April 17, 2010

The Perils of Dirk the Daring

As the primary competition to the House of Mouse in the 1980s, Don Bluth's films offered a dark and manic alternative to a pandering children's formula, but their lasting appeal more often stemmed from the fact of the animation itself--secure in the knowledge that, when it was allowed to run wild and free, anything was possible. When the time came to settle down and deliver a few ponderous lines of dialogue, everything screeched to a halt, but the plot, the characters and the humor occurred naturally when everything was thrown into a frantic chase. Bluth kept his films alive through forward momentum, and one can find the ultimate enforcement of this philosophy in "Dragon's Lair" (1983), the first coin-op laserdisc game and an early contender for the claim that video games were capable of legitimate artistic expression. It may stand as one of co-creator Bluth's best efforts because, by necessity, it has been trimmed of all the narrative fat. Far more importantly, however, it gave him the opportunity to forge an entirely new perspective on his work, and his audience, that could not be accomplished by the standard rules of animated film.

The original plan came from game designer Rick Dyer, who was looking for a way to give computer games a bit more visual appeal than the computers could accomplish at the time. He created a series of mechanical and computerized devices--"Rolodexes" and rolls of cash register paper, graphic adventures that featured hand-painted illustrations--but, unfortunately, they didn't catch on with toy companies. He eventually developed the idea for the fledgling medium of laserdisc, taking a concept called "Secrets of the Lost Woods" to Bluth's studio. Hoping to rework an animated movie as a coin-op arcade game, Bluth and Dyer later described the creative process between their respective teams as "throwing rocks over the fence"--a careful compromise between aesthetics and feasible gameplay. It was a process that eventually produced the tale of Dirk the Daring, the "valiant knight" who ventured into the titular lair to save the Princess Daphne. The game would send the player to a random chapter on the disc, a random room in the lair, upon which time Dirk would blindly stumble into danger. The player's input was tied to sequences we now call "quick-time events"--a series of miniature cinematics whose completion depended on the player's ability to press the right button at the right time. In the originator of the idea, the control scheme entailed the four directions of the joystick and a "sword" button.

Objects around the screen would occasionally flash to point you in the right direction, but the correct input often relied on some esoteric detail in the animation: Dirk has just put his sword away and there's no time to unsheathe it again; the tumbling stack of goblets will surely wake the dragon when it hits the floor. Making the right moves would allow that piece of animation to continue uninterrupted, until it was time to move on to another random chapter. The wrong input would abruptly end the scene, taking the game to another chapter depicting Dirk's screaming death--consumed by flames, run through with a sword, devoured by a sentient blob of oil. In contemporary and modern interviews, Bluth describes "Dragon's Lair" not as a game so much as an "interactive movie" that tricked you into believing you had control over Dirk's actions. But there was also a sense of urgency that Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books could not achieve--whether or not your progress was predicated strictly on your ability to "twitch," you were still an integral part of the experience. You would not be able to watch the movie all the way through if you could not twitch properly, and there was a palpable chance--nay, a probability--of failure.

The plot was no more complicated than any of the other premises that defined the early days of video games, damsel-in-distress fluff that had little weight beyond life and death, success and failure. But it was precisely that transparency, that self-conscious adherence to formula, that made "Dragon's Lair" so compelling as an interactive work.1 There are moments in Bluth's narrative films, both before and after "Dragon's Lair," that seem dismayed, bound as they were by the necessities of static scripts and happy endings. No matter what inescapable perils he could put Fievel and Mrs. Brisby through--sent into the inner workings of a plow, or halfway down a cat's gullet--he had no choice but to let them live every time. What Dyer and "Dragon's Lair" provided was a world where Bluth could subvert the formula he introduced--to forge a bond between life and death that relied strictly on talent, chance and memory. Bluth has tried similar tricks since then; even a cliché mess like Anastasia (1997) presents a desire to defy the rules of human existence as told by history. However, his closest narrative approximation to the game may be All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), a film that thrived on glorious unpredictability. Following the lead character's death and ascent to heaven in the first ten minutes (and a song entitled "Let Me Be Surprised" before he made his way back to Earth), that picture was fraught with tonal inconsistencies predicated on the very real possibility that someone here was going to die. Not-quite-anthropomorphic dogs change color at will, trapped in a constant juggle between safety and danger--death, and hell, loomed over the proceedings in a way that other animated films consciously suppress.

But it was in "Dragon's Lair" where Bluth could truly disavow those boundaries. Dyer and his team mapped out an extraordinarily simple story, one of good triumphing over evil, but it was the player who was ultimately responsible for seeing it through. It was a matter of trial-and-error (even if the chapters were randomized to individualize your trek through the lair), but because you ostensibly knew how it was "supposed" to end, it was
your job to pay attention, your job to see the movie to its logical conclusion. Perhaps the same could be said for Mario's quest to save Pauline from Donkey Kong, or Pac-Man's quest to eat every dot in the maze, but there was little sense of conclusion to these early games, because they were designed to continue indefinitely--even in the event that you could clear the screen of threats, the girl would get kidnapped again; there would be another maze of dots to navigate; there would be another frog to guide across the street. Failure was the only possible conclusion, so who could point fingers? A high score was the only true measure of your success. "Dragon's Lair" nominally kept track of your score and your life total, but they were arbitrary numbers. There was only one real objective, and that was to finish the movie in piecemeal fashion.

Similarly, the specific level of "control" given to the player meant a very different perspective on the protagonist, and that made Bluth's cartoonish approach so important to the experience. Dirk was given enough personality to segregate himself from the player, but still exuded such helplessness that his fate was placed squarely on your shoulders. His only form of communication was a cowardly shriek, and his deaths were detailed to look so painful and pathetic that you had no choice but to laugh... and then maybe feel a little guilty for it. In the words of Bluth's producer and partner Gary Goldman, he was "our Charlie Chaplin," an ersatz Little Tramp who had very clear goals and could prompt laughter and sympathy upon defeat. Of course, it was really your defeat; he was the just the one suffering for it. Pac-Man and Mario were strictly ciphers for the player, and therefore couldn't reprimand you too harshly if they were killed by an errant obstacle. Your failure was their failure, and their death sequences only expressed a mutual sorrow that you couldn't complete the task at hand. Even rough contemporaries that followed a linear path, like "King's Quest"--which featured sharp, sarcastic messages as your character died some hilariously awful death--could not capture that sense of duty, because you and your avatar were acting in concert. Simultaneously linear and random, "Dragon's Lair" kept you at an arm's length and forced you to play by its rules, which made Dyer's "illusion of control" the most interesting aspect of the game's metaverse.2 Although he had been given a course of action that was strictly predetermined by an uninterrupted sequence of animation, Dirk was only "Daring" in the sense that he did everything you told him to do.

With this in mind, the game creates an interesting paradox between the player's action and inaction (indeed, wrong moves often resulted in death sequences distinct from those determined by no action at all)--and by participating in that paradox you took it upon yourself to resolve it. Without your help, Dirk is a hapless schmuck with no survival skills; with your help, he's subject to poor "advice" that threatens his destiny as dictated by the script. The "game over" animation was an absolute riot, and one that emphasized how the individual player was to blame
3--his arms folded and his face twisted with scorn, a zombefied Dirk dropped in from the top of the screen and faded into a skeleton, which then dramatically collapsed into a pile of bones. Whether you failed to guide him or sent him off the beaten path, the message was clear: if you got the poor boy killed, it was your own damn fault.

That was particularly important to remember when Bluth physically resurrected that pile of bones for another go, another life in another random room. That particular conceit of video games ultimately made Dirk as unflappable as the Tramp (and his relationship between life and death as unpredictable as that of Charlie B. Barkin), but there was nothing to this world beyond what was already there--Dirk and the lair. There's something strange and self-contained about it, and y
ou became an intruder and an interloper in what should have been a simple rescue mission. Contrary to the idea that viewer/player interactivity confused artistic intentions, "Dragon's Lair" established it as the crux of its artistic intentions. The particulars of what the player was capable of were indeed determined by logic, but the "logical" endgame was almost beyond the point. Ultimately, you made Dirk the victim, the fool or the hero. Try again, if you must; redeem yourself and make him the hero. With the lines between fiction and reality suitably blurred, that sense of responsibility--in this instance, responsibility for the fate of the Everyman--may be what we're looking for in video games when we demand an emotional connection to a work of art.

Naturally, the success of "Dragon's Lair" would pave the way for inspirations and imitators. A minor genre of laserdisc games would follow several years into the waning days of the arcade as well as the burgeoning days of the (CD-based) console. Two such games were animated by Bluth's studio: "Space Ace" (1984) and "Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp" (1991). Neither was as successful as the original, perhaps because their higher budgets and lusher backgrounds complicated the issue a little too much:
maybe they were too linear and narrative to foster that precise distance between the protagonist and the player--or maybe the idea of Dirk and Daphne escaping the Dragon's Lair to produce children (and a sequel) was too far-fetched. The original "Dragon's Lair" offered little in the way of premise and gameplay, but they were still there, and they suggested that you could artistically immerse a player by calling attention to his vicarious role in the action.


1 "Dragon's Lair" satirically confuses its threadbare plot with mythical tropes: Dirk does not ride a white horse, but he is carted around by a flying suit of bard; and his ultimate quest is to rescue the aggressively objectified Princess Daphne. (Her shapely figure was literally taken from the pages of PLAYBOY, as the production could not afford to hire models.) In that sense, the game may represent a subtle parody of its homophonic counterpart, Dragonslayer. Don't forget that the titles of both game and film are written in the same typeface.

2 "Dragon's Lair" also assured that the player could not maintain too much distance from both game and film, in case they had memorized the patterns--along with the random chapter and scene selections, the disc contained animation sequences that were mirrored images of other scenes, which meant that you had to pay attention and make sure you were going in the right direction.

Rather than utilize the exact same screen across the entire game, Dirk's "game over" death was always matted over a background representing the room in which the player lost his last life. Your failure was, indeed, an individualized one.

April 14, 2010

Tryin to lose those awkward teenage blues...

Talkback around Bill's exceptional takedown of the beloved (by whom?) The Natural - and, incidentally, I also hate Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - and my reverent mumblecore shrine to one of my favorite moments from the New American Cinema: Arthur Penn's Night Moves.

TMI: I have a framed poster from its initial release in my basement bathroom along with posters of The Conversation, Dead Man, Dogville, and Barton Fink and though DVD Savant Glenn Erickson hates its tagline of "Maybe he'd find the girl, maybe he would find himself" (he calls it something like "awful Bergman" and he's probably not wrong), I kind of love it. I also love the way that posters from the seventies showed breasts sans nipples (like w/Jaws of that same year), as a way to sanitize it for our protection. All it did for me was create a whole new paradigm for fantasizing at an early age about the mystery of breasts.

Check out Alex's (Utah-based Alex's) take on HBO's Big Love Season Two and was anyone as surprised as me that Where the Wild Things Are didn't get more love? Finally - saw Kick-Ass... who's taking bets?
Also - anyone else as geeked as me about Terrence Malick's Tree of LIfe? A companion piece to The Fountain with its original star Brad Pitt? Groovy.

April 02, 2010

Friday Talk-Back

An act of optimism, perhaps, here hopefully the invitation with many happy returns of a Friday Talkback thread.

Talk about our new release reviews of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Clash of the Titans...

Or Bryant's fabbo review of the original Clash of the Titans...

Talk about the week's deaths, arrests, startling revelations, and other errata...

All topics fair within reason. And did I mention that if you're in the Denver area next Tuesday you should swing by the Denver Public Library around 6p to see me introduce and discuss afterwards a screening of Malick's Badlands?

You can talk about Badlands, too, if you want.