Earlier in the semester we listened to a guest lecture by Geoff Way about Shakespeare video games. The concept of a Shakespeare video game seems rather odd; Shakespeare’s work is regarded as the pinnacle of Western art and video games are supposedly relegated to the realm of children and immature, socially awkward adults. Recently opinions have started to change in the academic discussion of both Shakespeare and video games. Video games are becoming more and more respected as an art form and Shakespeare, once restricted to the stage and the classroom, has become ubiquitous in various mediums and has been adapted, appropriated, sometimes dishonored, sometimes illuminated by professionals and amateurs alike. It is natural, given Shakespeare’s popularity and appeal, that as this artist’s work becomes a starting point for myriad creative projects the Bard has found himself caricaturized in a digital form as the subject of an ever-growing number of video games.
Video game is a very broad term, and in the sense of this discussion it could be disingenuous not to clarify what role Shakespeare games have in the greater video game industry. The Shakespeare games which we witnessed in class and which I have done some research on fall into different categories. Most are simple flash games: platformers, puzzlers, shooters, trivia games, ect… These games are free to play on the internet and require no installation. Some of the Shakespeare games are a bit more ambitious, such as Shakespeare adventure games and even a failed MMO called Arden: The World of William Shakespeare, which supposedly aimed to combine literature and social research into a massively multiplayer game package. There are so far no Shakespeare video games which have been developed by major industry teams or published with huge budgets. Even the smaller projects so far have been developed, it seems, not by indie developers interested in making a good game for cheap but instead people desirous of getting Shakespeare into a game, online, with little concern for the quality of the finished product.
For example, let’s examine a typical Shakespeare game. I searched for Shakespeare games online and one of the first results was for a web page called Shakespeare for Kids. In the corner of the page is a picture of a preening cartoon Shakespeare holding a skull. In the right corner is the command “Solve a Maze”. On the left hand side the rudimentary controls are explained and underneath is a scroll which says “Select other mazes below” There is a scroll bar but it appears to be merely an image since it doesn’t function and there is only a blank list, so apparently, this is all we’ve got in the way of mazes. The starting location is marked by an arrow and the word “START” next to an image of Shakespeare wearing shades. Hmmm, this is a game so Shakespeare obviously needs sunglasses. You know, to be hip. The game itself consists of controlling a small ball through a maze with the arrow keys. The ball inexplicably leaves a line behind it, showing where you have been I guess, but for some reason there is room to move laterally within the confines of the walls so the line takes on all sorts of janky shapes and it all becomes a mess. Once you have solved this maze, you arrive at your goal, a castle with an Old English script letter visible inside, because Shakespeare and castles and letters. It should be noted that all this action occurs in what can only be described as a poorly planned web layout. The maze itself takes up only a small portion of the screen, the rest is black space and white space. Furthermore everything is left centered which looks very odd. Upon completion of this maze you are taken to a screen with Sunglass Will and a Queen who says “Tis Well Done”. There is some random trivia about two of Shakespeare’s plays and the Queen thrown down below in small type because the most important thing to teach a kid about Shakespeare is that he knew the Queen.
The game which I describe I think highlights perhaps the biggest problem with Shakespeare video games so far: they have not been made by talented video game developers who are motivated to make a great game which features elements of either Shakespeare’s historical persona or his works. In order for a great Shakespeare game to be released a great game has to be developed. A game. Not some sort of educational/promotional tie-in hastily commissioned and created without respect for the medium or the people who will be playing this game. That is not to say that a Shakespeare game cannot teach people things and allow them to learn more about literature, culture, history, what have you. I just think that for a Shakespeare game to be successful the game aspect of it has to be emphasized, or else what you have is some sort of offensive hybrid which nobody likes: a game which is no fun to play and a Shakespeare appropriation which belittles the source material so thoroughly that the greatness of the original is destroyed.
Of course there is also the problem that a game may be fun but it only references Shakespeare on a superficial level, like a competitive shooter which includes a William Shakespeare skin or something. This, I believe, is less egregious than the aforementioned scenario because if the gameplay is well designed people will be enjoying themselves and logging time into the game, so the cursory nods to Shakespeare would function within the principles of advertising that brand recognition and identification can be powerful incentives for consumers. In this case the brand is Shakespeare and the consumers are people who would hopefully become interested in Shakespeare’s works.
The ideal Shakespeare game is certainly one in which the life or art of Shakespeare is integrated seamlessly as an essential aspect of the story, visuals, dialogue, and gameplay. This would require a huge amount of creativity and dedication on the part of the developer but it is not impossible. For now I think that the video game industry still mainly targets the young male demographic, and as such the dream of a good Shakespeare video game remains elusive until video games become pervasive among a greater segment of the population. It is not that the talent to make such a game is not there, but the motivation most likely is not because the game would be difficult to make and would almost certainly sell poorly among current game consumers. I hope that as video games develop as a medium and as an art form eventually the current genre restrictions will become obsolete and games which involve different goals and forms of interaction in terms of gameplay, storytelling, ect… will emerge. When this occurs and games start achieving a potential which is only starting to become acknowledged then perhaps we will see a Shakespeare game on the shelf between Pokémon Mauve and Call of Battlefield XXVIIII.