Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dynamite Headdy: The Most Videogamey Videogame Ever

There are some mediums of entertainment that have become so ingrained into our culture that their names invoke certain descriptive qualities, which can be used to describe other mediums or themselves. We can refer to something we think has the qualities of a film as being "filmic", or something that is like a cartoon as being "cartoony". "Comic book" also applies. I think I have heard the term "videogamey" being used before, possibly in reference to the way a wad of cash would pop up like a power-up after killing a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto 3 (I don't know if it actually does, this is just my spotty memory talking). However, it's not a terribly widespread term, and I don't think I've ever seen somebody elaborate on what exactly constitutes "videogamey" characteristics. So if I'm lucky I'll be treading new ground with this post, as I look at what I believe to be the most videogamey videogame ever made: Dynamite Headdy.

This is one of a pair of one-off (that is, not part of a franchise) games that I loved and played alot during my childhood (the other was Ristar, we might be seeing that in a future post). Like many popular games of the time, it's a cartoony side-scrolling platformer, with the protagonist being Headdy, a puppet with a detachable head that he can shoot off in a paddleball fashion to attack enemies. It's good fun, as the central head-shooting mechanic is pretty gratifying, and there's a wide range of entertaining powerups, great bosses, some neat scenery interaction, and lots of quirky little secrets to find. None of these, however, have much to do with what I feel makes this game so uniquely videogamey. What I'm interested in is the world the game constructs, a world that I feel could not exist in any other medium.

 The central conceit for the visuals is that it takes place on stage. Or, at least, an environment that looks like a stage. All the scenery is cobbled together from conspicuous planks of wood, with clearly segmented scrolling backgrounds, dodgy broken props, backstage segments, and even a little maintenance man who pops up from time-to-time (and gives you a Secret Bonus Point if you kill him).

The first boss (Maruyama, Headdy's body-swapping rival) makes his appearance by knocking down the background, only for a new one to be pulled in by little stagehands.

For another boss, a carpet is rolled in.

The ending sequence even shows the whole thing being taken apart.

It's all deliciously quirky and totally distinctive. But what about it is "videogamey"?

A unique trait of sidescrolling games is their perspective, always a flat mid or long shot. Occasional forays into the world of Mode 7 graphics allow a front-on or over-the-shoulder view, but this is the exception: it is not unusual for a whole game to remain at this same angle. This happens to be the same way we view a play, as our seats do not move, and unlike in cinema, there is no moving virtual camera, and we see all the action directly through our own eyes.

But what is so intriguing about the world of Dynamite Headdy is that its nature is not actually certain. We're never quite sure whether we're literally watching a play being acted out on a real (in-universe) stage, or whether we're watching an adventure taking place in a world that just happens, through some weird quirk, to look like one. There are hints both ways. In particular, a moment where Maruyama gate-crashes again and pulls Headdy backstage for another boss fight...

...the "Continue?" screen where Headdy gets booted offstage and has to choose whether to listen to the cheering crowd and go back on or leave through the back door...

...and the secret end boss, either a caricature of the president of Sega at the time or the fat-cat owner of the theatre (depending on whether you're playing the Japanese or English version)...

No image of the latter, sorry!
...all suggest the former to some extent. However, how then do we explain the fact that when Headdy leaves one area on stage right, he enters the next one from stage left? There's certainly not enough time in the brief transition for him to have run around the back and for the scenery to have been swapped, and it's either that or this is a really big theatre!

There are more subtle hints, a few minor quirks that make it seem like if this really is a play, it's just a little too self-conscious, a little too "meta" for its own good. As we see the scenery being taken apart in the ending, there's a little blinking sign that says "ENDING DEMO NOW PLAYING" (mirroring a similiar sign for the opening demo), suggesting that this apparently fourth-wall-breaking action is actually intended to be watched (and aren't "opening demo" and "ending demo" curiously videogamey terms?) The first few instances of scenery destruction and backstage reveals occur at the hands of Maruyama (who is described in the manual as being jealous of Headdy and wanting to steal the star role from him), but one level requires Headdy to manipulate the scenery in very explicitly mechanical ways, moving sections of the floor, revealing the girders that make up the pieces...

...and even causing the entire background to fold upwards, revealing all the cogs and gears and inner workings that keep all the moving parts running.

The stage hands that we occasionally see maintainig the scenery are inconsistent in nature: the ones just above and in the ending appear to be flesh and blood humans, but many others seem to be keywound toys themselves, as if they exist within the boundaries of the play rather than governing it from outside. And while the villain of the piece, Dark Demon, could just be a character within a story, there are veiled suggestions that his powers and intentions extend beyond the scope of the stage itself. The reveal for his castle after defeating the Yayoi, the gatekeeper, involves more explicit scenery destruction.

 And after penetrating his castle, a central mechanic involves the use of stage-flipping devices, which are one of the few effects in the game that is not designed after a theatrical mechanism: the entire image simply flips like a card.

Sorry, no "After" screenshot because I'm dumb.
 It's as if Dark Demon's powers are truly magical, and are not bound by the limits of the world of the stage. The transition into the final battle is similar, as the environment dissolves away into a starry background, quite removed from anything we've seen before.

And then there's things that are difficult to classify. Like one boss that takes place on a little backstage stage for some reason...

...and the basketball minigame that you have to play to access the secret boss. The fact that, like the boss itself, it takes place in a clearly not-a-theatre environment should put it on the "evidence for the fact that it's all actually a play" list, but then what's with that very obvious "INTERMISSION: SUB GAME" sign? As with the "ENDING DEMO NOW PLAYING" sign, by nature it implies that it's meant to be read, and thus that this scene is meant to be watched. But by whom? The audience? What audience? Certainly not the one in the theatre, because we're not in the theatre. Or are we? Is it us? Or am I just overanalysing a meaningly element of standard videogame signage?

And then I start thinking about how Maruyama is shown during the deconstruction sequence, having a private little happy ending where he gets to use Dark Demon's castle as a new body...

 ...but then appears in the cast roll, sort of out-of-character and sort of not, and I get a headache (and oh god Dark Demon is there too even though he's evil and I don't know if this is now a play-within-a-play-within-a-play or a world-that-looks-like-a-play-within-a-play or whether I'm just overthinking it or aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah).

If one looks at all this objectively, there's probably more evidence for the "it's a play" camp. However there's just enough inconsitencies to sow doubt about the nature of the game's world into the player's mind. And, most importantly, there is one special factor that allows this ambiguity to hold even with just these few hints, and that is the side-on perspective. Why? Because if the camera were ever to rotate to the side, an explicit decision would have to be made. We would be able to either see the edges of the stage, the audience, and everything else that would come with a real theatre all at once, or the lack thereof, and any illusions would be shattered. And if this world were to attempt to exist as such in anything other than a videogame, the constantly forced flat perspective wouldn't work. The stage-like visuals are great in and of themselves from a design point-of-view, but what makes it truly interesting for me is that ambiguity, the uncertain nature of this weird world that we're looking at, and I don't think it could exist in quite the same way in a cartoon, a film, a comic book, a novel, hell, even an actual play. Anything other than a sidescrolling 2D videogame simply wouldn't work as well, and it's not because it is deficient in narrative or character (as is the case with almost any cartoon adaptation of a videogame series), it's because the strengths and the points of interest aren't played to by the conventions of any other medium in existence.

And that's why I think Dynamite Headdy is the most videogamey videogame ever. Because, in my eyes, it couldn't be anything but a videogame.

Here's a mopping man. From a recent job (that actually got cancelled in the end, but oh well at least I got paid and it kept me busy). It's actually my birthday today. So maybe this first post in a long time is a birthday present to myself? I have alot of things going on in my life right now that I need to sort out, but among them all I actually intend to prioritise this blog a bit more, because on the whole I just need to be getting more shit done. Stay tuned. I really do have more planned.

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