What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Game Storytelling
SPOILER ALERT: The ending of a four hundred year old play based on actual historical events that you probably read in high school is spoiled.
2013 was a great year for video game storytelling. Not simply because some incredibly written, acted, and designed games were released, but because many discussions regarding game stories weren’t concerned simply with how well games told their stories, but with how they told them. The integration of gameplay and storytelling seemed to finally become a staple of video game discussions. You couldn’t read a forum post or comments section for games like Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us without seeing somebody use the term “ludonarrative dissonance”. It’s common when talking about a game to describe the gameplay and narrative as two discrete elements, to say, “The game’s story is bad, but the gameplay is good,” or vice versa, but over the past year it seems that conversations increasingly focused on how one interacted with the other.
And I, for one, couldn’t be happier about this rather recent shift. As video games continue to mature as a storytelling medium, it’s important to evaluate what makes our medium unique and how that uniqueness can be used to tell stories. That’s where William Shakespeare comes in. Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Personally, I love his work. It took escaping high school, and a lot of perseverance with the texts, but I eventually learned to appreciate and enjoy reading Shakespeare. Once you find yourself truly understanding the language, reading Shakespeare can be a mesmerizing, amazing experience. And that’s what Shakespeare is really all about: the language.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around or deal with the power of language, what it means, what we think it means, its falsehoods, illusions, deceptions, and truths. As a playwright, Shakespeare was constantly working with language, and the most common form his work takes is poetry. Characters predominantly speak in verse. Now, this is off-putting for many modern readers because, obviously, we don’t speak in verse, and Shakespeare’s sentence construction is often complex and confusing. But Shakespeare had a deep understanding of the medium he was using to tell his stories and so he cleverly uses his form’s uniqueness to better tell those stories.
Take, for example, the use of verse vs. prose in plays like Henry IV Part 1 or King Lear. In both plays the nobility always speak in blank verse, meaning unrhymed iambic pentameter. Prose, on the other hand, is used by the common folk: the bar wenches, the tavern goers, the thieves, and so on. The nobility’s verse gives their dialogue a certain rhythm and structure to it that prose doesn’t lend to the common folk, and this makes sense concerning the vastly different societies and lives that the two groups of people exist in.
Shakespeare plays on this dichotomy between verse and prose with certain characters. In Henry IV Part 1, young Prince Hal eschews his royal life to be a small-time thief where he spends most of his time in a tavern drinking and having a good time. Following a scene where we see his father dealing with his royal duties, we’re introduced to Hal. We see Hal talking to his wanton, lazy, cowardly fellow thief and father-figure, Falstaff, and both of them speak in prose. When Falstaff exits the scene, Hal is left alone on stage where he delivers a soliloquy concerning his hidden motives. He relates that he plans to only stay amongst the common folk so that when he does once again reclaim his right as prince he, “Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off,” (I.ii.214-215). Hal’s revelatory soliloquy is written in blank verse, just like the speech previously seen used by his noble father. The reveal of Hal’s true desire to be prince is coupled with his use of verse, the noble speech, allowing a deeper understanding into the character.
A similar technique is used in King Lear. Lear is an old man who has divided his kingdom up between two of his daughters. Unfortunately, and in typical Shakespearean fashion, they’re secretly plotting against him and one another causing Lear to spiral into madness as he is beset by tragedy after tragedy. When he is king, Lear speaks in blank verse just like the nobility in Henry IV Part 1, but in his moments of delirium Lear stops using iambic pentameter, his lines going on for too long or coming up short. His failure to properly use blank verse is representative of his slowly deteriorating mind.
Shakespeare also plays with the dialogue between characters to represent their positions in the narrative. At the end of Henry IV Part 1, Prince Hal has defeated the rebel Hotspur, his rival for the throne and for Hal’s father’s affection. His vanquishing of Hotspur is Hal’s final act in the play to restore himself to his royal place after spending a majority of the play with the common people in the tavern world. As Hotspur lays dying, he gives his final speech regarding his defeat, but he dies mid-sentence leaving the speech unfinished. Luckily, Hal is there to pick up exactly where he left off and bid farewell to his departed enemy. Not only has Hal reclaimed his position in his father’s eyes from Hotspur by defeating him, but he even takes Hotspur’s final speech from him.
There are obviously hundreds and hundreds of examples besides the couple I’ve mentioned here. The point is that Shakespeare is very aware of the form he’s using to tell his stories. He takes advantage of that and layers in his themes and ideas using this form. It’s exactly what video game storytelling needs to embrace as we move forward. For a game to tell the best story it can, it needs to work with the form, not just ignore. Stories, themes, and ideas should stem just as much from the gameplay as it does from cutscenes or text.
Shakespeare was the master of his craft. He knew how to use it in order to reinforce the stories he was trying to tell. As gaming continues to mature and tell deeper, more complex narratives, developers, too, need to embrace the uniqueness of the medium they work in. Video games are about interactivity and choice. Follow Shakespeare’s example, game industry, embrace the uniqueness.