in time loop game design, but stumbled over the more insidious bumps endemic to the subgenre along the way.
Incongruent gameplay mechanics—such as the inability to fully view NPC conversations if time is sped up too quickly—are some of the main culprits stymying the flow of the game. Aesthetic choices, such as the developer’s decisions to force players to listen to Hamlet rave and Polonius rebuke at the beginning of every loop, grow from minor annoyances to legitimate frustrations over the course of several dozen loops.
In other circumstances, players must go against what the game is training them to do in order to progress any further. A particularly egregious example of this is when Ophelia is investigating Lady Brit. Against all previous examples, the player is supposed to follow Lady Brit into the art gallery and wait for her to begin talking to herself in order to obtain key information necessary to continue the game. Until that point, every other conversation that I had eavesdropped on took place between two or more people. To have the in-game intuition that had been built up in me circumvented at the first major plot point was deeply exasperating, and transformed Elsinore from a game where I could exercise my own mental faculties to figure things out into a guessing game revolving around seemingly arbitrary developer dos and don’ts. It doesn’t help that, by the end of the game, players are left with a endings so unsatisfying that completion of the game can feel more like a punishment than a reward.
This is the hamartia of Elsinore. The game contains a collection of overlooked mechanical foibles that, within the context of an infinitely recurring time loop, culminate in an unpleasantness potent enough to rob it of any significant enjoyment.
I do, however, feel like it would be disingenuous to sit in the critic’s chair and decry the quality of an otherwise high-effort game without providing any solutions to the problems that I have brought up. As such, I want to take a short look at two great games that deal with the mechanics of time looping: The Forgotten City and Virtue’s Last Reward. The former will address the mediocre payoff of Elsinore’s endings, and how to improve them, while the latter will provide an alternative to Elsinore’s cumbersome time-skipping functions.
The Forgotten City offers four endings. Unlike Elsinore’s endings, every ending in The Forgotten City feels somewhat substantial, and all result in consequences that you would expect to manifest as a direct result of your actions. Additionally, the ending screen shows a small bar that provides a rough estimate of how much longer the player will have to keep playing in order to reach the other endings. In addition to this playtime-related hint, the first three endings provide players with a tip that will direct them towards acquiring the next remaining ending.
I can understand Elsinore not providing hints on how to reach specific endings, but considering how arbitrary the steps to reach the secret ending of the game are, it might make sense to direct players’ attentions to the necessary conditions that must be fulfilled to reach said ending. Additionally, Elsinore’s endings felt very nominal to me. Their scrolling text and still backgrounds did them no favors, and certain endings felt tacked on to pad out otherwise unimportant happenings within the game. If Elsinore contained fewer but more fleshed out endings, the toil of sitting through janky mechanics would be more forgivable, and would likely make the game more satisfying to play.
While The Forgotten City merits praise for its hands-off, minimally extradiegetic guidance, Virtue’s Last Reward deserves attention for a wholly different—but equally effective—method of time loop management. After completing their first ending, the player is allowed to restart the game from any of the points demarcated in the above screenshot. This way, players can easily pick up from where they left off, and not have to sit through previously consumed material just to get to where they want to on the timeline.
Elsinore touts about two-thirds of the number of endings that Virtue’s Last Reward does, but provides no similar system to allow players to easily reach pivotal choices. This makes sense, considering Elsinore leaves far more up to the player’s discretion— having a chart like the one shown above would demystify the exploration process that Elsinore seems so insistent upon. Nonetheless, skips to particular days or times might have been useful to alleviate some of the tedium that could otherwise be caused by the time loop mechanics of the game.
While both of the aforementioned games provide ideas that could improve the Elsinore experience, it is also important to acknowledge Elsinore’s categorical dissimilarities from them. The Forgotten City is a first-person, mystery adventure game with some combat elements. Virtue’s Last Reward is a more tightly constrained visual novel. Neither of the games’ mechanics would fit perfectly onto the point-and-click mould of Elsinore. Regardless, as is the case with all good games, there are certainly aspects of both The Forgotten City and Virtue’s Last Reward that Golden Glitch could learn from.
Behind Elsinore’s wall of mechanical mediocrity is, frustratingly, an original, earnest game that utilises its subject matter without adulterating it. The difficulty of designing games with multiple endings and even more ways to get there is not lost on me. While I have strong words to say about my personal experience with Elsinore, I was encouraged by how positive people’s reviews of it were online, and am hopeful that others will give the game a try to experience the good it has to offer. Much like their debut game, Golden Glitch clearly has a lot of potential— I just hope that they can put it to use.
Kyokugen Dasshutsu ADV: Zennin Shibou Desu(PlayStation Vita) by bleaker on January 01, 2013. (n.d.). Ally or betray, whichever you choose, do not overlook this game. Giant Bomb. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.giantbomb.com/ally-or-betray-whichever-you-choose-do-not-overloo/3050-115525/user-reviews/2200-24448/
YouTube. (2021). YouTube. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxpTCa-yjAs.