Elsinore (Golden Glitch)

A 3D point-and-click adventure offering a huge amount of narrative agency and NPCs who murder each other. A lot.

Hamlet speaks more colloquially in this game than in the original, but he’s just as emo as ever.

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:

In this scene, Ophelia has just listened to an event and learned new information; and Hamlet has updated his own preferences and plans as a result.

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.)

6 thoughts on “Elsinore (Golden Glitch)”

  1. It would be interesting to try to come up with a taxonomy of possible groundhog games. What are the kinds of things repetition can bring?

    1. Possibly useful: https://ifdb.tads.org/search?searchfor=tag:replay%20puzzle is a search for IF games tagged as having puzzles that expect you to replay.

      There’s an obvious binary division between games that retain state between cycles of the protagonist’s life (Elsinore and Hadean Lands both track what you’ve learned and carry that forward into your new life — as do Bandersnatch) and games where the only thing you carry over is the knowledge from previous playings (e.g., Make It Good).

      Reigns might count as a state-retaining case, with the nuance that each life is fictively an actual new person and you’re just playing one king (or queen) after another after another.

      Maybe, maybe, you could make a case for Ren’Py visual novels being a third category in that they often retain state about what the reader has previously read so that you can fast-forward through previously-seen content, but not state about the protagonist’s circumstances. I’m not sure this rises to the level of a taxonomy, though, having only about 2.3 categories.

      Another possible set of categorizations:

      – games you have to play multiple times to figure out how to get to a winning ending (Hadean Lands, Make It Good, Long Live the Queen)

      – games where there’s a gradation of winning and you can replay for scored results (Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder) or mixed narrative outcomes (Map, Damnatio Memoriae)

      – games in which several possibly desirable endings are mutually exclusive and you can’t get both in a single playthrough (pretty much any dating sim ever)

      – games in which there are multiple good outcomes none of which are easy to reach, and you have to play several times to master the gameplay space enough to figure out how to work towards the ending you want (Elsinore; at a much shorter length, also Slouching Towards Bedlam)

      I don’t know if those are the kinds of category you had in mind, though?

      1. Something along those lines, I guess. “Winning” can be taken very broadly – including “figuring out what is going on”, as in Aisle – which leads to another dichotomy: the accumulation of acquired knowledge is itself the depth, or the accumulation allows one to steer the game to a winning state (what was that other one-move game again where one had to enter a very long command, involving billiard balls, to achieve the desired goal?).
        If I remember correctly, in Slouching towards Bedlam, “restarting” is dealt with in-game (as in, I understand, Elsinore). In Aisle and the billiard game it isn’t – all accumulation is inside the player only. Obviously, the former allows for more possibilities – if only by tracking the number of attempts needed by the player to get to some point.

        Repetition can be freeing (don’t worry – you’ll get another chance) or confining (doomed to relive groundhog day forever). It can allow thorough investigation (your choice to go left can be complemented by the choice to go right next time) or prevent reaching one’s goal (Sisyphus).

        I suppose there are more relevant dimensions.

      2. “The billiard game” is Rematch. (And actually, I almost mentioned Rematch in my original comment, because it’s a tricky outlier: it looks as though there’s no state, but in fact an apparently random feature of the game world is happening on a cycle, and if you don’t figure this out, you’ll never win. So there’s a meta-level realization required in order to play.)

      3. In 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors there’s a specific action that’s helpful to take earlier in the story, but there’s no way to find out about it early on; once you know what it is, if you repeat that part of the story a character you’re reading about will do the right action. (It’s hard to be more specific than this without spoilers, but it makes sense in context.)

        In 428: Shibuya Scramble (by the same company) the story tree is explicit, and an action of one character in one branch of the tree may change the fate of another, so if you return to repeat a “failure” it may turn out different. (If you’ve seen Run Lola Run, the boyfriend runs across the person who has the stolen money on the third “loop” just because of how everyone is positioned — it’s kind of like that.)

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