Spring Thing 2015: Dirk

Dirk (Andrew Schultz) is a Back Garden entry. It’s a faithful text demake of the classic arcade game Dragon’s Lair; while it’s implemented in Inform, it’s effectively a choice game with parser selection.

For an overview of the original, I strongly recommend Jimmy Maher’s comprehensive post on the game over at Digital Antiquarian, which explains the original in far greater depth than I could hope to achieve. The takeaway from that article, though, is that the main things that Dragon’s Lair had going for it were Don Bluth’s classically-styled animation, plus novelty. So as a text-only nostalgia demake – that is, in the conscious absence of either graphics or novelty – it’s necessarily a joke.

But boy, it’s a pretty extended joke. Gameplay-wise, Dragon’s Lair is basically a shuffled-up sequence of punishingly fast QTEs: in each of them you must hit the right one of five possible options (four directions, plus attack) or else die; if you defeat all of them, which includes a lot of repeated scenes, you get to the endgame. The text version faithfully replicates the whole thing, albeit in rather functional prose that makes no attempt to replicate the lush, Disney-eerie environments of the original. It also offers strong hints as to which option is the right one, and there’s no reaction-time component; and of course UNDO makes your many deaths far more palatable. All this makes the play experience merely a little tedious, as opposed to grueling.

Schultz’s Dirk is a simple fellow, and occupies a world where his simplicity works to his advantage. (“Like, you’re good at being distracted by stuff that flashes. That’ll help.”) He’s not really interested in the prettiness of his surroundings, or the flimsy narrative, or even in his ostensive quest-object Daphne; nor is he really scared or distracted by peril. And this allows him to focus on the simple structure of his world, to pick out the only things that actually matter within its limited scope – left, left, sword, up.

The principal addition to the original is a framing motivation, one with a vague outline familiar from a lot of Schultz’s other games; the protagonist doesn’t fit in, doesn’t get it, is scorned by some important group of snobbish peers or superiors. In classic children’s-fantasy style, the main plot is a fantasy response to that scorn – except that resolving the challenges of the interior fantasy doesn’t really give a satisfactory resolution to the outer, social problem.

A lot of this feels as though it’s starting to be satire aimed at critics of Dragon’s Lair, but Schultz’s style of satire – if I’m right in reading it as satire and not just generalised mild snark – is never quite connects for me; it tends to feel as though it’s, I don’t know, circling around the joke, or the core issue of contention, before backing away.

So, for instance, the matter of Daphne, the painfully ditzy damsel in distress who floats around in her magic sphere of captivity like a zero-gravity centrefold. In Dirk, her presence is reduced to minimal plot-function, much like the scenery, but her treatment in the frame-story is a bit more difficult to figure out.

Your classmates jibed [Daphne] was as un-smart as you. They even said the quest was beneath them, too silly if you looked at it right. Little more than a multiple choice test. Of course they could beat Singe the dragon, but it’d be a loss if anything in Singe’s castle was unfair. You had to be street-smart. Dragons were like that. Plus there was no proof such a quest would advance society.

It feels as if Dirk is being identified with Dragon’s Lair as a whole here – the jibes at Lair are jibes at Dirk. But there’s also an element of Dirk disassociating from many elements of the game, to the point where at the game’s end the sexism is framed as a reflection of Dirk/the game’s detractors, with Dirk making an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes observation that paints him as a nascent/naive feminist. There’s a kind of mixed metaphor going on here, such that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what the intended point is, or if it’s all just off-the-cuff elements not intended to cohere; this is something I regularly struggle with in Schultz’s writing.

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