Dragon’s Lair: The First Film of Gaming
The animator Don Bluth escaped the Disney paddock and froze out in the entrepreneurial cold. But his animation sings, in his time, as the art most likely to graft the emotions of a drawing onto those of its audience. His films favor their depictions of children, perhaps because they possess in greatest amounts the emotions that move him the most: the fear of the unknown turning into the undiluted joy of discovery. Though there has never been any world-changing game based on The Land Before Time, Don Bluth did lend his style to a game, one that I think has recently become a silent North Star in directing trends in the industry, and which might have greatly benefited from the emotions taught by his cartoon children.
When Dragon’s Lair debuted in arcades in 1983 it disenchanted its medium. It did not look like a video game. While the actual gameplay had all the complexity of a DVD menu – press a direction in time with checkpoints on the video – its dazzling visuals instated the “interactive movie” into the collective gaming consciousness, in an age when most games looked like Pac-Man.
Dragon’s Lair doesn’t let you control its hero freely moving into the horizon of the art – it stops for your specific input. We now call this “cinematic” in games: what this means is that the player is made into a viewer. It acknowledges input rather than interaction as the primary relationship between the player and the game world, an effect that appears continually in AAA gaming today – it’s practically a requirement. It happens whenever the game “plays itself” with player input only required to further the program and grant the illusion of interacting with preset entertainment.
Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls tout an advanced design, but they differ from Dragon’s Lair not in the number of choices they offer but only in the fact that no answers are wrong. Where Bluth’s game was a trial-and-error adventure, David Cage’s are just trial. Much of the gameplay in Mass Effect is a selection of one of four directional choices that each activates a new cut-scene. The TellTale series of games extrapolated this element into entire experiences. The game world halts immersing to ask for input directly from the switchboard operator it openly acknowledges is holding its controller.
Dragon’s Lair mechanics permeate even unrelated game designs with its echo in quick-time-events mixed into cutscenes in such diverse experiences as Bayonetta, Call of Duty: WWII, and the entire experience of Asura’s Wrath. This subjugates video games to promises of branching paths and player freedom to an idea that Bluth had as a matter of aesthetic prerogative to not learn game design. Now, game developers are treating his scheme as an intentional out, as a strategy to condense design into a series of roadblocks and questions. When you take driving courses online, a little window pops up after a certain amount of inactivity – “Are you still there?” To convert such a mechanic into gameplay confuses interactivity with attention. The goal of designs like Cage’s seems to be, not to reform this design, but to monetize it with even more aesthetic rigmarole, even more attention lures. So much of the industry, half from praising Cage and half from seeing the lucrative advantages of having to design less game, has followed him down his story-driven hallway.
The player as a focal point is a developer’s boon, as it allows them to so delimit player freedom that they can eschew level design for story design. They can feed their marketing campaign to bursting with prerendered trailer fodder without ever backing down from the claim that this is all “in-game footage.” Before all gameplay was prerendered, those words meant something.
Consider that story design is tried and reliable where interactive game design is a new art. Imagine a film made mostly in text, and how technically easy it would be to render images without images, purely in a description, and how unsatisfying to participants. The intention would not be to explicitly reduce freedom in the viewing experience (though this would be a result) but only to cut the costs of visuals, expedite production, and promote a risky new art like cinema as a safe old one like literature. The trailers would show excerpts of text from the “film,” describing great vistas and searing action, and at the bottom a little line would read, “in-movie footage.”
Some developers wish game design to rest on the laurels of the older and more reliable art of cinema and they make, like the text-based film, a cinematic game. Their intention probably isn’t to disinherit the gamer of their freedom, but to delimit their own creativity as a safety net for their design. This is how a game that promises to have “choices” always has less freedom than a game that offers no such promise. No matter the depth of creativity in Bluth’s or Cage’s animation, choice-based games are single paths, one routine, where games with far fewer pretentions have far more freedom.
Cage’s games usually amount to action games disenfranchised from interaction in favor of input. He’s the easiest target but he started with Dragon’s Lair, when Bluth turned an interactive toy into a proactive film. It’s curious that a game which is never mentioned as one of the best or most influential should have incubated so much of the modern industry, twenty-five years in advance. It has the advantage of being a curio in its time, where its more cynical modern equivalents cannot share that excuse.
And besides – Bluth was a filmmaker. I imagine his goal was not to challenge game design by infusing it with non-interactive spectacle but to challenge film design by making one that included audience participation. How pungently ironic then that Dragon’s Lair has remained unacknowledged by film, and yet for the AAA gaming industry it has become like a gravity well – most projects are influenced by its pull, even just in part, and are developed in the shadow of its cinema. You can see it any time your automatic spectacle machine, despite being sold to your brain as a habitation of amazing new worlds of fear and discovery, boils down to pushing one button out of four to keep watching the movie.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org