A review of Something Wicked, a video game based on William Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by Elizabeth Hunter
Something Wicked: The Macbeth Video Game
Elizabeth Hunter, Washington University in St. Louis
Game designers: Doris Rusch and Mischa Hießböck
Programmers: Nick Segreti and Don Herweg
Technical artist: Paul Sullivan
Music and sound designer: Andrew Edwards
William J. White, Penn State Altoona
Something Wicked adapts Act 1, Scene 2 of Macbeth — William Shakespeare’s bloody, witchy tale of ambition and back-stabbing in medieval Scotland — into a 2D side-scroller PC game styled after the Bayeux Tapestry (Figure 1). This scene describes the Norwegian invasion of Scotland, led by the traitor Macdonwald. Thanks to the vicious fighting of Macbeth and his right-hand man, Banquo, the Scots win decisively, despite being outnumbered. Though the battle is inconsequential to the plot of Macbeth, it is important because it introduces the value system that rules in this Scotland: people get ahead through treachery, brutality in war, and ambition. Importantly, in Shakespeare’s play, this battle is only described by characters who were there, in 75 lines of dialogue that is rich with complex symbolism. Having directed and taught this play, I’ve found this scene a considerable obstacle to comprehension of and affinity for Macbeth. To counter this obstacle, Something Wicked stages the battle, with players controlling the Macbeth avatar.
The game’s mechanics derive from the play’s themes and lines. For example, Shakespeare writes that Macbeth’s sword “smoked with bloody execution” (1.2.19–20). In Something Wicked, this becomes a rage meter: with each kill, Macbeth’s sword heats until it unleashes a smoking super-hit, searing the cloth-like background. Similarly, fighting head-on earns Macbeth a bit of rage, but rolling past an enemy and stabbing him in the back earns double — an enactment of the play’s emphasis on back-stabbing. And because Macbeth doesn’t die in Shakespeare’s version of this scene, the Macbeth avatar can’t die — if the player doesn’t backstab enough, Macbeth stumbles and the game restarts. Consequently, players win not by rewriting Shakespeare’s story, but by excelling in the play’s cultural economy.
Something Wicked was built with Unity, Maya, Spine, and Wwise; it is free and playable on PCs with a keyboard. I was Something Wicked’s PI and project director, conceiving of the work, leading the research, and sourcing funding. To create the technical elements, I partnered with faculty and students in the game design program at DePaul University in Chicago, as noted in the credits. As its accompanying article describes, Something Wicked positions the video game medium as close reading practice and uses digital technology to allow a participant to inhabit the subject position of a main character from a well-known story. This positionality, as I explain in the article, is unique to video games. It would be challenging for a participatory production in live theatre to call upon an audience member to play the main character — what if they’re terrible at acting, or won’t follow the rules?1
Additionally, the game emphasizes blood to mount a new dramaturgical analysis of the scene it adapts. In live theatre, blood is a classic production problem. Because it is messy and expensive, many productions can’t give it the importance Shakespeare writes into the dialogue. A video game allows us to smear blood all over the screen, even framing it as the only resource that recharges Macbeth’s health meter.
Something Wicked’s audience includes Shakespeareans who recognize the dialogue the game visualizes and gamers who recognize the nuances of the mechanics. For example, many frustrated players have voiced Macbeth’s textually accurate desire to kill Banquo, here a non-playable character (NPC) programmed so that he is always getting in Macbeth’s way.
The game was supported by a crowdfunding campaign, a Segal Design Fellowship and a residency at The Garage at Northwestern University. The finished game was in a curated exhibit at the Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne, Germany, and it was the subject of my peer-reviewed article in International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media. It is cited in Shakespeare and Virtual Reality and has been requested by multiple classroom teachers. Finally, Something Wicked was the inaugural project of Fabula(b), the theatre and new media lab I launched in 2016. Fabula(b) has now created four theatre digital humanities projects, won 13 grants, and brought together 25 faculty, students, and guest artists across three institutions.
William J. White
Available for Windows-based PCs via download and playable with keyboard input, Something Wicked is a videogame that depicts the off-stage action described in an early scene of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this important scene, we learn that the title character, in the company of Banquo, another captain loyal to King Duncan, has defeated the traitorous rebel lord Macdonwald and driven back the invading King of Norway. In the play, we meet Macbeth on stage for the first time as he comes from this battle, a day at once “so fair and foul,” and encounters the three witches who incite in him that ugly ambition that leads him first to the throne and then to his undoing.
In the game, we play Macbeth in the battle, Banquo at his side, as he moves across a scrolling two-dimensional tableau textured and embroidered to resemble the Bayeux Tapestry. The blood of slain kerns and gallowglasses stains the fabric, and gives power to his smoking sword, which leaves burn marks behind upon the tapestry when it strikes. This is a clever, arguably even inspired, bit of design, but to what end? An early prototype of the game prompted some participants viewing it at a seminar to complain that “it’s not Shakespeare” because it lacks the “beautiful poetry and language” of the Bard, its high culture cachet dissipated by reformulation into a violent video game (Hunter 2020).
The value of the game lies, in part, in the interaction with the play that it facilitates. The game’s producer, a theater professor, describes the project as an example of critical making, wherein a creator self-consciously attends to the act of creation and its scholarly implications as part of that act (Hunter 2020). In this case, Hunter presents Something Wicked as a dramaturgical construction, an interpretation of Macbeth’s character within the context of the medieval cultural economy of Macbeth’s Scotland, in which acts of violence ensure political stability and brutality is the coin of social advancement. If we think Macbeth to be the violent and effective man of action described in Act I, Scene 2 of the play, then the videogame highlights that characterization and reinforces it by enabling the game player’s enactive spectatorship of the play (Hunter 2020).
The game thus significantly contributes to a pedagogy of play that can re-orient us to Shakespeare’s work in a way that disrupts sedimented preconceptions, and retrieves the early modern connection between gaming and theatergoing (Bloom 2018). It also invites important critical attention to the “transmediation” of pop culture intellectual property as franchises whose elements can be distributed across media formats, such that understanding the narrative as a whole requires knowing them all. It is not for nothing that fans of franchises like the Matrix or Star Wars deeply concern themselves with which sources should be regarded as canonical (e.g., Kavanagh 2022). What would it mean for Shakespearean “adaptations” of all sorts (like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) to be regarded as part of a larger SEU (Shakespearean Expanded Universe)? This is the compelling questions that Something Wicked brings to Shakespeare studies.
Bloom, Gina. 2018. Gaming the Stage: Playable Media and the Rise of English Commercial Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hunter, E.B. 2016. Something Wicked: The Macbeth Video Game [videogame]. Available at https://sites.wustl.edu/fabulab/something-wicked-the-macbeth-video-game/. Accessed May 1, 2023.
Hunter, E.B. 2020. “Enactive Spectatorship, Critical Making, and Dramaturgical Analysis: Building Something Wicked, the Macbeth Video Game.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 16, no. 1: 1-17.
Kavanagh, Emily. July 21, 2022. “Disney Killed the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Why That’s a Good Thing.” Collider. Available at https://collider.com/disney-killed-star-wars-expanded-universe-why-its-good/. Accessed May 1, 2023.