Hamlet  7/9/06 - Hypertext by Mike Young

Hamlet! A Game in Five Acts, by Interactivities Ink, is the first Thespis game I've seen on the market. I picked it up at Ubercon in 2005 and have only played it once through properly. It's not flawless, but it's fun and it's a narrative game, and it's vaguely collaborative, and I'd teach it in an English class, for pete's sake. That's awesome.

To summarize quickly, in Hamlet! as a Thespis instance, you have story elements, lexia perhaps, which you might 'read' or 'play' at any moment. What structures the story is that lexia have constraints on when they may be played or read. Certain plays present the prerequisites for others, or represent an event which makes other plays impossible.

In Hamlet, all actions are on the table at all times. Each player starts the game with a secret goal which takes the form of a set of character 'endings'. One player might have the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren't Dead" ending, for instance, where R&G survive and Hamlet dies in England. Another player might have the "Happily Ever After" ending where Hamlet and Ophelia get married and everyone likable doesn't die. Players take turns which are called scenes, during which they can make a certain number of actions occur. Most actions have constraints, so the "Hamlet practices swordplay" action can't occur while Hamlet is in Denmark, and while "Hamlet duels with Laertes" might happen almost anytime, the chance of Hamlet winning improves the more often the "practice" action has occurred.

When all goes well, what you end up with is a game that resembles a play written by committee in some wonderfully ridiculous ways, with players scheming and collaborating to lay out sequences of scenes which move toward their often contradictory endings. If a player's ending becomes impossible (Hamlet dies, making "Happily Ever After" look pretty Grimm), then the player joins the crowd trying to make the new play turn out like Shakespeare did-- with everyone dead. It's a nice "zombie army" device that keeps players active to the end and makes the whole thing somewhat collaborative.

Thespis might need a computer

Hamlet! bore out my concerns about non-digital Thespis, which is to say that it's quite difficult to track and plan without a computer to do the work for you. Players in our game spent most of the game poring over the character cards, trying to figure out what was possible given the current constraints. We ended up collaborating, sometimes, helping each other find some action that we could take.

Sometimes that's a great thing-- in chess, once you've learned the simple rules of motion, there's almost infinite complexity to throw yourself against as you try to create strategies which account for your opponent's possible responses. In Hamlet, though, the complexity is there in the rules in front of you. The players can't own the strategy because it's there on the cards; instead, the author owns it and the players struggle to decipher it more rapidly than their opponents. Just as players in a video game will explore the constraints of the game as much as its narrative, players in Hamlet don't get to pursue the game-maker's stated goal of being able to rewrite Shakespeare's play because they're too busy figuring out what actions are possible at the moment and what actions will lead to optimal future actions.

Instead of participating in a narrative given constraints, we were collaborating against the game mechanics to find a way to 'win', to get to an ending. What I'd like to see is a version where the actions that are open to you are clearly visible, where actions that might yet happen are visible as such, and actions that are closed are hidden or obscured. That would let me stop poring over lists and jotting down trees quite so much and would let me move on to scheming against my opponents.

I suppose that's what the (new to me) online version is for. I'm going to have to play it to see whether it's better at clarifying actions, or just better connected.