Monday, September 15, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #14

Dino Eggs

Acting to defy my 2600- and arcade-honed instincts, which consigned me mostly to colorful games where I joyously beat up hapless thugs or comically leapt over hyperactive critters, the Commodore 64 had a way of somehow creating appeal in the bizarre, the weird, and the unusual, an outgrowth of which was my introduction to and appreciation for themes that were a lot more complex. Before then, I didn't realize that games were capable of that kind of emotional conveyance or serious subject-matter.

Dino Eggs was up front with its distressing tale, a preview of which began scrolling above the title screen's logo immediately after it crashed down: While experimenting with his new time-warping capability, the explorative Time Master Tim traveled to the Jurassic period and accidentally infected dinosaurs with measals, condemning them to extinction. To rectify the situation, the remorseful Tim plans to travel back in time and essentially quarantine the infected subjects.

I didn't catch on to the game's storyline at first, since I was apt to skip over intros, but I eventually gave it a read and found myself a bit speechless. This subject-matter was certainly much heavier than "The enemy has captured your enchanted trophy! Go get it back!" I mean, I wasn't sure what exactly "measles" entailed (I'd only heard the word a few times and knew more about it from seeing it as a plot device in that one episode of the Honeymooners), but I was pretty sure that it was a very serious "disease," which to me was still a word that implied something monstrous and hopeless. "That's one entirely messed-up backstory," I might have thought.

Dino Eggs was an arcade-like platformer that was a lot more involved than the standard fare, but I was able to grasp the basic premise: Controlling Time Master Tim, I had to complete a stage by gathering all of the hanging dinosaur eggs, some of which were obscured by these weird shells that looked like candy drops, and bring them to safety. The catch was that I could only carry three eggs at a time, after which I'd have to work my way back to Tim's teleporter, drop the load, and warp elsewhere; as the warp commenced, I'd be awarded points and potential multiplier bonuses for my trouble (as if I had a clue what any of it meant). I found it odd that I could advance to the next stage anytime I wanted by attempting to warp without having any eggs in stock, but I rarely did, since even the thought of doing so made me feel bad; it just felt wrong, like I was shirking a responsibility--and this was even before I became aware of the plot's urgency.

Arcade-like games were understood to introduce an increasing amount of craziness for you to endure as the game elapsed, but they did so slowly and over the course of, say, ten stages or so. Dino Eggs, however, wanted me dead quicker than most; I had only reached the second stage and already there was a troublesome amount of speedy snakes inconveniently slithering about (somehow able to wriggle their way over even empty space), and large spiders were dropping down from atop the screen in almost an endless deluge. But the biggest threat, I'd soon learn, was the "dino mom," who was none-too-happy with my poaching of its offspring; I thought it was neat how the dialogue box at the screen's bottom supplied warning of upcoming dangers, including the arrival of the dino mom, which was proceeded by the instruction "start a fire." 

I ignored the warnings, of course, because I didn't yet know how to start a fire (you had to procure a piece of wood and overlap it with another), and there was too much going on for me to figure it out on the fly. The consequence of my flagrant disregard for following rules was the appearance of the dino mom, whose huge leg would come crashing down every few seconds, attempting to crush me; it made navigation of a stage's upper levels far more dangerous, since the loss of reaction time made it almost impossible to dodge a well-positioned stomp. Surviving the spider-dropping, snake-undulating, leg-stomping madness for more than a few minutes proved to be a considerable challenge.

But Dino Eggs for me wasn't really about the gameplay; in truth, I never made it further than the fifth or sixth stage, and I wasn't really invested in the idea of making greater progress. No--beyond my first sampling of it, Dino Eggs was a game that lingered with me more for its evocative presentation; every quantifiable attribute, from its story to its musical cues to its aesthetics in general, had a fascinatingly creepy vibe to it, starting with its stage-intro music, which was cheerful-sounding but had a melancholic overtone that brought to mind visions of a lonely journey to an empty, emotionally vacant world. 

The earthy-looking stages--with their frail, stony protrusions acting as ladders--rested beneath cold, eerie backdrops that featured magma-stained volcanoes whose activity surely rendered the dark-hazel skies surrounding them; oppressive mountain ranges whose unwelcoming peaks were illuminated by the sternly idle celestial bodies seen hovering between them; and other bleak, contrasting imagery that worked to create a sense of feared lifelessness. 

It felt to me as if the entire planet's activity was centered around only what Tim was doing, and the later-gleaned storyline suggested that it actually was! There was something fascinating to me about the idea of a sparsely populated world where even small events were far more important than they probably would have been in one more populous.

I also thought a lot about the game's simply composed death and transitioning "Second Life" ditties, both of which had a sad, poignant tone to them that for me captured the essence of how it would feel if I were to travel back to prehistoric times and somehow get stuck there. That was a weird thing about it--I certainly didn't want to get Tim killed, but I had a need to hear the accompanying death music in order to continue gauging how I felt about it.

And yet the part of Dino Eggs that most deeply disturbed me was Tim's death via devolution; that is, if you made contact with any roaming creature or a recently hatched dinosaur, you'd become contaminated and your numbered life-total would slowly begin to drain; the only way to heal was to retreat to the teleporter, whose shelter would fully restore Tim's health. If the meantime, the increasingly stressful countdown would continue, potentially exacerbated and sped up by any subsequent contact. Failure to address the situation would result in time running out and the most traumatic, unsettling death I'd ever seen in a video game: Tim would devolve into a spider, a nightmarish event that entailed a pretty graphic animation that showed each stage of the process.

"What a horrible fate," I'd think to myself any time the imagery that would come to mind, unsure how to diagnose my need to replay the thought and explore why I felt that way about it. "How would it feel to be stuck there in the distant past as a spider?" I'd wonder. "And what kind of pain would such a transformation entail?" I came to the conclusion that ultimate death in Dino Eggs had a type of permanence more horrifying than anything I could ever imagine.

That was my internal conflict with Dino Eggs: I didn't really feel the need to play it a whole lot, since it quickly grew too difficult, but I continued to be drawn in by its aura and the surrounding atmosphere as born from my envisioning of its dangerous world. As you can guess, it was a powerful game for me, but it was so for reasons other than those normally cited. In truth, Dino Eggs still resonates with me in much the same way, and I've never ceased being disturbed by the cold acerbity of its world. But it's all just crudely drawn images on a screen, right? Right?

I've read recently that the game's creator, David Schroeder, is working on a sequel called Dino Eggs Rebirth, which is slated to be released for the PC sometime in the near future. I intend to give it a look if not to answer one question: Does its technically realized world match the vividly constructed images that have long occupied the darkest spaces of my mind, or is Dino Eggs something better left in the past?

I'll answer that question some other time and within some other page of history.

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