Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hamlet Online

While enormous volumes have been written in recent years on the subject of online games, the vast majority, (if not the entirety), of that work has been written by those who are not themselves gamers. This is the equivalent of a treatise on rainbows written by a blind woman.

While I seldom venture upon this subject, preferring for the most part to focus upon international affairs, I have been a gamer since 1971. Now, "games", in that long-distant age we call "The 70's", consisted of half-inch square cardboard counters moved upon a paper map, usually regulated in hexagons. It would not be until the following year that I would encounter the first electronic game, as such, in the form of an arcade game called "Pong", right there next to the Foosball tables in the old Parkway Bowl.

Forty years later, a bright-eyed 11 has become a somewhat-world-weary 51, and the world of games is dominated by computers. Unfortunately, the games industry is dominated by corporations. Virtually all the big names from the early days of computer games are long gone, and the few that survive do so as naught but an empty shell, a shambling zombie corpse animated by the necromantic marketing of their soulless corporate masters.

The perhaps inevitable effect of this corporate domination has been catastrophically devastating to originality and innovation. This is bad enough in PC games, but the console is the ultimate expression of corporate slavery. Everything about a console is completely proprietary; it is capable of doing nothing other than playing the games approved by the corporation which controls it. And this leaves the gamer utterly at the mercy of that corporation.

Fortunately for the game geeks of the world, this bleak situation within the USA is somewhat balanced out by the availability of games from abroad.

If you'd like to try something really different in turn-based gaming, check out Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI from Koei. The game is based upon the oldest novel in the world, a 14th-century account of the end of the Han Dynasty, which actually took place in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Gameplay and all, this is a real gem, and something enormously different from western games. In a cruel irony, RTK XI is actually a PC port of what was originally a console game. What can I say?

But the game I mostly want to talk about today is something older, and amazingly successful in spite of relatively primitive graphics. Yes, I'm talking about Mabinogi, a free (yeah, right) online game played in large part by those 1/3 my age. And they're doing Shakespeare.

That's right, Shakespeare. In a move of staggering audacity, the folks at Nexon, the Korean company that owns Mabinogi, have actually translated Shakespeare into a playable "generation" of the ongoing campaign storyline.

They started with Hamlet back in January. Now, those of you that know your Shakespeare will realize that Hamlet is a very mutable play, since the three surviving "earliest" versions of the play, (referred to as Q1, Q2, and F1), are each so different from the other two, and Q1 much shorter.

Hamlet worked very well. I've played it all the way through with three different characters, and it was quite enjoyable. That wasn't what surprised me. What really surprised me was how well they managed to capture the spirit and essence of the story. I've seen stage productions of Hamlet which did not accomplish that goal so well. Let the purists scream in outrage.

Next they tackled Romeo and Juliet. This is a somewhat more difficult campaign, and I've only played this all the way through with one character so far, but again I would call it a success. They have managed to capture the essence and the feel of the story. All the major scenes are there, including one in which you have to sneak past the guards to serenade Juliet on her balcony. And another in which you play Romeo, and are forced to fight Tybalt.

I admit I felt guilty when Mercutio died, and I admit I was choked up at the very end when Juliet awakened to find Romeo dead and...yeah, well, you know what happens. If they can make the audience, (that's me, the gamer), feel what the Bard meant an audience to feel, I call that success.

Now, Nexon said at the start that they meant to do four Shakespeare plays, and they showed a teaser with four little icons. We have seen the first two. The third was something unrecognizable, at least to me, but others have suggested Othello or the Merchant of Venice. The fourth icon was clearly of three witches.

Oh my. The Scottish Play. Talk about mixed feelings.

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