Spyro the Dragon: Reignited Trilogy analysis

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.

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Spyro 2 is going to get the same treatment but weirder. Different themes, different implications.

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Finished Spyro 2. Should I post that review in here when I’m done with it (probably sometime over the weekend) or make a new thread?

Post it here.

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Spyro 2 is a much different game from the original. It begins with the same innocence, perhaps even to a degree that feels forced, as Spyro and his dragonfly sidekick Sparx decide to go on a vacation. Unfortunately, at the same time a plucky collection of misfit furries decide they need to kidnap a dragon and shanghai him into service against Ripto, some sort of evil monster-sorcerer with dictatorial impulses who hails from another world. Hijinx ensue, treasures are collected, worlds are traversed, and Ripto is defeated, restoring the world of “Avalar”. Pretty straightforward stuff on the surface.

Spyro 2 is markedly less masculinist and homosexual than the first game, but not to a degree that forces discontinuity with that interpretation. Spyro 2 is in fact a story about capitalism. It accomplishes this not just through the presence of the mercenary merchant Moneybags, a character who fleeces Spyro for a sizeable portion of the treasure he collects throughout the game, but through its entire structure as a game, both ludologically and narratively. There are many layers to this.

The first layer is the narrative. Spyro is brought into a world against his will where he is immediately subject to the needs and demands of a besieged foreign power. To achieve his own objective (a vacation, which we’ll see is fitting enough later), he must satisfy these needs and demands by accumulating and expending various treasures and rare items. It is worth noting immediately that in the first Spyro game, treasure was not really a medium of exchange. It was a totemic or symbolic collective clan property of the dragons in totality, watched over faithfully by the Peacekeeper branch of the dragon world. It didn’t do anything except increase the glory of the dragons as a whole, much as captured treasure left at a shrine to Jupiter did for the Romans in the early days of their empire. Even after it was stolen by the Gnorcs (or converted into Gnorcs, rather*), the closest we get to an exchange is when a balloonist asks to see the treasure, reinforcing the idea that it is valuable in a metaphysical rather than material, capitalist since. This is very interesting, because it demonstrates that the dragons when left to their own devices have traditional, pre-capitalist ideas about property, or at least certain classes of property.

In Spyro 2, Spyro learns that treasure can be given to Moneybags in exchange for skills, assistance, and access in various senses that mostly just lead to the accumulation of more treasure in the typical circular pattern of capitalism. He learns that certain classes of treasure, namely orbs, can be given to a scientist/engineer to use for technical feats of various sorts, and he learns that the accumulation of talismans, essentially badges of respect or status from the various worlds he visits, allow him to unlock access to the major areas of the game. Thus Spyro learns about property in the unique sense of capital: he literally learns about capitalism. This much is utterly undeniable and not open to a converse interpretation of any sort. In addition to property as capital, he also learns about social capital through the objectified medium of the talismans.

Throughout the game Spyro enters a variety of worlds which are mostly primitive and pre-capitalist in a similar vein to the dragon world. However, an important point of distinction is that these worlds seem to lack the strong concept of communal property that the dragons have towards their treasure. Very close to none of the characters who give you orbs place any importance on them at all. I was worried this could be read as a metaphor for colonialist exploitation at first, but no harm seems to come from the deprivation of resources of the locals of each world. What happens instead is like a LARPers bowdlerized pastiche of colonialism: a children’s interpretation. It almost seems as if each world is a capitalist facsimile of pre-capitalism in this respect**

Throughout the worlds, ethnic homogeneity is well established (albeit in terms of “ethnicity” like Seahorse, Bird, Worm, Caveman, and Satyr that blend disproportionately with furry subspecies), with fault lines in various conflicts typically occurring along these strange pseudo-ethnic lines. This again reads as imitative of a past that cannot be reclaimed within the framework of capitalism: each world has a sort of vacuum of property conceptions rather than a true pre-capitalist framework of alternate property conceptions. Even worlds that have strong concepts of work, territory, or occupation are kind of just going through the motions. Avalar is a collection of worlds that have forgotten capitalism, being subjected from the outside to capitalism.

Which brings us to our next layers: The characters of Hunter, Elora, the Professor, and Moneybags carry a lot of weight. There is their literal and their indirect significance, meaning in their characters they actually represent two or three layers rather than just one. These characters are somewhat free floating in their relationship to each other, which is what allows them to take on so much significance in so many different ways.
If treated as an organization, Elora would be the face, Hunter would be a stand-in for whatever the gamer views as the most useless element of the organization (either the CEO or the main workforce, presumably), and the Professor would be a one-person engineering department. It is not hard to read them as being equivalent to a corporation in this respect: Elora deals with Spyro, so she is the HR department, and so it all falls into place. Moneybags in this context is simply the Everything Else company. Sort of like Acme in Looney Tunes. In this reading, in addition to Spyro being a shanghaied soldier in Avalar’s army (the only soldier in fact), he is also a contracted worker being paid on a gig-by-gig basis. The two merge pretty seamlessly in what amounts to a probably unintentionally Rothbardian symmetry of power and market.

This leads immediately to the next interpretation of their relationship: Hunter, being useless, could represent the state. Elora could represent woke or neoliberal capital. The Professor could represent STEM as an industry. Finally, Moneybags could represent mercenary or unwoke capital. The main argument for this reading is that Hunter expropriates Moneybag’s legitimate earnings at the end of the game and gives them to Spyro. Hunter is seen throughout the game to be incapable of using force competently in any context except here, against the unwoke merchant class. Moneybags is also seen to be amoral, selling bombs to Ripto at one point and occasionally slipping up and calling Spyro a sucker after a purchase. But Elora does not care about the treasure or even the orbs, giving them all over to Spyro at the end of the game as a reward. This seems to reflect Neoliberal Capitalism’s fixation on the maintenance of structures which produce perceived meaning and status even at the expense of the actual accumulation of capital.

In the end, Avalar becomes a kingdom that is hollowed out of all of its capital in the name of preserving its character from a foreign aggressor, when its character is a collection of hollow parodies of pre-capitalist societies embedded in a larger capitalist context. In turn, that context enters a kind of stasis in the absence of further possibilities of capitalist exchange: Avalar becomes frozen, incapable of further transformation or growth, and thus the de-facto authorities of Avalar maintain their authority indefinitely, defined primarily by their contrast to the unfettered (IE, substantive or even just “actual”) capitalism of Moneybags, as well as the outside context threat of Ripto, who represents dictatorship, rule by force and so forth.
The three paradigms on display in Spyro are thus Authoritarianism, represented by Ripto, which is seen to be radically alien to Avalar and its subworlds, Neoliberalism, which in this context is best understood as a kind of superstructure formed in the crucible of capitalism which persists after the high waters of capitalism recede, and lastly, capitalism itself, the unfettered capitalism of Moneybags, without which the triumph of Spyro over Ripto and the liberation of Avalar is impossible but which represents a threat to the neoliberal regime even greater than Ripto by being indifferent to it, larger than it, and a force for change and growth rather than stability. In the end, Spyro is entrusted with the treasure while Moneybags is disallowed the treasure not because Spyro earned it (he may well have), but because Spyro is unthreatening.

.* At the end of the game, when Spyro goes to Dragon shores, he encounters a Gnorc who asks for what amounts to most of the treasure of Avalar just to enter and play a few cheap (and sometimes unsafe) carnival games. Since Gnorcs are constituted of Gems according to the first game, the acquisition of Gems can be seen to aid Gnorc reproduction. Capitalism’s indifference is thus shown again, but in a mixed context, establishing it as a force for cosmopolitanism, while at the same time showing that a traditional enemy of the dragons grows in population as a result of it and Spyro’s naivety or need for entertainment. In the end it is his need for luxury which leads to this, for a break from the gig economy of capitalism, which originally was simply a need for novelty. Thus the need for novelty is seen as the Pandora’s Box that opened the gate through which capitalism entered, which threatens to again undermine the traditionalism of the dragon culture by enabling its enemies. However, since Spyro self-actualized (masculinized) in the context of a war against dragon culture’s enemies, the dragon culture is seen to be reasonably inoculated against this contingency by absorbing this into its symbolic and literal ecosystem.

** Having immersed myself in Landian theory-fiction and by extension Deleuzian ramblings about time, and having that strange disease of constant semiotic confusion, it is impossible not to comment that this reads to me as a tale about relative post-scarcity simulationism in the far future in which artificial cultures form along fault lines of politics, capitalism, and cargo-cult capitalism while attempting to reclaim ancestral meaning and merge it with modern sign and culture.