Hamlet: A Video Game Genre

 Over the last decade, as I've worked on this blog and thought deeply about literary video games, I've noticed a trend: a lot of video games specifically reference or recreate the world and characters of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Something about this particular play fascinates the minds of readers, academics, and game developers more than any other Shakespearian play, and perhaps even more than any other work of literature. Below are just a few examples of games that recreate or expand upon the story of Hamlet, that brooding Danish teen and his doomed family and friends. 


Screenshot of Horatio saying, "Ah, the good and fair Lady Ophelia. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Elsinore is one of the most surprisingly remarkable and touching literary games I have played to date. It is a very true retelling of Hamlet, but through a time-travel element it manages to not only expand upon the original story, but also fully flesh out all of the characters Shakespeare created. For example, most people hold very little love for Polonius, Ophelia's father, when they read or watch the play. He is usually seen through Hamlet's eyes as a somewhat useless old man who no longer has a real purpose in the world. Because Elsinore is played from Ophelia's perspective, however, we get a chance to see Polonius from a different angle: as a caring father and a diligent servant of the late king. All of the play's characters receive similar treatment -- since we are not expected to experience the story in the few hours it takes to put on a play (though, yes, Hamlet is quite a long play), we as gamers get an opportunity to spend longer periods of time with each character and learn more about them as people. 

As a side note, another work of literature that I have noticed has influenced a large swath of modern games is the Legend of Zelda video game series. I admit it's very strange that I have written several posts and articles about the influence of the Zelda franchise on other games, but I have not yet written specifically about any Zelda games, though I profess that Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite games. Elsinore is no exception to this trend: the time travel elements in the game are almost definitely intentionally based on the time travel found in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. If you don't believe me, take a look at the character Peter Quince, himself an anachronism in the world of Hamlet. Quince is a character from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and seemingly has no business in Ophelia and Hamlet's story. Players soon find, however, that Peter Quince is aware of the time travelling, and of everything that is happening to Ophelia. Does that remind you of anyone? One might almost expect Quince to introduce himself to Ophelia with the line, "You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" I'm speaking, of course, about the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora's Mask -- the character who guides Link through his chronologically confused story.

The Happy Mask Salesman Source

Peter Quince reveals his knowledge of current events in Elsinore.

Quince's uncanny resemblance to the Happy Mask Salesman is likely intentional, and we see him wearing many different masks to represent different characters when he puts on a play, solidifying his similarities to the Mask Salesman. 

Elsinore is a lovingly crafted game that pays homage not only to Shakespeare, but to literary pop culture in general. Play this game in detail to find all kinds of surprising references -- I won't spoil them for you!

To Be or Not To Be

One game that I already reviewed back in 2015 is To Be or Not to Be, a choose your own adventure style retelling of Hamlet. To Be or Not to Be is a game based on a book based on a Shakespearian play... in other words, it's my favorite type of literature! While Elsinore takes the story of Hamlet seriously and tries to expand upon the existing world and characters, To Be or Not to Be takes Hamlet in a much more fun, and often silly, direction. Yes, you can play the game as though you are reenacting the play, and make all of the choices that would lead to the story ending as Shakespeare intended... or you can become a pirate. It's your choice! Check out the link below to browse or buy a copy of the original To Be or Not to Be book (the affiliate link will give me a small commission if you decide to make a purchase):

Final Fantasy XV

A group photo of Noctis and his bros in front of a fancy rock.

Ah, Final Fantasy XV. If you've played it, you either love it or you hate it. I personally fall into the former camp. Many who play Final Fantasy XV may not be aware that it is a direct retelling of Hamlet (or, at least, as direct as a Final Fantasy game can possibly be). Even I, who have studied Shakespeare for decades, took a frighteningly long time to realize what was going on and where the game was headed (certain death). It wasn't until I made the connection that the primary villain looks and sounds a lot like Scar from The Lion King (also a retelling of Hamlet) that I started to put the pieces together and realize that this Final Fantasy game was a direct Shakespeare retelling. When that happened, I made a blog post to share my revelation.

... And More

There are so many more games that reference Hamlet or even take the majority of their stories from Shakespeare's most beloved play that I can't possibly mention them all. Below I list a few other games I have found that draw inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Can you think of any others? Feel free to mention them in the comments!
  • Don't Starve: Hamlet
  • Hamlet or the Last Game without MMORPG Features, Shaders and Product Placement
  • Vagrant Story
  • The Lion King (Sega Genesis and SNES)
Also note that many other Final Fantasy games follow Shakespearean themes. Final Fantasy XII's Balthier behaves as though he believes himself to be a Shakespearean hero. Final Fantasy IX draws inspiration from several of Shakespeare's plays, especially Romeo and Juliet. 

ICYMI, I will be talking about Hamlet in video games and much more at Momocon on Thursday! Click here to find more information about my Momocon panel.

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