"[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

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.

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