Multiplayer: A Space-Faring Shakespeare Shoot-'Em-Up

' 'Speare' is designed to help sixth-graders learn the Bard's work.

The announcement that game developers in Canada released a Shakespeare video game late last month makes the mind reel. Given how educational it sounds, one's mind might reel straight away to something less literary like "Killzone" or "Guitar Hero." I ran toward it on Tuesday. I tried a new computer game called
" 'Speare."

The game is designed to help sixth-graders learn Shakespeare. It's a simple shoot-'em-up in the style of "Gradius" or "Ikaruga" with a poetic bent. You command a spaceship that doesn't just shoot down enemy Insidian vessels but uses Knowledge Gathering Technology to absorb floating words that help build Shakespearean phrases in a battle that will, according to the game's intro, "usher in a new age of compassion and learning." Feel free to use smart bombs and death rays along the way.

I played the game with high hopes of complete Shakespeare inundation. If the ripeness of subject matter for a game is somewhat measurable in the amount of blood that can drop from it, it's amazing there hasn't yet been a line of Shakespeare games. "Hamlet" certainly ends with enough action to fill out a level of "Ninja Gaiden." If it's helpful for a licensed property to sport some catchy jargon that can be reused in gaming terms, then the way must clear for a game with a super-gun called the Sea Change or a devastating power move called Out Damned Spot. But Shakespeare hasn't been tried much in video games. No one has really taken the Bard and let loose.

" 'Speare" is an interesting first stab. Programmers at the University of Guelph in Ontario made the game as a teaching tool. So picture flying a spaceship through a few waves of enemies and then having to "scan" a floating diamond by pressing a key on the keyboard and then mousing over the jewel to learn that "Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 years old. She was eight years older than him. They had eight children together." Such knowledge will be tested at the end of the level.

The first level I played was based on a line near the beginning of "Romeo and Juliet" in which the Capulet Sampson says "I will bite my thumb at them." In my mission in " 'Speare," I had to blow up spaceships that occasionally left behind floating words from that phrase, or words that were synonymous or sounded the same. I flew over and grabbed "my" and "thumb" and "Bight." I gathered words, blew up a mother ship, answered Shakespeare trivia and then saw I didn't do well enough to power up my ship. At the power screen, I saw, sadly, that no weapons were called Out Damned Spot. (I was flying in a ship called Juliet's Dagger, at least.) The next mission would require me to track down words to match the line "parting is such sweet sorrow."

The closest I've gotten to a Shakespearean video game before playing " 'Speare" was blasting through a "Star Fox 64" fire planet called Macbeth and playing a level in "Psychonauts" that unfolds as a stage play, complete with a misguided critic as the level's villain. That's not close at all.

The point of the game is to embed a little Shakespeare in students without whatever pain some might think the standard practice of reading or watching plays involves. Packaging it into a video game is a novel approach. This game, which focuses on "Romeo and Juliet," could clearly be the first of many. To see if the learning is sufficiently balanced with fun, try a free downloadable game here. A more complete version is available for purchase.

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