Results from Game Design Challenge: Hamlet

By staff [06.12.08]

 In a recent game design challenge, we asked you to design a game based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. The primary limitation was that if in-game characters spoke, then the words that came out of their mouths had to be directly from the original text.

When we come up with these challenges, we have no idea what the answer or answers should be. For this challenge in particular, I (Jill Duffy, editor of actually felt like I couldn't solve it, leaving me extra curious to read your ideas.

It's been a few years since I read Hamlet, so I rented the film of Sir Lawrence Olivier's version, a staging I had never seen before, to refresh my memory. Much to my surprise, Olivier plays with dialogue and text by making some of Hamlet's soliloquies voice over narration instead of spoken word -- Hamlet is thinking privately rather than thinking aloud. For a film, it actually makes more sense for asides and certain soliloquies to be internal monologues. I wonder if it would make sense in a game, too.

One idea a lot of people favored was having a director game similar to The Movies in which the player is the director or producer of the play at a theater. Garrett Guillotte deserves a nod for annunciating this idea first on the forum.

Another idea a few people had was to expound on some small reference in the play that happens offstage, Hamlet going to school at Wittenberg, for example, or his capture and escape from pirates. While it's certainly worth exploring this solution, why make up new back-story when you already have such a wonderful story in front of you? Why not use the dialogue you have rather than fight to work around it?

That might have been the key to this challenge: realizing you already have a story. Readers who decided to create murder mystery games or text adventure games -- two other popular ideas -- capitalized on the existing story and put their time and money into working on the game mechanic. What will the player do?

Best Entries
Tamar Goldberg, Hamlet's ‘Guest'
(see page 2)
Tamar Golderg's solution is brilliant because it doesn't require any in-game dialogue and it has an intriguing reward scheme. The player arrives at Elsinore after all the events of Hamlet have taken place and moves through rooms to solve puzzles; each puzzle uses a prop or other reference to the play. Although Tamar says the solution is inspired by The 7th Guest, I was prompted to see a likeness to Ico, a game that has a deep and heart-wrenching story, a lot of puzzle-based play, but almost no dialogue.

In Tamar's version, cutscenes are the player's reward for solving puzzles. There's another component to the game, too: a social networking site where students discuss the meaning of the props and cutscenes.

Sharon Hoosein, Horatio's Challenge (see page 3)
Sharon Hoosein's response to this challenge is chockfull of active words. Read in particular the section called "A Quick Rundown." The player is Horatio in this game and has to perform tasks to protect and help Hamlet. What makes Sharon's solution exceptional is that all the tasks are things that happen in the play or very closely connected to the actions of the play. For example, before the play within the play starts, Horatio's task is to quickly reposition the audience members so that Claudius and Gertrude are in the middle where they can easily see the play.

Sharon, like Tamar, calls for cutscenes as player rewards.

Devin Monnens, Act Act Shakespeare Revolution [PDF download]
Devin Monnens, University of Denver, came up with this playful way to play through the play. I love this solution. It could be used to teach any play.

Using a new Wii microphone (to be developed), friends join together to act out the play. Dialogue appears on the screen as if it were karaoke. AI characters fill in when not enough players are available. And when there's fencing, pull our your Wiimote. En garde!

The solution came in third for two reasons. One, Hamlet easily runs four hours or longer when performed by expert actors. Imagine how long it will take to play through when the actors are not experienced. Also, for long stretches of this time, most of the characters are off stage. How could you break up the play-as-game and keep all the players actively involved? Second, I hope Devin knows a thing or two about writing grant applications or finding sponsors, as this solution surely will exceed the $50,000 the professor has banked for development!

Honorable Mention
Matt Roberts, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
(see page 4)
Matt Roberts' solution was quite similar to Devin Monnens', but is a single-player game and doesn't require a new microphone peripheral. It uses the Wii fitness board and relies on the player selecting right/wrong dialogue from a multiple-choice list to move the game forward. And in case you thought Hamlet didn't have enough dying in it, choosing the wrong answer leads the player to a quick death, repeated indefinitely until the correct answer is selected.

 Tamar Goldberg, Hamlet's ‘Guest' and Social network
This submission has two parts: the game itself and a social network around the game. Each could be presented and developed independently, but I think together they can be very entertaining.

The game story is somewhat similar to the story of the game The 7th Guest and is based highly on the ghost story aspect of the play. The player arrives at the abandoned castle and needs to reveal its story by walking through the rooms and outer areas of the castle.

Each room is a different level hiding inside it one or more puzzles. Puzzles will be triggered by clicking the right area in the room (or by a sequence of clicks). Once a puzzle is solved, a video sequence relating to the puzzle and the room will be shown. The videos will be scenes from the original play and the puzzles will relate to those scenes.

In addition, audio clues for the scene and the puzzle will be used in each room. For example, when a player enters the basement, s/he will hear a voice saying, "To be or not to be: that is the question." Other lines from this monologue will be heard every once in a while. Inside the basements there will be hidden pieces of Yorick's skull that the player will need to put together. Once the skull is assembled, the skull scene will be shown.

Another puzzle idea is to match lines to a modern English translation, or a puzzle in the lake that will reveal Ophelia's suicide.

The game will be a Flash-based online game, using a simple point-and-click mechanism to activate the puzzles, which might also have drag-and-drop capabilities. Each week (or any other time period) a new level or castle area will be released. Players will be able to register, play the new puzzles, repeat previous puzzles and discuss clues and solutions on the site's forum.

Social Network
The game will be linked into one or more of the popular social networks. (Because the one I know and use is Facebook, this is the one I will use in the description.) The game itself will be either a Facebook application or will enable registration using the player's Facebook account. Updates, feeds, and player scores in the game (calculated according to the amount of puzzles solved) will be sent to each player's profile and a group for the game will be added. An "Addicted to Hamlet" mini application will be available that will show random Hamlet quotes and will have a Hamlet trivia game where the players can compete.

In addition, all the play characters will have their own Facebook profiles, with a picture album, general description, and favorite quotes from the play. Players will be able to add the characters as friends and interact with them (this can be used to get clues for the game).

Since the game is Flash-based, a small team of one or two programmers and designers, plus an animator, can be used to develop and support the game. The video sequences will use live actors in front of a green screen; the background will be added later by the animator, according to the appropriate area in the game.

Another position that needs to be taken into account is the person who maintains all the social network aspects -- updating character profiles, posting game updates, general support. To cut the cost, this position can be filled by a design intern or by one of the existing team members, on rotation.

 Sharon Hoosein, Kent Place School, Horatio's Challenge
The player plays as Horatio, a minor but important character in the play. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a passive audience that could only empathize with the characters and watch events unfold. This type of audience could relate to the themes of fate and inevitability his plays deal with, where the characters are as unable to change the tragic flow of events as the audience. However, games require the player to have some sort of active role. As Horatio, the player would have a both passive and active role in the plot.

As Horatio, the player will perform tasks to assist and protect Hamlet. These tasks will be drawn from the text (e.g., getting Hamlet away from celebrating crowds to speak to his father's ghost). Although some changes will occur to allow the player to have an active role, these changes will keep the context of the text as much as possible.

Deviation from the actual text can lead students to discuss it more. They will discuss why they think the game deviated the way it did and whether they think the game should have stayed more loyal to the text. Some scenes Horatio is not in will be cut to save budget.

Tasks will be separated by cutscenes of major parts in the play. Since cutscenes are broken up into short segments, the scenes are easier for someone to absorb than if they watched a film of the play all the way through.

The game will be played in first-person perspective for a fully immersive experience.
When Horatio fails at a task/dies, instead of "Game Over," the line "To be or not to be, that is the question" will be used. This way, player will ponder the quote and how it relates to death.

Cutscenes will be played by live actors. This makes the game retain the original "play" feel of Hamlet. Grant money can be spent on props such as Hamlet's sword and film equipment that the university does not already own.

No 3D art will be used, since it's too expensive and time consuming. Cutscenes will be filmed actors and use only basic touch up film editing software. The in-game graphics will be 2D in first-person, and 2D artists will use the actors as reference for character design and animations. Grant money will be spent on graphics as well.

The team will fully utilize resources already owned by the university to save money and will get permission to use university software and equipment. We will turn to highly talented university students and professors first before hiring outside talent.

A Quick Rundown
Cutscene: Act I, scenes I and first half of scene II (celebration of Claudius' marriage to Gertrude)

Game: Horatio must travel through the moving maze of celebrating people to rescue the miserable Hamlet. Jugglers, sword dancers, and firecrackers the crowd sets off can damage Horatio.

Cutscene: Act I, second half of scene II (Hamlet agrees to keep watch) scene IV.

Game: Horatio runs after Hamlet, who appears in the distance. Horatio must dodge the evil spirits that come towards him.

Cutscene: Act I, scene V. Act II, scene II

Game: King Claudius will try to sit where he cannot see the play. Horatio/player must reposition audience members so Claudius and Gertrude are forced to sit in the middle and watch the play.

When Claudius sees the poison dropped in the ear scene, he will run out. Horatio must chase after the king and fight the guards that try to stop him.

Cutscene: Act III, scene III

Game: Horatio follows Hamlet into Gertrude's room, where Hamlet is screaming at his mother. Polonius is hiding in the room listening in on the conversation. The door locks. Horatio must escape through a secret tunnel behind a mirror without getting discovered. Hamlet goes into rage and starts destroying furniture -- and hiding spots. Polonius will move around and stop behind random furniture. Hamlet will destroy the furniture and Polonius will move again.

Cutscene: End of Act III, scene IV (Hamlet stabs Polonius). Act IV, scenes III (scenes I and II will be included if time and budget allow) and IV

Game: Horatio must save Hamlet by swapping the letter for execution of Hamlet with a letter calling for the execution of the letter bearers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Pirates attack the ship Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get kidnapped by the pirates and drop the initial letter during the struggle. Player/Horatio must battle the pirates, free the former letter bearers and give them the new letter. Player and Hamlet board the pirate ship while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue on the first ship to England ... and death.

Cutscene: (Act IV, scene V if time and budget allow) end of Act IV, scene VII (Ophelia drowns herself)

Game: Horatio and Hamlet arrive in the church where someone is being buried. Horatio and Hamlet must navigate a complex maze of skulls, falling rocks, and pitfalls to reach the gravediggers.

Cutscene: Act V, scene I

Game: Horatio must prevent Laertes from hurting Hamlet without killing him. Duel will last for a set period of time.

Cutscene: Beginning of Act IV, scene VII (Claudius and Laertes plot Hamlet's death with poisoned sword and cup for backup). Beginning of Act V, scene II (Osric announces Laertes' challenge and Hamlet accepts)

Game: Horatio must ride to summon Fortinbras to come to Hamlet's aid. Fortinbras is currently in a battle with the Poles and riding around giving commands. Horatio must chase after Fortinbras while dodging arrows, slaying enemy soldiers with sword, avoiding catapult and ballista attacks, and navigating through a maze of trenches filled with soldiers. The soldiers in the trenches will jump out. If the soldiers are enemy soldiers, they will attack. If the soldiers are Fortinbras', they will heal Horatio.

Cutscene: Rest of Act V, scene II

 Matt Roberts, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
is a first-person narrative-heavy game divided into subchapters -- open ended event-specific areas requiring the student player to interact with the play's central characters, using the Wiimote to point to and interact with objects, playing simple mini games in order to move dialogue along (simulating the crafty touch needed to, for example, convince people that you are insane), and engage in fencing matches toward the end of the play. Movement involves using the nunchuck to select a direction and the fitness board to walk, lean, and balance. Gameplay in Prince of Denmark is dialogue and puzzle heavy, using the mini games to help keep the player engaged.

The player must involve him/herself in Hamlet's plight to fully understand the moral dilemmas being provided, albeit without the authorship to change the story for long. This is to say that at key points, the player will be given dialogue choices that are either taken directly from the play or would be implausible given Hamlet's situation and demeanor; choosing the wrong dialogue will lead the player down a very short path to his death, at which point the player resumes the point in the conversation when Hamlet strayed from the original writing and thus did not manipulate the characters in question well enough to survive. While this is not in keeping with the original design specifications, it is a minor departure used to enhance qualitative understanding of Hamlet.

This mechanic helps to cement key elements of the story through the dialogue for the student, while players who grasp Hamlet's plight are rewarded. Engaging the body by using the Wii fit board and Wiimote to navigate the game engages ingrained survival-linked memory processes to further engage the student in the story, playing on evolutionary responses tied to memory and the fight-or-flight response. Also of note is the tendency of a group of players to mutually decide upon the correct answer and take turns attempting the mini games and puzzles. Indirectly, these group actions will lead to a solid understanding of the text and the deeper understanding of motivation and inner struggle that is needed to move the game along.

Return to the web version of this article
Copyright © UBM TechWeb