Elsinore - Live. Parricide. Repeat.
Have you ever read Hamlet, an immensely important text in the canon of western literature, a work of art bearing so much cultural significance that we quote it all the time without even realizing it because of how entrenched it is in our lexicon, and thought to yourself, “This needs more Groundhog Day.” I know I have! And now that beautiful fantasy has been made real with Elsinore, a literally Shakespearean time loop story and, so far, one of my favorite games of the year.
Elsinore is Hamlet. You play as Ophelia, daughter of the chief counsellor to the king, fated in the play to drown in a brook as a result of a possible suicide over the death of her father. The game begins with a short prologue. You learn about the journal that keeps track of your objectives and what you know about each character. You learn the point-and-click mechanics, as well as how to use the map and how to initiate conversations. You have a horrifying nightmare where you witness your own death as well as the brutal murders of your family and the royals. You know, the usual stuff.
You wake up and play out what is, essentially, Acts II, III, and IV of the play. (Elsinore takes a lot of liberties with the source material, mostly for understandable video game related reasons.) Talks of war with Norway and King Claudius has a strange reaction to the performance commissioned by Hamlet and your father's murder and so on and so forth. All this is familiar if you’ve read or seen the play. However, not long after this, you yourself are murdered by a mysterious figure in disguise. Then you wake up in bed again.
In order to unmask your killer, stop the time loop, and find out generally what the hell is going on, you must manipulate the events of the play based on what you learn by going through the loops, following and listening to the various characters that occupy the castle grounds, and feeding the right information to the right people at the right time in order to achieve the right effect.
And now we’ve reached the part where this game becomes difficult to talk about without spoilers. Elsinore, at its core, is a puzzle game. The solutions to the puzzles just so happen to involve changing the story and its details in a Hitman style clockwork environment. Despite how much I would like to tell you about some of the events you can set in motion (and believe me, you can do some wild shit), were I to do so, it could potentially spoil the solution of a puzzle.
On top of that, though you have specified objectives, there’s no order in which you have to tackle them and some of the objectives have multiple routes to completion. As a result, you could have a completely different experience from mine depending on when and how you do things. Though I didn't discover the identity of my murderer until around halfway through my time with the game, it's entirely possible to discover the murderer's identity on your first few loops.
However, it’s not just what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it. One of the amazing aspects of Elsinore is how seemingly insignificant actions can result in huge consequences. There's a character named Irma. (If I remember correctly, she’s not in the play.) Irma is the head cook, as well as a close confidant of Queen Gertrude, having essentially been in her life since she was a little girl. Irma feels that Hamlet needs to be disciplined for the disrespectful behavior he’s displayed publicly toward his mother. I did something small to help her achieve that goal. As a result of my minor interference, two important characters wound up dead, two more were sent into exile, and before the loop started again, I ended up, shall we say… very much not dead in a pond.
Events and objectives also have a way of naturally weaving into one another. Early on in the game, I focused on how to prevent my father from being murdered by Hamlet in Gertrude’s room. (Not a spoiler. This happens in the play.) That meant being there in person to potentially stop it. The problem, however, is that the door is locked when the murder takes place. I found out that there are two characters who have keys to the room, and in the course of doing a favor for one of them, I discovered how I can leave the castle grounds, something a guard prevented you from doing up this point. Something I assumed the game wasn't going to allow me to do at all.
Again, a lot depends on the order you carry out your tasks, but this leads to another aspect of the game that I love, which is the way the world keeps expanding and giving you more variables. Leaving the castle grounds isn’t the only time the board gets unexpectedly bigger, and with more variances comes more possible outcomes.
As events change, so does your relationships with each of the characters. If you know the play, you know that King Claudius is, to put it mildly, kind of a dick, and the game stays true to this spirit. However, at some point, intentionally or not, you’ll end up destroying everything he cares about and everyone he loves. You have the ability to shatter him, and you’ll probably end up doing so multiple times. Some of you may be inclined to think, “Well, screw that guy.” And you may have a point. But there’s something about the way he expresses his sorrow that made me feel incredibly guilty, and the ways you can take advantage of his sorrow made me feel equally as icky.
The more I played, the closer I felt to all these characters. (At least in the context of this game.) The closer I felt, the more my motivations changed. By the time I was able to leave the castle grounds, I had made Ophelia witness her father’s murder multiple times, I made her directly and indirectly cause said murder a few times, as well as the deaths of others, I manipulated my friends and family, and I did, to put it mildly, a lot of dirt. I did plenty of good as well, but I got the sense that everything I put Ophelia through was starting to weigh on her, and getting murdered every night probably didn’t help.
So when I left the castle grounds for the first time, I ran into… a character. (I won’t spoil who it is for the sake of any potential theater nerds reading, but let’s just say it’s not a character from Hamlet.) “Holy shit, what are you doing here!?” I exclaimed upon meeting this character. I then proceeded to spend an entire loop following this person, and, eventually, I discovered that I could do things with said character. Things of a certain carnal nature, if you catch my meaning...
...I had sexual intercourse with this person.
After my post-coital joy, two thoughts suddenly occurred to me. The first was that I realized that I arranged this particular event not just to see what would happen or because some objective told me to do so. I did this because I felt that Ophelia deserved a reprieve. Despite all the bloodshed and general messed up shit Ophelia had caused and witnessed, one of her more admirable traits in the game is that she refuses to see these people as merely pawns on a board. Every time she sees her father die, it breaks her heart all over again, and it's not like there are a whole lot of people she can talk to about it. She deserved a break, and maybe a little bliss.
The other thought was that even if the objectives did tell me to have sex with this person, I hadn’t actually looked at the objectives in such a long time that I didn’t know what I was technically “supposed” to do anymore. I was just doing stuff to see what would happen. So I opened the objectives to discover that I completed a great deal of them in the natural course of me pulling on threads and generally farting around. I was rewarded for doing what I would do anyway if I didn't hypothetically have a leash, as any good game should if they can help it.
Elsinore isn’t perfect. It’s not much of a looker in most regards, the clockwork routine of the AI can be a little naked to the point of immersion breaking, despite not needing a whole bunch of computing muscle, it doesn’t always run smoothly, and I have a narrative issue or two with the ending I chose.
However, apart from being fun and inventive with its mechanics, Elsinore is one of the richest experiences I’ve had with a video game in 2019. It’s a game about retaining your humanity in the face of ceaseless repetition. It’s a game about the ties we have to the people we control in video games, and in a broader sense, fiction in general. It’s a game that can explore any number of topics. All of it depends on what you do and how you feel about doing it.
Also, that guy in town? It’s Othello. I totally fucked Othello.
- There’s a fast-forward button and a timeline in the menu where you can keep track of where people are going to be and when.
- There are, if I remember correctly, thirteen possible endings. The ending I chose deleted my save. Some might feel ticked about that, but I thought it was an effective decision, given the nature of said ending.
- Great soundtrack. There’s some predicable loops one would expect to hear given its royal setting, but it also goes in some incredibly bizarre and unexpected directions if you go down certain paths.
- I said it’s not the best looking game, but there are parts of it that stand out from a visual standpoint. The cutscenes, though few, look fantastic.
- I also mentioned the AI. What I meant by “naked to the point of immersion breaking” are things like sometimes when a character doesn’t have anything to do, they’ll just stand still in a designated spot. However, the plus side of this is that they’re easy to find if you need them and you can pursue other leads if a character you’re following doesn’t have anything to do for a while. It also arguably feeds into the subtext, but I'll leave you to figure out why.
- It's not written in Shakespearean english. You don't need the CliffsNotes.
- There’s a part where you can tell Hamlet that he’s a privileged dickhead and make him feel bad about it. It’s real good.