Guys, it’s finally happening! I’m making my own video game. And hot damn, am I ever excited about it!
A few weeks ago, I purchased my very first Japanese otome game, the 3DS port of Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi. Otome games are basically all of the delicious story bits of an RPG with none of the pesky game bits surrounding them, like a thick, juicy story steak instead of small chunks of story-meat suspended in a broth of battles and game mechanics. Both are a tasty way to ingest your stories, they’re just different.
Man, that was a fucking weird metaphor, but I think you get the idea.
All of this is to say that I have really enjoyed my time with Hakuoki so far. The protagonist of the game – well, let’s be honest, it’s more of a digital choose-your-own adventure historical romance novel than a game – is a young Japanese woman who comes to Kyoto looking for her missing father at the very tail end of the Bakumatsu period. She is attacked on her first day there by a group of roving ronin, but saved by several captains of the elite shinsengumi police force. She ends up discovering too many of their secrets for the shinsengumi to just let her go traipsing off unsupervised, so she starts living with them at their barracks, disguised as a boy. Decisions you make through the course of the game determine which (if any!) of the shinsengumi’s several eligible bachelors falls for you.
You may have noticed that understanding some of the details of that plot summary required a little bit of background reading on Wikipedia. That’s because for a schmaltzy romance game comprised largely of staring at three-dimensional anime portraits of super-bishonen samurai men, there is a surprising amount of surprisingly accurate history underpinning this game. I imagine that if I were a Japanese woman who had studied these things in school, I would find this a very engaging way to interact with my history.
I made me wish that I could play a game like this featuring history that I was familiar with. Like a game set during the American Revolutionary War. Or the Great Depression. Or the Norman conquest. Or Shakespeare. Yeah, can I get a historical game about William Motherfucking Shakespeare? I don’t know about you, but I would play the shit out of that game. But come on, man, who’s going to make that game?
Oh, wait. What if…I made that game?
I figured that would be waaaay too hard, since I’ve never programed a single thing in my entire life, but I googled “how to make a romance game,” and I was wrong. It is, in fact, delightfully easy to make a romance game. Just pick one of several free engines from a handy list, follow a simple tutorial, look up some extra commands, and then you can throw together a nice little prototype of the first five minutes of your game with some random pictures you found on Google Image Search just to prove to yourself that you can.
…That’s what I’ll put on the box when I’m done with it, anyway.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in this blog before, but I actually have a master’s degree in Shakespeare. I am having so much fun creating nerdy Shakespeare in-jokes and shoving as much factual history as possible into this game. The working title, Woman Wrapped In a Player’s Hide, for instance, references both Robert Greene’s famous snarky comment about Shakespeare in his pamphlet Greenes Groatsworth of Wit (‘tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide’), and the original quote from 3 Henry VI (‘tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide’), and I swear to god the joke is really clever if you have spent the frankly unhealthy amount of time studying Shakespeare that is required to get the joke. There was no Alexandra Cooke, but there was an Alexander Cooke, who started in Shakespeare’s playing company as a boy player acting women’s roles and later rose to become a full shareholder in the company. The game begins in February of 1592, right at the tail end of the period that scholars term Shakespeare’s “lost years,” a period that stretches between 1578 and 1592, during which there are relatively few documented facts about Shakespeare’s life. We know he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, that he had children baptized in 1583 and 1585, and that he was in London writing plays by 1592, because the Lord Strange’s Men were performing them and Robert Greene was talking about them. It’s possible that Shakespeare was a part of the Lord Strange’s Men himself at this time, because we know that he didn’t join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until 1594, because that was the year they were formed by several previous members of Strange’s Men. So while I don’t know that anything in this game did happen, much of the stuff in this game could have happened, and that’s exactly how I like my historical fiction: improbable, but plausible.
The other thing my nerdy little heart is the most excited about is the fact that February 1592 is also when Philip Henslowe started keeping records of the performances of the Lord Strange’s Men in his diary, so I can use the actual plays that the company actually performed in the story of the game. How cool is that? Not only does this information make the game more awesome, it also will give people the ability to interact with some of the information contained in Henslowe’s diary in a way that isn’t deathly boring. I mean, I’m a Shakespeare scholar, and I think reading Henslowe’s diary is deathly boring. Because it is! It’s less like reading a diary and more like reading someone’s Excel spreadsheets.
No one wants to read Henslowe’s diary, not even the people that want to use the priceless information contained within Henslowe’s diary. But lots of people might want to play a romance game!
I think this is exactly the kind of valuable education service that gaming can provide. Video games can make an immersive, interactive experience out of history, but all too often, the way players are forced to interact with that history is to shoot it in the face. I love games like Hakuoki, because they involve me as a player without forcing me to involve myself in simulated violence. Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting the faces of things sometimes, but there are some stories you simply cannot tell through violence, and I think I’d like to see more stories like that in my games. Sure, keep making Call of Duty and Battlefield: 1942, but let’s also have more games like Papers, Please and Gone Home. And more games about Shakespeare!
And if I’m the one who has to make those games about Shakespeare? I’m okay with that.