My first paper for this “Video Games as Culture/Form” class I’m taking. The assignment was to pick a pre-1985 game or system and compare the how the history is told about it between different sources. I selected the arcade title Dragon’s Lair from 1983…
Your Quest Awaits: Dragon’s Lair
Do something different and you’ll get noticed. It is an idea that has been repeated time and time again with great success in business, and it was no different in 1983 with arcade game developer Cinematronics. In a time where heavily-pixilated art made up the majority of the graphics in games, Dragon’s Lair stood out significantly for all the things it did differently. While several things lead to the game’s lack of success, both gaming enthusiasts and game developers praise Dragon’s Lair for the steps it took in a growing industry.
When video game industry was still trying to establish itself as an unshakeable industry back in 1983, imagination was vital when pouring quarters into the arcade machines. With the technology at the time, gamers had to imagine that the pixels on the screen were making logical shapes and that the rudimentary sound effects were sufficient in providing the proper atmosphere fore the experience. Then, out of the blue on a tremendous laserdisc, came Dragon’s Lair, a title that has since gone down in history. The tale of Dirk the Daring’s quest to save the princess Daphne infatuated gamers before Mario ever chased after Princess Peach, but the story wasn’t all that was enticing. It certainly didn’t hurt that the game played as what would essentially be known today as an “interactive cutscene,” which was drawn by Disney animator Don Bluth. This made the game look and sound much better than what arcade-goers were used to at the time, so the title was all the more appealing.
So many fans were allured to the game because of its originality and have since bonded over their adoration of Dirk’s adventure. This has resulted in the fan website known as Dragon’s Lair Fans.com (Biordi). Most of these enthusiasts show their devotion to the game by posting in forums, sharing advice on how to assemble the specialized cabinets that the game requires, and showing off their impressive retro gaming setups. In this sense, video games are seen as objects to collect to these individuals. The discussion is mostly fueled by either the technology behind the laserdisc player interacting with the cabinet or making plans to meet up at arcades, all for the appreciation of the game. To these players, the criticisms regarding Dragon’s Lair go unnoticed, but they honestly wouldn’t have it other way.
Such criticisms of the title mostly center around either the demand that the laserdisc put on the system or the limited amount of actual gameplay. Since the game was not hardwired into the machine’s circuit board, the disc would at times wear out and even cause the laserdisc player to break because of the way the data would be read by the laser. In addition, “when a player protests a seemingly correct move ending in one of many death scenes, a swift kick or jostle of the game easily knocks the disc player out of alignment, rendering the game inoperable until it is repaired” (Ummagumma). Having a very expensive machine broken certainly did not help things financially, as the game brought in “around $1400 a week, about 80 times the amount of a conventional game at the time” (Ummagumma). This might be because the game was so notorious for requiring such precision when the player actually got to provide input to keep the game going. This lack of deep interaction along with the needed cost to able to play an arcade game meant it was better for some to just watch from the theoretical sidelines.
In ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics magazine, software developer Glen D. Fraser sees Dragon’s Lair as a game that was ahead of its time. By looking at the title for its real-time, interactive storytelling, it is not surprising to see why some call Dragon’s Lair and other video games works of art. Fraser has a personal history with Dirk the Daring’s expedition, as he recalls how the game’s “constraints allowed it to use a much more compelling “look” to tell its story” (14). In this sense, games are seen as an art form because of what makes them different from other forms of fine art. In a game, one is accompanied with a visual stimulus and is required to have a direct correlation with it that generally affects the result of the game. Film, television, and other forms of visual media don’t require such a personal investment from the spectator. In fact, sometimes games can be seen on a similar plane with movies, and Dragon’s Lair is no exception. Fraser believes that, at the time he wrote this magazine article, that video games were slowly approaching movies in terms of being able to artistically tell stories. However, “Filmmakers have a century of history and experience in telling stories in that non-interactive, viewpoint-controlled medium. There are major challenges to overcome once the viewer becomes an active participant and/or camera operator” (Fraser 15). As a game developer, Glen Fraser might have a slight bias with this perspective, but seeing how games have progressed in the ten years since the article, it becomes easier to see this viewpoint becoming more of a reality.
For as technology-driven and game-breaking of a title as it was back then, Dragon’s Lair has had several spinoffs and effects in the video game industry today. Dragon’s Lair not only spawned a sequel called Space Ace, after a boost in the game’s budget, but the original quest of Dirk the Daring was ported to several home consoles once console gaming took root in the industry. Unfortunately, one of the most infamous of these spinoffs landed on the Nintendo Entertainment System, where it would eventually come to be lambasted by the internet sensation known as the Angry Video Game Nerd. To sum up his confusion over how poor the port his, he asks “Have you ever played a game where the basic controls differ depending on which side of the screen you’re standing on?” (Rolfe). Pitiful spinoffs aside, in today’s gaming world, most analysts would claim that a well-fleshed-out narrative is essential to the success of a major title. Dragon’s Lair is arguably the first title to have the narrative be the primary focus of a video game and it has influenced many other titles since then because of its story-driven attention. A recent series that has taken this especially to heart is Metal Gear Solid, where the player completes a stealth mission in which the gameplay roughly equally splits time with cutscenes explaining the highly-intricate narrative. As games attempt to be more film-like in the future with their storyline structure, one must remember the laserdisc game that really started it all.
Dragon’s Lair has always been defined as a game that was different. Its graphics and sound were unlike anything in a video game at the time. The format in which it was played on was a technology that had not been fully established at that time. Finally, its narrative-intensive style was something that would set the bar high for other games in the future. Even though it had its setbacks along the way, fans of Dragon’s Lair and gaming developers recognize the bold steps the title took. After all, it certainly got noticed just for doing things differently.
Biordi, Bruno. Dragon’s Lair Fans. 24 Jan 2008. 29 Jan 2009
Fraser, Glen. “Real-time interactive storytelling.” ACM SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Nov 2000: 14-16.
Rolfe, James. “2007 Videos.” Cinemassacre.com. 25 Mar 2008. 29 Jan 2009
Ummagumma. “Coin-Op Video Game History.” The Dot Eaters. 29 Jan 2009