My 20-year-obsession with DragonStrike's instructional videotape
"Not only have I watched the instructional VHS that came with the DragonStrike board game at least once a month since I was ten," says Don Jolly, "I've pulled this tape out at parties. I've inflicting this tape on friends. God help me, I’ve shown this thing to girls. Then, I met the video's creator."
When my father was ten years old, he wandered the backroads of Washington with a .22 rifle. From sunup to sundown, in the ungroomed spaces, he ran accompanied by ramshackle Boy Scouts without uniforms or knives. They climbed trees. They shot game. One summer evening, having discovered an old barn being used by a rival troop, they set fire to the building and whooped at their enemies as they fled.
It must’ve been a sight to see: the barn, vast beyond vast to those country kids, aflame and crumbling, its fulvous light convulsing on their unformed faces, the teeth in their unpopulated mouths. The sense of victory, as their enemy fled. It was night, and Washington, and miles from any conceivable help. The boys stayed, watching, until the fire died.
When I was ten, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house on my own. All of my attempted murders took place in video games and all of my nocturnal lights came humming from a VCR. I got along with basically everyone. Enter DragonStrike, a VHS tape in a blood red sleeve, containing a thirty-minute fantasy film shot in “hyperReality.” It arrived, in 1993, to great critical acclaim -- or, at least, as the packaging boasts, “two claws up” from “Darkfyre the Dragon.” Since then, as far as I can tell, it was preserved nowhere and remembered by no one, save myself. I have been obsessed with DragonStrike for almost twenty years.
Dan Zigal I’ve known for fifteen. I asked him to describe my relationship with the tape: “I think we can get this done in one word,” he said, “which is: awful.” He paused, then, the phone line crackling. “If you want some word choice: incomprehensible, comma, utterly. That works too.”
Understand, Dan’s words are the product of a long and bitter history between myself and the tape. Like any addict, my problem has metastasized over the years, effecting those closest to me. Not only do I watch DragonStrike at least once a month, and not only have I done so consistently since the age of ten, I pull this tape out at parties. I inflict this tape on friends. God help me, I’ve shown this thing to girls. Now I am linking it to you, in hopes that you will not hold it against me.
There are reasons, of course, for the sheer weirdness of the thing.First off, it was never sold or rented individually. Instead, it was only available as an accessory to a board game of the same title. This game was produced by TSR, the company behind Dungeons and Dragons, and was essentially D&D with training wheels. The purpose of the tape, then, was to demonstrate, in a concise and entertaining way, the rules of play. So far so good. But why, in depicting the action around the game board, does the video forgo showing the faces of the players? Why is their “dragon master” an aggressive (and sexually compelling) disembodied head? If it’s a video for kids, why include shots of blood-soaked decapitations? If it’s just a kind of advertisement for the game, why include world-building details like the Wizard’s adolescent transformation into a coyote? Why is the biggest star involved, Deron McBee (best known, today, for his role as Malibu on American Gladiators) credited at the end of DragonStrike as “Kid Fury?”
The internet, as we all know, is the most powerful goddamn platform for the sharing of trivia ever devised by man. If I could have logged onto IMDB and found the answers to the above questions straightaway, my interest in DragonStrike would have waned at the exact moment I first etched the Dead Kennedys logo onto a school desk. But online discussion of DragonStrike has always been minimal and, to an extent, I liked it that way.
Being born as a white, middle-class American in 1986, my life has been, essentially, a vessel for the popular culture of the era. As I said, for me, there were no burning barns. Instead, there was Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles and the original Nintendo, along with the secondary literature associated with each: the fan publications and message boards and “official” magazines. DragonStrike, through sheer mystery, seemed, somehow, more personal. Whereas the minutiae of videogames was the province of many, the minuitae of DragonStrike was the province of none: an unmapped corner of a media landscape which seemed to be becoming increasingly clear-cut and systematized.
I held onto my questions -- and the tape -- for years.
2006 was a miserable time, and its summer especially vile. I had just dropped out of the University of Texas, and had taken up residence in an apartment house more friendly to insects than to people. My job kept me up from sundown to 10am, and as consequence, my days grew dark and insubstantial. I began to suspect I was not a human being at all, but something new, subhuman, like a bit of pipe through which a money was directed. I was watching DragonStrike constantly, looking for a little sunny burst of childhood. Then, finally, I called Flint Dille.
Flint was both the writer and director of DragonStrike. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he was also story editor for The Transformers and G.I. Joe during the 1980s and has worked at the blurred edges of film and gaming ever since. I’d found his number on the internet somewhere, and while the specifics of our conversation are now lost to me, I remember going to sleep that afternoon with the feeling of accomplishment. I now knew that there had been a sequel planned, which would have transplanted the cast of the original into outer space. I now knew the answers to some of my lingering questions: the minotaur was present in the video, but not the game, because at the time of production Flint only had access to an early version of the rules. The unexplained sparkles around the heroes outside the manscorpion’s door were a last-minute cover for a compositing error. Still, my viewings did not stop -- if anything they ticked up steadily. I began to think that the only way to kill my obsession would be to let go of my greedy, individual attachments completely. I would have to put DragonStrike on the record and, thus, wash my hands of it, once and for all.
Earlier this year, I came across a trailer for DragonStrike’s unreleased sequel, Wild Space. I was ecstatic. My friends, less so. “It was basically like torture,” Danny recalls.
The next day I left for Cross Plains, Texas, and a gathering dedicated Robert E. Howard, the writer who created Conan the Barbarian. After arriving, in a mass of Howard fans, I saw a name tag which caught my eye. “Excuse me,” I said, approaching the man to which it was attached. “Are you the Flint Dille?”
He was an older man, about the same age as my father. He was burly and silver bearded, whose movements seemed expressions of deep enthusiasm. “Yeah,” he said, smiling.
“Do you recall getting a jangled phone call from an obsessive fan of DragonStrike about six years ago?”
He thought. “Yes, actually.”
“That was me!” I beamed.
In that moment, we made friends. Flint and I met the next day, at the foot of Caddo Peak, and talked DragonStrike. This time, I brought my tape recorder.
In 1993, he recalled, “I got a call from TSR, which my sister owned at that point, and they wanted to do a video -- an instructional video for how to play a role playing game. Beyond that, they didn’t really have much idea.” The budget was minuscule, making both live-action and traditional animation impossible. Flint and producer Peter Silver decided to combine the two: shoot actors against a blue screen and “then strip out all the color ... insert the background digitally and then put the color back in.” This sort of filmmaking was about a decade ahead of its time. “It’s what they later perfected with stuff like 300,” said Flint, referring to the Zach Snyder adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel. “Oddly enough Frank came in for the screening of it and was kind of hanging around with me when we were shooting it,” he added.
Dille's experimentation continued in the character of the dragon master, memorably portrayed by a bodiless John Boyle.“We didn’t want to show a bunch of players around the table,” Flint recalled. “So we just decided, you know what? We’re going to do him as a ... disembodied head... I don’t remember exactly how we came to that.”
Initially, the plan was to have the character portrayed in voice-over. “Then we realized it was way too much text,” Flint remembered. “You don’t want to look at a screen or look at miniatures or anything that long, so we’ve got to actually manifest it as a person, [and] we didn’t want to do the cliché of making him like an old wizard or anything like that. We wanted him to be somebody who could do it in the real world.” Hence the young, dangerous, charismatic Boyle.
The rest of the cast was drawn from the stunt pool of a Conan the Barbarian stage show, the playing daily at Universal Studios. “They’d all practiced together. They’d all worked together. They all looked good,” Flint recalled. “ it was really funny when like real actors came in.... Stuntmen, it’s like, ‘Hey, jump through this glass window.’ Not a problem. Crash! ‘Want me to do it again?‘ The guy who played the king, we’re asking him to jump off an apple box and I think he wanted disaster pay.”
Still, the production was enjoyable.
Given that DragonStrike remains obscure and its sequel unreleased, I’d always assumed that the project had been, at some level, a failure for TSR. In fact, Flint remembered, “It was a success for us kind of at every level.” Hence the sequel, Wild Space, which went into production in 1995.
“Well what happened with [Wild Space] is we went out and we shot it,” Flint recalled. “It was kind of arduous ... like a 5 or 6 week production schedule -- which is long for doing something like that. It was infinitely more elaborate than [DragonStrike.]” There were upsets behind the scenes, including the closing of American Film Technology, the company responsible for DragonStrike’s essential compositing and colorization. “The idea of shooting on green screen and putting in digital background and treating the image and all that was a really radical concept in 1995,” Flint remembered. “There were a lot of issues with post-production.”
During this difficulty, Flint had a general meeting with some executives from Universal. “I showed them DragonStrike [and] they fell in love with it,” he remembered. Wild Space entered development as a television series, compounding the already substantial delay suffered during post-production. By the time the deal fell through, “everybody had moved on.”
After the television deal, TSR and producer Peter Silver began a messy serious of court battles. As part of the dispute, Silver seized materials belonging to the production, including computers and props. Years later, Flint recalled, “I remember going over to ... the far side of LA [to] some forlorn storage room, having the key, going in and there was all our stuff... materials, castles, ships... I wish I’d taken some of [of them]... because lord knows whatever happened to it all.” This was, for Flint, “the last, sad moment of Wild Space.”
Hearing this, I was saw the stark divide between Flint’s generation and my own. For Flint Dille, DragonStrike was a period of time, a human tangle of technology and finance, incident and innovation. It had a definitive beginning, and as definitive an end. For me, there need be no “last, sad moment.” My tape has years in it, yet. I can watch it whenever I want. I have no warehouse of castles. No stuntman stories. No burning barn. Everything that is mine, I offer up to you.
There are no rivals here.
Carol from Cheapass Games writes, “About a year ago, James Ernest started working with Patrick Rothfuss to make the game Tak a reality. Tak features in Patrick’s novel, The Wise Man’s Fear.”
The next installment in the SF in SF reading series is a reading by Peter “Last Unicorn” Beagle and Carter Scholz, hosted by Terry Bisson, on April 17: it’s $10 at the door, at the American Bookbinders Museum.
Vote for your favorite “Creation” and “Creator.” (Disclosure: I’m a volunteer on this year’s jury) (via IO9)
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