2020 IGF nominees: Shakespeare

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Tagged: reviews, elsinore, igf, astrologaster

A short list today: it's games about Shakespeare and his world.

  • Elsinore
  • Astrologaster

(Note: I was on the narrative jury, but I bought these two games before IGF judging began.)


You're Ophelia, in a big chewy time-loop game constructed around Hamlet. I say "around" because the designers have cheerfully extended the canonical story in every possible direction. Castle Elsinore is a hive of secrets and backstory; everybody down to the palace guards are running around having off-stage adventures. It's extended on the axes of humanity as well; characters of color, mixed-race, queer, transgender -- well, you can't do Shakespeare without cross-dressing, right? You get to explore the sandbox.

The game's playability falls a little short of its ambitions, I think. You can spend a lot of time chasing characters around and following plot threads; and indeed I did this for quite a while. It was fun! But after a while I bogged down. I'd found most of the important variations, but I hadn't found all of them -- or followed all the ones I had found to their ultimate conclusions.

What's missing, I think, is any way to systematically browse through the tree of possibilities and spot gaps. The goal-journal and timeline screen strive heroically to cover this need, but they just don't manage it. In particular, the timeline only shows your current history-state and expected future.

(I realize that I'm asking a lot! A visualization of the full branching world-space you've explored is a hard problem. I honestly don't know how I'd approach it. But something is needed.)

(I could go on for a page and a half comparing Elsinore's knowledge visualization with those of Heaven's Vault and Outer Wilds. OW has an extremely successful knowledge graph, but of course it's not a branching universe; it's an essentially fixed sequence of events that you can just memorize. HV also has a single timeline -- at least in a given playthrough! An overwhelming amount of detail shows up on the HV timeline, but then you're not planning your travels by it; it's mostly there to remind you about all the history you've discovered. Elsinore has the particular problem of trying to steer through a complex state-space where every character is bouncing around and doing things behind your back.)

Anyhow, the upshot is that I eventually felt stuck and frustrated, so I looked up some game spoilers and started following the instructions. And that was fine! I unlocked the big endgame gimmick, and found my way to about half of the possible endings. Then I looked at spoilers again and forced my way through to the rest. Then I said okay, I've done enough of this, I'll pick an ending and be done. Which is what you're supposed to do.

So I got through Elsinore, but it wasn't an experience of triumph or catharsis. It was an impressive construction; it was fun; it was really interesting to play with and see what was inside. But it was also a bit frustrating and kind of came to a halt rather than ending.

Then again, frustration is inevitable. Hamlet is a tragedy. Elsinore is what you get when you remove the inevitability from tragedy but leave the human flaws. There is no perfect outcome. Finding one -- no matter how cleverly hidden -- would make a mockery of the whole thing. To their credit, the designers get this. For all the secrets you uncover, you can't win. If you get far enough, you're offered your choice of ambivalent endings. The point, surely, is that you have a choice.

(I went for a life of lesbian pirate romance, of course. Come on.)


More Elizabethan hijinks! This is a rather silly game about Dr. Simon Forman, a real person -- though not a real doctor -- who lived in Shakespeare's London.

You bumble your way through Forman's cases, following (or maybe personifying) the guidance of the stars and planets. The game is a little bit unclear about what you're doing. You know what Forman is doing -- trying to accumulate enough cred to clear his medical license -- but are you helping him, playing him, or just playing with him? Are you supposed to use your knowledge of modern science or Forman's knowledge of astrology? The fact that he's kind of a sleaze, and keeping secrets from you to boot, makes things pretty murky.

Or to put it differently: the game presents this goal, Forman's medical license. But you never really have much agency in making that happen. It's more of a visual-novel structure, where you push the pieces around, but they're just as likely to trip you up and go giggling off on their agendas. (Forman very much included.) Is the game structure making a false promise? Lazily conforming to player expectation in order to be more approachable? Making a point about the preposterousness of trying to run a life-counseling business in the year 1600?

This is a question that I'm calling "stance": the player's relationship to the game, the protagonist, and their (possibly non-parallel) goals. And how the game makes these things clear. I am slowly simmering a post on this subject. I will not bog down my Astrologaster review with any more of it, because the game is a confection and it would be a mistake to take it too seriously. The game certainly doesn't take you too seriously, as the medical-license examination may make clear.

No, the real point is the writing, which is consistently hilarious. Singing, I should say, since it's presented by a literal chorus of dead-on-target early-music parody. Don't worry about where you're going, just enjoy the jabs and the Shakespeareana.