“To Be or Not to Be”
March 11, 2021
“To Be or Not to Be” is a choose-your-own-adventure text game written by Ryan North and published by Tin Man Games. As the name implies, the game is a parody of Shakespeare’s tragic play, “Hamlet.” As someone who had to read Shakespeare ad-nauseum for an English BA, I’m thrilled that it was 1000% more interesting than his plays.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Hamlet,” here are the basics: Prince Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, is away at battle and dies. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, returns from the same battle and assumes the throne (plus marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, which weirds the prince out). Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who discovered that he was murdered by Claudius, and his father-ghost convinces Hamlet to get revenge by murdering Claudius. Since this is Shakespeare, this goes poorly in the most absurd way and basically everyone dies.
North’s parody of the play allows players to choose between playing as King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet, or Ophelia (Prince Hamlet’s girlfriend). Choosing King Hamlet appears to be an immediate “game over” state: as mentioned earlier, you die! But the game allows the player to continue playing as the ghost, influencing the events either through Prince Hamlet or just taking matters into your own hands.
Choosing Ophelia is a nice turn on how Shakespeare treated women in his plays. She’s a scientist in the game—you can choose to help Prince Hamlet with his murder-y plot, make Hamlet forget (or decide against) the murder-y plot, or just flip the bird to all the men and have adventures that have absolutely nothing to do with the play (in one scenario, I became a terrorist hunter, freeing England of their devious plots).
When you’re presented with choices, any “traditional” one—meaning what Shakespeare used in the play—is represented by a skull. Playing as Prince Hamlet offers up the most skull choices, though deviating from the plot causes twists that move beyond the traditional storyline. The prince’s story choices were the least interesting to me; I mostly appreciated the brilliance and pizzazz of Ophelia’s decisions.
There are enough storylines in the game to offer a plethora of endings. I played for a couple hours and, based on the artwork that’s rewarded for completing a scenario, there’s a lot I have yet to uncover. Regardless of whether you follow the traditional story or take a sidetracked adventure, the narrative is packed with humor and the occasional pop culture reference.
Now to contradict the above: there’s also a dearth of player agency throughout a lot of the game. Sometimes making a choice is really a non-choice because of a predetermined answer. Sometimes (a bit too often) there’s only one choice, which is not a choice. The narrative is still satisfying, yet having more true decision-making power would make the game more enjoyable.
“To Be or Not to Be” is fun for anyone familiar with Shakespeare, and well-suited to accommodate limited play time. While the player interaction element is somewhat lacking, the humorous presentation and surprising twists make up for it.
(If you want to understand “Hamlet” in a fun way, I recommend the Thug Notes breakdown of the play. Or watch the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy performed by David Tennant. Both are available on YouTube.)