Final Thoughts on “Elsinore”

So, I managed to start my gaming New Year off on a positive note and play and finish “Elsinore”. I restarted the game because it’s difficult to remember where you were after not playing it for a while, and I was also curious if the first playthrough was set or if it was more randomized. I think that I managed to avoid getting killed by the spy the first time, but of course the only way to do that is to get killed by something else first. Anyway, it was a fresh start and I played it for a significant amount of time before choosing an ending.

This seems like a good time to talk about the game in general. The game is a time loop game based on Hamlet. The player plays as Ophelia, who ends up looping the main days of the play over and over again. As the story progresses, the player and Ophelia find out that this is not the first time it has happened. As already stated, the loops will early on end with Ophelia being killed by a spy, and so Ophelia’s first task is to find out who the spy is and stop the spy from killing her, as well as other things like keeping her father alive and potentially saving the kingdom.

The overall mechanics are non-standard, to say the least. There are no real dialogue trees or dialogue options in the game. Instead, as Ophelia finds things out she can “share” them with other characters in the game through the sharing mechanism. So Ophelia can’t ask other characters questions, but some of the things she can “share” end up doing so as questions or requests, which is a bit awkward. However, if you are talking to a person and select something that can be shared with them, at the bottom of the screen it will display what is going to be said. Still, you can only talk about what’s available, but the game is pretty good about letting you share things that you learned in a previous loop even if you aren’t past the point where it would come up in this loop. You also get a Journal that describes what quests you have and what things you know about each character, and a Timeline that shows you where each character is going to be and what events they are going to be part of in this timeline, which gets updated as Ophelia triggers new events and does things that make certain events unlikely. This has one issue that the events listed on the Timeline don’t seem to actually start at that time (usually later) which can be confusing if you don’t follow a character to the event, which can be done through a very helpful “Follow” command which follows them automatically. You can also accelerate time if you want to wait for an event to start.

All of this is at the player’s disposal as Ophelia walks around a relatively open world and interacts with the various characters. The game is essentially broken down into two parts, all of which use the time loop mechanism. The first part is a fairly linear progression, where you have to figure out who the spy is, figure out how to stop them from killing you, interact with the ghost of Hamlet’s father to find out about the main plot, find out about a specific person who can help with the time loops, befriend the spy to get help in stopping the invasion so that you can finally talk to the person and trigger the second part. The second part, oddly, is the part that I said that I wanted in my second post on the game, where you go through and acquire endings that, once the loop starts, you can simply select to end the game. This should be the most fun part of the game, but it runs into a specific problem.

Any work that uses a time loop will invariably express the main character’s absolute frustration with having the loop start over again and again and again. Even this game does that by having Ophelia express that with Hamlet constantly bursting in on her in her room (although she was much more frustrated with that than I was, which as I said when discussing “Corpse Party” can really break immersion). This is especially going to be the case if the person doesn’t really know what they need to do or has loops reset because of stupid mistakes or things that they couldn’t have anticipated. The first part of the game is full of this sort of situation, as the goals are absolutely required to advance the game, there’s almost no freedom in how you achieve those goals, and you often have to use trial and error which can easily lead to ruined loops. So what happened with me, at least, is that I was getting to the “frustrated” point of the game and resorted to a walkthrough to figure out the last parts, and then ended up in the second part which should have been the most fun part … but by then I was too annoyed with the time loop mechanism to really get into it. Especially since just trying to change the play so that it wouldn’t trigger the confrontation with Hamlet caused two events that I didn’t want to happen — Ophelia being deemed insane the first time and the second time, in a new loop, Polonious dying — which only made the frustration worse. I really think it would have been better if they had made the first part shorter. Maybe eliminate the spy portion entirely and just keep the ghost to final person track. That way we would get to the second part faster and thus be less sick of the time loops and more willing to explore to get as many endings as possible, and then selecting the one we most want to see when we’re finally tired of going through the time loops.

This is only made worse by the save system. You get one save file, and it’s entirely driven by auto saving. So you can’t decide to try something out to see what happens and restore a save if it ends up disastrously. No, what you’d have to do is try it and if it doesn’t work out start the loop over again, which is fine if you’re on the first day but quite annoying if you’re on the third. Also, at the end of the game when you pick an ending you get an additional and more detailed scene that describes what happens, but it also destroys your save file and so if you want to go back and get any other endings you’d have to do at least the first part again. Sure, it’d be faster since you’d know what to do but that doesn’t exactly encourage replaying the game while the multiple endings — including a “real” ending — actually does. Like the lengthy first part before we get to the more interesting second part, the game seems to be working against itself on occasions.

And the real ending itself causes some issues, as the game sets up a character that’s supposedly helping you but in the end is portrayed as someone who is somewhat sadistically manipulating things for some evil purpose. Except up to that point it’s clear and made clear that the evil that people have done in the previous loops was indeed of their own volition, and the character is presented as being more like someone who enjoys watching what happens in these cases and testing people than in hurting people. And the true ending is based on opposing that character. And Ophelia herself expresses a strong desire to stop the character from getting the book back and being able to repeat it, which is again a case where she’s feels something that I didn’t, which doesn’t really work. I personally had no desire to deal with the character and more desire to simply end the loops, which would be consistent with time loop stories in general and how this game was written in particular.

I also don’t think the game really benefited by being associated with Hamlet. One main concern when you do this is that you are likely to have a mix of people playing the game, some of which are more or less familiar with Hamlet and those who aren’t. Thus, you need to be able to explain everything in enough detail for those who aren’t familiar with the play while not boring those who are. The game, it seems to me, did this relatively well. However, the flip side of that is that what would be a twist or thrilling reveal for those who don’t know the play isn’t one for those who do. For example, after finding out who the spy was and so managing to survive that (and after that happens, the spy never kills you again) I stopped and thought “I’m going to have to stop the invasion, aren’t I?”, which is indeed what you need to do before you can finish the first part. The invasion would have been a surprise to someone who didn’t know the play. An additional issue here is that you need to make the characters roughly align with their presentations in the play, and if they don’t then it will seem jarring to people who enjoyed the play. Ophelia definitely seemed more grumpy to me than she was in the play, and her relationship with Hamlet seemed more fragmented than it was in the play. Hamlet also seemed more annoying than he was in the play. I also don’t recall the Lady Brit in the play, and so her getting such a prominent role here seemed jarring.

Ultimately, I think it would have worked better for them to have invented a new setting and used that for their story. That way, they could insert things like spies and other components without it seeming contrived, and also could have set precisely the relationships and personalities they wanted without anyone ever complaining that it’s not like the characters as they were in the play. Even if the inspiration was tightly tied to the Hamlet tragedy, they could have easily simply lifted the story and used it in their new setting, and to avoid accusations of copying lampshaded their inspiration. But the game doesn’t really gain anything from being in the actual Hamlet story and it causes issues that I don’t think they managed to overcome.

Also, in line with how I first became aware of the game, I don’t think that the frustrations with the game expressed there are about players wanting to be puppet masters, but are instead about how the internal states can be odd and how events can have very unexpected consequences. For the former, if you say something to someone that devastates them, they become shattered and won’t talk to you. This is fine. Except that they’ll go through and continue on with the events you’ve already triggered. So you can shatter Hamlet and have him still go and look for Laertes’ lost lute, which makes no sense. If they’re willing to do that, they should be willing to talk to you. And if you accidentally choose the option that shatters them before selecting another option that you wanted to do at that time, then it’s time to reset the loop. For the latter, I once changed the play-within-the-play to describe my situation, and this got everyone to consider Ophelia insane with no way to debate it, even though it was just fantastical. As I posited, if people were complaining it was probably because things didn’t make sense, not because they thought that they’d be puppet masters.

That being said, there are some good things about the game. The ending that I did watch, while a bit overly dramatic, was fairly well done nonetheless. And there were some great scenes in it and some wonderful situations that it would have been nice to explore and see where it finally ends up. Unfortunately, these are else secondary to the main plot, which isn’t as interesting as they are, although it is serviceable. I still just wish that the first part was shorter so that we could focus more on getting the various endings, and that they were easier to experience in general.

I should also make a note about how the Social Justice aspects work in this game, because they are there. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lesbian lovers, Ophelia and Laertes make comments about being outcasts because of the colour of their skin, and a character is revealed to be transsexual. However, these are mainly things that you can uncover but aren’t front and centre the entire time, and at least one of them has a major impact on the story and so isn’t just a toss in. So I didn’t mind it that much.

So, after all of that, I’m sure everyone is wondering what my overall impression of the game was. I find the game … mostly meh. There are some really good scenes, but the time loop mechanism ended up annoying me and the lengthy first part ruins what should be the far superior second part. I really think that they were far too ambitious for what they were able to achieve, as evidenced by it taking three more years than they had planned and some of their mechanisms and stories and plots not quite working. I don’t regret playing it once but can’t imagine wanting to go through all of that again to play it again. If you like time loop plots and so have more patience with them and their foibles than I do, you might want to pick up this game if you can get it for a reasonable price. Ultimately, it’s not a disaster, but not a classic either.

Since I played the game over a few nights, I took down some notes on it, and I’ll add them here. They may contain spoilers.

After one (re)play (two iterations):

The spy murder seems to be scripted to occur at a certain time or point in the narrative, not in a location. Thus, it’s probably possible to die to something else in the prologue, although it would be hard to do. It would be cool, though.

I was working through the second time with a very interesting alternate history: Gertrude kills herself, Hamlet kills Claudius and is in line to be king, Polonius was spared, and Ophelia and Hamlet reunite. Hamlet was facing some personal crises about whether or not he was ready to be king. And then the spy killed me. This follows up on the flaw from my previous run, where I would have liked to be able to see the alternate endings and paths but the game prompts me to restart if it considers my move a failure. Here, an interesting exploration of an alternative Hamlet story is cut off by the spy plot, which I had tried to resolve but it seems there’s more that I need to do here. Sure, if it had been that easy to get to the end it would have been disappointing, but I’m interested in the Hamlet part, not the spy part, but it seems like the spy part — especially as it hints at Ophelia being incredibly important or some reason — is the most involved and detailed and tricky part of the entire game. But then this looping story becomes more of a spy mystery than an alternate Hamlet, and so they didn’t need to shoehorn it into Hamlet at all, and it would have avoided the issue. As it is, if you like the Hamlet stuff then the spy subplot literally seems like something tossed in to complicate matters and keep the game going, while if you really like the spy subplot idea then the extra Hamlet stuff is at best neutral and at worst overly complicated as it has to align with the play enough to appease the first group.

It is definitely the case that you have to fail some rounds to get information that you can use it later ones. I just gained the ability to alter the play and I suspect it will be crucial in solving the spy mystery, but you can only do that after seeing a play once, and can’t insert anything into a play that has already run. I also suspect that I will need to tell Hamlet about his mother’s affair so that he will take me to the ghost so that I can talk to his father about his having done time loops before.

The king having done time loops before and, presumably, having broken one — so that he could be murdered — means that we are going to need a good explanation for why this happens and why it went from the king to Ophelia after he broke it the first time. We could get away without one in Happy Death Day because it was all about Tre’s character growth, but having it move from one person to another makes it a plot point, and the plot point must be resolved.

Ophelia says that she wants a happy ending, implying that the loop can’t stop until she gets one, which is disappointing.

After four or five iterations:

There seems to be an overall plot here, which is then in a bit of tension with the open world aspects of the game. I triggered the ghost plot, which then means that I have to get some papers from Polonious, which is encouraged by the playwright. But Polonious burns them if you ask about them, so I think I need to get him killed to get the key to read them. So that’s a plot to follow. But so far what’s best is a number of seemingly unrelated scenes: Polonious with Ophelia’s mother, the lute search, the Queen’s death, one from my first playthrough with Guildenstern, etc, etc. These you can only find by exploring open world, which you won’t want to do every time because while they are effective they’re long and take place at times when other things are happening. So you might trigger it once but then not follow it up. If they’re important, then you will have to find them to end the game. If they aren’t but you want to do them in the ending loop, then you’ll need to remember them. I’m caught between wanting to explore and wanting to follow the plot, which isn’t great.

Also, if the ghost plot doesn’t help me solve the spy plot, then I still have to solve that one. But if it does then the hints in the spy plot aren’t accurate. Anyway, my suspicions for the spy right now are Lady Brit, Laertes, and perhaps one of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The original post I wrote that got me following this talked about players not liking it that the characters had their own internal lives. I think now that the complaint is that you can tell them things that upset or shatter them and then you can’t interact with them anymore (so you have to be careful what you do in what order). Since this kinda makes sense, I don’t mind it, but the problem is that this only impacts their interactions with you. They do everything else as normal. So a shattered Hamlet will still go on a hunt for a lost lute, and an upset and potentially despairing Queen will still make light conversation at the dinner table with Hamlet, as long as the events are triggered before you make them upset. This seems inconsistent, and is probably what some of the players were grumbling about.

Third play session:

I had to resort to a walkthrough to get the notes, but that’s not really an issue because I lasted far longer than I would have otherwise. I also managed to figure out who the spy was: Lady Brit. It being Laertes would have been more interesting. Now I need to figure out how to get her to trust me so that she’ll stop the invasion so that I can go talk to someone who was around before and get an evil book from her that will let me complete the main plot, and there are a number of different endings that I can get. I’ll probably resort to some sort of walkthrough for getting the book, and might just go with whatever ending I happen to get at that point, although the default one is boring and annoying.

I don’t think the mix of open world and linear plot works very well in this game. By this point in the time loops, I really needed to get certain specific things done and it seems like there’s only one or maybe two ways to actually do that, but it isn’t always clear what you need to do. As an example, to get the notes you need to get them from Polonious but he always burns them before you can despite the fact that he talked to me at one point about giving me a key in case he died. The way to resolve it was at least to tell the right person and have him killed. There may be other ways to get him killed, but the obvious one would be to let him die as per normal and then take it, but that’s too late. But it isn’t clear if his burning it is a set time or if it is triggered by actions, meaning that I tried to make that part happen as normal — and it usually didn’t — to get the notes and only resorted to the walkthrough which had the convoluted and strange solution that isn’t at all obvious (the death is accidental, and you’d probably never think to tell that to that character anyway). The problem is not so much with the convoluted paths, but more that those paths are the requirements to advance the story and get an ending.

Once you figure out who the spy is, they will never threaten you again. This is convenient, but breaks the narrative.

After the end:

There are a number of cases where the world breaks because of something that didn’t make sense, which is far more annoying when you’re heading towards an ending. I wanted to change the play to avoid the confrontation, but changing it to being about a time loop gets
Ophelia judged mad despite none of them thinking that beforehand, and changing it to mock Polonious ended up with him committing suicide somehow (I still don’t know why). Getting someone killed also triggers the war again which leads to a specific ending. While unintended consequences are indeed the norm for this sort of game, things did often need to be clearer.

The part at the end where you strive to come up with the various endings so that you can select them and end the game would be the most interesting part, if you hadn’t had to spend hours going through the linear plot to solve the time loop to get it. The game mechanism is exactly the same and about as annoying. That’s why I simply selecting the non-death, non-insane ending I got and went with it.

The endings, or at least that one, aren’t as well-written as some of the scenes in the game. The writing is overwrought and Ophelia talks about the reasons behind the choice despite that not being the reasoning I was using (it wasn’t choosing myself over others, but instead simply choosing to stop trying). This was jarring and a bit annoying.

Quince is informed evil. It would have worked better to make him more neutral, as that would align better with what we know — he doesn’t seem to do anything bad and the only bad effects were from Simona’s actual choice — and also give a reason to try to stop the tests or whatever. As is, either we really should be making every effort to stop him or else we really should simply be trying to make a fate that works, depending on how evil you think he is.

5 Responses to “Final Thoughts on “Elsinore””

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