While prepping for IndieCade East, I had the opportunity to hop on Skype and chat with Jeremy Davis and Jeff Vannoy of Evermare Interactive, who are developing a JRPG-style adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. [Editor’s note: the first scene of which project is featured above. Have a look.]
Niche Gamer: For the lead-off question, I wanted to ask how specifically you would classify your project. Niche Gamer is of course primarily a gaming website, and there’s been a lot of editorializing in the past year across games media about what a “game” is. What would you guys consider Hamlet to be?
Jeremy Davis: I’ve said from the beginning that it is in the style of a game, it isn’t truly a game. It’s a study tool. We take advantage of that presentation style because it’s perfect for learning this material. But it really isn’t a game, and it’s important that we’re upfront about that. We still think a lot of people who play games will be interested and get a kick out of it, but who we’re really targeting is that student who is capable of obsessing over a JRPG, but can’t get into something like Hamlet.
Jeff Vannoy: Think of it like a video game book, with added stage direction and a games presentation to supplement the text.
NG: There’s a term that the Japanese studio VisualArts coined, the “Kinetic Novel”—which they use to describe a title in which the player’s only interactivity is the act of progressing it. Would you be comfortable using that classification?
JD: I think so. My experience with visual novels is pretty limited, but all the ones I’ve played, like Long Live the Queen, had this sort of Choose Your Own Adventure feel. If the term Kinetic Novel refers to a title with that stripped away, then I think it fits us well. Except for the fact that we’ve got 16-bit style characters acting things out underneath the HD character portraits, which is probably atypical for that type of thing.
JV: That is fair.
NG: I recall from reading your dev blog that you thought the project would have a lot of educational relevance. How do you see it being used in the classroom?
JV: As a fun supplement to help the user get a better understanding of Hamlet and to have a hopefully provide an enjoyable experience.
JD: Well, I learned Hamlet twice in school, once in high school and then again in a college environment. Both times, there was this really awkward mix where we would read the play, and all the extensive footnotes, and then afterward we would watch a film version. Both of those have their advantages. Reading annotatted text let’s you get the wordplay, the references to things going on in Shakespeare’s time, all of that rich detail. But watching a film version, or going to see a play, you intuitively know what’s going on even if you don’t get every word. Seeing the characters act out things answers 90% of your questions, but that detail and wordplay is lost. With the JRPG presentation style, it’s a perfect marriage of those two things. The text advances at the pace you set, and the characters act at the pace you set, and with our version you can call and dismiss the notes whenever you want. You’re getting the action, and an explanation, all at once in a way that’s really easy to absorb. So, if you have this in the classroom on a tablet or PC or whatever, or even if the student uses it at home, you’ve got this whole new, modern way of learning the play.
JV: You also get a good spatial understanding of the scenes that’s hard to extract from Shakespeare’s limited stage direction in his plays.
JD: Yeah, there’s that whole direction in the finale that just says something like [they fight and switch swords] and it’s supposed to be this great action scene where the blades are switched, and all that drama is gone if you just read it.
NG: Definitely. I was in drama clubs all through school and there’s definitely so much more in seeing scenes preformed, whether it’s live or through a game or a film.
JD: Yeah, I went to a Hamlet production this summer, and they had these amazing swords and daggers. Hamlet threw his dagger off the stage and it stuck in the grass. I wanted to get up and cheer. You have to do more than read these plays.
NG: What was the inspiration for developing the project?
JD: [Laughs] Well, this is funny. We were eating reubens at a diner, and the waitress was I think a little sweet on Jeff and kept giving us free food. This was like at midnight. And we were trying to think of a fun summer project to do, we’ve been friends since high school and were looking for just something cool to try and accomplish, and we couldn’t think of anything. You remember this, Jeff?
JV: I do. So many desserts.
JD: And I got in my car and NPR was doing a story on Hamlet. And as soon as I got home I texted Jeff and we both knew that this was it.
NG: So, the detail in the character sprites and CG are really quite impressive. Were the costumes designed free-hand or did the artist base their work on previous Hamlet costumes?
JD: Well, we sent him references if we had them. I think you can see a little bit of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the modern look of the officers like Marcellus, I mean the more modern uniform type. But it’s not 1 to 1, I think it was probably just inspiration. The designs are his.
JV: Our artist is the man.
NG: I definitely saw some inspiration there, but his designs are really refreshing and unique.
JD: Yeah, Branagh’s film is amazing. Whenever we’re talking about a scene, we sometimes go to that Blu-Ray. It’s really great, but we’re our own thing. And Nicolás Farinasso is an incredible talent. I think he’ll get a lot of work after this.
NG: In your dev blog, you mentioned that you were considering developing win-and-lose scenarios for Hamlet. What would those have been like, and why did you decide to not include them in the main release?
JD: Well, there was this idea that maybe we would lock out parts of the play based on some skill or knowledge check. We never quite figured out an idea that made sense with that, and we ultimately decided that it didn’t fit in with the study tool idea. If you’ve got a test on Act 3 tomorrow, you don’t want to grind or play a mini-game or even have to answer comprehension questions to get to Act 3. You just need to have full access from the start.
JV: More “gamey” elements is not something we have completely ruled out for future releases, but for this project we kind of wanted go the study route.
NG: If the project is successful, would you consider adapting other works of Shakespeare in a similar fashion? Or other classic works of literature, for that matter?
JD: Yeah, if we break even on this we would definitely go on to do Macbeth, and from there probably more Shakespeare.
NG: My inner dramatist is suggesting you take a crack at King Lear.
JD: A good friend of mine also suggested Lear. Any are good candidates except for the comedies, I think. It would be doable but much harder to do Taming of the Shrew I think.
NG: For those interested, is there a release date for the game? Are there any release platforms you’re looking to utilize, like Greenlight?
JV: Probably no hard date as of right now, right, Jeremy? But [we] would love to use Greenlight, and will put it up there when the time comes.
JD: Yeah, I’m thinking 3-6 months, and possibly a little earlier.
JV: As well as iOS, Android, Mac, [Windows] PC, Linux.
JD: Yeah, Greenlight, and also Google Play for Education on the Android side, which is the Android store as curated by teachers. I would get a lot of satisfaction and validation from getting on the Android education store, which would mean teachers have looked at it and said, “Yeah, this is useful.”
NG: Is Evermare as a studio looking to focus on educational games?
JD: Yes. I don’t think we’re going to make, like, a new Math Blaster or anything, but we’re definitely interested in educational titles that aren’t lame, but really present things in a light people maybe haven’t seen before. Nothing against Math Blaster.
NG: Where can people keep up with your work?
JD: http://www.evermare.com/blog has all of our updates on Hamlet, which will be our only project until it’s done. We’re also on Facebook, and Twitter @evermare.
JV: Let’s give a little shout out to our artist since I forgot back there. His name is Nicolás Farinasso.
JD: Yeah, you can check out his amazing work on nicofari.deviantart.com