Something Wicked: the Macbeth video game

Something Wicked is a video game adaptation of William Shakespeare’s gory, witchy tragedy, Macbeth.

The game was featured in the 2018 museum exhibition PLAY UP!: Queens, Pixel Monsters and Dragon Slayers at the Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne, Germany. Click here for our part of the print catalogue.

Something Wicked was supported by a Segal Design Fellowship at Northwestern and a successful crowdfunding campaign.

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What is it?

The first installation of Something Wicked is a short, 2D side-scroller that enacts the Norwegian invasion described in Act 1, Scene 2 of Macbeth. The visuals and game mechanics of Something Wicked derive from the Bayeux Tapestry and from Shakespeare’s text itself, an aesthetic argument that links this digital-age adaptation to the analog storytelling of its source material.

Something Wicked 1.2 is a free download for Mac and PC built on the Unity engine for USB controllers or WASD keys. Only basic video game expertise is required to access Something Wicked. Gameplay averages 10–15 minutes; no prior knowledge of Macbeth is necessary. We designed Something Wicked to maximize existing tech infrastructure, to scale to a wide public, and to avoid the need for expert support personnel.

In the game, players control the Macbeth avatar through four levels that follow the progression of the battle described in Shakespeare’s 1.2. As in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth cannot die during this chapter of Something Wicked. If enemy attacks surpass Macbeth’s ability to replenish health, the game stops, the side-scroller rewinds to the opening, and gameplay restarts from level one.

Why do we need it?

Improved critical thinking about complex, often opaque concepts—Shakespearean or otherwise—is a crucial social issue. With neuroscientists now confirming that “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” finding a way to get people emotionally invested in complex concepts is crucial to their learning.

What does it achieve?

Something Wicked represents a theatre studies instantiation of born-digital critical making as a methodological complement to traditional theoretical research.

Video games create an interactive, replicable, and scalable way to improve access to, affinity for, and critical thinking about complex subjects—like Shakespeare. Because video games require the action of the player in order to exist, gamers occupy a subject position that is both live (en)actor and audience of one.

Something Wicked represents a new opportunity for the audience’s interactive experience of dramatic works, wherein the digital avatar becomes theatrical role. This simultaneous expansion/collapse of spectatorship further inflects the player’s experience of Macbeth, lending an embodied urgency to the themes the game foregrounds.

In addition to fostering these outcomes specifically for Shakespeare, Something Wicked creates a transferable model for engaging a broad public in critical thinking about complex ideas.