Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A game is released that’s so cutting edge, so revolutionary, that people question whether it should be called a “game” at all, opting instead for the futuristic-sounding “interactive electronic experience,” or “participatory video entertainment.” A breathless press dubs it light years ahead of the competition, with graphics twenty times better than anything else on the market. Its lead animator explains that it represents a huge leap forward for storytelling, for design, for the fate of the entire medium: “For the first time we’ve put the hands of the engineers, who have heretofore been the game designers … now we’re taking Hollywood and screenwriters and the people who work with dramatics, and we’re putting them hand in hand … that’s why I think that you’ll find something that is tremendously more exciting.” This is a big claim – but a guy who uses “heretofore” in casual conversation must know what he’s talking about, right? Excitement builds to a fever-pitch, with people lining up for hours just to get a chance to glimpse the game in action.
Anyone with an ear tuned to the wonderful world of videogame news may be familiar with this tenor of hyperbole. The “game that’s so good it’s not even a game anymore but this other word we invented just now.” The unique mélange of new technology, cinematic narrative and good old fashioned artistic brilliance, combining to produce a hybrid of videogames and film: The game that you watch. The movie that you play. Hearing these wild claims, you might be reminded of any number of recent titles – Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake. If any of these games came to mind, you’d be close … but you’d be off by about a quarter century.
The year was 1983, and the game that would change everything was Cinematronic’s Dragon’s Lair. The game was instantly recognizable as different from other arcade titles. Conventional games of the era were sprite-based, representing movement through a series of bitmaps displayed in succession. Dragon’s Lair instead relied on laserdisc technology, which allowed it to sidestep the graphical restrictions inherent to sprite-based gaming, resulting in a finished product radically different than its competition. While the game’s premise was routine, even rote – enter castle, evade traps, slay dragon, save princess – its graphics were the selling point. In sharp contrast to the bleeps and bloops of yesteryear, Dragon’s Lair offered full-fledged animation. And not just in the intro, or in a few select cut scenes – the game itself was comprised of video clips, punctuated at frequent intervals by player input. Do it right, and you are treated to a scene of the protagonist evading danger and proceeding deeper into the castle. Do it wrong, and you witness one of a couple dozen interesting and evocative death scenes. The result was, in the modern parlance of videogaming, one big quick time event.
Such an unusual game sprung from the meeting of two minds – two very separate men, with different ideas about the medium of videogames. Behind the artistic direction of the project was Disney’s own Don Bluth, who had done animation work on 101 Dalmatians, Pete’s Dragon and The Fox and the Hound, and who had founded his own animation studio and directed The Secret of NIMH. In Bluth’s eyes, the medium of gaming shared many similarities with film. Both were centered on narrative arcs – the rise of action, the moment of crisis, and the resolution of conflict. Story, character, and narrative were central to a fully-realized experience of play. As a craftsman, Bluth understood that this would ultimately be a question of craft – that future games would need scriptwriters, composers, and illustrators, and that the next generation of games might serve as a proving ground for artists eager to try new things.
On the other end of the spectrum was Rick Dyer, Dragon Lair‘s lead designer, whose perspective was mechanistic rather than artistic. In the archival footage released by Digital Leisure in their Dragon’s Lair DVD line, Dyer speaks at length about his role in the creation of Dragon’s Lair, revealing a very different idea about where videogames were headed. Dyer was the crunchhead to Bluth’s artiste, having spent years tinkering with tech in his garage to produce artifacts somewhere between modern videogames and mechanical calculators. Dyer’s first “interactive game” combined a rudimentary computer with a spool of cash register paper, which was covered in text and illustrations at various intervals. As a player input various commands, the machine would spool like a player piano through its automated story.
Both Bluth and Dyer were interested in storytelling through games, but for diametrically different reasons. Bluth looked for ways in which games might mirror universal artistic techniques, and ultimately contribute to a continued tradition of film and animation. Dyer, rather, was interested in the specific ways in which story might be mediated through modern technology. But both were convinced that they were on to a winning formula. Dyer, in an interview viewable on the game’s DVD, had these words of warning for his competitors: “I think right now the arcade industry is playing catch up to us. We have a sense of direction here. I’m not sure that some of the companies like Atari have that anymore.” The message was clear – these men had seen the future, and it was them.
But it wasn’t to be. By 1987, the money was gone, and Cinematronics was defunct. A bubble of similarly-themed titles had risen, and then burst just as quickly. Some saw moderate success, such as Cinematronics’ follow up title Space Ace, and Taito’s Time Gal, but for the most part, the genre had played itself out. The growing disenchantment with this type of game came from a few fronts. There was the fact that the games were hardly “games” at all, requiring minimal and confusing inputs to advance. There was also the infamously punishing difficulty. Dragon’s Lair contained several confusing or contradictory challenges, all of which would reward the player with instant death. Many of the feverish early reports had come from press members or arcade patrons who had only seen the game, and had yet to learn what a quarter sucking menace it truly was. Most challenges were to be solved by trial-and-error rather than an internal logic, which meant that you had to keep funneling money into the machine to creak the story along – think “pay-to-play” meets “Pay-Per-View.” That Dragon’s Lair was one of the first games to require 50 cents to play only compounded these costs – and this was during a time when a quarter got you a bus ticket, two seats at a movie and a hamburg steak, if my grandpappy’s stories are to be believed.
Today, Dragon’s Lair is one of three arcade games preserved at the Smithsonian, standing beside Pac-Man and Pong. In this setting, it seems easier to gauge the game’s impact: not the way of the future, but a moment under glass. The phenomenon of “laserdisc games” has aged poorly in a number of respects, being costly to manufacture, and limited in the play experiences they offered. And anyone who shared Bluth’s hope that this genre of game would draw in innovation and artistry could easily be disappointed in how rapidly the “high art” concept of Dragon’s Lair became a piecemeal scrabble towards shoddy imitation. While Bluth’s desire to see gaming inspire original animation came true to some slim extent – I still can’t help smiling when I watch the wacky death animations in the Toei-animated Taito title Time Gal – others ironically took pains to cut out new animation altogether, such as the later title Cliff Hanger, which saved on production costs by cobbling together footage from two pre-existing movies.
And then there is the spotty fate of Dragon’s Lair itself. To date, Dragon’s Lair has been released 59 separate times across over 30 platforms. The earliest are adaptations in name only, relying on the very sort of blocky pixilated graphics that Bluth despised – and while many later ports are able to capture the original video, they are navigated through a modified set of DVD or Blu-Ray controls that only further reinforce the Dragon’s Lair’s dodgy status as mongrel movie rather than game proper.
But though it’s clear now that the laserdisc was not fated to revolutionize the medium of gaming, there is still some sense that Dragon’s Lair pre-empted a lot of the questions that we’re still gnawing on today. After all, combining high-end graphics with minimal player input to create the illusion of agency now serves as one of the basic building blocks of some of today’s games. Whether you like or loathe what Dragon’s Lair envisioned as the future of games may depend, in large part, on your perspective – are games defined by form, or by content? Do you turn to games for stories or beautiful graphics? Or are you content with the bare bones of gaming – the stuff Bluth would contemptuously describe in Digital Leisure’s interviews as “little sticks and dots”? What ultimately do we desire from our videogames – control, or the illusion of control? Put simply – how much game do you want in your game?
For my part, I find that for all its failings, I’m not finished with Dragon’s Lair just yet – not as a game, but as something else entirely. I recently borrowed a DVD copy that had a special feature to simply watch through all the game footage, strung together from beginning to end. Surprisingly, it kept my interest throughout. It’s not a perfect movie – it’s repetitive, not much on dialogue, and has a lot of screaming and dying. But then, Avatar seemed to do okay, so there you go.
In this respect at least, Dragon’s Lair can be said to succeed as the sum of its parts. And as much as the DVD shows the game’s seams, it also evidences the colossal effort that went into the game. Classical animation is a laborious process, but the results simply can’t be faked – if anything, Bluth’s hammy, limber animation serves to illustrate how much of today’s graphics, in contrast, remain firmly planted within the cannier side of the uncanny valley. I think of Bluth’s animation team working tirelessly to capture each fanciful way to die, and look back on Dyer’s hushed description of the phenomenal power of the laserdisc, during a time when most people thought a laser was something a Bond villain might try aiming at the moon. These were men who, for one brief year, were convinced that the fate of an entire industry and medium rested on their shoulders – a rags-to-riches story, like something from a fairy tale.
But for all the comparisons that Don Bluth made between movies and games, he only seemed to have it half right. In the movies, you can bet that the hero will slay the dragon, save the princess, and win the day. But in games, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, it’s “game over,” and you’re all out of quarters.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where he waits patiently for a laserdisc game made from The Logdriver’s Waltz.