Technology has swiftly delivered us to a level of technological skill so elevated that an entire planet simulated within the bits and bytes of a computer system is a mundanity. Today players need never wait for data to be shuffled off of a disc and onto memory. Information roars beneath our fingertips, speeding from place to place faster today than it has in the history of the species.
17 years ago though, tech was crappy. Like SUPER crappy. You wanted to get a song off Limewire? You had to listen to this tune for 5 minutes, wait another 5 for the software to connect, then start the download and hope your Mum didn’t need the phone in the half hour it took your 4.3kb/s connection to deliver what would probably turn out to be the wrong song anyway.
Spyro: Year of the Dragon came out in 2000, when virtual worlds simply couldn’t be made large enough to fit an entire game’s worth of content in. Technology dictated that we split the world into different sections, or 'levels', which would be loaded and unloaded when necessary, normally through the use of a menu. A few years before Year of the Dragon was released, developers had begun to realize that simple menu-based level select screens were getting stale.
Some developers attempted to create the illusion of an interconnected and unbroken game environment, using doorways or long hallways to trigger loading-screens, releasing the previous area from the computer's memory and loading in the new area the player was about to enter. But many games, especially platformers, stuck more closely to their roots, refusing to hitch their wagon to the open-world train that was just beginning to roll, and instead exploring solutions that - at least for the younger audiences of the time - tended to be a lot more exciting. Developers attempted to redesign the level select menus of decades past as 3D interactive spaces. In the Spyro series, this concept was explored beautifully.
There’s something particularly appealing about magical doorways that lead somewhere else. We don’t need to look very far to see how deeply ingrained this concept is in cultures around the world, in both historical mythologies and contemporary media. Look at The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the enticing tree-trunk doorways that lead to holiday-themed worlds. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and the gap in a wall that leads to a magic kingdom. Monsters Inc., and the mobile, normal-looking doors that lead to bedroom closets around the world. Platform 9 & ¾ from Harry Potter, Stargate, Narnia... even freakin’ He-Man!
The common threads between these explorations of the concept are that the portal is almost universally depicted as a doorway of some sort; once switched on, the portal is open to everybody; and there’s almost never a cost to the user. Anybody can use the portal at any time to be transported to the portal's target location. There's a bunch of stuff going on here that makes the idea inherently exciting to a wide range of people, from the democratization of travel, to the allure of novelty, to the feeling of being personally extraordinary. The successful and frequent delivery of this concept in media across the ages suggests that, for the majority of audiences, there's value here.
So it's not surprising that Insomniac Games decided to user portals as a staple element of the Spyro franchise. Portals are scattered around the hubworlds of each game, and enable travel to the huge variety of levels that each game contains. In Year of the Dragon, the portals populate the four hubworlds of the Forgotten Realms. Players simply approach a portal, read the name - written in magic runes that hover overhead - and step through if it sounds interesting to them.
The focus on player experience in the implementation of this feature is one of the things that really makes it stand out from the competition. It's the fluidity of the experience, of the transition between hubworld and portal (and between portal and level) that makes interacting with this system such a joy. When Crash Bandicoot jumps into a portal in Crash Bandicoot: Warped, there's a complete halt of forward motion, some brief traumatic spaghettification, and a jarring black load screen. In Year of the Dragon, Spyro simply passes across the threshold of the portal and starts to glide through the sky as he's carried to his destination.
This retention of forward momentum is important, given that the majority of forward movement in the game is very quick, with players either using the charge function to run at speed, or using the glide function to avoid ground obstacles. It's clear that a lot of work was done by Insomniac Games to ensure that these core methods of movement wouldn't be jarringly interrupted by the use of portals. A well-aimed glide is always satisfying; even more so when the player can hit an (admittedly not super high) skill level and glide from a distance into the opening of a portal. Then onward to infinity.
I enjoyed the discussion of portals in the game's dialogue, too, which served to elevate them above simple gameplay elements to structures with some real narrative depth. It's mentioned that the Dragons used to live in the Forgotten Realms, but they packed up and left. When they did, the magic in that part of the world started to fade, and the portals started to close, one by one. This gives a little justification for the portals that can only be opened when a set number of dragon eggs have been found and hatched, and also hints at some underlying functionality or logic behind the portals. It's not a whole lot, and it won't be featured in any Fantasy Magic Systems Reference Guides, but it's a nice touch.
It's always great to see developers achieve consistency across the game. All too often, we'll see games try to create an overarching mood, tone, or style of play, but it'll be ruined by a minor but often-encountered bit of interaction that throws the whole overarching concept out the window. Insomniac Games clearly recognized that they had a quick, momentum-driven game on their hands, and went all in to ensure that the intended experience could be felt throughout, drawing on a bit of Narnia, Monsters Inc., and Stargate as they did so.
And who can blame 'em?