Hamlet Ludens

Recently, I crashed Hamlet. Well, not crashed exactly: on the ‘stage’ of the quiz game, the characters kept bobbing up and down, the music played, the sand ran through an hourglass to mark the passing of time.

But with the machinery of the game itself frozen, the questions failed to descend, and Hamlet and I waited, expect to make a choice but oddly unable to.

Then Laertes stabbed me.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.03.20 PM

I’ve been playing and reading about various Hamlet video games over the last couple of weeks for an essay that Michael Lutz and I are working on (tentatively entitled “Weird Shakespeare Tricks”), about adaptation, appropriation, and scholarly methodologies. What attracted us to Hamlet was an easy thematics of choice: as Michael pointed out, to ‘play’ Hamlet is to remedy Hamlet’s refusal of action with your own decisions. Thus, To Be Or Not To Be Ryan North’s tremendously successful choose-your-own adventure book and the game it became) announces that “Now it’s up to YOU to decide what happens next.” So, too, Hamlet: An Interactive Murder Mystery promises that you might become “’whole and complete’ in body and spirit” through “cunning” and “nerves of steel.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 5.08.26 PM

For all its contrast with Hamlet’s famed inaction, the power fantasy of videogames—solve, advance, level up—accords nicely with that pit in the stomach at the core of tragedy, that childlike wish that things be otherwise. If catharsis purges this emotion, the games promise to cure it: a mode of adaptation that starts as early as Tate’s Lear and runs through YouTube videos like“Ophelia’s Sassy Gay Friend”: “Instead of drowning yourself, you’re going to write a sad poem in your journal, and move on.” (I should mention as well Margaret Atwood’s short, wonderful “Gertrude Talks Back,” which redeems the closet scene and perhaps the whole play.)

Moreover, remediation works in Hamlet. It and stabbing may be the only things that do. At the very least, there are nice parallels between Hamlet’s putting the somewhat archaic theatrical machinery of the past to work and the way games put Hamlet to work. (Indeed, the book form of To Be Or Not To Be has an embedded choose-your-own-adventure book in the place of the play within the play.)

This, at least, was the analogy I was planning on spinning out. Then I started playing the damn games.

Hamlet’s Duel  crashed. Though I finally managed to get it running, I never made it into the titular castle of Castle Elsinore (1984), instead wandering repetitively through a forest somewhere to its south.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 4.38.39 PM

And North’s To Be Or Not To Be is most interesting to me, I think, in the way it constrains choice, lest the possibilities spin out even more endlessly. If you choose to be Ophelia and follow the plot of Shakespeare’s play, eventually the narrator takes over:

“Okay, you do all that stuff. Listen, I’m going to cut our losses here. You’re not allowed to be Ophelia for awhile.

Be Hamlet: turn to page 99

The lack of choice frustrates some readers/players of the text. (Some of the Steam reviews emphasize precisely the way the game forces you down certain pathways.) If Hamlet has long been associated with the freedom of Interactive Fiction—since Hamlet on the Holodeck, at the least—in practice, the experience is often radically not free. Indeed, The Adventures of Reynaldo (2013) dramatizes exactly this problem: no matter which choices you select, Reynaldo dies. The creator writes: “The player’s fate is always locked from the second they click play.“

What is important about Hamlet interactive fiction, I think, is not choice but unfreedom, its recurring sense that one operates in a world shaped by structures that you can partially—but only partially—comprehend. Adaptation studies intrigues me, because it is perhaps the field of literary studies most invested in authorial action: whether we use the language of “remediation,” “collaboration,” and/or “appropriation,” or speak of “social” or “cultural capital.” At least in what I’ve been reading, significance tends to be found in an authorial figure who either transforms the original or deploys its resources for his, her, or its (as in the case of, for instance, corporate Shakespeare) own ends. We might distinguish here between a post-Bloomian critical line that emphasizes authorial moves within the matricies of meaning created by the two texts and a more culturally-inflected one that analyzes social structures of meaning, but then again, we may not. Even cynical accounts, like Ivo Kamps’s representation of Shakespeare criticism as truthless convening around a culturally-significant figure as an occasion for social and political move-making, emphasize what adaptation does.

This is not to accuse these readings of theoretical naiveté, just to point out that even when they’re most attentive to the structures that shape our tastes, desires, and experience, they imagine operating successfully on and within those structures. By contrast, the critical purchase of Hamlet interactive fiction lies elsewhere. Such works, promise all the pleasures of choice, but provide only arbitrary moves, shaped by unpredictable and frustrating structures of constraint. If it is dull to say that this is also Hamlet’s experience, it is also our own. We, too, seek agency within language games structured by various forms of capital.

Hamlet interactive fiction offers the prospect, I think, of an adaptation studies that focuses not the mastery of use but on the experiences of loss, constraint, failure.