Elsinore casts you as Ophelia living the timeloop of Hamlet over and over, trying to find a route through the story that doesn’t end with everyone dead. Life in the castle is an intricate machine which can be perturbed out of its intended schedule by every intervention you make, so your actions have a cascade of consequences.
You have visions of what is to come; you also have a journal and memories of what’s happened the last times through the story. With that information, you’re free to travel all over the castle, listen to conversations, gather news, and pass that data on to others. Even if you die in a given time loop, the information you’ve learned persists, giving you new options in the next playthrough. Structurally, that’s a bit like Hadean Lands, though the type of puzzle you’re solving and the rest of the narrative is very different.
Conversation is organized around events — triggered by time and narrative preconditions, and which allow you to learn things just by being in the right place at the right time — and your inventory of hearsay, provocative things you can tell other characters during the course of play. When you share information with a character, their knowledge and motives are explicitly updated:
Several design choices discourage the player from just lawn-mowing every combination of information and NPC:
- some of the information you have can only credibly be delivered in certain circumstances. If you find something out late in the day and you try to pass it on in the morning on the next time loop, you may find that other characters don’t believe you because they don’t understand how anyone could possibly have that news yet.
- if you tell too many people things that can’t be explained other than by supernatural knowledge, they will start to question your sanity, and this too can produce a failure state.
- some information provokes a dramatic reaction if you share it, so you can only deploy it if you are willing to change the course of the timeline.
Meanwhile, the game does facilitate exploration of its narrative possibility space with a couple of neat functions: you can fast-forward time, and you can set Ophelia to follow any character in the story. You can use these functions separately or together: hide in a location and fast-forward to see who shows up there; or set Ophelia following someone and fast-forward to see where they go later in the day.
The game does, for convenience, assume that Ophelia is pretty effective at stealth, so you can wander around behind someone all day without them necessarily discovering you there and telling you off.
The time-speeding is not completely novel in this kind of work — games back to Deadline have offered WAIT UNTIL… features to allow the player to visit particular bits of the unfolding timeline — but it is absolutely a welcome convenience here.
Another trick about porting a story about secrets is that readers will already be familiar with the canonical plot, leaving them with little to discover. Elsinore deals with this by adding quite a bit of backstory — Horatio, the gender-swapped Rosencrantz, and other characters gain new personal secrets; previous generations of the Hamlet dynasty are filled in a bit, with their own disturbing past; some new servants are added to the story, helping balance the cast of the play a bit; and a few things the original leaves ambiguous are here made explicit instead. Gertrude’s relationship to Claudius, for instance, is significantly disambiguated by what you find out in Elsinore.
The story that ultimately emerges — at least as far as I’ve seen, because I’ve not figured out all the possible endings here — feels very different from the original Hamlet, being in particular less theological in nature. The original play cares a fair amount about the state of the characters’ souls, and that is not really a major focus for Elsinore. Instead, it’s looking at other things — generational abuse, systems that silence some types of people in favor of others, and the mechanisms of transferring power in this kingdom. And not all of the paths felt equally weighty to me.
Nonetheless, this is a piece that offers the player a very significant sandbox of narrative causality, letting you plan and enact schemes to bring about many different outcomes. Few games extend so much of that kind of agency to the player.
Other reviews and coverage:
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)