To be virtual or not to be virtual, that is the question

A University of Guelph professor has created a virtual reality experience where Shakespeare students can feel like they are in the grounds where the ghost of Hamlet’s father lurks around the castle grounds.

A year in the making, Hamlet VR Experience was directed and co-designed by Peter Kuling, professor in the school of English and theater studies.

“I’m a video gamer myself. I’m a professor now but I still play video games. I always have since back in the days of Atari and arcades. I thought, what if we turn kind of Shakespeare into a game experience,” said Kuling.

In the virtual experience, those who put on the VR headset are playing the Hamlet character Bernardo, a castle guard. The experience is 15 minutes and is act one scene one of Hamlet. Bernardo and his fellow guards Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio come across the ghost of the king, Hamlet’s father.

“I will say we couldn’t do the whole play. That’s four hours. People would get motion sick,” Kuling said.

The virtual experience was made with funding from eCampusOntario’s Ontario Exchange.

Kuling worked with four U of G graduates to perform the voice overs for the characters. An environmental artist surveyed a castle in Denmark, similar to the one in Hamlet, the Kronborg castle, to help create the visual representation of it in the VR experience.

A character artist, sound designers, programmers, animators and a project manager were all part of creating the experience.

Kuling included Easter eggs in the game and carvings of gryphons in a stone wall as a nod to the symbol for U of G.

One of the monuments in the game is a villain from Scooby Doo, the Black Knight. “My son loves Scooby Doo and all I’ve been watching with him during the pandemic is Scooby Doo,” said Kuling.

The Hamlet VR Experience is for high school, college and university students. Kuling said high school students might get the most benefit out of it because this may be their first time learning Shakespeare and this could get them interested in it,

Students aren’t standing reciting English that is hard to understand, said Kuling. “It’s interactive and kind of compelling and kind of creepy and kind of different.”

All of the original lines from the first scene in Hamlet are in the experience; the way students can interact with it is different. They can pick up a lantern and use it to see different things in the environment.

“English and theater departments are already moving to gaming as it is, so this is a great bridge towards it.” said Kuling.

“I think it also helps us, meet students on levels of new technology that they’re using really well.”

Kuling has funding lined up to produce a Macbeth VR experience. It will include all the scenes the witches in Macbeth are in.

“I can’t believe I’m at a point where this all comes together, my love of Shakespeare, my love of games, my love of creating immersive digital entertainment, it still blows my mind,” Kuling said.

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