Spyro Reignited was released on PC recently, so I snagged a copy and started playing my way through the trilogy. I had originally planned an epic blog post encapsulating my views about all three games, but as my mind is slipping more and more over time and as I can’t know in advance whether each game will warrant thematically similar styles of investigation, I decided it is best to chunk things up into three, or at most four total blog posts. These blog posts are liable to be much more meditative than analytical, and may seem somewhat disjointed when read back to back due to their unplanned nature.
The first thing that jumps out about the original Spyro the Dragon is how cute and childish it is. If it weren’t for its especially polished visuals and enjoyable aesthetic qualities it could actually come across as an educational game. It has the same sort of compactness, sparseness, or even emptiness as something like Math Blaster! or Mario Teaches Typing. The simplicity of the game ends up dovetailing with its graphical appearance, general presentation, and even with its themes in a way that is not entirely unpleasant, but which must be assumed to be largely unintentional, an artifact of PS1 era game design. In the context of modern gaming, the game plays like a YouTube Unity 3d Tutorial. However, in conjunction with every other aspect of the game, this makes it feel clean, rather than merely flat.
Narratively, Spyro the Dragon is a classic coming of age story. It explores the adolescence of a young dragon as he learns valuable lessons and asserts his abilities against the backdrop of what amounts to a bowdlerized form of terrorism. The valuable lessons of course are 95% gameplay mechanics, and many of them come after the player already had to figure them out through exploration, trial, and error. In order to free many dragons from their gemstone encasings (a primary objective of the game), you have to figure out new abilities on the fly just to get to where they’re located. The dragons then give you advice or utter some quip or comment, but the advice is often an explanation of what you needed to do to free them in the first place! The uselessness and superfluousness of the dragon wisdom contribute to the childishness of the game. It also makes Spyro the Dragon feel like somebody just wrote down the basic skeletal constituents of a “Bildungsroman” in a generalized form, almost algebraically, perhaps on a cocktail napkin.
It is somewhat like looking at a skeleton in fact. The game feels unfinished in a way that is reminescent of the final segments of Metal Gear Solid 5. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 5, however, Spyro the Dragon has a much clearer concept of the essence of its genre. The result is an unintentional exploration, not of a specific dragon’s story, so much as the highly abstracted liminal space of adolescence in general. This degree of abstraction, combined with other aspects of the game, lends itself to a broad range of interpretations or applicability. The game is very unlikely to truly contain them; it is basically all broth and no soup as far as that’s concerned; but it allows for them, and in interesting ways.
First the context: Spyro the Dragon is true to many dragon myths, including eastern dragon mythos, in that all the dragons are male. However, the maleness of dragons in mythology is generally metaphysical, not literal, with dragons being principles or spirits. A superficial similarity with angels exists, however, angels are typically considered metaphysically genderless and merely depicted as male, whereas dragons are typically considered materially genderless but metaphysically male. The question then emerges, is Spyro the Dragon meant to be metaphysical? It seems like a silly question to ask about a children’s game, but it is not entirely unreasonable.
The dragon realms in Spyro are divided into mostly creative forces and one Martian force: The Artisans, Magic Crafters, Beast Makers, and Dream Weavers, and the Peacekeepers respectively. I can’t immediately think of a singular example of a traditional metaphysics that corresponds to this taxonomy, but it seems broadly compatible with Jungian and Campbellian archetypes. Combined with the sparseness of the story itself, Spyro the Dragon could easily be interpreted as a new age metaphysics using draconic imagery, exploring the liminal space of adolescence. In this context it would be another example of an initiatory video game, much like Undertale.
However, the dragons do not seem idealized enough to be full blown forms, and in the sort of Jungian/Campbellian space they dwell in we are dealing more with psychology than full blown metaphysics. The characters are archetypes, not essences. Not even that: they correspond to archetypes, without themselves being archetypes, because they have individualized characteristics that lack metaphysical significance, like linguistic accents, food preferences, and cognitive deficiencies. So while the proper approach to analyzing Spyro the Dragon may include semiotic considerations, it pertains to the domain of psychology and warrants that style of analysis, rather than a metaphysical one.
Thus their maleness cannot be metaphysical, even though it may take as its template metaphysical lore. If their maleness is not metaphysical it must be taken as psychological metaphor (broadly reducible to the unseen material which it indexes) or material. Thus, Spyro the Dragon takes place in a world, whether material or psychic, in which all dragons are literally male. Further, it is canonical that dragons reproduce by using fairies, which while stereotypically feminine in presentation do not seem to engage with the dragons along sexual lines. It is true that Spyro can receive a kiss from a fairy, but it is notable that even in this case, Spyro does not blush or indeed show any reaction to the kiss at all, maintaining an entirely platonic composure, even given the advanced graphics of Reignited.
Taken together, this is still only sufficient to prove that Spyro the dragon is androcentric. The most obvious character of the story is still that of a young male dragon learning how to be an adult: a man, in the broadest sense. So it is no surprise that the story is androcentric, and the absence of female dragons mostly serves to center this aspect of the story. Certainly Spyro is not sexualized in any other sense, nor is there any sexuality present in the whole of the game that I could discern. But the shift from metaphysical gender to literal gender results in a subtle yet unavoidable semiotic shift into queer territory.
What is very interesting about this shift is that it doesn’t have the effect of subsuming the masculinity of Spyro, either the game or the dragon, into the broader territory of queerness. The game remains fundamentally about masculinity first, and becomes queer in a qualified way. It does this by negotiating the transformation from “boy” to “man” through a lens that, accidentally or intentionally, uses a semiotic framework that is broad enough to have referents in general adolescence while simultaneously being overloaded in such a way that additional meaning becomes accessible when interpreted queerly. In this respect, Spyro the Dragon is Steganographic.
The use of fairies to reproduce has obvious parallels to the way gay men sometimes use women to procreate, whether outside of marriage or through lavender marriage. This then becomes part of the initiatory message of Spyro the Dragon. Going further, the enemies in the game are gnorcs, which are dismissed in the opening cinematic as “ugly” (apparently the worst term of disparagement in the game). However, the dragons themselves are often very homely. This suggests ugliness as having a more operationalized meaning. The enemies in the games are all gemstones that were turned into monsters, while the good guys are dragons that were turned into gemstones. Taken together, this reads as a metaphor for the development of gaydar, albeit in a strictly non-sexual sense; in that very specific pre-sexual, even protosexual sense known to all queer people and denied systematically by straight and cisgender people. Spyro the Dragon thus very carefully navigates the pathway from the nascent and burgeoning psychic roots of adolescent gay male perception to the full blown semiotic networks of adult gay male gaydar (the adult dragons themselves could all be dragon versions of Rocky Horror Picture Show characters). It does so without ever breaching the inviolate innocence of youth, and thus masterfully avoids even a hint of pedophilia.
The salience of a given being clicks on or off for Spyro as he explores the space around him. Things are constantly revealed as their opposite. Spyro exists in a world without friends until he frees them from their initial appearances by investigation or action. Enemies intrude on the physical and semiotic space of the dragons until they are defeated, at which point they revert to inert objects.
Spyro the Dragon is thus interpretable as a Utopian parable about gay male reproduction and psychic development, in which the masculine development of each dragon takes absolute priority over sexuality, which merely becomes a self-aligning psychic-semiotic framework embedded in the broader masculine context which grows platonically until it presumably transforms into its non-platonic form in adulthood (a morphological division made hyper clear by the fact that Spyro is quadrupedal while the adult dragons are bipedal). It is the gay component of boy scouts minus the pederasty; in a sense, the solution to the total problem of gay self-perpetuation. It is a gay Spartan Elysium.
In the context of our coming simulationism, it is worth noting that all reproduction will occur without gender, that there will be no gender at all in certain respects. Spyro the Dragon easily provides a template in which a metaphysical maleness can be preserved, albeit in a self-propagating homosexual context, and with dragons. If anyone is interested in taking this template and running with it, I would be happy to add it to the list of Dragonsphere nation proposals.