Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab spacer
spacer New Entries Archives Links subheader placeholder
left edge
What Games Can Learn From Shakespeare: Part One

Everybody can learn something from Shakespeare. Scholars refer to his deep understanding of the human condition as one of the keys to his universal appeal, across languages, cultures, and time. Understanding his plays was a motivation to improve my English when I was a teenager (I'm not a native speaker and no, I didn't learn my English all from Shakespeare, else thou wouldst be reading Early Modern English now). I find what I learned studying Shakespeare during my undergrad and graduate school relevant and useful to what I do now as a videogames scholar. The relevance of Shakespeare does not only have to do with writing, but also with the design of the game, from how to give cues to interaction to how to involve players into the gameworld.

So videogame makers, particularly designers and (obviously) writers, can learn quite a few things from the Bard of Avon. Let me count the ways.

Warning: There be spoilers!

Lesson I: Introduce Your Main Topics Early On

The first scene of every Shakespeare play does not necessarily introduce all the main characters of the story, but it certainly established the main themes and motifs of the play. These themes will be developed and revisited all through the play, giving it topical coherence as well as providing a rich exploration of the many sides of those themes. We can do something similar in games, introducing not only story themes, but also interaction patterns that work as a motif.

Example: Macbeth, I.i.
The beginning of the Scottish play is a short scene where we catch the three witches at the end of their gathering, so they're agreeing when the three shall meet again. Since there are witches, we can assume that there is magic in the realm of the play. The magic is active and directed--they will reconvene before sunset, to catch up with Macbeth.
The environment is restless, there's "thunder, lightning and rain"; the Second Witch refers to the "hurlyburly" and the "battle" that is taking place at the moment. So these are times of unrest and military conflict. This unrest is of an oxymoronic nature, i.e. contradictory terms are paired in order to define what is going on: the battle will be "lost and won", the witches chant that "fair is foul and foul is fair". These two verses mark the main motif of the play: actions have two sides, and they may be realized at the same time. Macbeth's success as a general marks him as the next victim of the witches; his assassinations give him access to the crown of Scotland, but also grant him more and more enemies that want to chop his head off. Becoming king and queen makes the Macbeths powerful, but also frightful and paranoid; they cannot sleep, and lose their minds until the tragic end. In short, the witches are hinting at the main motif and event patterns of the play.

How can we do something similar in videogames?

Well-written videogames already do this. Take the beginning of Portal: when GLaDOS starts talking to the player character, we know that something is not really working. Her voice introduces you to the world of the "Aperture Enrichment Center", and tells you that "fun and learning are the primary goals", which is true of the game itself. However, she also warns you that "serious injuries may occur". The warped mechanical voice hints that something is not going well, and the feeling that things could potentially get seriously wrong increases as the voice warps and distorts without completing the sentence where it was going to tell you the safety precautions you should take. This computer seems not to work properly, there's the potential that you may get hurt, and it probably has to do with the computer's dodgy communication system. Incidentally, the final song also plays on the radio, in a kinda silly salsa version. (Subtly advancing the end right when you start without spoiling the whole thing can give the player a kick when they replay the game too.)

Of course this is not extremely challenging to do in the writing. The challenge would be doing a similar "introduce all the main themes/topics at the beginning" in terms of gameplay. Rather than having a tutorial that just teaches you how to use the controls, start introducing patterns of interaction that will be developed throughout the game, and bit by bit include variations. Continuing with the Portal example, we see how the basic game mechanic (move from one place to another by crossing portals) is introduced exactly one minute after you start playing the game. In the first intro level, you also learn that you can transport things through portals, and that your aim in every level will be getting to the exit. Some people have described Portal as a long tutorial of how to play it; in my opinion, what it does is taking one movement pattern (moving through portals), and introduce the player to variations of that basic pattern--by letting the player choose where to put one side of the portal, then both, the player can learn how to gain momentum, for example. The key is starting with one basic motif or pattern of interaction, and then providing interesting variations, usually by adding a new element that provides variations on that motif.

(Yes, Portal is so great that you can actually get away with comparing it to Shakespeare.)

More on what games can learn from uncle Will very soon!

right edge
bottom curves