Of Games and Hamlet

(This post returns to an exchange between Jeremy and Mark Bernstein from this past summer.  Below are resources for a course discussions of Hamlet and interactive works For this in-class installment of WRT we are joined by the fine English students of the Archer school).

First, the debate. Can Hamlet be adapted into an electronic interactive form?

To recap: (and corrections are welcome)  If Hamlet is the paragon and pinnacle of drama, what does it have to offer the creators of interactive literature?

Mark Bernstein: (From My Friend Hamlet) If you make Hamlet a game, it has to be rigged so that actions taken by a reasonable sane reader-protagonistnot to mention a wildly imaginative onedo not dereil the train of events that must ensue if this is to be Hamlet and not, say, Timon of Athens or A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Jeremy: …the ???sane and reasonable??? interactor is in itself a model for bad narrative or no narrative at all. Because all interactors are assumed to behave in this way, and such interactors will read tragedy badly, interactive readings of tragedy are bad…. Hamlet just isn???t an infinitely rational kind of guy, and his most likely actions are moping, scheming, and monologing. These can???t even be cued to a reader who is violently opposed to being directed, and desires in place of negotiated interactivity a kind of pure activity.

(This is the short-attention-span version.  Please refer back to the original exchanges) 

The debate, as I saw it, hinged on this ever elusive role of agency.  Could the user have agency and still experience Hamlet? Is agency relevant to discussions of games?

The use of Hamlet, of course, brings us to the land of Janet Murray, who offers few guidelines for how Hamlet itself might become an interactive drama.  She does offer the LARP (live-action role-playing game) character sheet for Ophelia:

You are a beautiful but delicate young woman, and things have not been going well for you in your kingdom lately. (117)

Possible goals: Marrying Hamlet or Helping your brother get more money from your father.

The game Murray proposes might include a town witch and a meddlesome friar who each have potions that could affect Hamlets behavior (118).

From these notes, we might construct an impression of a Hamlet game.  But what are Hamlet games? Where is Hamlet as an inspiration in electronic literature?

To push this conversation, I would like to present several works (reposting a few links from Jeremys post) that dialogue with their discussion.

In the spirit of benchmarking, let me post a variety of electronic adaptations or riffs on Hamlet.  (Apologies for the excessive references to my own works). Writers Respond Thus: Please send more.

IF: Hamlet parody by Robin Johnson

IF: Rematch by Andrew Pontious
The interactor behind the 8-Ball

Ophelias on Myspace.com 
Myspace is a networked, performative autobiographical community.  Certainly these pages offer a million little pieces of creative expression and translation of experience.  I offer a few Hamlet-troping examples. 
Truly Troubled: What does it mean to read Myspace as literature, as diversion, as memoir, as exhibition, as performance? 

Stravinskys Muse: Hamlet as a man of language. 

 (No doubt Michael Joyces afternoon centers around a Hamlet figure. ) 

Shakespeare the Chatbot 
Jabberwacky riffs on Hamlet.

Interactive Drama
Façade: The tragic Trip and the falling Grace . Question:
What would a Hamlet game look like? What does Hamlet offer as a model of interactive and electronic literature?  What if any of these examples captures a bit of Hamlet?

4 Responses to “Of Games and Hamlet ”

  1. 1 Dirk Scheuring

    Why not include Hamlet - The Text Adventure?

    OTOH, I’m really not very interested in role-playing Hamlet. I’d rather meet the Hamlet character in a virtual bar or something, and interact with him as myself. Didn’t Mark Bernstein argue that the guy needed to get drunk and get laid? Maybe that could be the game: Try to get Hamlet too drunk to kill :-)

    BTW, Jabberwacky just repeats whatever his users say to him, so an occasional “riffing off Hamlet” is not a designed-in feature, but an accidental encounter with another Jabberwacky user’s whims…

  2. 2 Chris Crawford

    Of course you can’t make an interactive version of Hamlet. Hamlet is a play, a fixed document. You can no more interact with Hamlet the play that you could interact with a photograph or a novel or a song. You can read, look at, or listen to these things, but you can’t interact with them because they can’t react to your actions.

    What you could do is make an interactive storyworld reflecting the human principles embodied in Hamlet. Hamlet the play shows one example of those principles, one instantiation of how they all work out with each other. Thus, you could make a “guy and gal from warring families fall in love” storyworld and let it play out. In such a case you could have all sorts of developments: they decide they don’t really love each other anyway, father marries daughter to somebody else against her will, they elope, one gets killed but the other lives, and so forth. The results would not be the same as the original play, but the core dramatic issues would remain intact.

    The fact that the end result does not duplicate the play is irrelevant. If you want the play, go see the play. If you want something interactive, it will be different. Isn’t that logical?

  3. 3 Mark Marino

    Thank you both for your comments.

    I think Janet Murray’s use of Hamlet is quite provocative. On the one hand it sets a literary standard for interactive drama. On the other hand, it takes for its title a Shakespearean character who does not act much at all (aside from killing Polonius) until immediately before he is killed. If this electronic agency? Does the choice of Hamlet as the model for interactive drama pose an unsolvable paradox

    But perhaps there are other interpretations:

    Perhaps Hamlet the play is the perfect interactive version of Hamlet the game. Following the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, we could see the only way of fully appreciating Hamlet’s experience to be enacting his role not by choosing our actions, but by following the script, being bound by the pre-scripted role.

    In a different way: to be (or not) Hamlet is to agonize. So perhaps the game play would have to be wrestling to solve puzzles within puzzles (ala Myst or IF).

    But to pursue your suggestion, let’s try to answer the question:
    What are the “human principles embodied in Hamlet”?
    What is the essence of Hamlet? The inability to choose? The madness of life? The battle between duty and civility? The antagonisms of ethical living and revenge?

    The secondary questions involve where this essence should be reproduced: in the gameplay? in the system mechanics? in the events?

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Computers in the Compostion Classroom (Great Debate)

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