"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shakespeare as Videogame Part 3

"Say, Ariel, any idea who's winning?"
Rob and I have only just started this dialogue, he at his blog on Gamasutra, a game design site, and I here, and we are already getting recognition. His post was a featured one at Gamasutra, and has also been aggregated here at Broadway Stars, a theater news site I visit regularly, and home to the excellent podcast This Week on Broadway.

You can read Rob's reply to my last post at Gamasutra, but in the interest of completeness, here it is:

Rob: Growth and change? Don't you know videogames are all about shooting aliens in the face?

In all seriousness, I think JULIUS CAESAR would make a good videogame because of the emphasis on action and conflict. As much as I enjoy it, THE TEMPEST seems to be a story mainly about people almost doing something, but then deciding against it.

In JULIUS CAESAR Brutus and Cassius are forced to kill a dear friend for the sake of Rome, and Rome is bribed to side against them. Then they must fight a war which was evenly matched until Brutus made a strategic error.

Certainly, the play was Shakespeare's most accurate (though it includes dubious incidents of ghosts), but that doesn't mean that the game needs to be 'trapped by the facts of history.' To convert a play to a game means introducing some nonlinearity, so we can ask and answer a bunch of what-if questions in this game.

What if Caesar had found out about the plot? What if he'd stayed at home instead of going to the senate? What if Brutus were a better orator, or strategist? We could even go so far as to change the setting entirely. This story could be set in the Mafia of the 1930s, a Galactic Federation, or a Pirate Ship.

In contrast, THE TEMPEST must include a wizard and a fairy and a freakish beast-man. There aren't a lot of settings that can accomodate that.

I think the many story threads of THE TEMPEST are a weakness rather than a strength. The perspective of this play is not high enough to be a god-game or management sim, and not low enough for a first-person experience. I'll admit that THE TEMPEST was a tempting choice, because of superficial similarities to fantasy-genre games, but I think there's less there than meets the eye.

Maybe I'm just lacking imagination. How do you imagine a TEMPEST video game playing out?
Kerr:  To begin with, I want to bookmark some ideas and return to them at a later post.  First, I would like to explore the idea of moving Julius Caesar to another setting.  This is a time-honored tradition in Shakespearean production.  I would say today it is standard practice to costume in modern business suits, and of course, Orson Welles created a landmark modern fascist interpretation in 1936.  I suppose I hadn't considered that possibility, and it opens up a lot more of the plays, especially those that have traditionally been reset in different times and places, such as Othello and Macbeth and the ever-lovin' Midsummer's Night Dream.  Personally, I would like to set all the romantic comedies aside, as the stakes, typically who will end up side-by-side at the altar, do not feel like a "fit" for gaming.  But we need to explore the idea of divorcing Shakespeare's narrative from its original settings -- and doing so gives license to ignore those pesky historical facts that troubled me so.
This does place a sideways finger on the inherent flaw in the entire concept--we are attempting to engage Shakespeare's power without his language.  I must admit that I cannot conceive how that can be incorporated, but I would like to see how we can.  It is true that Shakespeare took his received materials and wielded them into different, more complex, and more resonant narrative shapes, but that is still not why he is the most revered writer in the world.  It comes down to the very words themselves and we ignore them at our peril.  But I await instruction as to how blank verse and other Shakespeare text can be employed as an integral part of a game, and not just a decorative feature.  Could there be tasks or goals associated with language which are required to progress in the game?
Back to The Tempest.  I am probably going to reveal the depths of my ignorance about gaming, but in my simple understanding, the most successful games are social multi-player games in which people explore a universe, rather than simply being a god controlling others.  That was my template for Tempest.  Certainly somebody would want to be Prospero seeking to regain his dukedom.  You could be Caliban seeking to perform tasks to achieve independence from Prospero or Ariel seeking to earn your freedom from Prospero.  You could be Alonso or Antonio, seeking Ferdinand and escape from the island.  You could be Ferdinand, seeking to perform the tasks to be worthy of Miranda.  You could even by Miranda, striving to become an independent adult away from her father.  And for any role not being adopted by a player, the game could take on that role from sets of pre-determined alternative tracks.  And Stephano and Trinculo can work as all-purpose troublemakers, available to thwart anyone's goals and plans.  The design trick is to figure out how these interact, and how, for example, an action of Caliban could alter the Antonio plotline, or something Miranda does could impact Ariel's quest.
But maybe I am getting ahead of my self.  If I were directing The Tempest for the stage, I would never run down any of these story or even character rabbit holes until I had decided what the play was about.  Once I've landed on that, all my other decisions can proceed therefrom.  It is unecessary to come up with the final and definitive answer as to the meaning or themes of any given play; one simply has to latch on an idea or ideas -- no more than two or three, tops -- that are supported by the text and which can help the play sustain in performance.  So, for instance, Hamlet is about dozens of different things, but if the director decides the play is about Betrayal then everything everyone does can proceed from there.  The set, costume and lighting designer, the way the actors move and interact, the choice of goals within scenes --everything can be interpreted through the lens of "betrayal."
So what is The Tempest about, and what would be a good choice for a game design?  We have already talked about freedom and confinement, as reflected by Caliban, Ariel, Ferdinand, Miranda and the enchanted passengers of the wrecked ship.  Prospero is even arguably confined by his desire to reverse the wrongs of the past, a desire from which he needs liberation.  That connects to another theme, reconciliation and forgiveness.  This could present serious challenges for a game driven by pre-determined logic, but perhaps receiving forgiveness can be broken into steps which need to be performed properly.  There is a conflict between the natural and technological worlds, if we interpret magic as a type of techonology.  Or we could look at magic as something between nature and technology -- man-made, but drawing on secret natural aspects of the universe.
Why this English-class discussion of themes?  Because we need to decide why we're making the game.  We need some criterion to couch all the other decisions.  We need something that will keep us moving in a defined direction, because it is clearly easy to get lost in the woods.
I don't know if what I'm imagining is technologically feasible -- a more straightforward story with clearly defined goals might be far better.  It's easy to come up with an adaptation of Macbeth as a first-person-stabber game.  But I am also looking to explore those aspects that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.  Nowadays, thanks to Joseph Campbell, we all know how to cook up a hero's journey by the numbers.  Thus I am drawn to the more particular, the more peculiar, the more inconsistent and the more complex elements that constitute Shakespeare, especially from mid-career on.
Or am I just talking through my wizard's hat?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Literature as Videogame or Vice Versa, Part 1

What follows is a dialogue between Rob and Kerr.  Rob is a video game designer in the Chicago area.  Kerr is a literature teacher in Newark, NJ.  Also, Rob is Kerr's son.  

The posts will appear here on this blog and at Rob's blog on Gamasutra, found here.

Their topic is: 'What Shakespeare play would make the best video game, and what would that game be like?'

Rob:  Hey, Dad.  So your first impulse was to say 'The Tempest' would make a great video game.  I think that's a great choice, but just for giggles I said 'Julius Ceasar' would be the best.  I have some ideas, but why do you think 'the Tempest' would work so well?

Kerr:  The obvious aspects that make THE TEMPEST videogame fodder is that there is magic -- in fact the central character is a magician -- there are strange non-human characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and the fantastic setting -- an unspecified remote island which can take on any terrain that the designers and directors choose.  There are also many separate story threads:  Prospero overseeing Miranda's entry into adulthood; Ariel's quest to be free; Caliban's desire to be seen as human; Prospero's revenge on Antonio and Alonso; Antonio and Alonso's plots against each other; the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda; the hijinks among Stephano and Trinculo, as manipulated by Ariel.  And then there is the magical disappearing banquet, not to mention all the strange magic surrounding the titular tempest.

Moreover, many characters grow and change and learn, which, it would seem to me, should be a good thing in a videogame, whereas in Shakespeare, such growth and change often happens to a single character, such as Lear, who is chastened by his experience, whereas everyone else has been merely punished by the consequences of his foolishness.

JULIUS CAESAR, for one, is particularly trapped by the facts of history.  It is one of Shakespeare's most accurate exercises in history, especially when contrasted with something like RICHARD III or MACBETH (which is based on a more legendary history) in which, largely for political persons, Shakespeare inverts the real historical heroes and villains.  Today we might say works like this are "inspired" by history.  But even they have a  hard bright line around them in the form of historical fact.  This closes down alternatives -- Julius can never not be killed by assassins; Macbeth can never not ascend to the throne and then be killed in battle.

Of course, I am conducting my analysis under a handicap -- I am not as familiar with the format of videogames as you are with plays in the theater.  I recognize that all games do have a closed ending, a conclusion, some point at which some players have succeed and some have not.  It raises a philosophical question -- as narrative aspires to closure, do games in a perfect universe aspire to perpetual play?  Is ending a game merely an acknowledgment of either our desire to identify winners and losers or our need to stop playing periodically and eat and sleep and attend to other bodily necessities?  Or do games also need to end as an inherent part of their nature?  And do we even need to address this question in order to further our conversation?

So I bounce it back to you, Rob.  Of all 37 or 38 of Shakespeare's theatrical works, what caused you to light on JULIUS CAESAR as a potential videogame?  Perhaps your answer will instruct me in an aspect of gaming of which I was unaware.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dig and Be Dug

If you had told me back when I started teaching full time, almost ten years ago, that I would be in a room with 200 teachers screaming--screaming, I tell you--over poetry--yes, poetry; that fellow students reciting poetry would trigger an ear-splitting demonstration of enthusiasm, I would ask for a sample of whatever you were ingesting.

It happened last Friday, April 27, at American History High.  We held what we called a Poetry Slam (although it was not truly a Slam, particularly as it was non-competitive) in our main auditorium (well, "cafetorium" actually), with 20 poets from our Public Speaking classes and an audience of mostly juniors and seniors.  The subjects covered everything on students' minds -- love, violence, drugs, identity, pregnancy, broken families, broken friendships, beauty, truth, all that good poetry-type stuff.

I don't deserve much credit for this.  My students live in a world with few tools for them to combat their circumstances.  They have been brought up to understand how important words are and what they can do.  History has taught them the jiu jitsu of using the words of our Founding Fathers to achieve goals that those long-ago limited men could never have dreamed of.  They see doors opened and walls collapsed with words.  We are a nation based on an idea and a promise rooted in that idea, so that for all the tanks and bombs and mighty mountains and amber waves of grain, our true nationhood is one of words.

And they love their new word-tools.  I learned this year to stop fighting the phones and use my own jiu-jitsu and incorporate them.  My wife talks about being in the Look It Up Club back in her school days.  Now every student with a smart phone can be part of that club.  And if they don't have one, their friend they sit with probably does.  If I don't give them something to do with those phones, they'll be texting.  Think about that -- they'll be writing.  Once our predecessors bemoaned the advent of cheap telephone service as the herald of the end of writing.  Now young people can't stop writing; texting, IM'ing, blogging, even e-mailing (although that is very old-fashioned).  As long as it isn't official, approved or assigned, they will do that writing.

Not to mention that students today have grown up entirely in the age of rap, in which the most talented rhymers are raking in seven-figure incomes, a fact that must be making Robert Browning and John Keats absolutely furious in their graves, thinking of the bucks they coulda scored in their day.  (Robert Burns even wrote pop tunes!)

So perhaps it was predictable, that students would go wild for the wordsmiths, who stir sound and sense into a new Newark gumbo all our own.  Special props, however, to one of our most gifted performers in the school, who capped his poetry recitation, with a walk down the auditorium aisle, flower in hand, to ask his long-time squeeze to the prom.

The explosion in the room for that exquisite romantic gesture -- well, there are no words.