Review: Hamlet – The Text Adventure (2003)

I have a fondness for old-school computer games… and, well, one does not get any more old-school than text adventures: a setting that relies entirely on the player manually entering commands and imagining the result. Interactive fiction on a screen, if you will. I also (obviously) have a bit of a literary bent, so today I thought I’d review Robin Johnson’s attempt at turning Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a text adventure…

Considering that the game has been around for fifteen years, there are comparatively few reviews – one here, one here, and an abortive Youtube attempt at playing it here. As we shall see, this neglect is sad but understandable.

So… what is this game?

In short, you are playing Hamlet (the character), and you are tasked with avenging your father’s death at the hands of King Claudius. However, once you have navigated your way around the Palace and its environs, you will find cameos from Othello, Henry V, Richard III, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet – this is less about strictly following the plot of Hamlet, and more a sort of gentle piss-take of Shakespeare’s plays in general. It very much follows the pattern of nested sub-quests – you need to find all the right items to get another necessary item, and so on. Note also that there’s very little fighting involved – if you complete the game properly, you can only successfully attack three NPCs (appropriately enough), while attacking certain other characters is instant death. There’s lots of potential for instant death in this game.

Positives:

+ The In-Jokes. While one of the reviews laments the dumbing-down of the text, the entire thing is heavily tongue-in-cheek, and the only way to get meaningful enjoyment is to be familiar with the source material. Entering some of the more famous lines from the play will have amusing effects (one is a quick way of committing suicide. Guess which one).

Negatives:

-The puzzles are simply too hard. In some cases the game will help you (like with the Witch’s recipe book), in others, familiarity with the source will help you, but in some situations, the player has to read the game creator’s mind to an absurd degree, especially when the answer to the puzzle has no basis in Shakespeare at all.

-The game is very unforgiving. Never mind the instant deaths, it is quite possible to find yourself stranded with an unwinnable game because of a single mistake (at which point, you might as well break out the soliloquy).

Ay, there’s the rub. The game involves so much trial and error as to rob you of all enjoyment, until you are forced to check out the solution. The Youtube play-through I linked to spends twenty minutes blundering around the Palace, and it doesn’t even stumble upon the truly nasty bits. A game like this aspires to be fun – and it is fun, in certain situations – but it isn’t fun to be forced to look up the answers out of sheer frustration.

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