Shall I Compare Thee To A Video Game?

Acting Shakespeare, playing games, and answering Hamlet’s famous question.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Humor Life Reflections


“O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” – Hamlet

“The president has been kidnapped by ninjas.
Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” – Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja

The two quotes above are different in a couple ways.

One is in verse, the other is not, for starters.  One is spoken by a fictional prince of Denmark, the other by a gruff Secret Service agent.  And, of course, one is from a seminal work of art, a masterpiece of passion and philosophy that towers above most other artistic accomplishments.  The other is from Hamlet.

Yeah, it’s ludicrous to put text from the intro of Bad Dudes next to a Shakespearean soliloquy excerpt, but I tell you now that these two quotes speak directly to the same question.  It’s a question that Hamlet asks himself – the question, in fact.

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet sometimes argues pretty eloquently for “not to be.”  The “too, too solid flesh” quote, in moving imagery, expresses the desire to disappear.  We’ve all been to that place that Hamlet is talking about – the place where you wish you could turn invisible, hide in a dark hole somewhere, pop out of existence completely.  We all know the anguish of personhood, that suffocating need to be someone else, to be somewhere else, to escape.

The Bad Dudes quote is somewhat less flowery, but it offers the other response available.  It says, “To be or not to be?  Be!  But you better ‘be’ harder than you’ve ever ‘been’ before!”  The intro of Bad Dudes challenges you to be a strong enough person to defy circumstance, to persevere, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous ninjas.  It’s about leaving behind whoever you were that wasn’t a bad dude, and becoming a very bad dude, even for just a little while.

I’ve been musing about Hamlet and Bad Dudes because they speak to the two things that allow me to slip my own skin and do deeds far beyond the pale of my own life – acting Shakespeare and playing video games.

Both of these activities are about becoming people in insane, life-or-death circumstances.  They’re both about epic stakes and colossal badasses.  And they’re both about leaving who you were behind to inhabit the form of something larger than life.  That’s why these are two of my favorite things in the world.

At first glance, archaic, wordy poetry meant to be performed onstage is a sharp contrast to the inviting, id-massaging domain of video games.  And indeed, it took a long time for me to find joy and compulsion in the lofty verse of Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare’s stories are about nations falling and heroes rising.  Their descriptions of violence are among the raddest ever committed to paper (“I should have fatted all the region kites with this slave’s offal,” et cetera).  And once the vocabulary is explained and you get over how pretentious it sounds to say “thou,” a Shakespeare play’s plot is actually a lot like that of a video game.

For one, the villains of Shakespeare and most video games are nefarious, often wholly evil, and they love to talk about it.  If there’s anyone who loves a nice Goldfinger monologue about their schemes more than a video game bad guy, it’s a Shakespeare character (Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear are two personal favorites).  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine the obsessed, maniacal antagonist of a classic video game speaking in verse, decrying their enemies Elizabethan-style…

Despair, hedgehogs, foxes and their brethren!
To dusky hell, all you woodland creatures!
Let Nature’s reign o’er man this day to cease,
And Progress take her place at the world’s helm.
Flesh rots and fur molts, bones break and hair grays,
But the perfection of robots dies not,
For my designs are such that naught can rust
The gorgeous chrome of my minions’ intents.
In mine iron hawk I’ll rule all the land,
Though I confess one weakness in my plan:
All life will change to machines in my grip
Unless a small mammal jumps on my ship.

The plotlines of Shakespeare plays (especially the romances, like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest) are often labyrinthine.  Allegiances shift, people fall in and out of love, conspiracies are formed and dissolved, worlds change.  Acting one of these plays can be somewhat bewildering until you get a sense of the relationships each character has to the others.

But that’s one of the most exciting things about them as well – every Shakespearean world is alive, full of unexpected twists and turns.  A Shakespearean exchange of wits between two rivals is every bit as thrilling as a swordfight, since the words are so exact and the relationship between the two so detailed.  It’s a real rush to act one of these scenes.

The best video games have moments like this, too.  It’s the reason Metal Gear Solid can get away with all those cutscenes.  And it’s the reason that Kain the Dragoon’s betrayal in Final Fantasy IV could be ripped right out of some weird, unpublished Shakespeare play about atonement, honor and moon people.

Cecil guards the crystal.  Enter Kain.  Alarum.

Kain!  A friend amidst this dark sea of foes!

Or is’t instead a wave to capsize thee?

I would hear thy tale at some meeter time.

The tale I would tell will make thine ears ring.

Kain draws.

Friend, take the point of thy lance from my throat.
I pray thee, mock me not ‘til battle’s end.

I do not mock, nor sport, nor jest, nor play,
But do demand a certain gift of thee.
The crystal, if thou wilt.


    Is’t come to this?


To go back to the choice presented by those Hamlet and Bad Dudes quotes – to be or not to be, to melt away or to become something greater – the reason why I keep coming back to Shakespeare and video games is because they let one do both at once.

When I’m onstage doing Shakespeare and I manage to get past the petty stuff like self-consciousness or memorizing lines, the current of the words carries me along.  It lifts me up into another life, and for a time I both no longer exist and I exist as someone else, someone capable of doing things my old self never would.

When I play video games, there’s the same dichotomy.  I both lose myself in the hypnosis of the gameplay and I become an avatar whose goals and bravery and skill are far purer than my own.  Never has this feeling been more acute than playing Mass Effect 3.

So Garrus, truly lies our state so low?
Our herald cries fell on ears deaf as stones,
And now the fire of war turns red the stars.
The Reapers our ample green worlds do raze,
And turn to ashes the steel spires of Earth,
To dust the fleets of Palaven.

What, sir?
Canst thou wait ‘til later, noble Shepard?
For now the dread arms of this great warship,
The good Normandy, do I calibrate.

I know thou’rt busy to answer me so,
So I depart with three words: I should go.

With the release of Mass Effect 3, one aspect of that game that got a lot of hype was the voice command feature with the Kinect.  Using this feature you could issue basic commands to your team by barking into a headset.  The feature seemed, honestly, pretty dopey to me, but I realize that it’s the first step down a road that’s going to lead toward more and more immersive role-playing.  It’s feasible that one day we’ll be speaking all of a character’s lines, fully acting out a part in a video game playthrough.

Until that distant day, however, I’m happy to have both.  Hamlet and Bad Dudes, King Lear and Sonic, Henry V and Final Fantasy IV.  With their combined help, I never have to ask myself Hamlet’s somber question.  Whenever I want to, I can leave myself behind.  I can be and not be at will.

Filed Under: Humor Life Reflections

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

8,207 Responses to “Shall I Compare Thee To A Video Game?”

  1. JMZoss

    Bravo, sir. You made me think there might be some recognition of games as art down the road. After all, Shakespeare’s plays were considered “low class” in their time. Games certainly are currently. I’m not suggesting that future generations will see Sonic The Hedgehog as the equal of Hamlet, but you certainly made me think that attitudes might shift over time.

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