By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
The flawed, but still brave new world.
espite the preponderance of lackluster visions to be found in videogames, the at times overwhelming mass of commonness of design and concept, one can still witness brave attempts to break out of the everyday. By taking challenging stances once they have strode out onto the gangplank of popular taste, the creative teams behind the cinematics of these games distinguish themselves if in nothing but the act of attempting something new. Of course the heights aimed for are not always reached; the field is littered with the remains of failed first flights. They did manage to struggle off the ground, however, for no matter how brief a journey. Even the smallest gap, the shortest height, can become the grounds for a valuable experiment, a spark to be admired even if it cannot sustain itself. Klingon Honor Guard, developed and distributed by Microprose, proves to be just such an experiment. While flawed, the game's cinematics reach beyond the ordinary; they take flight in a brief, bold arc.
Klingon Honor Guard, as is pretty obvious from the title, is set in the Star Trek universe. The game is another example of the incredible surge of interest over the past few years in the Klingon characters and their fictional society. Starting with The Next Generation television series, Klingons became wildly popular, spawning a unique corner of loyal fandom and popular interest which perhaps found it's ultimate expression with the serious study and teaching of the Klingon Language, something far removed from the basic pleasures of the Star Trek entertainment machine. The cinematics of the game itself singularly focuses on Klingon culture with no mention of the federation or reliance on references to our heroes aboard the Enterprise. The cinematic narrative behind the gameplay is based on an exploration of the Klingon past, the formation and establishment of the society fans have come to know from the television series.
The opening section provides a kind of history lesson, an explanation of the origin of the Klingon cultural institutions, particularly the elite warrior group known as the Honor Guard. An authoritative voice- over leads the player through the tale of the evil despotic ruler Morath and the valiant. These two battle one another for control of the Klingon empire, the forces of "good" and "evil" struggling for domination. After much bloodshedding Kahless succeeds in defeating his enemy and establishes the Klingon culture we know and love today.
The creators take an interesting approach to animating their tale. They rely on three primary techniques, voice-over narration, a limited display of motion and character tableaux. Each of these choices reflect a creative choice to emphasize the mythic dimensions of the story, to invoke a sense of drama and to recall the aura of ancient grace which surround so many of the heroic legends of human societies, whether it be King Arthur or the Epic of Gilgamesh. This dedication in realizing a particular vision is what gives Klingon Honor Guard a distinction beyond the normal action set piece.
The extensive use of voice-over immediately sets the scene and harkens to an older form of storytelling. The creators evoke memories of the oral tradition of cultures that preserve their legends through the fragile and yet eternal voice. Something else that feeds into this narrative technique is the limited use of motion.
The first active movement the viewer sees is the churning of lava across the burnt surface of a volcano somewhere on the Klingon world. It flows and bubbles in the "background" of the voice, running parallel to the increasing narrative darkness of the tale as if symbolizing the turmoil of the narrative itself. The only other motion utilized is the oddly limited, repetitious movement of the characters in certain scenes. During the battle sequence the figures thrust and parry in a perpetual cyclical dance like the shadow marionettes used in Indian puppet theatre, a version of which can be glimpsed in the opening of Bram Stoker's Dracula. In another scene Kahless holds his weapon aloft, shaking it slowly in triumph. The limited use of motion automatically gives increased importance to any movement, and the creators use it sparingly and effectively, at least in the sense that when they do use it the break is for a very definite reason. The last major stylistic piece the creators rely on is the tableau.
Characters do not invade the landscape, moving about through the field. The creators choose to situate them in tableaux, scenes presented by characters that remain silent and motionless. In this way the images feel like the illustrations one might come across in an ancient book. The stillness of the figures speaks to their dignity and honor, a conservation of physical movement. The scenes themselves are long, avoiding the quick cutting of most games and thereby further emphasizing a sense of grace and timelessness. These elements all combine to give the introductory movie of Klingon Honor Guard a mythic feel. There are, however, a few cracks in the pedestal.
The voice-over, while effective in a broad sense, suffers, as does the reserved use of motion and the tableaux settings, from the somewhat limited, ineffective drawings themselves. There is a sense of hasty, clumsy construction to the figures which disrupts the more mythic connotations of delicate craftsmanship so common to illustrations such as those found in medieval manuscripts. The opening film, while nicely using long, slow scenes, also suffers from a lack of variety. Instead of utilizing a larger number of illustrations, the creators repeatedly use images of churning lava as filler between character sequences. There is a bit of a feeling of overkill in the end.
The introduction of Klingon Honor Guard, however, is not fatally wounded by these flaws. Despite the detractions, one has to be impressed by the willingness of the creators to take such an unusual approach to videogame design. They are not afraid to find the thematic heart of the piece and work towards that goal with real dedication to the vision.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.