Hannes Rall and Emma Harper – Re-inventing Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre for Immersive Animation: A Practice-oriented Case Study


Animation is a filmic medium that is particularly well suited for creating visual equivalents of poetic language. According to Wells, “animation accentuates the intended ‘feeling’ of the text through its very abstractness in the use of colour, form and movement…animation simultaneously literalizes and abstracts” (1999, 208). This sentiment is echoed in a remark by Academy Award-winning director John Canemaker in relation to animated Shakespeare specifically: “you know, he’s the great poet, and animation can aspire to a poetic imagery and feeling” (Canemaker).

Statements professing a particular symbiosis between Shakespeare and animation are supported by the long history of animated Shakespeare adaptations for traditional screen formats, perhaps most notably the TV series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (1992-1994). However, the possibility of moving beyond the screen into the realm of expanded animation has been largely underexplored. Although Shakespeare studies have been a “key locus of virtual reality development”, emphasis has been placed on VR’s affinity with theatrical performance and interpretation rather than on its ability to engage with the narratives at the heart of Shakespeare’s plays (Wittek and McInnis 1). To this end, for almost a decade, this essay’s co-author Hannes Rall has been collaborating with the world-leading center for Shakespeare scholarship, The Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, particularly its Director, Professor Michael Dobson, to literally expand animated Shakespeare adaptation beyond the screen by transforming a range of written plays for fully immersive and interactive media including VR, augmented reality (AR), and full-dome cinema.

In this essay, we will consider our perspective on the source text and the specific narrative, thematic, and stylistic requirements of expanded animation when developing an adaptation of a lesser-known Shakespeare play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a fully immersive serious game in VR. This decision was rooted in the educational motivation underpinning our project, and the intention to ultimately bring students back to the language and structure of the Shakespearean text. In this expanded context, our project can therefore also be seen as a gamified educational application. The term “gamification” is defined as “the application of lessons from the gaming domain to…non-game situations”, and this “non-game situation” for our purposes is teaching within the Singaporean secondary literature classroom (Robson et al. 411).

Pericles VR is currently in the pre-production stage and retells the story of Shakespeare’s play through the use of anthropomorphized animal characters within a Southeast Asian context. The overall serious game experience will be structured around four fully immersive levels connected by 2D animated cutscenes accompanied by Shakespeare’s original language, which advance the plot and provide users with the context required to understand how the interactive levels relate to the play’s broader narrative arc.

Osborne states that the future of Shakespearean performance within digital media “depends on the qualities that digital worlds require: interactivity through participation and procedures, and audience immersion through spatial and encyclopedic environments” (2010 49). When considered in relation to VR specifically, such qualities include the need to redefine traditional notions of linear storytelling and viewer awareness as a result of the transition to a medium in which storytelling “is less about telling the viewer a story and more about letting the viewer discover the story” (Bucher 7).  As a non-screen-based storytelling medium, VR must grapple with the question of how to direct and control viewers’ attention and perspective when traditional techniques such as framing and composition are no longer effective. Participants are also subjected to a degree of immediacy that they do not experience when watching a film on a traditional screen: “viewers in virtual experiences often respond as though they are having the immediacy experienced outside of the virtual world, suggesting that these virtual experiences have lowered the evidence of the mediated experience to levels almost indistinguishable from those they engage in without an HMD,” yet, paradoxically, require an even greater level of mediation behind the scenes (Bucher 5). Our interest lies in investigating how such an approach might be tested through the process of iterative design and experimental animation present in our adaptation.

The concerns outlined above are reflected in the research questions which structure the ongoing project:

  • What are the narrative elements in Shakespeare’s texts that suggest a specific choice of digital medium for adaptation?
  • How must the source material be transformed to answer the specific requirements of expanded animation and games in VR?
  • What are the consequences for visual storytelling through storyboarding, design iteration, and animation?

With these questions in mind, we are working to negotiate an adaptation strategy that incorporates cutscenes as traditional, linear storytelling sequences alongside gamified interludes, thus highlighting the importance of an approach that embraces arguments for both ludology and narratology when attempting to explore specific adaptations within the broader category of digital media. By taking on the identity of what Frasca terms the “simulation author,” we can demonstrate how VR builds on the precedent set by video games, merging traditional narrative media’s “fixed sequence of events” with the requirement to “go through several iterations” of a story which he identifies as a defining feature of the game medium (227). The combination of these storytelling methods enables the audience to experience the full story arc while at the same time capitalizing on the specific properties of immersive digital media to enhance the spectator’s agency – providing the user with “global motor control, including the subjective experience of action, control, intention, motor selection and the conscious experience of will” within a virtual environment (Blanke & Metzinger in Kilteni et al. 376). This quality is identified as a fundamental component of VR’s potential to allow a user to move towards an experience in which they have “the same sensations towards a virtual body inside an immersive virtual environment as toward the biological body,” in turn generating a sense of embodiment which acts as a “critical contributor to the sense of being in the virtual experience” (Kilteni et al. 373-4).


Interdependencies Between Adaptation and Creative Development

This paper will explore elements of our ongoing adaptation process to demonstrate how transposing a classic play to a contemporary media form can be applied in practice. After introducing the project, we will discuss the connections between the narrative content of the original play and our adaptation strategy. How should we conceptualize and negotiate fidelity to the text of Pericles whilst also acknowledging that the play must be considered “a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities” of those who perform, study, and adapt the work (Kidnie 2)? What are the specific qualities of the play that can be drawn out to suit the precise needs and sensibilities of gamified animated VR?

We will then turn to our decision to reconceptualize Pericles’ characters as anthropomorphized animals and to shift the narrative from its original classical Mediterranean setting to a temporally and geographically unspecific imagined world that can be read as Southeast Asian from the perspective of Singapore as a cultural and economic hub. As maritime archipelagos, both the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia share cultural diversity and localities separated, yet united, by the sea. Considering how modern digital media might interact with traditional Southeast Asian visual forms is a thread that has run throughout this paper’s co-author’s work for over two decades, and fits with our broader attempt to challenge conceptions of what Shakespeare’s oeuvre can be, visually and narratively, in a contemporary Singaporean context.

This also reflects a desire to draw upon the distinct visual identities of the region in which the bulk of our project team is situated, reflecting the artistic heritage of Southeast Asian animators, designers, and technical developers. In doing so, our work echoes the much-celebrated Shakespeare adaptations produced by Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa that recontextualize the Bard’s works through transcultural transformation (Huang 92). The final section will reflect upon how we are engaging with questions of tone in our approach to the play’s more controversial themes. The decisions that have shaped our adaptation strategy can be situated within broader scholarship surrounding the play’s longer-term performance traditions, as well as in relation to theoretical considerations regarding embodiment within the context of immersive, first-person VR.


The Project

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is the story of a family separated at sea and reunited by fate. The play follows the eponymous character over a period of fifteen years as he travels across the ocean, where he is required to outwit foes and solve problems, encountering love, death, and birth along the way.

Our reimagining of the play for gamified VR can be described as what Gina Bloom terms “drama-making”, in which “the player essentially inhabits or controls a Shakespearean character… [and] does not impersonate the character in the guise of an actor, but rather becomes the character…in a dramatic plot” (115).  At times, this character is Pericles, and at others his daughter Marina, allowing the viewer to play as the central character across four scenes and gain an understanding of parallel storylines that shape the second half of the play and set up the important final reunion. The potential of VR to offer a “drama-making” experience that engages users directly with the play’s narrative has been largely unexplored to date, even though there are clear benefits in terms of immersion, with the medium’s ability to create an environment that replaces users’ real-world encounters increasing “the degree of involvement within gameplay” deemed important for a “good gaming experience” (Silpasuwanchai and Ren 664). The potential of VR to create environments and narrative-driven encounters in which engagement is rooted in bodily movement and embodied cognition facilitates the creation of four types of immersion outlined by Curran (285). These are defined as general immersion, vicarious immersion (involved with the world and characters), action visceral immersion (involved with action and play) and mental visceral immersion (involved with the tactics and strategies required to progress in the game) (Silpasuwanchai and Ren 664).

Placing “the dramatic plot” at the center of our adaptation necessitated the development of a structure that allows users to follow the overall narrative arc as Shakespeare originally intended rather than altering the trajectory of the story. Maintaining the play’s original language in the narration and in-level dialogue that features in our game also provides an opportunity for users to experience the beauty and complexity of the Shakespearean text, with moments of linguistic complexity unpacked and clarified by the physicality of experience found within a virtual immersive environment.


Research Methodology and Implementation in Creative Practice

The defining feature of our approach to adaptation is the incorporation of interdisciplinary academic research and literary scholarship into our production process from the earliest stages. The wider implication of embracing interdisciplinary scholarly methods within the creative production process is to provide best practice guidance across the field of literature adaptation – demonstrated through, but transcending, our specific case study on Shakespeare’s Pericles. We argue that scholarly investigation and creative production are in fact not contradictions but can be employed towards mutually beneficial collaboration.

When selecting the source text, team members engaged with research rooted in the literary and performance history of several Shakespeare texts to assess their suitability for the project, examining debates regarding authorship, fidelity, treatment of characters and setting, and strategies relating to abridgment. Rather than simply limiting our research to existing Shakespeare adaptations for the screen or work being undertaken with Shakespeare in virtual media, we looked back to the longer-term performance histories of the plays in question. This draws on the work of Kidnie, which suggests that it is possible to claim that every staging of a Shakespeare play can be considered as adaptive, rooted as they are in processes of recontextualization and rewriting (3,5). Understanding this context and the underlying scholarship has not only enhanced the process of visual and narrative development by providing examples of how the plays’ text, character and setting have been treated in the past, but has also allowed for our practice-led research to be positioned within broader networks of scholarship in Shakespeare studies, adaptation, and animation studies.

“Practice-led-research” is an approach that embeds practice in the process of research as a method to generate or acquire knowledge, yet also results in a creative product that is itself an outcome of research, embodying the knowledge gained during the production process (Niedderer and Rowerth-Stokes 13). Our method also draws upon “critical making” – in which the process of production becomes “a site for analysis and its explicit connections to specific scholarly literature…[and] emphasizes the shared acts of making” (Ratto 253). Within this framework sits our iterative design process, in which visual and technical developers and writers find themselves frequently connecting back to the scholarly context of the play, operating under the belief that the project marks one step in a larger tradition of performance and adaptation as well as an example of innovative creative design.

Our project also leverages upon current debates regarding fidelity and authenticity within immersive environments. Explored in detail elsewhere (Weber et al.), what is central is the idea that fidelity is not inextricably tied to maintaining accuracy to either the literary source or to real-world experiences and interactions. In collaboration with the scholars of Shakespearean literature, theatre, and performance on our project team, Professor Michael Dobson, Dr. Erin Sullivan, and Dr. Aneta Mancewicz, we therefore worked to create a visual and narrative vision that is rooted in references to Pericles, yet pushes the boundaries of what “Shakespeare” as both concept and author is commonly perceived to be within contemporary Singapore. A short film produced by this paper’s co-author highlighted that, for Singaporean students, Shakespeare is closely associated with linguistic complexity and ideas of Western tradition and “Englishness” (Rall 2020). By turning to Pericles – a play with which our audience is likely to be unfamiliar – and interpreting the text in unexpected ways, or project can be deemed emblematic of a twenty-first-century approach to the Bard and his works.

The process of adaptation at the heart of our project arguably reflects Douglas Lanier’s description of the relationship between Shakespeare and mass culture as “rhizomatic” – “mutually catalytic of dramatically new directions in development” (105). This idea characterizes our engagement with both literary source text and conventions for storytelling in VR. To carry out this mutual process of negotiation and create a final experience that is both intellectually sound and artistically striking requires interdisciplinary consultation and collaboration. With this framework in mind, the rest of the paper will outline in more detail how we incorporated these elements into our production process – from our choice of source text to narrative development and final designs for characters and environments.


Qualifying Pericles for Animated Adaptation in a Fully Immersive Game Context

The decision to select Pericles as the source text for our adaptation was influenced by two main factors – the lack of representation of the play in the existing body of animated Shakespeare adaptations and the identification, with the help of scholars, of specific aspects of the play’s nature as a text and its performance history that it was felt would make it particularly appropriate for adaptation for a VR game. This process was carried out through a series of virtual meetings attended by members of the creative and research team in collaboration with Michael Dobson, Aneta Mancewicz, and Erin Sullivan. The three scholars drew upon their diverse experiences of working to offer cross-disciplinary reflections on Shakespeare’s work and its digital adaptation specifically. Professor Dobson has considered diverse facets of Shakespeare’s texts and their performance, ranging from analyses of cutting Shakespeare’s works for the stage to the adaptability of his plays, whilst also holding considerable knowledge of amateur and professional Shakespeare performance across time (Dobson, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2016). As a scholar of theatre, Dr. Mancewicz was able to offer insights from the perspective of Shakespeare in digital performance and the notion of intermedial staging, whilst Dr. Sullivan’s perspective reflects her recent work considering how digital technologies are transforming notions of Shakespearean performance and adaptation in the 21st century (Allred et al. 2022, Macewicz 2014, Sullivan 2022, 2023).


Towards Highlighting Underrepresented Plays in the Canon

Pericles is not among the most studied or performed of Shakespeare’s plays; believed to have been at least partially composed by an author other than Shakespeare and existing today only through an error-filled 1609 quarto, the text has been criticized as “a mouldy play”, “unsuited for the modern theatre” (Hoeniger lxviii-lxix; Maillet 56). Pericles has been overlooked within the context of modern digital media forms, with the vast majority of Shakespeare adaptations that have used animation, gamification, and/or immersive media drawing upon plays that are more well-known, such as Hamlet.

There is much that can be learned from existing adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays which highlight the “intriguing prospects” that immersive and interactive media hold for re-engaging with Shakespearean narrative (Bloom 50). Our overall strategy towards narrative experience is not overly dissimilar to the 1997 PC game Hamlet: A Murder Mystery, in which players are required to arrange film clips into the correct sequence to progress the experience. Players have a high degree of control when exploring the environment yet must reproduce the sequence of events in the order of the original play to progress and earn rewards (Osborne 2010, 50–1).

However, choosing to combine animation, immersive media, and gamification is certainly unique amongst adaptations of Pericles, and a notable departure from the photorealistic style of many existing Shakespeare adaptations for VR. In addition, the interdependence between scholarly knowledge, academic research, and creative artistic production that lies at the heart of the project should be foregrounded.  Central to this adaptation was exploring how the narrative, language, themes, and characters featured in the original play – and the scholarly debates that surround them – could be drawn upon when shaping the form and structure of our virtual experience.


Approaching and Transforming the Source Text for Digital Mediation

Beyond wishing to simply highlight the untapped potential of Pericles as a source text, we argue that there are qualities within the original language and narrative structure of the play that make it well suited for adaptation to gamified, animated VR specifically. For instance, David Skeele states that “Pericles is still generally held to be one of Shakespeare’s main repositories of repetitions, obscure passages and detours” (202). In traditional stage performances, this might justify moving away from the source text to construct something more straightforward in terms of narrative, and less confusing in terms of setting. Still, we argue that such qualities should in fact be embraced when adapting the text to immersive and interactive digital media. Such “obscure passages” and “detours” provide ample source material for creating “the combination of a story with frustrations, dilemmas, decision making and multiple paths [which] enables players to experience a deep level of emotional engagement and purpose” during the game experience which Silpasuwanchai and Ren theorize as important for creating affective disposition on the part of the player – sharing their sympathy, hope, and emotions (662).

This rings particularly true for the world discovery which is a major aspect of creating enjoyment and engagement within such immersive experiences. In their exploration of forms of enjoyment found within digital games, Heeter et al. outline the importance of the concept of “discovery fun”, defined as “finding something that wasn’t known before” through engagement with new environments and seeing or doing new things (12). Such entertainment value is easily found within the source text of Pericles with its multiple settings and unexpected trajectory, and easily transferred to the context of an immersive game.

Randall and Murphy have argued that, when adapting other narratives for the video game medium, “players need to be able to step into the world of the adapted story and spend a significant amount of time in that world, exploring its many locations and engaging with the characters and objects drawn from, or even simply suggested by, the source text” (121). This required diversity and scope in fact inherently exists within the source text of Pericles. Throughout the original play, audiences encounter at least seven distinct geographical locations spread out across the Mediterranean, each filled with a plethora of characters that can be drawn upon to act as NPCs.

Modern scholars have attempted to find thematic unity in the text of Pericles to better understand its position within Shakespeare’s broader body of work. One such theme has been the idea of the play as Pericles’ personal journey. Edward Plough has argued that “part of what makes Pericles work as an epic is the grand scale of locations and the effect that travelling the world can have on the hero,” with the locations within the play operating as “psychological totems more than geographical referents” (297–98). First-person VR arguably presents the opportunity for the player or viewer to participate in, and indeed embody, this personal journey and the impact that it can have on both the development of an individual and the progression of a narrative by facilitating a “merging of task and self” (Silpasuwanchai and Ren 664). Pedagogically, placing students in this first-person perspective also helps them make sense of the play’s structure and trajectory in more general terms – working to “emphasise the interpretive utility of space, embodiment, and movement” (Wittek and McInnis 1).

Criticisms of the disjoined narrative flow of the play, which Zarin attributes in part to its lack of transitional scenes, can also be turned on their head to argue that a fragmented, episodic structure is well suited to the requirements of gamified VR, specifically the creation of levels. Levels are a hallmark of linear game structures, with players aiming, within a level, to “find the way to its exit point, achieving any game challenges the designer requires to player to achieve to progress” (Boon 58–59).  Each of the locations that Pericles visits has the potential to be a level within a game, the encounters and events that occur unfolding in line with the fixed order present in the source text, whilst the “extraordinary and optimistic and unexpected trajectory” of the play is arguably well suited to translation to a game context in which players are engaged by offering them “opportunities to investigate a vast virtual space filled with mysteries and surprises” (Zarin; Silpasuwanchai and Ren 671). Interrogating the text as a source for a video game adaptation can also influence how we think about the play from a literary perspective. By limiting opportunities for action and the ability to change the trajectory of the narrative to the four game levels and maintaining the play’s fixed sequence of events during cutscenes, the overall game structure highlights the limited agency that the hero Pericles holds in the play (Mancewicz 2023). More often than not, his journey is guided by chance and fate – the appearance of friendly fishermen, meeting a storm at sea, finding himself in Mytilene where his daughter happens to be located – rather than his own decisive action.

This idea can be demonstrated in reference to the third game level in our VR experience, based on the play’s third act. The player takes on the role of Pericles as he finds himself on the deck of a ship during a shipwreck, the context of the event having unfolded during the preceding cutscene. Players are presented with a range of items scattered around the deck and are encouraged by an NPC – the character of Lychorida, Thaisa’s midwife, who is introduced visually in the cutscene – to select what to throw overboard in an attempt to rebalance the ship and weather the storm. They must use their hands to physically grip and throw the objects within the virtual environment. Ultimately, the player discovers – either by having thrown every other item or by following the nurse’s prompts – that the only

Figure 1. Modeled tapir character for inclusion in game levels.

way to succeed and progress is to engage in the “extraordinary” act of throwing the body of his wife into the sea. The character of the nurse also acts as a nod to the somewhat repetitive narrative structure of the play as Pericles travels across a range of islands and leverages the potential of animation to reflect the theatrical art of doubling, in which a single actor plays multiple parts during a performance. Tichenor describes how, on the stage, “actors swapping costumes and changing roles…become part of the thrilling ride, and theater’s fundamental artifice becomes its strength,” and in our game experience too, we hope to highlight this sense of artificiality and the idea of “people playing pretend” within the virtual environment. Doubling allows the audience to make connections between characters and the parallel between their narrative roles (Boguszak 173). The nurse character takes the form of a tapir, whose base model appears in each of the play’s game levels – as a suitor for the hand of the Princess of Antioch, Pericles’ adversary in the combat at the court of Pentapolis, and a patron waiting to be charmed during the final level in the Mytilene brothel. As well as speeding up the production process by limiting the number of distinct characters that have to be modeled, this also creates a sense of entertainment and comedic inevitability within the game experience as the player repeatedly sees the same tapir run afoul of various scenarios throughout the story (Tichenor). 

A game often requires a guide to introduce players to the gameplay format and the narrative framework and this is an element already embedded in the source text in the form of the poet John Gower, who introduces the play and appears at the start of each act to describe action that has occurred off stage and explain shifts in time and space. Gower thus acts as a “teller of the tale,” transmitting the story to the player via a process of “mediacy” in a way that functions both within the context of the original play and in this game adaptation (Alber and Fludernik). We chose to maintain Gower’s character for this very reason – he appears at the start of the VR experience to explain the background to the first game level, and as a voiceover during the later parts of the game to provide additional explanations and guidance, making use of lines drawn from the play itself.

Thus, the literary source material is placed at the center of our mediation from original play to digital adaptation. Not only are we taking lines directly from the play to create cohesion between visual and textual presentation and to ensure that players are fully aware of the play’s original plot and Shakespeare’s linguistic mastery, but also reconsidering elements of the play’s structure and narrative in accordance with the requirements of an animated VR game.


Necessary Cuts: Abridgment in the Context of Playful Adaptation

From the outset, it was clear that it would not be possible to produce a game adaptation of the full original play, which has a running time of over two and a half hours. As well as the demands of producing the equivalent of a feature-length animation being far beyond the capacity of the project, there are also multiple risks associated with immersing users within a virtual environment for such an extended period (Korolov 20–23). As such, we had to decide how the plot and language of the play should be compressed and abridged to fit the requirements of the experience.

There is a long tradition of directors cutting and refocusing the play to reflect their personal intentions and the perceived sensibilities and audience when adapting Pericles for the stage. Many have adopted a somewhat radical treatment of the source text – subplots, scenes, and characters have been cut completely (Skeele 28). Our method of abridging the original text can be situated within this longer tradition of adaptation, yet it also needed to take into consideration how gamified elements should be incorporated into the overall experience while adhering to the play’s original narrative trajectory.

At the first stage, this process was achieved by closely considering the text and identifying elements of the original plot which required characters to solve problems, answer riddles and questions, and make decisions that would shape the subsequent narrative trajectory. Heeter et al. outline competition, intellectual problem-solving and high-stakes fun in which “failure could lead to the player being killed” as elements that together contribute to an enjoyable gaming experience. Multiple elements were found to fit this requirement within the source text – ranging from the play’s titular character solving the famine in Tarsus by distributing corn to the identification of Thaisa amongst the vestals in the final scene of the play. Ultimately, the decision was taken to select four plot points to adapt for gamification. The table below demonstrates how these were reinterpreted as game levels, as well as their visual representation. Each of these levels is currently at a different stage of production:

Together, these game episodes encompass the various forms of play which Caillois defines as a core aspect of games – agon (competition), alea (chance and uncertainties), mimicry (role-playing) and ilinex (changing state of mind and perspective) (12). This diversity facilitates engagement with the game experience, enhanced furthermore by the fact that within each level, at particular moments the player is given the freedom to “interact and express themselves more freely and emotionally, while not feeling controlled or monitored” – for example choosing how to interact with the items on the deck of the ship, or how to move within the pencak silat arena (Silpasuwanchai and Ren 662).

Cutscenes are projected on surfaces within the game levels such as walls and screens, and auto-play once the episode has been completed. Cutscenes give “narrative shape to the game experience, moving the player along through a series of events culminating in the story’s end,” ensuring that “designers are able to convey whatever plot elements they feel necessary through non-interactive segments which actually interrupt the gameplay proper” (Cheng 15; Rouse 7). This was deemed particularly important in a production that aims to engage students with the trajectory of a narratively and linguistically complex pre-existing play. We were keen to remove the risk that players might miss out on key pieces of information relating to a character, setting, or plot by failing to encounter them when faced with a choice of where to move and what to encounter within a fully immersive environment. Projecting the 2D motion comics on parts of the virtual architecture such as a temple wall or a ship’s navigation board ensures that they remain fully integrated into the immersive 3D environment and do not break the overall flow of the game experience.

Gower’s narration in the prefaces and epilogues to the play’s five acts formed a natural source for the text that accompanies the scenes. Visual mediation supports the delivery of Shakespeare’s precise language, aiming to counteract the impression held by many students that his words are impenetrably complex. Members of the artistic team worked with Assistant Professor Daniel Jernigan, based in the Department of English at Nanyang Technological University, to abridge the text, maintaining lines that drove the plot onward yet also aiming to ensure that Shakespeare’s poetic language and creative visual storytelling were maintained. For example, we included the banter between the fishermen (Shakespeare 2.1.12-36) and the death of King Antiochus and his daughter, out riding in a chariot when “A fire from heaven came and shrivel’d up/Those bodies, even to loathing” (2.4.9–10). Once the overall structure had been established, each cutscene was storyboarded to match the original text to one or several frames (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Rough storyboard for the third cutscene.


Visually, each cutscene takes inspiration from an artistic form found in historical Southeast Asia: temple relief carvings, Wayang Kulit shadow puppets, traditional maps, and paper cutting. This stylistic approach reinforces that our digital adaptation is firmly rooted in the analog storytelling of its source material (Hunter 3). These specific forms were selected due to their visual appeal and their ability to represent the artistic diversity of Southeast Asia, but also as a result of the relationship that these traditional artistic forms have to modern animation studies. McCloud has argued that temple relief carvings can be considered an early form of graphic narrative, and papercutting and shadow puppets have been shown to share similarities with modern-day animation practice in Asia, mediated in part through the work of Lotte Reiniger (McCloud 201; Rall 2012). Indeed, as both the design team and the intended audience for this production are based in Singapore, we were offered an opportunity to produce something rooted in recognizable regional visual culture, while also offering a reflection upon arguments surrounding the universality and continued relevance of Shakespeare and his themes.

Our approach to abridgment and gamification will thus enable us to create an overarching game structure that is rooted in the narrativity of Shakespeare’s original play and will facilitate a “retelling” of its plot, themes, and characters upon completion. At the same time, our project will also shift the perspective of the viewer from that of the external “reader” to the involved “player” who must go through several sessions, modifying and restarting the game experience as a simulation as they attempt to progress through the levels (Frasca 227; Ryan 284; Simons).


Anthropomorphic Animals

A key element of our creative strategy for adapting the play was to reimagine its characters as anthropomorphic animals. This was done for several reasons: first,  it offered an opportunity for our design team to fully embrace the creative potential of animation within VR by creating fantastical characters unbound by the limits of “realistic” human movement and behavior; second, it provided an additional way in which we could incorporate the shift to an imagined Southeast Asian setting by selecting animals associated with the region; and finally, embracing animal characters offered an innovative way in which to handle some of the more controversial themes and plot points within the play.

Pericles has been subject to criticism for the opening scene’s frank depiction of father-daughter incest and the brothel scenes at the end of the play, which have been described as “Shakespeare at his most graphically sexual” (Skeele 2–3). Whilst perhaps the most straightforward strategy may have been to follow the precedent set by directors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and heavily expurgate these scenes to “sanitise” the experience, the decision was made early on, through consultation between designers and scholars, that maintaining these scenes was important if we wished to achieve a sense of narrative fidelity and give users an accurate impression of the original text. The issue of how to present such ideas takes on particular significance for VR, a medium celebrated for its ability to come closer to the sensorial perception of the “real” world than any other medium has before (Weber et al.). As such, the challenge became how to mediate these themes and plot elements in a way that was suitable for the context of an immersive game aimed primarily at secondary school students.

After considerable discussion, the decision was made: one potential way to do this would be to reimagine Shakespeare’s characters as animals. Applying an animal-centric perspective to works of Shakespeare is not unprecedented – animated films like The Lion King (dir. Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, 1994) and Romeo & Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss (dir. Phil Nibbelink, 2006) have both retold Shakespeare’s plays using animal characters. However, animals are often part of a wider attempt to edit the original narrative to present something more child-friendly. In Sealed with a Kiss, the plot is altered significantly to remove the lovers’ double suicide. Thus, what is innovative in our approach is the use of animals to engage with more difficult, adult themes in Shakespeare. Wells outlines how animated animals can function to “dilute the implications of meaning.” Writing about the “perverse” relationship between humans and animals at the center of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, he argues that “the fact that these narratives emerge from the surreal realms of the fairytale and function as animation apparently makes this albeit implied bond innocent and acceptable” (2008, 3–4). Whilst our aim is not to imply that incest or forced prostitution should be considered “innocent and acceptable,” we go some way towards resolving the challenge faced by directors for centuries when considering how to adapt Pericles for the stage. Animation, and animals in particular, enable us to engage with the controversial themes present in the original play while avoiding the creation of something explicit to the extent that it would be inappropriate for our intended audience.

Framing a play that depicts controversial themes such as prostitution and incest through stylized animal characters can further be rooted in a discussion of the concept of the “uncanny valley” (Mori et al.). Stanton’s examination of Disney films has demonstrated that “the amount of harm an animal character experiences, and how much sympathy the narrative offers that animal, depends largely on how anthropomorphized that character is” (2021 xxi). Choosing a design strategy that moves far away from any attempt to realistically depict humans in favor of stylized animated animals – who, players are aware, cannot, in reality, participate in conversations, solve riddles, or even walk on two legs – takes our experience far from the edge of the valley. Wells refers to “the irreconcilable difference of animals,” and when combined with our overall animation style and the fantastical, at times absurd, plot points found in Shakespeare’s play, users are left with a sense of emotional detachment in the sense of a Brechtian alienation effect (2008, 29).  The character “… attempts to act in such a manner that the spectator is prevented from feeling his way into the characters. Acceptance or rejection of the characters’ words is thus placed in the conscious realm, not, as hitherto, in the spectator’s subconscious” (Brecht 130). Our stylized animal characters exist within a space between human and animal – possessing, as they do, emotions and decision-making abilities associated with humans, yet taking an overall visual form that is immediately identifiable as non-human and fantastical. Rejecting early character designs which were more “human-like” in favor of an added level of abstraction, combined with our renunciation of any graphic depictions of sensitive content, enables the integration of the darker aspects of the original play within our overall experience, but avoids something that is overly graphic or emotionally overwhelming (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Comparison of early (left) and final (right) designs for characters of Pericles, Marina and Thaliard, demonstrating a shift away from a highly anthropomorphized design to a more stylized approach.

Such a strategy is further reinforced by our creative decision not to rely on any suspension of disbelief within the cutscene elements of our game, employing limited animation over realistic movement within a highly stylized visual framework. While “suspending disbelief at narrative improbabilities is a skill required to construct narrative coherence” we do not want audiences to necessarily “believe” the story as historical reality, but rather to gain an awareness of its constructed, improbable and at times ridiculous narrative development and characterization (Karhulahti 1). Jakub Boguszak outlines how animation can be used to visually represent the “sense of metaphorical fantasia” present in Shakespeare’s work. In a live-action film, “if something normally inconceivable has happened, the viewer reads it literally and expects the story to explain it as an actual phenomenon caused by, for instance, acts of magic in the fictitious world” (163).  Osborne states that the mechanics of the animation process underscore the processes of editing and construction that lie behind any Shakespeare adaptation (1997, 106). Therefore, in the cutscenes, we are foregrounding the constructed nature of the narrative as well as removing any pressure for audiences to explain or rationally understand the events they are observing. Such concerns are particularly relevant to a text such as Pericles, which has been subject to considerable reconsideration by scholars and directors in an attempt to understand and interpret its improbable action and its perceived lack of developed characterization.

Carefully balancing the seemingly contradictory concepts of the detachment and alienation created by the use of animated animals with the sense of identification and embodiment created by the first-person perspective enables us to achieve the cognitive distance required to permit both critical reflection upon Shakespeare’s play and a sense of empathetic involvement with the characters that keeps players engaged with the overall experience of an immersive, animated game. This aligns with our overall aim, which is to facilitate learning as well as enjoyment on the part of the students partaking in our virtual experience.


Light and Shadow: Finding Tonal Consistency

How to balance the comedic and the dramatic when interpreting Pericles’ unpredictable narrative and at times puzzling thematic trajectory is a problem that is not exclusively faced by those working with the play in the realm of digital media. Directing the play for the Boston Shakespeare Company in 1983, Peter Sellars subjected the text to a “deconstructionist” treatment, which veered from sinister to clownish (Skeele 205). The scenes at Mytilene are described as “the play’s most disturbing…as well as its funniest” (Skeele 206–7). Just under a decade later, Michael Greif’s adaptation for the New York Shakespeare Festival aimed to incorporate the play’s “wildly anachronistic settings and costumes and violent changes of mood and tone,” with critics calling it out for its apparent lack of seriousness (Skeele 211–13). The scene at Pentapolis, for example, was conceptualized as a “Monty Python-esque” jousting tournament with cardboard cut-out knights “clumsily” manipulated by stagehands.

An important step in our mediation process was thus deciding how best to approach the play and its themes on this spectrum between dramatic, suspenseful, and comedic. On the one hand, embracing a fully whimsical, comedic approach to the text would have been in keeping with our aim to produce a game that is amusing and entertaining, an enjoyable experience for those taking part. It would have been possible to justify this outlook with reference to the play’s illogical narrative and fantastical elements, including the repeated use of deus ex machina as a narrative technique. However, to have framed the play solely as a satirical, surrealist comedy would have been to overlook its complexities and contradictions and would have prevented us from considering how animated VR might offer an opportunity to engage with some of the more serious themes and characterizations which feature in the play, such as its treatment of prostitution and incest and the themes of loss and personal anguish.

The decision of how precisely to balance comedic entertainment with an acknowledgment of the darker elements of Pericles thus required considered engagement with the source text, as well as consultations between visual developers and designers and scholars familiar with the literary and performance context of the play, to ensure that our approach was within the limits of what they deemed acceptable. How this worked in practice can be demonstrated with two examples drawn from our adaptation process: the character design for the unnamed daughter of King Antiochus, and our treatment of Pericles’ journey to Mytilene during the final animated cutscene sequence. In both of these cases, balancing the (darkly) humorous potential of the scenes and the serious, emotionally charged undertones leveraged upon the potential that animation offers for expressive freedom and rejection of allotted forms (Eisenstein 21).

When designing the character of the Princess of Antioch, we were required to balance a desire to acknowledge the play’s original characterization whilst also avoiding giving the impression that we were suggesting that a child could be in any way complicit or give consent to such a relationship. The unnamed princess is described variously as “so buxom, blithe, and full of face” (Shakespeare 1.Chorus.23), a “sinful dame” (1.Chorus.31) and “clothed like a bride” (1.1.7). In the design process, the imagery of the young princess dressed in a costume that assigned her a particular adult identity, and the inappropriateness of the term “buxom” being applied to a child were taken into consideration. Upon consultation with the wider project team, the initial design – which presented the princess as a tarsier, a small, somewhat grotesque-looking primate found exclusively in maritime Southeast Asia – was deemed to be overly sinister and perhaps even provocative in its depiction (fig. 4). Revised designs recast the princess and her father as white tigers, with the princess now more closely resembling an innocent child. Weighed down with oversized jewelry and a pose and facial expression that suggested discomfort and vulnerability, the child’s visual presentation draws on the play’s original description yet avoids any suggestion of complicity, which is of particular concern in our twenty-first-century context and within the educational framework in which our adaptation is being produced.

Figure 4. Visual development for the Princess of Antioch character design showing initial designs (top row) and final designs (bottom row).

Our depiction of the events outlined in the chorus at the start of Act 5 – when Pericles’ ship is “driven before the winds” (5.Chorus.14) to Mytilene, where, unbeknown to him, his daughter lives – during the final cutscene also demonstrates this need to mediate between the original play and the medium of animation, as well as the central part played by collaboration between visual development and the experiences and knowledge of Shakespeare scholars.

Our initial interpretation of this episode involved showing Pericles encountering a flyer whilst sailing the sea, the assumption being that this flyer contained an advert for the brothel and the services offered by Marina. The slightly ridiculous and immediate contrast between Pericles’ pre-existing state (devastation and grief, as shown by his tears) was humorously juxtaposed with the quick shift in his mood upon reading the contents of the letter, forcing him to reroute his ship towards Mytilene. Whilst in the original play Pericles is taken to Mytilene by chance, there was a need to communicate this more clearly in visual form within our 2D animated cutscene.

However, upon consultation with Professor Dobson, it was highlighted that such a visual strategy failed to sufficiently engage with the hopelessness and overwhelming grief felt by Pericles at this stage in the play. Loss is identified as a central concept that runs throughout the play, and we did not want to devalue the importance of this unifying theme in our adaptation (Hoeniger lxix). We thus wanted to avoid any impression that Pericles’ profound grief over the loss of his family could immediately be overcome with the promise of a visit to a brothel. Our solution was to insert a frame into an earlier cutscene in which Pericles sings to his wife Thaisa during her pregnancy with Marina. This song is then repeated – visually and sonically – in the final cutscene, acting as a creative yet powerful way of drawing Pericles to Mytilene and advancing the narrative in a way that suited the demands of a 2D animated comic and did not require a large amount of dialogue as an explanation. The potential to incorporate a somewhat haunting melody adhered to the immersive, multi-sensory nature of the experience, whilst also enhancing the twists that occur in the final stages of the narrative and the power of the family’s eventual reunion. Overall, therefore, our approach to narrative and audio-visual style in terms of both character design and setting balances suspense, drama, and comedy much in the same way as the original play would have appeared to its earliest audiences.



It is clear that “the lesser-known Shakespeare plays are a Pandora’s box crammed full of surprises” (Kroll 327), and we would argue that expanded animation in VR can provide the key that unlocks this box in the twenty-first century. Through the opportunities the medium presents to explore narrative construction, character design, and user interaction and immersion, it facilitates creative, innovative approaches to texts that have traditionally fallen outside of the literary or performance canon or been criticized within the context of stage performance. The qualities of both theatre and animation which Boguszak (181) identifies as existing “under the pretext of entertaining the audience with inconsequential, ephemeral tales” can in fact be used to demonstrate that there is much potential in combining the two mediums. We would encourage scholars and filmmakers to go beyond well-known classic texts as the subject of their adaptations if their aim is to inspire audiences to reconsider what classic literature is, and can be, in the current era.

Our discussion has identified the specific opportunities Pericles poses for adaptation, rooted in engagement with its literary and performance history, and highlighted how the medium of VR might present a novel solution to challenges facing traditional stagings of the play. Narrative weaknesses are in effect particular strengths for the purpose of world discovery and episodic storytelling in gamified virtual reality. We have shared our ongoing creative process in terms of design iteration, unpacking the interdependencies between the original narrative and our translation for visual storytelling using animation. Combining creative design and scholarly considerations through a collaboration between various stakeholders is arguably the only way to ensure that this can be successfully achieved.


Hannes Rall (aka Hans-Martin Rall) is Professor of Animation Studies and Associate Chair (Research) at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is also a successful director of independent animated short films: his films, primarily animated adaptations of classic literature, have been selected for 845 film festivals worldwide and won international 80 awards. His conference presentations include FMX, ACM SIGGRAPH, and the Annual Conferences of the Society for Animation Studies. In 2016 he was the Chair of the 28th Annual Conference of the Society of Animation Studies, “The Cosmos of Animation”. Hannes has published essays, articles and chapters with publishers including Routledge, UVK Verlag Konstanz and Julius Springer. His books Animation: From Concept to Production (2017) and Adaptation for Animation: Transforming Literature Frame by Frame (2019) were published by CRC Press.


Emma Harper is a Research Associate in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where she supports the delivery of cross-disciplinary projects relating to adaptation for immersive media within the fields of literature, culture, and education. She has experience of working on diverse projects in universities and museums in the UK, China, and Singapore, and holds BA and MSt degrees from the University of Oxford.


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