The Trapdoor (my game) is well under way and I’m quite excited about how it’s shaping up. If you’re not already aware, it’s a homage to the 1980’s claymation kid’s cartoon The Trap Door (note the space), so I decided I wanted to write a post about how awesome The Trap Door was and why I decided to re-imagine it the way I did.
The Trap Door ran to two series totalling 40 episodes between 1984 and 1986. Episodes were five minutes long and told of Berk, his friend Boni, an animated skull, and “pet” spider Drutt and the adventures that ensued as they tried to carry out the orders of the The Thing Upstairs. The voiceover in the opening titles said it all:
Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of The Thing Upstairs. But that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…
Dark Fantasy and Gothic Horror
Despite the art style, which was colourful, full of playfully animated worms, slime and not-quite-scary monsters, and the humour, which was silly and child-friendly, The Trap Door was full of nods to the dark fantasy and horror genres. When thought about in more “realistic” terms, the untold backstory presents some interesting questions. Where are these “dark and nasty regions” and why are they so? How did Berk end up in this position? What is The Thing Upstairs? Who is Boni? And, most significantly, what is the nature and origin of the trap door? The story suddenly becomes reminiscent of stories like H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider:
I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible; full of dark passages and having high ceilings where the eye could find only cobwebs and shadows … It was never light, so that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief; nor was there any sun outdoors … Beings must have cared for my needs, yet I cannot recall any person except myself; or anything alive but the noiseless rats and bats and spiders …To me there was nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strowed some of the stone crypts deep down among the foundations … Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence.
The Outsider deals with the protagonist discovering what he is and where he came from. This got me thinking about Berk’s origins, and my character Jonathan Burke was born.
With the colourfulness and playfulness removed, Berk’s situation becomes much more macabre. The Thing Upstairs is a cruel and relentless master. The dark and nasty regions where nobody goes begin to imply some kind of other world, or a remote prison like Castle Dracula. If Jonathan Burke was a man, it seems appropriate that he should be a Victorian English gentleman, a traveller and antiquarian bound by some pact or threat that he has uncovered and cannot escape from, a walk-on from a gothic horror or dark fantasy story.
Literary theorists like to analyse characters and works using Freud’s process of psychoanalysis, on the basis that it can reveal something about the author or about the symbols in the work itself, usually leading to the exposure of repressed desires. This applies well to The Trapdoor. Here’s a gloss on some of its tropes and characters.
The Thing. According to Freud’s structural model, the psyche consists of three apparatuses: the ego, super-ego and the id. The id is the part of us that only cares about our desires, instincts and immediate gratification. It is unseen and unfathomable and yells things at us like “Berk! Feed me!”
Boni. The super-ego is concerned with making us follow the rules, the inner critic responsible for feelings like guilt and social anxiety. It opposes the id and reminds the ego that “you’ve left the trapdoor open again.”
Berk. The ego, then, is Berk, the self that juggles the harsh demands of the id and super-ego and tries to reconcile them with reality, defending itself with mechanisms like denial and repression when they punish it for its shortcomings, pushing those thoughts and feelings down into the unconscious.
The castle. Houses and castles can often represent the psyche or personality, in this case fortified and covered with towers which can be seen as phallic symbols. Why is this psyche so defensive? Is it because its sensibilities of manhood are threatened? Or is it because it has failed to achieve the societal and parental demands put upon it?
The tasks. In most episodes The Thing gives Berk a different job to do and usually the only way to do it is in a roundabout or novel way. Could this be displacement or wish fulfilment? Does the ego struggle to complete its chores to distract itself from its real conflict?
Tentacles, monsters, worms, slime and mould. These all represent bodily functions, body parts and the coupling thereof, in a threatening, distasteful way. Textbook Freud stuff. The animalistic urges of the id bubble up from the unconscious, but they are at odds with the super-ego and so Berk, our ego, must defend himself by forcing them back down, repressing them, keeping them locked away below…
…the trap door. Repression, repelling unwanted thoughts and feelings. Repressed desires and impulses are akin to those of the id (the monsters below the trap door are akin to The Thing Upstairs) but due to the pressures of the super-ego (it is mostly only Boni that finds the monsters scary) they must be locked away. The ego usually wants to side with the id whenever the super-ego can be denied (we fulfil our unsociable desires when no-one is looking) and so Berk often makes a “Freudian slip” and leaves the trapdoor open or neglects it whilst servicing the whims of The Thing. When the things come out, it upsets the super-ego and distracts him from keeping the id happy, bringing about a frantic struggle to restore the status quo and psychic harmony.
Drutt. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Since the story of The Trapdoor seems to me to represent the struggle of a neurotic personality at odds with itself, societal and parental influences conflicting with base instincts and pleasures, it seemed to make sense that Jonathan Burke should be a man struggling to keep a grip on his sanity. The trapdoor of my Burke is a literal manifestation of everything he has left behind, everything he hates about how his life has turned, and everything he wants to forget about the situation he is in. Every night he drinks the Amnesia potion and represses these horrible thoughts, but every morning the trapdoor is there, waiting.
With these two influences, the dark fantasy and gothic horror genres and the psychoanalytic analysis of the story, and with the germ of the character Jonathan Burke, the HPL2 engine was the perfect choice. It will be very different from the 1986 puzzle adventure by Piranha Games.
I’m doing my best to hold on to as much as possible of the original cartoon while replacing the jolly elements with sinister ones. The plot is advanced through journals, of which there will be a lot, to be honest, but they will all have voiceovers that play over the gameplay, so there won’t be hours journal reading. The game will be dark, not just metaphorically: fear of the unknown is Burke’s worst enemy and he will need to cling to the comfortable and familiar to avoid draining his sanity points. That will be his challenge, along with servicing the carnal appetites of his master.
I’m looking forward to getting it finished and I hope that if you’re a fan of The Trap Door then you will like The Trapdoor too.