Dragon’s Lair [1983]

So flagrantly sexist in such a basic and obvious way that it frankly makes me feel like a bit of a simpleton to point it out. It’s barely even an observation. Princess Daphne spends the whole game as the Platonic ideal of a damsel in distress, occasionally crying out “save me!” Where her predecessor Pauline from Donkey Kong [1981] was in a frumpy, conservative long dress, and even the stripper in Portopia Serial Murder Case [1983] was visually depicted in like a robe, Princess Daphne is in some kind of unitard with a plunging neckline so deep it’s almost more accurate to call it a full-body thong, against which presses extremely perky nipples. To be clear, my issue here is not simply prudishness about lingerie. There’s a whole system of male-gaze context. In the longest non-gameplay portion of the game, Daphne tells you to go get a key and a magic sword, in a tone of voice bizarrely disconnected from her imperiled circumstances: no panic, all breathy baby-doll, because even she knows what she’s saying doesn’t matter and the situation is just an excuse plot as transparent as her sparkly sheer un-dress. She emphasizes words very strangely, to punctuate her gesticulating instead of the other way around. What’s actually important to Dragon’s Lair [1983] is her body and motion, it’s that the audience drink in a good eyeful of her writhing around seductively, batting her eyelashes and baring her back.

I’d posit that moment of Daphne as the trophy, except there’s still more game to go yet. The actual reward of an ending is Daphne kissing the player character, Dirk. (Dirk’s name evokes two things: first, the weapon, obviously because he is a knight, but also he is the player’s conduit into the arcade cabinet who, like other game characters, may only move and hurt — he IS a weapon. Secondly, he’s a dork. He grunts his way through mishaps like Homer Simpson.) Daphne knocks off his knight helmet to suggest that the time for danger has passed, and even perhaps that the time for disrobing has now begun, before a chaste heart-shaped iris out. It’s more like enticement, a way to get the presumed audience to share motivation with the protagonist. Despite its notoriety as an early “interactive movie” and the attract mode’s exposition in the style of a movie trailer, this is the most storytelling Dragon’s Lair really ever does.

Heavy Load – The King [1983]. I still have no real love for epic fantasy metal like this, but clearly this is music to slay a dragon to.

Dragon’s Lair’s lingering on Daphne can be abstracted out to its whole sales pitch. The draw is that the game, like Daphne, simply looks stunning by conventional aesthetic standards, with its fluid, classic Western-style animations by Don Bluth, not to mention background music and high-fidelity sound, all facilitated by LaserDisc technology. It’s an intensely superficial experience. Its big flaw, however, is actually that it does not play to this strength with any other moments of lingering or leering, when the key verb ought to be “to watch.” You’re going to die a lot, in such quantities that you can plausibly say the game is about failure, but unlike The Oregon Trail [1971] which underlines the point by splurging on three needless questions about your funeral arrangements, Dragon’s Lair does not so much luxuriate in the fun of death. Even when you get one of its unique death animations, they’re cut to the bone, even to the point of the audio of panicked pain prematurely halting at its apex.

The pacing, across the board, is ludicrously fast. When the actual gameplay is occurring — all of the type that would later be called “quick-time events” — sure, you can say it demands close watching, but that’s not quite specific enough. What it really demands is near frame-perfect inputs in the split-seconds after threats first appear. Sometimes it’ll signal with flashing when you are to act, but only sometimes. There’s no time to process what it is you’re even looking at and evaluate a response before acting, especially when it’s cutting around to different angles every few seconds, much less time to appreciate the animation and painted backgrounds. I feel like I can or maybe must count out the shot lengths in individual frames, but all the same may not comprehend what the hell is going on. The only compensation for this is the social aspect, where you could watch someone else at the arcade play Dragon’s Lair before you hop on, letting you hang back and evaluate the basic details of scenarios, which at least brings us back to that word “watch” and returns to its strengths as a game about seeing, a game for budding voyeurs. It’s a rhythm game, but with absolutely no rhythm at all, nor any flexible tolerance for error. Robotron 2084 [1982] was fast and confusing, but before it tosses you into its arenas, it very deliberately gives you a solid second of stillness to process what you are looking at. The comparable moments to breathe in Dragon’s Lair are when you get a brief shot of Dirk stomping away into a doorway to the next room, but on account of randomization you do not actually get to see the room until you’re ankle-deep in it. This is the core of its reputation for difficulty. It’s honestly comparable, to me, to Wizardry [1981] in not just milieu — a dungeon full of traps and monsters, here more vividly realized — but cheap contempt for the player, the difference being that where Wizardry is slow unending agony, at least I can say Dragon’s Lair is finite.

Very finite, actually: Though it takes hours to play, there’s ultimately only about 15 minutes of footage on the LaserDisc. The combination of its intense difficulty, its fundamental superficiality, and that finitude, means that it’s been regarded by many as pretty much a scam. Like the sirens, it uses its beauty to draw you in, and then it simply kills you without giving you the satisfaction you could imagine. But… isn’t that basically the condition of all arcade games, those self-marketing microtransaction-fueled commodities, just a little more exaggerated?

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