The Spyro series takes place in a universe which, at least in terms of topography, is genuinely unlike any other I’ve encountered in fiction. As you might expect from a mascot platformer, a typical Spyro game features a handful of free-roaming hub “homeworlds”, each of which in turn contains a selection of thematically-linked levels. We’ll concern ourselves primarily with the original trilogy developed by Insomniac Games, which constitutes a kind of canonical corpus (the series, much like Crash Bandicoot, famously nosediving when handed off to other studios). The first game takes place largely in a medieval fantasy world, differentiating itself from the genre’s more muted entries (eg, Dungeons & Dragons) by consciously drawing inspiration from fairy-tales and – a little less intuitively – the 1967 Richard Harris film Camelot, elevating its light, saturated Arthuriana into full-blown cartoon. Though retaining this idea as a key component of its identity, the series rapidly diversifies its environments as it goes, adding everything from tomb-raiding to psychedelic surrealism, Wild West shoot-outs to Eastern temples.
The universe in which the games take place lacks a central omphalos about which everything revolves, either literally or metaphorically. It’s neither geocentric nor heliocentric – indeed, the number of suns and moons both vary from level to level, but with static, non-animated skyboxes, it’s impossible to tell whether this is meant to represent orbital mechanics as seen from within a single system or to suggest that we’re travelling between systems. In the sky above the third game’s Enchanted Towers, we can see two moons and a ringed blue planet, confirming beyond much doubt that the territories we’re navigating via the portal network are far from terrestrial. Many levels show only one sun or moon, but this level is enough to tell us that none of those need be the same – it’s entirely possible that we never even see the same celestial body more than once.
No-one in the Spyro games discusses the structure of the universe. The subject is never even broached. There’s no Copernicus or Galileo here to suggest that we might be in orbit around one of those ambiguous suns; no Giordano Bruno to argue in favour of an infinite plurality of inhabited worlds (though one suspects that, in this case, he would probably be on the right track).
There’s something about the primary-colour simplicity of platforming games that seems conducive to the wholesale creation of worlds – the idea of assembling an entire semiotic-mechanic system from the most rudimentary building-blocks – perhaps a holdover from the medium’s earliest days. While most game genres have always aspired towards realism, platformers of a certain type seem to prize modularity. In Crash Bandicoot, levels are positioned straightforwardly across a small archipelago of islands, with the sequels opting instead for Warp Rooms that offer teleportation direct to various clearly-identified locations and eras across Earth. In Super Mario 64, each level exists within a landscape painting hanging in Princess Peach’s castle – conceptually interesting, but still a deeply simple world structure, easy to grasp and visualise and feel that you know. Spyro is something stranger.
The original Spyro game takes place in a region known as the Dragon Kingdom, and keeps its landscapes somewhat terrestrial: the edges of maps are generally either blocked with walls or deadly water. Some later levels, set on cliffs or mountains, do offer some proper yawning abysses, but these generally feel like impressionistic renderings of extreme heights rather than truly fantastical topography – platforms seem to fade into the mist only a few feet down, as if to imply that we’re jumping from pinnacle to plateau atop some spindly mountain range. Sometimes the colourful shapes on the impossibly distant horizon seem like they might be land dividing ocean from sky, though clouds are difficult to distinguish from mountains, the two melting together in creamy abstraction. And there’s no getting around the fact that, if we look directly down, it’s usually more sky that we see. The game’s truest glimpse of the sublime occurs, ironically, in its loading screens. Levels are linked by portals – ornate stone arches which, rather than using a flashy special effect, simply open onto the firmament. Skies in the Spyro games are generally artful, cloudy gradients blending two or three colours, and the ones visible through these portals are often quite different to those above; most ingenious of all, the portal’s sky is not fixed relative to the outer one but to the player’s camera, giving them a subtly but truly uncanny and magical feeling. It’s a beautiful visual, and when Spyro steps into one, the music falls away to silence, and we see a montage unfold: Spyro gliding through the void, completely alone but for pastel skies and celestial bodies. The screen fades to black and back as he navigates the void, vacillating as the game loads; time becomes meaningless. Then Spyro glides out of another portal and into a new world. Intriguingly, the game uses the same skyboxes for these portal transitions that it uses for the portal’s corresponding levels, creating a sense that these 2001: A Space Odyssey-style trips actually take place somewhere within the same physical space as the regular gameplay. (It’s a little weird, though, that the portals leading back to the level’s homeworld contain copies of the level’s sky rather than the homeworld’s.) In the first game, only the Dream Weavers world is unabashedly surrealistic, eschewing conventional geography and ambiguous cloud coverage in favour of a whole archipelago of floating islands (and shattering more ground by first showing two moons in the sky).
Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer moves the action to Avalar, another world that Spyro finds himself trapped in, and whose name echoes the Avalon of Arthurian myth (perhaps something to do with Spyro’s confinement there and eventual heroic return to the Dragon Kingdom). In this game, the level design grows more surreal and nebular, with the sublime effect of the portal transitions and the Dream Weavers world seemingly leaking through to the rest of the game, too compelling and evocative to remain in the margins; the level-design enclosure of walls and mundane danger is phased out in favour of bottomless drops. By the third game, Year of the Dragon, any pretence of geographic cohesion has been eroded to dust: these platforms we’re bounding across are all floating islands, all motionless asteroids, and even the most conventional and earthly levels are free to toss in an infinitude. It’s Dream Weavers all the way down. This also forces us to re-evaluate the world presented in the original game – were all those little platforms actually mountain peaks, or were they similarly untethered, floating the way bricks don’t? And if they do connect, somewhere down there in the hallowed fog of PlayStation draw distance, who’s to say that the landmass they form doesn’t float too? Who’s to say, actually, that any of the landmasses in the Spyro series are connected to a planet of any sort – that even the ones surrounded by seas and lava aren’t just vast countries drifting through those same nebulae? These games may well take place on a Flat Earth without the Earth: an infinity of fragments, little hills and gardens and mountains and ridges, all populated, all flat, all suspended in an airy matrix without beginning or end.
The villain in Year of the Dragon is the Sorceress, a Cruella de Vil type who seeks to gain immortality by gathering dragon eggs and harvesting the hatchlings’ wings. The game begins when her lackey Bianca, aided by a group of Rhynocs (the game’s dumb grunt minions), tunnels to the Dragon Kingdom to kidnap the latest batch of 150 eggs and spirit them away to the Forgotten Realms, the ancient dragon homeland where the rest of the game take place. We’re told that the Forgotten Realms are located “on the other side of the world”, but Christ knows what that’s supposed to mean in this context, because that “world” sure as hell isn’t a planet. But how does one tunnel from one floating rock to another? The more we learn about the Spyro universe, the more disoriented and adrift we feel. It’s like an entire series set in that sublime, nebular dimension of Gozer and Zuul that intrudes upon New York in a handful of scenes in the original Ghostbusters. And yet, there’s an odd sense of safety to Spyro – we can brush up against the cosmic, but it takes the form of cheery pastel skies rather than the howling vacuum of space. No matter how big the universe gets, it still just feels like a world.
How did these landmasses, floating in their technicolour void, come to be? Were they originally one, some draconian Pangaea, which was shattered to a thousand fragments in some awful and ancient conflict? Were they once a single planet, or was that primordial continent itself adrift in some sky, a component in some vaster, stranger system? Not only does the world unfold into spacious surrealism as the games go on, but so too does our perception of it. A related puzzle is the eschatology of Spyro: this universe could be expanding, or collapsing, or eternally static in size. We don’t know if it had a Big Bang, if it’s heading towards a Big Crunch or a Big Rip, or how far along the line we are if it is; perhaps such a cosmic cataclysm is what rent gravity, transfixing the landscapes in time. Genesis or the end of days? When you look up at the sky in Spyro, there’s a genuine frisson of awe and mystery – the kind that we lost in our world when we came to understand the stars, and a kind which is equally absent from all fiction set in universes recognisable as analogous to our own.
But what does all this mean? The Spyro games present us with a relatively unique cosmology, but how does this illuminate the series thematically or affectively? Well, I can only assume that the best way to answer that question is to arbitrarily pivot to a discussion of my other favourite aspect of the series. We’ll get there, so bear with me. This is, like most things worth doing, an experiment.
Over the course of Year of the Dragon, the Sorceress magically transfigures three Rhynocs into monstrous bosses whom Spyro must overcome. Each new homeworld is accessed by means of a vehicle Spyro assembles a team to build during the previous one. (These trips, incidentally, represent the only instances of actual physical travel from one level to another in the game.) Halfway through each voyage to a new homeworld, Spyro must touch down on a stone platform surrounded by acid, where he can do battle with one of these newly-created monsters. (The reason for this, in story terms, is unclear.) The second Rhynoc becomes Spike, fought in Spike’s Arena. The third becomes Scorch, whom we confront in Scorch’s Pit. By far the most interesting, however, is the first: Buzz, whom we battle in Buzz’s Dungeon.
The birth of Buzz is more complicated than those of the others. Firstly, he’s the only boss not created by the Sorceress’s hand directly: the villain instructs Bianca to turn a Rhynoc into a monster. On her first attempt, Bianca botches the job, transforming him into a cute little bunny-rabbit instead. Trying again, she transfigures the rabbit into Buzz, a hulking, brutish, toad-like creature… with long, floppy ears, which Bianca hurriedly magicks away.
Animal rights are… tricky in the Spyro games. While most enemies yield gems upon death, harmless and innocent creatures such as sheep, rabbits, turtles, or ducklings – collectively nicknamed “fodder” – disintegrate when burned or headbutted to produce butterflies, which Spyro’s bodyguard familiar, Sparx the Dragonfly, must consume alive to regain hit points. It’s played for laughs, but it might well be the most convoluted and weirdly cruel health system of the genre – the developers of retro platformer Yooka-Laylee, tellingly, saw fit to include a rather sharp satire of it seventeen years later. Do these butterflies represent the immortal souls of the friendly creatures Spyro massacres for the greater good, or are they new creatures springing forth from death in a kind of abiogenesis, the way pre-modern natural philosophers believed that maggots and flies simply emerged from rotting flesh, naturally and without progenitors?
Later, on learning the particulars of the Sorceress’s plan for the baby dragons, Bianca defects to Spyro’s side. When she removes her hood, we see that she herself is an anthropomorphic rabbit – presumably explaining she was able to burrow to the Dragon Kingdom and steal the eggs in the first place, as well as how she hid them afterwards. The exact relationship between the talking, upright animals that help Spyro on his quest and the mute little fodder he slaughters for their butterflies has never been so acutely uncomfortable. Even more intriguing, however, is the unspoken implication that Bianca unintentionally imbued Buzz with some part of herself – a trace of her DNA, perhaps, if that concept is not too scientific to exist in the Spyro universe.
Spyro’s friends speak as if these boss fights represent ambushes by the Sorceress, but if we’re honest, the bosses themselves seem content simply to occupy their circular stone plazas in the middle of nowhere – it’s Spyro whose craft touches down on them, and Spyro who initiates the battle when he could be flying on to the next homeworld. A dragon egg is found after each boss, yes, but there’s nothing to indicate why they appear, nor what connection they have to the bosses, nor – at least in Buzz’s case – why Spyro should even expect to find one there, beyond his experiences with the general principle of everything he wants falling into his lap.
The most grotesque character in the series, Buzz is a huge, green, slavering toad; a saurian, shapeless creature with a vast, gnashing maw that seems to fill most of his head, which is also his body. Buzz could almost serve as a parody of Pac-Man, an avatar of mindless consumption, except for the profusion of unpleasant and unusual details: the leering yellow eyes, the cruel teeth, and the strangely botanical mats of gold-tinted wool that cover his body, right down the odd little beard, which leaves him looking like something out of a medieval woodcut made back in the days before popular culture came along and sorted all physical traits into boxes marked “scary” and “cool” and “pretty”. Buzz looks like a bullfrog combined with a tyrannosaurus combined with an elderly man. Buzz looks weird.
Buzz never says a word in any of his incarnations, so he’s something of a cipher, his physical behaviour the only window we have on his interiority. (Despite this, he still manages to be the series’s most compelling character by a considerable margin.) First seen admiring a flower, the original Rhynoc appears to be an unusually pleasant example of his species, if a little dim, cheerfully obeying Bianca’s summons without fear or hesitation. (Elsewhere in the game, Rhynocs of the same sort toss similar flowers as weapons, but this one simply stares at his. Really, it’s difficult to ascribe malevolence to any Rhynoc – they look like big goofy Jim Henson Muppets, and seem to carry out their orders with mindless, slack-jawed ingenuousness.) Buzz’s short-lived rabbit form is similarly a blank slate, but the ultimate, monstrous incarnation is profoundly different: a writhing, gyrating beast that never stops moving about, madly waving its arms, emitting an incessant garbled grunt. He is the image of absolute misery.
We don’t know the specifics of the wordless spells used to create Buzz, Spike, or Scorch. Bianca reads Buzz’s from a book, which – assuming the Sorceress herself didn’t write it – suggests that some ancient off-screen sorcerers might some hand in his design, and that he might well have attributes or purposes his masters know not. Despite being manufactured from different species of Rhynoc, the Sorceress’s own creations are quite similar to one another, both being tall, muscular humanoids – even stranger considering that Spike began as the same sort of small purple Rhynoc as Buzz, with Scorch originating as one of the larger, armoured, yellow variety. It would seem, then, that a great deal of these misfortunate creatures’ forms derive from the spellcaster’s abilities, inclinations, or perhaps even unconscious thoughts. Buzz’s initial rabbit ears are clearly the equivalent of a Freudian slip for Bianca, who normally hides her own beneath a hood. As we later find out, she’s something of a conflicted figure, so perhaps Buzz’s fraught nature is in some sense an expression of her own inner turmoil. Another possible source of contamination is the potted flower the Rhynoc had been clutching at the time, and which the spell seems to merge with him – he’s like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. We get an interesting glimpse at a “sibling” of Buzz’s in a subsequent cutscene, as a lone Bianca practises her magic on another rabbit, transforming it into a monstrous blue beast which immediately and understandably devours her. (This nameless monster, with its shapeless head-body and massive mouth, looks a great deal like Buzz, further supporting the idea of the spellcaster’s “auteurship”, or “parenthood”, depending on how you want to look at it.) After being rescued by fellow anthropomorph Hunter, she restores the creature to its rabbit form. In keeping with the series’s wonky portrayal of animals, however, Bianca expresses zero remorse or concern over Buzz’s plight even after switching to Spyro’s side.
Bianca defects about halfway through the game, after the Sorceress announces that she’ll send Scorch, her next creation, to kill the dragon hatchlings. Apparently, Bianca had been under the impression that the Sorceress simply wanted to bring dragons back to the Forgotten Realms to restore the land’s magic (whatever that means), but the Sorceress’s sneering clarification makes it seem less like she’s been pulling the wool over her apprentice’s eyes and more that Bianca is just a bit slow. The final straw is when the Sorceress says that she doesn’t need to kill them, and that this is simply “to stop them from wriggling”, but this plays more like a joke than anything. If she’s really planning to massacre them, why did she instruct Bianca to hide them throughout the Forgotten Realms – where everyone and their mother seems to find at least one and give it to Spyro in exchange for performing some task or other – rather than keeping them in her castle, which Spyro never reaches? Since the two characters never speak again, the idea that the Sorceress might not have been being entirely serious (or that she might at least be persuaded to adopt a less unnecessarily-murderous course of action) is never explored; Spyro simply returns the eggs to the hazily-defined patriarchy of the Dragon Kingdom and calls it a day. The mechanics and applications of the Sorceress’s immortality spell remain undiscussed, as does the question of whether harming 151 dragons (150 eggs with one set of twins) might justify that potentially infinite gain. Granted, it’s a clickbait cliché to declare a hero actually bad and a villain actually good, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that the dynamic between Spyro and the Sorceress is not quite the simplistic Manichaean binary as which the game presents it. (In a just world, all would recognise the series’s true moral centre to be Toasty, the first game’s first boss, an avenging sheep who used stilts and a scarecrow disguise, V for Vendetta-style, to terrorise Spyro with a scythe. Sadly, Toasty isn’t around to save Buzz, though he did get to star in the original’s live-action advertisements via some impressive puppetry.)
The trauma of transformation is hardly a concept uncommon to fantastic fiction. A colleague of mine pointed out the parallel between Buzz and Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and I think it’s an apt comparison: both characters begin as unremarkable low-level workers – one a travelling salesman, the other a Rhynoc – and both are transmuted by supernatural intervention into a grotesque monster, a development they cannot control and which eventually leads to violent conflict and undeserved death. Though Sheila the Kangaroo calls him a “wussy green toad”, the Guzzlord-like form of Buzz is not as easily-taxonomised as that implies; similarly, Kafka’s term for what Samsa becomes, “ungeziefer”, is often translated as “insect” or “cockroach”, but its actual meaning is something closer to “vermin” – as good a term for Buzz as any. Since Kafka gives us the direct access to Samsa’s interiority that Year of the Dragon never gives us for Buzz, perhaps the book’s account of the eponymous experience will prove illuminating.
In The Metamorphosis, Samsa is confined to his bedroom primarily by his own sense of shame, desiring only that his family should not need to look upon his revolting insectile form. Unbeknownst to the other characters, he retains his human sentience and capacity for speech, but opts to remain silent after hearing his new, inhuman voice. Since Rhynocs seem incapable of verbal communication to begin with, we have no way to tell whether the Sorceress’s spells affect their bodies alone or also transform their minds. Barring primary villains, these games don’t afford their enemies much in the way of personality, and certainly never question Spyro’s right to burn them to death. The sole exception to this moral bluntness, actually, is Buzz himself. Perhaps it’s just a side-effect of the fact that he’s one of very few enemies ever depicted in a safe, happy environment, but when we see Buzz as a Rhynoc in the Sorceress’s palace, his admiration for that flower is genuinely the closest the series comes to imbuing one of Spyro’s enemies with real character, and it makes his fate all the more tragic. Buzz’s nose has been stolen from him: regardless of whether his mind has been overwritten – whether he’s been utterly destroyed and remade as a weapon or remains fully alert and is, like all his brethren, lashing out at Spyro simply because he’s been told to – he shall never smell the scent of a flower again. The Sorceress’s callous experimentation strengthens Spyro’s case for overthrowing her, even as it leads him to wreak further harm upon most abused victim.
With no way to communicate with Samsa, the family begin to doubt whether the creature is indeed who they first thought it was. Late in the story, there’s a scene where Samsa is attacked by his father over a stupid misunderstanding – he thinks the vermin has assaulted the mother, but in fact she has fainted at the sight of him as he attempted to stop the family from taking his old belongings. Samsa scuttles inhumanly about the room to evade injury, not wanting to retaliate, till at last his mother comes begging for his life. Reading this rather effective absurdist tragedy in the context of Year of the Dragon (as you do), it’s interesting to apply the same logic to the game. What’s really going through Buzz’s head during that battle, when a dragon descends on the closest thing he has to a home, baying for blood? (And why oh why couldn’t Spyro just have flown the whirligig straight to Midday Gardens and skipped the whole bloody affair?)
A big part of what makes Buzz and Buzz’s Dungeon memorable is, of course, the level’s music. The soundtrack for the Spyro trilogy was composed by Stewart Copeland, erstwhile drummer for The Police, and – sorry to say this, Sting – it’s considerably better than any record The Police ever released. Written by Copeland while playing early builds of the games, the score is a kind of effervescent glimmering organ synth-funk, sweet and light and airy and colourful, capturing the rhythm and kinetic energy of the well-balanced mascot platformer it was created to accompany. If you had a version of synaesthesia that linked taste with hearing, the Spyro music is what Battenberg cake would sound like.
The theme in Buzz’s Dungeon, however, is ingeniously different to the surrounding soundtrack: a bleak, piercing howl of cold industrial music whose bizarre and perhaps unintentional effect is to force us to empathise with the monster we’re fighting. It’s not the exciting action music you’d expect for a boss battle but a lonely, blasted, metallic dirge – albeit one with insistent, needling strings and ominous percussion that render it eminently listenable. Each game in the trilogy has a better score than the last, and Buzz’s Dungeon might – and this is not a slight – be the single greatest achievement of Copeland’s career. As an aural representation of The Metamorphosis, I think it’s just as valid as the Philip Glass musical; it’s also inspired a very good metal cover by ftmaxwell, who really brings out the plaintive cry at the heart of the track. By feeling and sounding so radically different from the rest of the game, Buzz’s Dungeon attracts our attention and invites particular analysis. I said that the Spyro universe lacks an omphalos. Perhaps we’ve found one.
The background music is a functional electronic dance track, and indeed, the fight itself plays out much like a dance. Many boss battles do, of course, with the continuous interplay between the AI’s strictly-regimented schedules of pre-programmed manoeuvres and the player character’s carefully-timed responses, but it’s particularly true of this one: when hit, Buzz is knocked back, emitting a faintly cetacean moan, then jumps aside like a chess knight, his dodges alternating left and right; the object of the duel is to manipulate Buzz towards the edge of the ring and eventually knock him into the lava, immobilising him long enough for Sheila, Spyro’s partner in crime, to step in with her stomp attack. Buzz is also capable of curling into a ball and rolling after Spyro with a fearful buzz-saw noise that either gave him his name or constitutes a remarkable instance of nominative determinism; when this happens Spyro’s only recourse is to flee in circles. (Tellingly, Buzz only does this immediately after being burned; even the trait he’s named after is inextricable from agony.) Through all this vicious dance, we never really get a sense that Buzz is particularly in control of his actions or responsible for his behaviour – he’s simply carrying out his programming, and in his case that’s just as true diegetically as we know it is for all non-player characters in actuality. After Spyro has wounded Buzz twice, the monster starts conjuring a ring of protective flame with each dodge, giving a guttural laugh as he draws it about himself. This is the only glimmer of positive emotion we’ve seen from Buzz since the moment he held that flower, and it’s not rooted in hatred or anger – he’s simply glad to be safe, cocooned from suffering. It’s only when Spyro has burned Buzz four times that he really begins to lash out, no longer laughing, instead spitting waves of self-defensive flame across the ground, which Spyro must rhythmically leap over before making his next charge. Even these attacks, however, seem compulsive and animalistic, more like sneezes than conscious attempts to do harm. The fourth time Spyro knocks him off the platform, Buzz sinks, screaming, into the lava. Then he dies.
Back to cosmology. The histories of fantasy and science fiction offer several useful precedents for Spyro’s world: Laputa, the floating island in Gulliver’s Travels, is kept in the air by means of a lodestone that magnetically repels it from the other island below, while Year of the Dragon acknowledges the influence of the giant’s cloudy domain in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk with Charmed Ridge, a level overtly themed around the fairy-tale. A vast number of video games had already featured floating platforms, of course – try constructing a rudimentary side-scroller without them. The innovation of Spyro, it seems, is to go all-in on this game-design cliché, shamelessly adopting it as the building-block for its magic-fantastical universe.
The raw inexplicability of the wafting islands almost seems baked into the series’s premise, destined to become its signature visual from the primal moment the Dream Weavers was introduced to the mix. An uncharitable person might point out the similarity to the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar by James Cameron, a film whose towering mundanity ciscends its occasionally interesting visuals. Back in the world of video games, the lovely Grow Home manages something similar, but again, its levitating islands are locked into planetary systems – step off one and you’ll hit the ground, just like falling off any other platform. A more meaningful comparison might be made with the paintings of René Magritte, whose work might be described as (among other things) a decades-long exploration of levitation, and of sky. The Castle in the Pyrenees, one of his relatively infrequent landscapes, is an ancestor Spyro can be proud of. Despite its geographically specific title, it presents its subject-matter, a castle constructed atop a vast rock levitating above a sea, with a profound sense of dreamlike dislocation – who’s to say, really, that this castle is on Earth, or that this ocean has an end? As in most great works by Salvador Dalí, we’re afforded only a momentary glimpse of a surreal subject, with a vast and vacant backdrop that positively invites us to imagine what further mysteries might lurk in the off-screen infinity, turning us into creative participants through its careful balance of specificity and restraint. It would’ve made a great Spyro level.
Another useful pop-culture parallel is the cloud city of Bespin, easily the greatest location in the Star Wars series. The planet seems to be a gas giant, and can therefore be understood in broadly realist terms, but at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, as Luke Skywalker clings desperately to the levitating city’s undercarriage, we can’t help but feel a sublime chill that nothing else in the series can quite match. The film doesn’t actually discuss the possibility of falling through the surface of a gas world, tumbling helplessly until you suffocate or starve or get crushed by atmospheric pressure, but for me that’s always been the real heart of the setting, lurking beneath the mild cloud cover, somehow an even more disturbing abyss than the infinity of space itself – never mind that “I am your father” business. And yes, I think you can read a similar unspoken horror into the geography of the Spyro games, which shield us from the disturbing diegetic reality of what happens to our poor dragon by respawning us at a checkpoint every time he slips and falls into the unknowable.
Insomniac’s follow-up series, Ratchet and Clank, features similar level designs, but takes place in a more explicitly science-fictional setting. Its abysses are clearly physical and mundane, its levels lucidly situated on a procession of clearly-named and demystified planets. The influence of Bespin is perhaps clearer here than it is in Spyro, but without stunning old-school live-action practical effects to counter the dampening effect of its material realism, the Ratchet iteration can feel like a rather limp successor.
The only fictional cosmology which strikes me as truly comparable is that of Xen, the final chapter in the original Half-Life, which similarly comprises a world of rocky platforms floating within nebulae. Described in the game as a “border world”, Xen is situated outside of normal reality, serving as a kind of interdimensional way station (or Black Lodge, if you will). As in Spyro, different areas are linked only by teleportation, and all share an inexplicably uniform level of gravity despite each seeming to hover in its own astral abyss, with the rest nowhere to be seen. While Xen does achieve that same sense of disorienting sublimity, it’s hampered by its poor platforming and relative brevity, and can’t match the sheer sense of wonder and vastness that characterises the Spyro universe. Xen’s smallness flows from its genre: as a vaguely Gigeresque sci-fi horror landscape, its range of mood, texture, and feeling is far smaller than Spyro’s expansive, fantastical sublime, where every little patch of land is its own cosmic oasis, and there is no outside. (Meanwhile, the obscure puzzle platformer Kula World has all-enveloping pixellated skies that are very like Xen’s, but its “beach ball vs 3D maze” action strays so far into sheer abstraction and arbitrariness that it arrives instead at a kind of indirect horror; it could work as a stealth sequel to “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”.)
The names of Buzz, Spike, and Scorch are never spoken in-game, so it’s unclear who refers to them as such, or why. There’s no sense that any of the hundreds of Rhynocs we kill throughout the game have names or real individuality, so it would appear that the act of transmogrification – while clearly traumatic for these Rhynocs, the third of whom is switched-on enough to briefly resist it – is simultaneously a branding, a baptism, bestowing on them their identities. On a related note, the original Spyro, though inferior to Insomniac’s sequels in most respects, had the particularly fascinating detail that the Gnorcs – the game’s basic enemies – were originally gems, stolen from the dragons by Gnasty Gnorc and magically transformed into an army. In other words, the Gnorcs represent a critique of the greed and hoarding central to the Western concept of dragons, their own grotesque accumulated wealth rising up against them, currency literally gaining sentience and evolving into a revolutionary lower class who turn the tables on their former masters, with Gnasty now encasing them in crystal. This explains why each Gnorc disappears in a puff when defeated by Spyro, leaving behind only a single gem, and also offers our hero a potential moral out: he isn’t killing living creatures but deactivating golems, restoring them to a previous state – a bit like how “poofing” a Gem works in Steven Universe. (Not that that’s a perfect defence – artificial creatures are no more deserving of callous treatment than “natural” ones.) Interestingly, the original also makes explicit the idea that a transfigured creature can in some sense be regarded as the offspring of the spellcaster: Gnasty’s ancestry is never given, but his name is a portmanteau indicating “the short temper of a gnome and the bad attitude of an orc”, and it’s taken as axiomatic that his creations are also “Gnorcs”. The Rhynocs – like most other enemies in Gateway to Glimmer and Year of the Dragon – similarly evaporate into gems when defeated, but we’re never told whether they’re dropping held items or literally reverting to crystal.
Although the level is called Buzz’s Dungeon, the name seems chosen primarily for aesthetic purposes, for the way that it sounds: it’s not a dungeon at all, but a large stone disc surrounded by yellow-hot lava, beyond which looms a great circle of rocky mountains in which an active volcano stands opposite two mysterious stone towers, all beneath a brooding purple-and-orange sky. (Video games in general could learn a lot about mood and atmosphere from Spyro’s use of colour theory.) Is this area the “dungeon” of those towers – a place where some long-forgotten beings kept their captives? Equally unclear is the precise sense in which the dungeon is “Buzz’s”: is it a lair, a prison, or both? Were these arenas tailor-made for their respective bosses, or is the Sorceress appropriating structures with ancient, darker purposes? Buzz seems barely conscious of where he is, who he is, or what he’s doing, so it’s difficult to ascribe much agency to him at all.
I’m reminded of Ursula K Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. More an essay or thought-experiment than a conventional narrative, the story depicts a utopian city whose prosperity depends upon the continual suffering of a single imprisoned child. Confined to a dungeon, the child is small for its age, frail and feeble-minded; whether these are defects of birth or results of malnutrition and neglect is unknown, and scarcely matters. Le Guin concludes by telling us that, while most citizens accept this as a price worth paying for an idyllic society, a handful turn their backs on Omelas and leave, their fate outside the scope of the tale, beyond the didactic. This is an intensely allegorical story, one that forces the reader to consider difficult questions of compassion, utilitarianism, and the ambiguous value of the hopeless moral stand. Like Le Guin’s story, Year of the Dragon presents us with a seemingly perfect fantasy world with a cruel secret at its heart, and that secret is Buzz. He is the scapetoad. Both characters exist in a world that is fundamentally idyllic, but are not allowed to take part in this paradise, instead relegated to hideous physical and mental trauma and isolation. The only difference is that showing Buzz kindness wouldn’t cause Forgotten Realms society to crumble… would it?
While Buzz is by far the game’s most interesting boss, there’s another whom it’s necessary to discuss in order to paint a complete picture of him: Scorch. The Sorceress’s third attempt to destroy Spyro, and the last before she rolls up her sleeves and takes on the dragon herself at the end of the following homeworld, Scorch is a kind of bat-winged primate with a range of flame-based attacks. What’s intriguing about Scorch is how he serves as a kind of mockery of Spyro himself. Not only does he represent an externalisation of Spyro’s indiscriminate firepower, but his body and movements are also somewhat draconian. In a surreal touch, a cursory examination of the background will reveal that “Scorch’s Pit” is actually located in the belly of a great dead beast, with a vast ribcage scraping the sky above the stone platform, a grid of huge teeth at one end of the chamber and a yawning pit of darkness at the other. The characters never remark upon any of this, but considering that Year of the Dragon is set in the native lands that Spyro’s ancestors abandoned long ago, the implication is clear: this confrontation, this duel over the fate of the next generation of dragon eggs, is itself taking place within the decaying remnants of an ancient dragon – perhaps even the progenitor of all dragons. (There’s a strong subtextual case for Scorch’s oval taunting: in Year of the Dragon, we’re told that a new batch of dragon eggs is delivered by the stork-like fairies every twelve years. Spyro was always much smaller than the adult dragons seen throughout the trilogy, but the arrival of hatchlings much smaller than him makes the fact that there are no dragons anywhere near Spyro’s size really stand out. It’s never brought up, but reading between the lines, the implication is that something tragic befell Spyro’s own generation.) Most telling of all are Scorch’s attacks, which include the ability to vomit huge red eggs of his own – a twisted reflection of both the game’s thematic focus and its mechanical focus. These eggs shatter to reveal ready-made enemies: scuttling crabs, miniature suns, suicide-bombing rats with boxes of TNT, and – here’s where it gets fucking weird – Buzz.
Yes, our favourite character is resurrected to fight again, spewed forth by Scorch like BOB from the Experiment in Twin Peaks. Denied even the sweet release of death, Buzz is dragged kicking and screaming back to the world of the living, thrown once more into the ring with the hateful dragon who murdered him. This version of Buzz is identical in every detail to the original, charging at Spyro right from his egg, knowing nothing but combat. Scorch’s Pit is a cuckoo’s nest, and Scorch himself a bizarre parody of motherhood, parthenogenetically haemorraghing newborn adults of various species. It’s a terrifying mode of abiogenetic reproduction, the unholy moment Spyro sacrifices an animal to bring forth a butterfly writ large. None of the characters ever comment upon this act of conjuration, so determining the precise mechanics and implications of this occult horror is left as an exercise for the player. Is this a wholly new being, a freshly-hatched clone, or is the original Buzz’s consciousness somehow trapped within the new body? We can’t say for sure, but looking into the eyes of the poor, raving, gargling wretch, it’s difficult not to feel a glimmer of pitiful recognition. Where has he been since we last defeated him – dead? Burning? The visuals, animation, sound design, and score in Buzz’s Dungeon combined to create a wordless portrait of pain and alienation, and Scorch’s Pit continues this, making Buzz the same helpless, tormented weapon in death that he was in life. Ironically, this resurrection is itself something of an Easter egg – it won’t happen at all if you beat Scorch quickly enough. As soon as he’s appeared, though, you barely notice that Scorch is there any more – this is Buzz’s story.
Not that that’s much comfort for him. The cosmos of the Spyro games is a majestic refracted fairy-tale, an imaginative free-for-all whose splintered landscapes reflect its cornucopian creativity; a dizzying world of colour and magic and abundance. It’s a world that looks perfect, feels perfect, and should be perfect for everyone. But there’s a sickness to it, lurking beneath the splendid surface: a profound failure of compassion, the inescapable flaw written in every jagged fragment of this exploded world. The players share in this culpability, at least to an extent: Year of the Dragon might not be Shadow of the Colossus, but Spyro and Sparx’s hypocritical, vampiric treatment of lesser creatures and casual disregard for those whose lives have been most severely warped by the Sorceress’s magic still jars every time we pause for a moment to think about what we’re doing. For all her pantomime posturing, the Sorceress never actually kills anyone, which is something that cannot be said about our supposed hero. Locked in their epic struggle, the game’s hero and villain are diametrically opposed, sharing only one thing in common: utter disregard for the little folk, for anyone who exists below their heroic, monarchic stature. Caught between these warring titans, Buzz – a simple servant creature vilified, crushed by the gears of the wealthy and powerful, roundly ignored – embodies this failure more purely and fatally than anyone or anything else.
There are those in the world of Spyro who see these things as they are – who reject the hegemony of the cruel and the sorcerous. There must be a place for them. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from the Forgotten Realms. Avalar I guess?