Posted by & filed under Blog.

Heya Space Cadets,

Know something I added into the first game that made me look stupid now? Not terribly stupid, but a little stupid: those stupid little dragons. Did you know I was originally going to make a “Hardest Enemy” for people to face, and we never really settled on what it would be? I originally had three, and have some art for them. One was a Balrog type creature, one was the Traitor King on a massive throne carried by several of his warriors, and the last was a Cthulhu-Dragon where I had a big squid-head on top of the dragon neck.

We didn’t do any of them because the balancing was a pain, there was no place for them mechanically to exist that would justify their insane difficulty, and those dragons were a nightmare to draw properly. They were actually the first things I started on aside from the Dwarfs, since I like to start with the hardest stuff and work my way back to the easiest. Individually they had so many layers to get all the parts to move properly, and doing it all in pixel format required many redos and a huge amount of fiddling around. As the first real things I had ever tried to do in a pixel art format (I had always worked in 3D animation before then) these dragons were terrorizing me and I didn’t know if I’d ever finish them. I stopped, did everything else, and came back to them at the end. Curves and scales and coloration like that? Ugh! UGH. Never again. Except in the sequel. When it will be worse.

Much worse. Do you know why? Because the dragons were too easy to do.

Let’s talk about a dragon for a minute. What is a dragon? Is it a fire breathing dinosaur? It could be, but that’s a bit dumb. What does that do besides threaten the player physically? I could make flying lightning-spitting Mammoths and stomp players just as well. I could throw Weeping Angels into Delve Deeper and kill more Dwarfs than a dragon would. So what does a dragon really do, in any context, that’s better than just having a big dumb monster? If the response is “Be Fantasy-Esque” then that’s a bit of a cop-out, since you could do a whole bunch of other stuff. There are pictures of Trolls as large as a mountain, for example. Even big, big dragons are rarely THAT big. So really, what is a dragon about?

Let us just assume for a minute that I am not attempting to make them fit a specific size. Referring back to legend and their most mythic visions, dragons can be, concisely, seen as our fears and failings made manifest. When someone says, “Here there be dragons” in reference to a land never seen, they are speaking about the fear of the unknown, and the terror that rises from ignorance. Saint George’s dragon was a creature in a lake that bore the plague and brought death to the animals and people of the land out of a people’s fear of it. The thing is usually pictured as the size of an alligator, so really, someone shoulda’ just gone down there with a shovel and done that sucker in. Smaug, to pick a topical dragon, lusted after gold and fine things. Greed, ignorance, fear, hate, these are the essence of a dragon. They are the fist of your uneasy conscience. This does not mean they have to be purely metaphorical beasts, defeated with true love or charity or whatever, but if you were looking for a theme to them, that is the one I would zero in on.

I think you should have many dragons, or big ones. I know it’s popular to depict the dragon as a force of nature, which is an interesting interpretation, but one I’m not sure about. I have never really liked the elemental dragon thing, but if people want to evolve the meaning that’s their call. I certainly think that dragons should represent more of man’s own capacity for weakness than the world’s unfairness to him, since the world is generally benign. Sure, it may smack you down with a hurricane time to time, but it also yields unfathomable bounty and puts up with quite a lot of abuse. Ascribing a negative face to this natural process seems a bit self-centered and uneducated.

So why do I think Delve Deeper 2’s dragons are going to be a much bigger pain to do? They’ve got to be big. They’ve got to be big and they’ve got to be terrifying and they’ve got to really break the rules you’re used to playing with. This doesn’t mean I can’t have a few young whelps hunting in the tunnels, but I’m not sure if a dragon is a literal breeding creature or if I want to come up with something more fantastical. In any case, we’re going to need to see a big dragon as something so far out of your league that the very idea of fighting back is crazy talk. I want to try and figure out how big I can represent a dragon, and then figure out how I could even have people battle them, black arrows notwithstanding.

Now, my guess is that will not be many angry about this change from tiny dragons to mountain-shattering dragons, or ditching a color-coded difficulty scale. But for whatever reason, it still bugs me to undo work that I should have done properly the first time around. Maybe I am just nuts, but I think people get aggravated with rewrites like that, though maybe not in a situation like this. But moving forwards, I want to make sure I’m doing it right. And I want to make sure, this time, that I’m the one slaying this dragon, instead of being beaten by it. If I can imbue these things with one iota of the crippling fear they bred in me while I was making them, they’ll horrify the players unimaginably.

Spacelab Signing Out

If there has to be something that exists as a top-dog terror, I think it’s got to be them, more than anything else. I do not think any other mythic terror better expresses our baser natures or the crippling, impotent fears we feel in the face of such unknowable, unstoppable violence. This is something that should lurk in the shadows, burn your world to ashes, and do it all from the safety of the night air. Properly handled to the extent of their ability, few things fight dirtier and are harder to threaten than a dragon. What do you like about dragons? What would you like to see from them in the next game?

Neil Wickman is deeply troubled by pixilated beasties.

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.