Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Draconic Miscellany (Dragon's Lair)

0) Dragons demarcate the fringes of the map. In psychogeography, these are where the movement through defined spaces gives way to exploration. Psychochronography is no different. These, then, are the remainders of dragons - the archipelagoes of loose draconic thought at the fringes of the topic, before we change gears and get to something more anatine.

1) I first played Dragon's Lair and its semi-sequel Escape From Singe's Castle on the Commodore 64. The game was fascinating in its breadth and quality of graphics, and virtually unplayable in its difficulty - one of the rare bad games to leave a lasting impression on me.

2) When I was in eighth grade or so, there was a new girl in school. Up from Maryland, a state I have, in hindsight, had intensely mixed luck with, she displayed the previously unwitnessed combination of being clearly a bit geeky and clearly attractive, which, to an eighth grade geeky boy, basically stuns you into complete silence where "you" is defined as "me."

I knew she liked dragons. I also eventually discovered she was on AOL - I think by just searching people in Newtown. On a pure lark of the sort that ought be familiar to any Internet-age suburban teenager, I decided to try logging onto her AOL account with the password "dragon," and, to my surprise, logged in. I sent her an e-mail from her own account letting her know she had an easy to guess password, and logged back out without doing anything.

Years later, she would be one of my earliest intense relationships, and the one that, for me, mentally demarcates between immature high school relationships and more serious ones, although I can never quite decide which column of the ledger to put it in. This blog post is the closest I have ever come to telling her about the fact that I hacked her e-mail 14 years ago. (Really sorry, by the way. I really did just wonder if it would work.)

3) The thing about Dragon's Lair is that it's a port of an already lousy game. The original was an arcade game using the then-cutting edge technology of Laserdiscs. Basically, it was an animated movie with brief moments where you could intervene with a button press to select scenes. It is thus, to my knowledge, the only ostensibly classic arcade game to be successfully ported to DVD - because the entire game can, in fact, be represented with interactive menus.

4) I know the story second-hand, but as I understand it there was someone in my social circle who was a dragon otherkin, and she got engaged with a plan to get married about five years later. This created some puzzlement among my friends that was eventually settled when one friend, whose gift for snarky comments is almost as high as that of my sister, wryly commented "dragons do things differently."

5) The problem is that the entire point of Dragons Lair is its graphics. That's what the Laserdisc enabled - movie quality graphics. But as a result, the rest of the game had to be subservient to the Laserdisc technology. That's why the gameplay is a glorified DVD menu. Where this stops making a damned bit of sense is on the home ports. The NES, obviously, could not come anywhere close to Laserdisc quality graphics. So the basic point of the game - the stunning graphics - was necessarily lost on the ports. 

6) A few weeks after my wife left me and my father had a stroke, my sister and I went to Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I have not done a lot of sci-fi conventions. They are not something I would want to spend a lot of time doing, but on the occasions I've done them, they're fantastic. What you'd think is the appeal - celebrity tracking - is not. In part this is because, let's face it, a lot of celebrities are rubbish at talking about their work, and, for that matter, a lot of fans are rubbish at asking questions that give celebrities the opportunity to say something interesting. No. What's delightful about conventions is the sort of intense happiness fans bring to it. The amount of work and effort and dedication that fans put into what makes them happy. I am not and never have been one for immersion. But on the other hand, most of us could learn a lot from dedicated fans about the art of doing what makes you happy. And that's a pretty fantastic thing to go for after your wife leaves you and your father has a stroke.

7) No, I mean, I really spent over half of my half-hour of Dragon's Lair on the first screen. There's a subgenre of games exemplified by things like The Unfair Platformer. They're basically parodies of overly hard NES games where there are just gratuitous traps that can only be found through wasting a lot of time dying and learning the pattern of the game. They're supposed to be over the top - no game is actually supposed to have as many stupid and unexpected ways to die as they do.

8) The dragon - specifically a silver version of Y Ddraig Goch - is the emblem of House Ailil, my preferred house in my preferred tabletop roleplaying game, White Wolf's long-defunct Changeling: The Deraming. Changeling is notable as one of only a handful of fictional works that I have found actual value in getting hugely invested in. This is rare for me. Given my antipathy towards immersion, it requires an enormously interesting set of metaphors - one that can be used to tell and look at a whole lot of things. In the case of Changeling, it is the fact that the game is explicitly meta-fictional - that Changeling games are about stories, and preserving them. Given that Changeling is itself a story, this gives fascinating consequences to a Changeling game - it is always about the preservation of its own narrative.

9) Dragon's Lair for the NES is basically The Unfair Platformer only you have a limited number of lives.

10) Dragons are what keeps the map from resolving. The remaining unknown territory. There is no eliminating them. There is no such thing as a complete map. 


  1. Did you have any history with, or affinity for the arcade original Dragon's Lair? The NES port seems like an early attempt at 'de-making' a game - a technique that indie debs have been passionate about lately. As someone who had never heard of Dragon's Lair prior to 2005, I'm curious to know how your sense of nostalgia affected your impression of the game (for better or worse).

  2. Speaking of the necessary incompleteness of maps, there is a great quote from Mr. Ibis in American Gods about maps - that a 'perfect' map would be identical to the terrain it was mapping, and would therefore be useless; that maps are useful as such only because they are incomplete. Didn't mention dragons, but this post brought that quote (one of my favorites from the whole book) to mind.