The Picture of Dorian Gray

Putting the Game Before the Book What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Feel free to ignore the technical constraints of the era in which the book was written. In fact, feel free to ignore the technical constraints (within reason) of today and push the envelop a bit.

You see a painting in front of you. It is of a beautiful dandy with blonde hair and blue eyes–a cherub who has an air of innocence and childlike wonder. From this point you have a menu of options: start a new canvas, load your previous progress, or fine tuning the painting (options). I’m going to assume that you have selected to start anew.

Suddenly the text presenting your options melts away and the view zooms out to find this portrait slowly beginning to morph around the lips, a cruel mock forms. As we then zoom in on that perverted smile, we are transported into a world of paint where we are given control of the figure of the portrait as he ends his sentence to a young woman: “I don’t wish to be unkind, but I can’t see you again. You have disappointed me.” From here you are free to control the protagonist, one Dorian Gray–a youth aged twenty in a late 19th century London. The camera follows you from a reasonable distance behind as you move through the city.

From here Dorian may wander the streets as he pleases, though he’ll find many locations closed to him. The streets are lit by gas lamps that flicker with a faint glimmer of the oil from which their paints derive, for it is late in the evening. A hansom stops by and asks if you are looking for a lift, you seeming slightly out of place in this neighborhood; you are a youth of wealth and reputation.

Upon reaching home you find certain doors open with some lights to guide you to your bedroom, but on the way happen across the portrait you happened to see upon loading the game, though it is now set in realistic tones–not the oil-painted world through which you move. The lips are faintly shimmering in a capriciously crimson smile, and no matter where you try to move, the ‘camera’ remains firmly focused on this spot, begging you to examine it closer. The message is clear: this portrait has control over your life.

From here the ‘choices’ are yours. Upon waking the next morning you learn from your friend Lord Henry Wotton that the girl you quarreled with last night, one Sibyl Vane, is dead. He invites you to an opera that evening. Do you go?

One can play this game in a conscientious and ‘good’ manner, but will find that the activities become redundant and frustratingly mundane. It is possible, and there is a game to be played for those who wish such, but there will be no progression–just stagnation in a society that is quite conservative to all appearances. After all, part of the game is living in the society of the times: collecting clothing, gems, art, going to events, socializing, having parties, and many other options available to the upper crust of London at the end of the 19th century.

This becomes a game of building reputation, sparring wits with the likes of the Lord Henry Wottons of society, and showing off your wealth in a tasteful manner. It is at these events that Lord Henry often waxes poetic about how the only thing in life is to enjoy experiences, and how these experiences cannot be hampered by societal expectations.

For the more esoteric player, every so often a person will mention an artifact of old: a tapestry, a gem of emperors, perhaps a book of old. Sometimes these yield you with said artifact, and each one you acquire makes the colors of your oily world that much more vibrant and appealing.

After the first few days (in which the artifacts would not be mentioned), you receive a call from the artist of your painting (one Basil Hallward), a book in the mail, and some regular visits from Lord Henry Wotton (a guide into the social spheres of your world). If you happen to examine the book, a strange effect occurs: you are suddenly transported into a more realistic-appearing world where you are controlling the actions of another young man.

His options are much more linear, and he clearly indicates what he wants to do. These actions start off small, ruining the name of a woman in town. This is a book to which you can return or leave at any time to live through these frowned upon ‘experiences.’ However, the mechanics are no different from the other world, so it becomes clear that Dorian himself can perform these actions. They range from the love that dare not speak its name to ruining young women’s reputations to estranging the boys who adore and emulate you at first. They will grow to fights along the piers, opium dens, and eventually the climax and center point of the game–a murder.

Each day from here will end either after a social event, or engaging in the fantasies the book Dorian has been reading sets forth.

Once you start down this path, however, there will be a faint outline following you every so often if you go too long between these new experiences. It will be a realistic depiction of your avatar on which the camera stays focused, luring you to follow him or stumble around blindly; he will bring you back to your portrait. Here you will see how your actions have changed your visage according to the world in which you actually live, and this will save your game.

Basil pays you a visit once you’ve committed enough of these crimes (if you decide to reach this point) and starts to slowly broach the topic of your reputation. You have the option here of showing him your portrait to explain the truth or ignoring him. Ignoring him just means he’ll come back the next night and start probing you further and more passionately, seeking to find a way to clear your reputation. Or you can show him the portrait, at which he’ll lament and offer to pray with you. Do you follow Basil’s advice and remain haunted by your portrait through the rest of your gameplay? You can certainly try it. That phantom will remain, however, thirsty to try new things and to push the envelope on those you already have.

The act of collection can alleviate these visions for a while, but only so long, and never enough.

The other option is to commit an act with which you have never been presented before: kill Basil and silence him. From here the game will progress and you will step into even more daring acts. Your appearance in society will be expected, but by this time you’ll encounter NPCs with which you’ve interacted before. While they will not make a public scene or start a row with you, they will clearly start avoiding you and there will be whispers around you. If you stay too long from society’s limelight, you will find any other activity in the game but a spiral into crime ever more difficult.

As you hit these milestone events, you will see the NPCs around you age, while your avatar remains the same. Perhaps you’ll change with the fashions of the time, but your innocent-appearing, cherublike face will shimmer its youthful smiles and beauty to any onlookers. Some will make note of it, others won’t.

At random you’ll encounter a strange man who claims to be one James Vane, Sibyl’s brother. He threatens to kill you until he sees that youthful face. It’s been years since his sister died, and the man he seeks would be much older (what you don’t know is that other persons you have slighted will convince him to keep haunting you).

From here the plot details continue, lightly sprinkled here and there while you progress to them at your leisure (or don’t), but will lead to one of two endings:

You can reach the point of disgust, as Dorian’s portrait becomes a nightmare that grows ever more sickening, and grab the faintly highlighted knife next to the portrait to end it all. As your avatar falls to the ground, bleeding, the voice of Lord Henry will run commentary as the world bleeds oil to become more realistic:

“My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralize. You will soon be going about like the converted, and the revivalist, warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired. You are much too delightful to do that. Besides, it is no use. You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be. As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all. But we won’t discuss literature. Come round to-morrow. I am going to ride at eleven. We might go together, and I will take you to lunch afterwards with Lady Branksome. She is a charming woman, and wants to consult you about some tapestries she is thinking of buying. Mind you come. Or shall we lunch with our little duchess? She says she never sees you now. Perhaps you are tired of Gladys? I thought you would be. Her clever tongue gets on one’s nerves. Well, in any case, be here at eleven.”

Or, you can continue until the point where you are forced to leave London, your reputation being pure anathema to a society that may commit crimes, but has nowhere near the backlog leveled against yourself. As you wrap Dorian’s portrait and leave the house, Lord Henry gives a different speech:

“Yes, you are the same. I wonder what the rest of your life will be. Don’t spoil it by renunciations. At present you are a perfect type. Don’t make yourself incomplete. You are quite flawless now. You need not shake your head: you know you are. Besides, Dorian, don’t deceive yourself. Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. You may fancy yourself safe and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play–I tell you, Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend. Browning writes about that somewhere; but our own senses will imagine them for us. There are moments when the odour of lilas blanc passes suddenly across me, and I have to live the strangest month of my life over again. I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”

Dorian’s remorse, if there is ever any hint of it, is that of discovery. Either one does not walk that path, and therefore does not allow such exploration, or does and need not worry about proselytizing. Even if you destroy the portrait, it is more in disgust at what you have become than any sorrow for the victims for whom you’ve become a villain. All of this was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which clearly has a more specific agenda in mind as to how it ends, and loves detailing the personal treasures he happened to find. Much as in Fallout 3, I’d like to imagine such a game could cause him to wring out these experiences, despite public outcry against them.

Please visit the Round Table’s <a title=”Round Table Main Hall” href=””>Main Hall</a> for links to all entries.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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3 Responses to The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. David Sahlin says:

    Believe it or not, this makes me quite hopeful for the future of storytelling in video games.And quite ashamed for never having read The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  2. Sparky says:

    I’ve always thought you could draw a kind of parallel between the portrait and the act of saving your game. This is an interesting way to do it.

  3. Great Choice! But I don’t quite understand: So I have this book and whenever I use it, I’m transported into a different world where I can commit crimes. But I also can commit crimes in the first world? Why would I use the book then? And why are there two endings? The book has only one, doesn’t it?

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