Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy

From Feminist Frequency’s new games reviewer Carolyn Petit comes a discussion of an upcoming game called “Elsinore”. The main premise of the game is that you play as Ophelia from Hamlet, who has to work through a number of time loops of the events of the play, where you can change things by dropping hints and information and getting the other characters to change how they act or respond to them. You don’t get direct control over any other character than Ophelia, and so all you can do is influence people — and, presumably, events — to try to get different — and, also, presumably better — outcomes.

Upon reading the piece, I am convinced that the game is going to be an utter disaster.

Let’s start from the original premise, according to the originating designer, Katie Chironis:

“I was a writing major in undergrad,” she says. “I read Hamlet multiple times in high school and again in college, just breaking it down, and at the same time that I was reading all these tragedies and dissecting them, I was also starting to make games. And so it was kind of like, ‘What if we combined this concept of the power fantasy where all you do is win win win, with a tragedy where all you do is lose lose lose?’”

Well, sure, because we all know that games are all about winning and winning and winning, with no setbacks and no tragedies and no unintended negative consequences … wait, what?!?

Despite the gaming credits Chironis lists, saying this reveals a complete and utter lack of understanding of games in general and how they work. Almost all games have the players lose … a lot. Often, to the chagrin and annoyance of most players, in cutscenes. Things almost never run smoothly for the player in pretty much any game, and so they have to overcome those setbacks in order to complete the game. The main source of tension and conflict in games is always that something has gone wrong and it needs to be fixed. And many, many games drive that tension by having the player fail at their task. While that often isn’t explicitly their fault — the enemy makes a move to block something having the desired effect or the thing doesn’t work the way the player thinks it does — games even make the negative outcomes be the result of what the player was doing. For example, in Persona 3 the actions that you take in the first part of the game don’t, in fact, stop the disaster that you were trying to avert, but instead lead to it. At any rate, setbacks occur in most games to most players most of the time.

Now, Chironis could argue that most games, at the end of the day, let the player overcome these setbacks and eventually get a happy ending, which is not what happens in a straight tragedy like Hamlet. There are two main issues here. The first is that straight tragedies aren’t, in fact, uncommon in games. Many games have “Bad Endings” where things … don’t turn out well for the player. But, okay, maybe you can argue that these aren’t, in fact, the canon endings … except that a number of games, in fact, do make the bad or tragic endings canon. In Persona 3, the canonical ending is that the MC dies — or at least goes into a permanent coma — to seal away the evil that would destroy the world. In Shadow Hearts, the canonical ending — at least to that iteration — is that Alice dies. In Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame 2, the canonical endings are that Mafuyu stays in the mansion, and that Mio kills Mayu. And from what I understand, the latest X-Comm starts assuming that you didn’t stop the alien invasion in the first game. So tragic stories and tragic endings aren’t at all foreign to games in general.

The second — and far more serious — issue with this potential counter is that, well, Elsinore is going to give you the ability to change the ending, and by implication to make it much happier than it was (and maybe to create an actual happy ending). So even if this is what she was going for, she isn’t actually going to do that.

So, despite the implication that this is something new and exciting and a new take on the genre, it really isn’t anything new. Games have been doing this for a long time before Chironis came along. This strikes me as someone who takes the Sarkeesian/feminist interpretation of games as power fantasy far too seriously, so seriously that they’re assuming what games are like instead of looking at them themselves to see what they’re like. The number of games that are just “win, win, win” is, well, rather small. Even a simple shooter like “Good Robot” doesn’t let the player just win, and that barely has a story (or so I am told).

Then, we hear why Ophelia was chosen to be the protagonist here:

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t get to do much. This is partially why Chironis felt that she was the right choice for the protagonist of Elsinore. Hamlet, she notes, is “booked every hour of the day,” while Ophelia spends most of her time offstage, freeing her up to do other things while the play goes on.

How is it that Ophelia can get away with skulking around? “Ophelia is kind of the ideal stealth character,” Chironis explains, “because nobody pays attention to her and nobody expects her to do anything. She’s so unimportant to the major events of the play, and so in some way, she’s the perfect person to be whispering in people’s ears.”

Thus, by that logic, Ophelia is better for the person who whispers in people’s ears … than the characters, who, canonically, spent all their time doing that. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, which is why they were used in Stoppard’s take on the play. Or Polonius, who has that, literally, as his job. Or the king, who took over not through force, but through subtle manipulation. Or Queen Gertrude. Or Hamlet himself, despite his being so “overbooked”, since his means were also subtle manipulation rather than force.

The fact is that most of the characters would fit as well if not better than Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always come to mind for this, being very minor characters that nevertheless have direct access to both the inner circle of the king and to Hamlet, although they have been done before. Polonius could be interesting and, again, he has access to all relevant parties. Queen Gertrude would actually be interesting having to start from a point where she is already married to the usurper king and has to figure out how to reveal that and settle things without bringing down the kingdom and creating a disaster. The usurper king himself would be a very interesting take, since you could give the player the choice of his trying to preserve his own life or, taking a queue from the prayer scene, where he tries to repent and set right the things that his sin set wrong. Laertes is in at least as good a position as Ophelia, but has an issue where he has a pivotal action that, obviously, in the next loop he won’t do … or, at least, the player wouldn’t, knowing what the player knows about how it works out. Which, as it turns out, is a problem for Ophelia herself, as her madness and her death scene, presumably, won’t happen if the player has any control over it, and taking control away from the player at that point in the game probably isn’t going to go over well.

My impression is that Chironis should just be honest with herself and with the audience here, and admit that she likes Ophelia as a character and wanted to see her have a larger role in the play apart from the role she had. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d rather see people just admit things like that than try to rationalize them as being some kind of objectively right or better choice. If I was going something like this, I’d probably go with the usurper king or with Hamlet himself because of what you can do with those set-ups, but I’m not going to say that if a work didn’t go that route they’re worse, for example, which is what’s kinda implied here.

And then we get to the most frightening part of the article, and what has most convinced that a) these people don’t understand games and players of games and b) this game is going to be an absolute trainwreck:

This, the designers hope, will work to subvert any attempts to play Elsinore as a kind of power fantasy. Chironis says, “We’ve seen a lot of frustration from players where, I think their mental model when they start playing is, ‘If I gather all this information, I can have this perfect mastery. I can play puppet master.’ But you can’t because the characters are still really ****ed up people with their own aims and ambitions that will get in the way of your best intentions.” So you might present a character with a piece of information that you expect will have a very positive result, only to see them twist it into something horrible because of their mental state, with the results being something you had no intention of bringing about.

Players may not exactly enjoy this, but the team is okay with that. Engineer Kristin Siu says, “It’s very disempowering for the player but for us, it’s pretty satisfying. It also fits in very nicely with this idea of tragedy. Tragedy is all about watching characters that you empathize with do things you don’t want them to do. You can try to present all this information to characters but they may not necessarily behave in the way that you want them to behave. And so part of experiencing the tragedy is seeing them take the information that you gave them and twist it into something terrible.”

So, let me try to summarize the attitude here: “Players are saying that the game really frustrates them. But we’re okay with that, because we think it’s just because they’re used to the power fantasy and so not having complete control frustrates them.”

Okay, let’s start from the fact that games where you don’t have complete control over the actions of those you are trying to guide are actually really common. We can start from games like Lemmings and shift into more formal god games like Populous. Even in “The Sims” you can give the Sim free will and so they won’t always do what you want them to do, which didn’t in any way hurt the popularity of that game. A lot of game players really, really like seeing emergent behaviour and how sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d expect and that little actions can have a lot bigger impact than you’d expect. So, if players are playing this game and getting frustrated by it, it’s probably not just that they are in some kind of none existent power gaming mindset. Either a) they just don’t like those sorts of games, at which point they aren’t your audience and so you need to get different play testers who do, or b) it’s something about your game that frustrates them, and so you might want to fix that before you release.

Usually when people get frustrated about what’s happening in one of these sorts of games, it almost always not because they feel disempowered or don’t feel like they are the puppet master that they expect to be or, even, that the events are unexpected. These are the things they like about those sorts of games, and why they play them in the first place. No, most often it’s one of two reasons that frustrates them:

1) You are at a point in the game where both the player and the character have some information that they could share with someone or take an action based on that would change things … and the game doesn’t let them. For example, one of the most frustrating parts of the Mass Effect 3 ending — even for me, who didn’t absolutely hate it — was that when the AI says that the cycles exists to prevent the inevitable wars between synthetics and organics, you can’t point out — if you’ve managed to do those parts of the game — that you have a) a trusted AI crew member who might even be in a romantic relationship with an organic and b) made peace between synthetics and organics, ending a war of extinction, so that now they live in harmony. The player knows it, the character knows it … but you can’t even mention it to the AI to be dismissed with a “That’s all temporary” dismissal. Given the structure of this game, you and the character are likely to know lots of things that you could see might change opinion, and if the writing doesn’t recognize all of these — and it’s actually impossible for it to — then that is going to frustrate people. If the writing doesn’t catch the more subtle cases, the player will actually feel railroaded down direct and possibly stupid paths, and so will be massively frustrated.

2) The reactions of the characters aren’t, in fact, consistent with that character. In short, they do things that are inconsistent with what the game — and, in this case, the play, since this is built around a familiar play — implies the characters would do in reaction to what you do or say. Sure, the characters have their own mental states and those mental states can be messed up, but there still has to be some consistency, especially in a game where you are aiming at consequences through manipulation. If the game doesn’t make their character traits clear enough or the consequences from your actions don’t align with those traits, the player will be frustrated that the end up with bad consequences from actions that they couldn’t have foreseen would have those consequences.

These only get exacerbated when combined with a time loop and the frustrations inherent in that mechanism. There are two main ways to end a time loop story. You can take the Tragedy Looper board game route and give a set number of loops to get the best ending possible(in that game, you need to get the “right” ending or else you lose, but I don’t expect to see that in Elsinore) or you can take the “Groundhog Day” route and give as many loops as necessary until you get to the “right” ending. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character gets massively frustrated because he doesn’t know what the “right” ending is, and so has no idea if what’s he’s doing is getting him closer to finishing the loop. If the ending state is vague and the player can’t tell if they’re getting closer to the right ending, then they will be frustrated in the same way. On the other hand, if one wrong action can mess up a loop and the loops are limited, then an unintended consequence can kill one of those limited loops, and with limited loops there are going to have to be things you learn in a previous loop so that you can use it in a later one, which will hamper their ability to get a good or proper ending, which will also be frustrating.

These things have to be carefully balanced. If your play testers are frustrated, that’s a good sign that you aren’t getting that balance. Ignoring that feedback will make the game a disaster.

And, of course, there’s another goal here, too:

hironis says, “I grew up going to Shakespeare productions with my parents and it was always an all-white cast, and back in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-white, all-male cast. Now I think it’s interesting to reinterpret Hamlet for a modern audience that, I hope, doesn’t want to see an all-male, all-white cast.”

So Ophelia and her brother Laertes are biracial. Additionally, Chironis explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women of color. And I don’t want to go into too much detail but a lot of the characters have fluid sexuality and gender identification. People think of history as being predominantly white and male but it actually isn’t, these people have been here all along. We’re gonna talk about their stories and their experiences through the lens of Hamlet.”

What about people who don’t care if the cast is all-male and all-white, as long as the game is good?

Okay, so let’s look at this. First, the game is working with a “small actions, big changes” model, which is a very complex narrative model. Then, it adds a time loop model, which adds even more complexity, which makes it even harder to do and stay interesting. And then they want to add in telling these extra stories there as well, which also needs to be done well if you’re going to pull that off. This is certainly … ambitious, to say the least.

And that last part might actually be adding to the frustration. See, in any time loop story you are going to have to take some actions over and over again each loop in order to get things to follow the right path. If those “stories and experiences” are front and centre and not just hidden, and especially if they have an impact on the ending, then players might have to experience those stories over and over and over again as they play through the game. Even someone who is interested in these differing stories might get annoyed if they have to hear the story of a character’s unique transgender name over and over and over again.

Given all of this, this game is really looking like a trainwreck. The ambitious goals of this game would be hard to achieve even if the designers didn’t seem completely ignorant of how games actually work and unwilling to listen to their own play testers about the experience of the game. If this summary was coming from someone critical of the idea, I’d take the comments with a grain of salt … but Petit seems to be supporting this game. Thus it’s likely that the things said here are what the designers actually believe. And those words, to me, sound like a disaster waiting to happen.

Some minor notes:

– Guildenstern, in the screenshot I saw, looks like an Asian woman to me. I didn’t realize that “of colour” applied to Asians; I thought it was just a purportedly politer euphemism for “black”, not for “non-white”. If all that was meant was “non-white”, she could have just said so.

– I read a developer comment while looking for the actual looping mechanism that said that there will be same-sex relationships in the game. I’d bet that in one ending you can have Laertes and Hamlet run off together while Gertrude and Ophelia stay and run the kingdom.

– I also don’t understand why so many of the people who want to tell the stories of minorities always want to take an existing work and alter the characters instead of creating something new. Tragedy Looper, as a board game, is successful enough — and Groundhog Day was successful enough — that they ought to have figured out that they didn’t need to piggyback on Hamlet if they made a good time loop game, and there was even a recent indie and Social Justice-oriented one whose name escapes me that did well, so why bring Hamlet into it? It has to be to play off of the familiarity … but then changing the characters to tell other stories works against that. I just don’t get it.

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2 Responses to “Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    You’re probably thinking of “Life is Strange”.

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