Spyro: Year of the Dragon (2000). The triumphant conclusion of the Spyro franchise’s original trilogy, and objectively the best game from anybody's childhood. If you disagree, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss why you're wrong.
It’s worth saying now that Spyro: Year of the Dragon hasn’t aged perfectly. The gameplay doesn’t hold as much challenge as I remember, the core mechanics aren’t expanded on very much, and for some reason the developers thought it was okay for this motherfucker to be trafficking sentient beings. In a children’s game.
Faults aside, the magic that made the game a memorable part of my childhood hasn’t gone anywhere. The huge cast, the exciting vehicular trips between worlds, the skateboarding levels... oh, the skateboarding levels!
Looking at the game as an adult, however, it's a little easier to see what's happening under the hood. The game has a few subtle design features that really make the title special. And it's one of these features - a focus on diegetic information delivery - that drives the emotional engagement that we all felt as kids.
Designing using diegetic information is a fascinating challenge in game development. When budgets and time are short, it's very tempting to shove information into heads-up-displays and UI popups and leave it at that. I’d argue that despite being easier and cheaper, this approach actively diminishes the player experience if the game in question is designed around any level of emotional engagement. Let's start with a (somewhat) recent positive example of diegetic communication - Dead Space (2008), a game steeped in atmosphere. In this game, the player’s health is shown as a row of lights on the spine of their character’s space suit, in the game world. This keeps players eyes nearer the central region of the screen, ensuring they stay engaged with the world. There are no intrusive elements to break the player's suspension of disbelief: all relevant information comes from the game world itself. Most importantly, this design choice forges a closer bond between the player and the character, between player and game world. The suit itself is communicating with you, telling you how much health it has left, and not via a proxy, as it would if we were reading information from a HUD. This direct communication allows for a more immediate experience, as we watch the suit slowly start to fail. It’s a leap forward from the usual 1-to-100 hitpoint counters that we see in the majority of games, and works wonders in dissolving some of the artificiality that comes with a hitpoint readout.
We see a similar diegetic system in Year of the Dragon, and I wonder if Dead Space took some inspiration here. In Year of the Dragon (as in the two earlier titles), Spyro is accompanied by his little buddy Sparx, and it’s Sparx the Dragonfly that acts as Spyro’s hitpoint-indicator. Whenever Spyro takes damage, Sparx changes color - from gold, to blue, to green. If damage is taken while Sparx is green, Sparx vanishes completely, showing the player that any further damage will kill Spyro himself. Sparx can reappear or regain health (thus replenishing the player’s hitpoints) if he eats butterflies, which are found throughout the world.
Given that players tend to identify with or take on the role of the protagonist, a relationship is quickly formed between the player and their little dragonfly friend, and this relationship is an important part of the player's experience. It's established from the opening moments of the original Spyro the Dragon (1998) that Sparx is Spyro's long-term companion, the pair having been on adventures together before. We can infer further from the gameplay itself (rather than any narrative) that Sparx is a caring, protective buddy: he's actively absorbing damage meant for Spyro, until he can't take any more. He's the sort of companion who would (and does) sacrifice himself for his friend.
Compare this with a similar system in Crash Bandicoot, where the Aku Aku mask performs an almost identical role. While the core implementation is the same, with Aku Aku absorbing a certain number of hits before vanishing completely, the nature of the relationship between Aku Aku and Crash (thus, the player) is different. The mask, at least in the first game, is found in crates rather than attached to the main character through an existing relationship. There's no history there, and unlike Sparx, Aku Aku doesn't feel like an inherent part of the main character, at least not until that relationship has had time to develop. Spyro simply feels incomplete, on a narrative level, without Sparx. With Crash, we feel the loss more in gameplay terms.
The visual design of Sparx is also key to building this emotional connection with the player, the colors used to show his current level of health being very carefully chosen. Gold, for instance, symbolizes prosperity in most cultures, so it's fitting that this is his color when at full health. Green (especially in the context of skin color) is widely used to represent sickness, and so it's clear to the player when he's on his last legs, and this helps create a sense of urgency. This simple palette/skin swap was a quick and easy way to relay a wealth of information - building the player's relationship with the character in the process. There’s a clear drive to get Sparx back to full health, not only for the player’s own survival but because we don’t want to see our little friend looking unwell.
The downside of this focus on diegetic communication is that occasionally the world gets in the way. A HUD is never occluded from view - unless it’s part of a meta experience. In Spyro, Sparx will often dash off-screen to retrieve gems or butterflies, and for that second or two we have absolutely no visual indication of our characters’ health. We see this in Dead Space as well, where some instances of bright lighting or bad camera angles (particularly when aiming) result in the diegetic health display being hidden from view.
Year of the Dragon lacks an in-world representation of our inventory, meaning that we have to look elsewhere to see our remaining lives, gems collected, and eggs found. The number of dragon eggs possessed by the player is key to player progression, enabling the unlocking of new levels, and gems serve a similar purpose; this information needs to be seen on a regular basis. The only way to access this information is by leaving the immediate experience and entering a menu - either by accessing the Pause screen, where the inventory is shown, or by opening the Atlas, a journal of the player’s adventures. It’s a bit of a hassle. If a diegetic solution couldn't be figured out, a simple button-activated popup for this information would have been much more preferable and would've pulled players out of the world in a far less-jarring way.
I never thought I'd be comparing a seat-of-the-pants horror-survival game to a fairy tale dragon adventure, but the approaches these two games have in communicating with the player are remarkably similar. While diegetic communication isn't possible in all circumstances - and would certainly be detrimental to fast-paced games such as Quake and Call of Duty - there's definitely a place for it. Used well, it can keep players engaged, help them suspend their disbelief, and keep them knocking down Rhynocs/necromorphs all day long.