Playing Spyro: Reignited brought back a lot of happy memories from my childhood. It was a real treat to see it, not as I remembered it, but infused with this staggeringly-beautiful, Pixar-esque aesthetic that channeled the whimsy of the original games. But my experience of playing the remastered trilogy went beyond admiring its exceptional visuals and indulging my own nostalgia. Now I was playing the games as an adult, and I hadn’t planned on this sensation to be as strange as it indeed was.
Perspective counts for a lot. When you’re a kid, you’re too innocent to realize that Willy Wonka is obviously a serial killer. You’re not yet jaded enough to spot the Nazi imagery in The Lion King, and you’re not yet cynical enough to realize that Alice in Wonderland is one giant acid trip. And the less said about David Bowie’s fucking Labyrinth the better.
What I’m trying to say is that children’s stories come from the minds of adults, and often enough you can dissect them for adult themes. As far as the child is concerned, Winnie the Pooh is nothing more than a colorful story about animal friends and their wholesome adventures. But watch it as an adult and you will quickly realize that Eeyore’s craving the sweet release of death just as much as you are, you fucking loser.
Anyway, this was true for my experience of playing Spyro as an adult- particularly Ripto’s Rage. Sometimes the dark stuff you see is wholly intentional, other times it slips out of the creator’s subconscious, and sometimes it’s completely inferred by the consumer. I’ve always believed that art is a subjective and unique experience for each individual, that we each bring our own traumas to whatever piece of art we consume. The same song or painting will make two different people feel completely different emotions.
For what it’s worth, here are some ideas I had about Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. Call them what you what; Creepypastas, fan theories, conspiracies, subliminal messages, or just a sad twat reading way too much into things- in a way they’re all valid.
- There’s something disturbing about Sunny Beach…
When Spyro arrives at Sunny Beach he’s asked by the native Turtles to stop the Water Workers from abducting their babies. In the intro scene we observe the dastardly Water Workers packing the baby Turtles into shipping containers and hurrying them off to an unknown location. This is already disturbing enough- but it gets worse if you look deeper. The motivations for these abductions are never explicitly stated, but I think there are three equally likely possibilities. At first I figured either the Water Workers are running a sex trafficking ring or they’re eating the poor baby Turtles, each of which are pretty fucked up in their own way. The latter theory is backed up by the Master Chef side mission. The Water Workers are aided throughout the level by the Ducks. But there’s this one freakishly malformed Duck named Master Chef that’s boiling the baby Turtles alive and making soup out of them. As a child this whole quest scared me, and I’m still convinced that Master Chef is the most evil character in the Spyro universe. You can’t fight him or reason with him; you have to play his twisted game and try to save the little Turtles from kamikazying into the broth. However it’s unclear whether his motivations align with the Water Workers, since he’s a different species, and he might just be a random psycho that’s taking advantage of the surrounding chaos to fulfill his own twisted desires.
My third theory for the Water Workers’ motivations, however, is more sympathetic. As I progressed through the level, I wondered whether this really was a conflict of good versus evil. What if the events of Sunny Beach are much more morally-complex? Given the Water Workers’ name, and the fact that the Ducks all wear hardhats, I got the idea that what was really unfolding was a labor strike. The Ducks and the Water Workers might be treated as second class citizens in a classist society, in which they represent the proletariat and the Turtles the bourgeoisie. Perhaps the Water Workers are only kidnapping the baby turtles as a kind of ransom, holding them hostage until their demands for equality are met?
- Gems are actually worthless…
Just looking at the world of Avalar I get the feeling it’s a post-scarcity anarchist society. There’s no evidence of publically-funded institutions like schools, hospitals or council estates. We know there are goods and products, but in Avalar everything pretty much runs on magic, so there’s no real economy that’s comparable to ours. You could point to the interdimensional portals as being the equivalent to a national railroad service, but since they’re based on magic, I can’t imagine they require any kind of upkeep. There’s a lot going on in Avalar but I don’t recall seeing any evidence of capitalism. The only person that really gives value to the gems is Moneybags. This got me thinking: maybe, just maybe, Moneybags is in fact a homeless crackpot, a local eccentric suffering from severe mental health issues that give him quixotic delusions of grandeur. He boasts of submarines and mansions but we never actually see him using or inhabiting them. Perhaps he found his tuxedo in a skip outside a supper club and goes about trying to convince everyone he’s actually this Dan Bilzerian style playboy, living a life of luxury and excess. Spyro never says anything when Moneybags demands gems, so I take that to mean that Spyro pities him, and that everyone goes along with Moneybag’s harmless fantasy, even when he’s annoying them by obstructing their path. In my opinion this theory fits with what we see in the game, and it actually reminds me of a few local eccentrics in my hometown. Just last week I was walking along a deserted road on my way home from work. A man was coming the other way. As he passed me, he kept imitating the revving of a far-off motorcycle, going “RUMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUMMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUM-RUM!” and I wondered if he thought he were a budgerigar trained to mimic the sounds he heard.
- Where are all the humans?
We know that human beings exist in the Spyro universe, but they don’t have any sort of established presence. It’s interesting to me that humans are included, but only as a small footnote. They have no power, influence, or any kind of societal structure. Why include them at all? The few we meet seem unsettlingly out of place, and we are given the impression that they’ve stumbled into a world in which they don’t belong. Let’s look at the case of the twins Handel and Greta, who we meet in Scorch. Here we have two unsupervised children claiming to be secret agents, roaming around a hostile alien landscape that we know they are not native to. Because they are young children, they’re oblivious to the madness of the world around them and seem unaware that they don’t belong. The natives are trying to do horrific things to them, but to Handel and Greta it’s all part of their little game. It’s later revealed that they share this childish fantasy with Agent Zero- a character it’s heavily implied is suffering some kind of mental illness. We see Agent Zero in the Cloud Temples level, where he keeps boasting that he is a very important secret agent working on a highly classified mission. Like the twins, he seems completely oblivious to the carnage going on around him and just seems very out of place. If you manage to follow him without being spotted, you realize that there is no base of operations. It’s like when kids refer to a little glade in the woods as their “hideout” or something, and they don’t want anyone to know about it that isn’t part of their game. After you follow him, he even inducts you into the fantasy, believing that you must be part of his imaginary club. Agent Zero bears a striking resemblance to literary icons Lennie Small and Boo Radley, both of which suffer from non-specific mental disabilities. What isn’t clear however, is whether Agent Zero is a disabled character lost in a fantasy world (and due to his impairment, is less shocked by his surroundings), or if he was a normal person that, after prolonged exposure to the absolute madness of Avalar, was driven slowly insane.
The last human character we meet is the most mysterious- Basil the Explorer. He seems much more stable than the other three, which indicates that perhaps he has some knowledge of Avalar and has traveled there of his own free will, perhaps out of scientific curiosity. We find him stranded in Mystic Marsh after his jeep breaks down. Like the other humans we have covered, Basil seems disturbingly out of place. His broken vehicle reminded me of literary tropes involving characters becoming lost in fantasy realms- usually it’s a wardrobe or a rabbit hole, and sometimes it’s a Malaysian airplane. Imagine you’re a nauseatingly-British explorer with an oversized moustache that smells permanently of chip butties and imperialism, on safari in the African savannah. You’re driving along, when all of a sudden, imperceptibly, the environment around you changes. It’s subtle- the acacia trees now have treehouses connected by boardwalks, the water is now purple, and all the elephants and rhinos have snail shells on their backs. It’s like a nightmare you’re trying to wake up from. In fact, the Mystic Marsh level has a theme of insomnia and psychosis. It’s a world out of balance; the magic water fountain that lulls the animals into sleep is broken, and now they’re rampaging around the place in an orgy of violence, driven mad by the inability to rest. Or perhaps the fountain itself is evil, suppressing the animals into a state of constant drowsiness like some dystopian mind control drug, and now that they’re free, the animals want revenge on their mystic overlords. Either way, I think the animals and the fountain represent Basil’s desire to break free and return to the real world.
- Avalar is in fact a post-apocalyptic wasteland…
This theory is sort of a continuation of the last one, but with a twist. Instead of the humans being lost voyageurs from another world, perhaps they are in fact the true natives of Avalar, but an apocalyptic event has diminished their numbers. This would also explain for Handel and Greta’s lack of adult supervision, Agent Zero’s mental illness, and Basil the Explorer’s strange isolation. It’s further supported by the fact that other locations throughout Avalar show signs of human influence but are devoid of a human presence. Let’s look at the robot societies for example. Metropolis is a city of robots that resembles something you might see in the real world. The robots are depicted wearing ties and standing in line for the bus. I got the feeling that something happened to the humans- either some kind of deadly plague or a violent robot uprising. Because let’s face it- someone had to build and program those robots. The creators likely fashioned them in their own image. Over in Robotica Farms, the robots even have hick accents and mimic human behavior- for instance one of them is chewing straw and wearing dungarees. Robots don’t need organic food products, and yet they are maintaining the farm anyway. It’s like the robots of Metropolis and Robotica Farms have replaced their human masters and are following the pre-programmed AI subroutines given to them. It’s creepy isn’t it? A world where robots think they are humans and go on imitating human life. My apocalypse theory is further evidenced by the Bone Builder and Ice Builder cultures. The natives of Skelos Badlands and Crystal Glacier are the same species, but are they human? At first I didn’t think they resembled the likes of Agent Zero and the other humans I mentioned in the last section. I figured they are most likely a separate species within the same genus, in a manner similar to which homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis share a common ancestor. The Bone Builders and Ice Builder peoples are squat pygmies with large chins and pug noses. They’re little potato-headed cavemen. But if they are in fact humans, it lends credence to the human apocalypse theory. Perhaps their species once achieved scientific greatness, and lived highly complex lives in cities like Metropolis. They built robots and genetically altered farmyard animals to become hyper-intelligent. Once their society collapsed, those that survived fell into a primitive, Stone Age existence. The diaspora of human survivors had a schism, with one tribe settling in the equatorial region of Avalar and the other heading for the polar ice caps. What do you think?
- The Wizards of Cloud Temples are actually evil…
No level encapsulates the series’ universal contempt for animal rights quite like Cloud Temples. In the intro scene, the Wizards are petrifying goats into stone. The Warlocks attempt to free the animals by disarming the Wizards. This issue starts a civil war between the two factions (see: slavery in the United States circa 1860). A lot of books and movies aimed at children feature colorful cartoon animals. But in the case of Spyro– a game marketed toward children- the animals are invariably portrayed as the bad guys, and you are outright encouraged to slaughter them en masse. There’s something insidious and troubling about the developers’ design choices for the Wizards and Warlocks respectively. The Wizards are made to look friendly with more gentle and soothing colors and voices. The Warlocks are meant to be viewed as evil given their red-black color scheme, maniacal laughter, and sharp teeth. When Spyro arrives in Cloud Temples, he dutifully and enthusiastically murders every Warlock and every free-roaming animal in sight. This is the most clear example I can think of where the game has you fighting for the wrong side, because you’re essentially putting down a political coup so that the Wizards can maintain control of the realm and use their powers for their own sadistic games. It should be noted that the Warlocks never kill any Wizards. They simply disarm them so that they stop being jerks. Whereas the Wizards enlist you to murder the Warlocks in revenge.
- Life in Avalar has no value whatsoever.
My final theory builds on from the last one in many ways. Avalar is not a world in which you want to live. It’s a world devoid of justice and civil rights, in which the only law is the law of the gun. Violence is so much a part of everyday life that its inhabitants are numb to it. When most games tackle the issue of violence- such as Spec Ops: The Line, Metro: Last Light, This War of Mine, and so on- the graphic bloodletting is reflected in an aesthetic that is suitably grim and bleak. But the fact that the violence in Spyro is offset by tones that are twee, cheerful, and bright, is somehow even more creepy. Grief and mourning don’t exist in Spyro’s world. Death is treated as something light-hearted and comedic. If you engulf an innocent sheep in flames, its eyes will be left hovering untouched in the air for a few seconds, blinking and dumbfounded. In the Skelos Badlands, Catbats toy with the Bone Builders, holding them in mid-air for several agonizing seconds before dropping them into seas of lava. Then they cackle with glee. In Aquaria Towers, the Water Workers (of child-catching fame) torture the native Sea Horses by draining their world of water and taunting them over it, presumably just for a laugh. In Magma Cone, when his mate gets unceremoniously killed by a falling boulder of molten rock, the faun is seen laughing. He accepts it as a part of the comic absurdity intrinsic to the world in which he lives. Like I said, there is no grieving in Avalar. Every misfortune is met with laughter. It’s a land of nightmarish absurdity and casual violence, set against a backdrop that’s surreal and dreamlike. What do you think? What elements of Spyro cause you sleepless nights? Comment your thoughts down below!