Monday, March 17, 2014

Why does Dracula ride the elevator?

at 7:00 PM
Because his bats were on the other side.

So I mentioned last week that in Lords of Shadow 2 we get to play as Dracula, one of the great villains of literature, cinema, video-gamey, and most famously, Castlevania 64. This Drac ain't no pretty-boy good guy vampire like Twilight Sparkle or Kid Dracula or Bill Frampton - he's a bona fide lord of the night whose power was ripped directly from the face of Satan and used to send armies of darkness (on DVD) across Europe, decimating kingdoms, raping babies, and crushing the saintly warriors who dared challenge him. The first scene post-prologue gives us a first person view as Dracula feasts on a wailing mother and father (and implicitly their baby). He's definitely got a bit of the-world-wasn't-fair-to-me-so-I'm-not-gonna-be-fair-to-it brooding going on, but that's buried deep down inside where any good Darth Vader keeps it. 

We play as textbook "anti-heroes" all the time in games (it's the easiest way to justify murder-based gameplay), but the potential for an outright villainous protagonist is tempting. A villain has limitless potential - he isn't bound to a journey of redemption or evolution, so his arc can proceed in all kinds of unexpected directions. We aren't required to sympathize with a villain, only pity him. The Legacy of Kain is perhaps my favorite example - the story of the wrongfully murdered Kain whose quest for revenge is twisted by his moral destitution into world domination which in turn tears apart the metaphysical fabric of right and wrong, reflecting his inner perversion on the lands he claims to rule. Playing as a villain gives us the chance to live out power fantasies and perceive the translation of an internal compensatory struggle into external violence. 

In Lords of Shadow 2, our main character and would-be main villain Dracula, the final boss of dozens of Castlevanias past and single-handed slaughterer of an entire crusader army (seen in the prologue), rides a lot of elevators. 
That's how he gets up and down multi-story skyscrapers (and of course how the game hides loading times in the background)
The first time I found my Dracula-self milling about in an elevator the same way I do every night on the way up to my apartment, I realized something was wrong. It's an infinitely mundane and passive activity. Boring, maybe a bit soothing; patient. It's not that I believe Dracula is a stairs man or needs to turn into a bat and smash through the window everywhere he goes (although that is kinda what I imagine), it's just that I don't need to see him taking the elevator. Were it left off-screen I could infer that it happens, but I never would, because why the fuck would I be thinking about that. It is eminently skippable. Watching it, being made to think about it, ponder what's going through Dracula's head and if he's staring at the buttons light up as I do, totally disengages me from the character, particularly any sense of menace he may wield. Another game I played recently that used elevators for loading was DmC - in that it was made into a joke about Dante's impatience and fit with a character who was being railroaded through events, only barely able to clutch at threads of his own destiny. If Dracula is supposed to be a godly being, the only monster capable of matching Satan himself, he'd probably ought to be beyond things I do in my daily routine. Do we need to see him taking a leak? Or brushing his teeth? With all those nasty mutants and demons he digs his teeth into, Dracul probably needs some pretty potent Crest. 

Movies are a lot pickier about what they show because of time limitations and technical freedoms. They can easily switch perspective or setting without disorienting the viewer because they're already cut together from bits and pieces. Video games are typically more straightforward narratives and while indeed they may take the filmic approach, as does Asura's Wrath, they tend to mine realism from continuous worlds. Could Shadow of the Colossus present its boss battle gameplay with a stage select and loading screens? Sure, but it would come at the cost of its grand scale, oppressive isolation, and haunting melancholy. Not all game worlds form such a cohesive picture, and we tend to make jokes of the little absurdities: why is Link breaking pots instead of saving Zelda? Why are we breeding racing chickens in Final Fantasy VII when the world is on the brink of apocalypse? These asides may threaten our suspension of disbelief, but they're driven by a gameplay-first mentality that only undermines the narrative for the sake of sustaining playability. If we're having fun we're more likely to keep engaged and distracted from mundanities, so this works as an exchange. 

Dracula's elevator rides certainly aren't an exchange of gameplay for realism, so do they maintain the continuity of the virtual world? Well, they fill it out in some sense. They answer the question that Yes, Dracula does ride the elevator. And that answer makes me feel a lot lamer to be taking the reigns of the classic villain. It's only a component in a larger story syndrome - Drac is once again taking orders from an ostensibly more knowledgeable and influential character, he's fighting his own minions (mind-controlled!) rather than holy warriors and vampire slayers (except for that tantalizing intro segment), and he plays almost identically to Gabriel Belmont from the previous game. In fact he isn't much of a character at all. It's nice to suck my foes' blood, but that's just not enough to make me feel like the Prince of Darkness. 

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