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volume 1, issue 34

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Pixel Obscura :
Dreaming the Game






By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez

Memories of the future, or why Dragonís Lair was a work of genius.

ne of the things which stand out most vividly in my memories from childhood is my first viewing of Dragonís Lair. Standing in a dark, run down arcade, which was situated rather unceremoniously off of the main mall concourse down at the end of a side avenue comprised of empty store lots, a hauntingly antiseptic mini-bank and a travel office decorated with a large fake palm tree, I watched some kids huddled around a lone contestant who struggled valiantly with the controls. The boy was frantically trying to match the speed of the game, slapping the stick back and forth like it was some bizarre form of frenzied interrogation. As I edged closer, I was surprised by the rather dramatic (what I now might call cinematic) music leaking out from behind the tense crowd, their faces lit by the glow of rapidly shifting colors. Finally, I found a view that allowed me a slice of vision and was stunned by what I saw.

I couldn't believe it; the game looked like an actual cartoon that seemed to be as interactive and controllable as Pac-Man. I was mesmerized, thinking that what we had here was playable animation. I was to find out later that it was actually primarily a game of reflexes, the player having to shift the controller in pre-arranged patterns. This revelation did not, however, damage the wonder I felt at watching what seemed at the time like something not quite real. I even tried to play Dragonís Lair once before giving up after being foiled by what felt like lightening fast gameplay. The game moved too fast for me to keep up and because of this it became magical.

Not being a kid who frequented arcades on a regular basis, Dragonís Lairís departure from these unkept rooms across America came as a bit of a surprise, making me think that I had imagined the whole thing. While I had two sequels (though I never saw the second one and only

saw the third one once in some shadowy corner of a Jersey shore boardwalk) and a lousy cartoon to remind me of the game's tangible existence, it still faded into that dream world of half-recalled pieces of my youth. It took up residence alongside the mysteriously beautiful (at least to a nine year old) Gotchaman (or whatever it was called in America) and the oddly forgotten "land-sea-air vehicles" Voltron series. Myth II: Soulblighter stirred those memories.

Developed and published by Bungie, Myth IIís cinematics are composed of animated drawings, a cartoony computer enhanced distant relative of Dragonís Lair. A man lies sleeping, pre-dawn blue light giving the room a deep aquarium glow. He is dreaming, and from those visions is constructed a fragmented nightmare.

Images, vague lyric moments, are intercut with shots of the restlessly tossing man. While he is rooted to a specific place and time, a body in a bed in a house in a country, the dream sequences have no temporal boundaries. There is a weird contraction and expansion going on here, a kind of narrational breathing. We get only a sketch of the action, a few battles and shots of a fleeing dwarf. Ghostly voices infest the dream scenes, wrapping around both these otherworldly moments and the images of the man in bed and providing a subtle bridge between shots. The narrative itself seems broken into two sections: animation of scenarios one will routinely encounter later in the game and an actual storyline of sorts.

A dwarf makes repeated appearances throughout, threatened by zombies and fleeing with a helmet cradled in his arms which he later hurtles over the edge of a ravine before being cut in half by a rather beastial member of the undead who subsequently transforms himself into a whirlwind of shrieking bats. Undoubtedly we will see this character (or someone like him) again. What struck me about Myth II, however, recalling my early encounters with Dragonís Lair, was one moment in particular.

A haggard looking knight stands wearily at the top of a hill, a fairytale blue sky behind him. Head bent down, he sluggishly fends off attacks from a pack of demonic looking elves. Suddenly, something strikes against his helmet from above, a flash of white gleaming at lightening speed. A red light cloaks the knight, freezing him like a cracked cemetery statue. The demons re-enter the frame, pausing, unsure of the next move.

The striking thing about this sequence, which lasts no more than five or six seconds, is its funereal beauty. The knight looks half-dead, worn out and tired of fighting. His movements have a kind of zombie-like exhausted grace. In contrast to this is his brightly colored costume which, like the spring green and electric blue landscape, gives the scene an added macabre touch, like watching two harlequins trying to kill one another in the middle of a flower garden in full bloom. It immediately reminded me of one of the things which so disturbed me about Dragonís Lair: violent images dipped in primary colors.

I remember the opening sequence of Lair, the piece that runs to lure in potential quarters. Sir Dirk, the hero, scampered through an imposing castle gate only to be smashed by balls on the ends of spinning poles and to be held fast by some bats while others tore at his cheeks in a red dash of hunger. I was haunted by the images, never having seen cartoons tortured in this way. Unlike the Warner Brother's pictures, in Dragonís Lairís animated universe, failure had consequences. Death was final, yet still garishly colored and cartoonish, a combination rarely captured in live action cinema, save in Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe cycle and, perhaps, most recently in The Fifth Element. These scenes in Myth II reminded me of this bizarre juxtaposition.

The highest compliment I can pay to Myth II is that it made me remember that first meeting with a game which was a work of brilliance. Dragonís Lair still stands out from even the most sophisticated CD-ROMs, as a realistic animation game. Not bad for something sixteen years old. Watching Myth II, a fine cinematic achievement in its own right, I felt like for years I had been dreaming of the future and had finally caught up with the past.


- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.


Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.