Jane Austen's famous novel is already about subverting traditional systems, so it could lend itself quite well to the digital medium.
The one thing that tends to get overlooked when we think about Pride and Prejudice is the terror. I don’t mean the usual video game form of terror – there are no monsters or ninja assassins in Austen’s novel (although it’s a few years since I last read it, I might have forgotten those bits). I mean the terror of social failure and displacement. The fear of dishonour and disgrace – and the very real peril young women faced when they were felt to have fallen somehow short of society’s standards. And sorry, but this is all good video game material.
The Regency society that Jane Austen wrote about was effectively a highly codified mechanism: a game system. Just like in a role-playing adventure, where certain “classes” of enemies can only be effectively fought after the required power-ups have been discovered, Austen’s heroines faced a rigidly hierarchical environment in which every interaction was governed by status. Social engagements were arranged via calling cards, and elaborate rituals of acceptance and avoidance were developed to ensure everyone knew their place. Making friends and potential marriage partners was a question of understanding the etiquette – the game system – and playing effectively.
I can totally see Pride and Prejudice as a sort of stealth adventure in which Elizabeth must quietly learn the systems of the Meryton gentry if she is to form a relationship with Darcy. Every ball is a mission in which the lead character has to gather information and work on possible alliances. We know from the excellent Party mission in Dishonored that upper class gatherings make atmospheric and sinister game environments. We also know from sci-fi RPG series Mass Effect how in-game conversations can be used to simulate diplomatic relations, allowing the lead protagonist to charm non-player characters. It’s the same thing here; ecept every ball will also have a tricky mini-game in which you have to master the elaborate steps of Regency country dances – like memorising new moves in a fighting game.
Every adventure game has a currency and many have a ‘moral status’ gauge where the system judges the player on their every action, good or evil. In a Pride and Prejudice title, the currency would be status and every conversation, every slight faux pas, would play into it. Address a viscount as a baron or take the wrong seat at the dinner table and your social currency plummets. Players would need to become proficient in the infrastructure of social terror, earning etiquette power-ups to survive.
The difficulty of course, is that as a woman in Regency England, Elizabeth’s actions alone aren’t enough. A Pride and Prejudice game would have to figure out a way of dealing with Lydia and Mrs Bennet, a pair of social smart bombs capable of randomly sabotaging any progress Elizabeth makes. Game systems are all about the player’s agency in the world, they give us ultimate power over our destinies and would be considered unfair otherwise. Austen’s Elizabeth discovers that Darcy has helped to engineer the marriage of Wickham and Lydia – a veritable machine of disgrace – but in a game, the player would need to be involved, tying up this loop of the plot in order to progress.
Hanging over the whole tale, of course, is Lady Catherine, a brilliant video game antagonist if ever there was one. She, like Kefka in Final Fantasy VI, is a malevolent regal presence, manipulating all, hating everything, misanthropic to the core. Like many of the best game villains, she is at the head of a family placed in jeopardy, often by a younger generation incapable of, or unwilling to, continue the dynasty (look at the messy private lives of the Resident Evil baddies). Anne is weak, Darcy is a rebel, Collins an obsequious toad. Catherine’s confrontation with Elizabeth toward the end of the book is a video game boss battle, in which all the player has learned about society, interaction and self-protection must come into perfect play against the representative of an old world order. Catherine’s boss battle weak spot is her family and Elizabeth’s position beyond it – that’s what you go for.
Pride and Prejudice: the video game – would anyone play it? There has been a rather mawkish attempt in the past; a sort of graphic adventure game entitled, Matches and Matrimony. But game demographics have changed hugely over the last five years, and so has the ambition of designers. You only need look at titles like Journey, Papo & Yo, Digital: A Love Story and All That Matters to know that, at least in the indie sector, a broader range of themes and experiences is emerging.
Of course, it’s arguable whether a game based around a young woman’s social mobility is even desirable in the 21st century. But Pride and Prejudice is not just about romance it is about a system of subterfuge and repression. Regency England is a Death Star of class, and the learning curve of the game would align with the learning curve of the main characters in the novel – they need to escape those two titular nouns to achieve freedom. At that point, like the end of a game, the terror is overcome. The system is beaten.