For those of you who didn’t grow up with a ballerina in the house — let me tell you about Giselle.
Giselle is one of the great Romantic ballets. I love it1. Giselle is a beautiful young woman with a weak heart who loves to dance. She falls in love with a prince-in-disguise and when his royalty is revealed along with his engagement, Giselle loses her mind and dies.
That’s Act One. There’s something about the gory simplicity and fatalism of that that appeals to me2.
Anyway. Act Two. The prince shows up to weep at Giselle’s grave and is accosted by the wilis3. He is condemned to dance until he dies — or until he is exhausted enough that the wilis can drive him into a lake and drown him. The prince is saved when the newly-made-wili Giselle steps in to dance for him.
It’s this sort of mythology that runs through my head when I pick up a game like the Crypt of the Necrodancer.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is a roguelike rhythm game that comes with a serious may-cause-seizures warning and I’m more than usually grateful that I don’t have seizures because I’m sorta in love with it right now. Not only is it a great game, but it ticks a lot of boxes for me: It’s hard and you get better with practice, it’s a little silly and — hell with it — look at all the cool ladies! You start with Cadence on a mission to save her father, and then you get to play the game as her mother!4 And her grandmother! Damn is that nice. There’s not a whole lot of story to the game — it doesn’t need it — but yay for the story there is!
Anyway. These two pieces and their mediums are, obviously, quite different. But they’re both summed up — for me — by the idea that one must “dance until you die”. It’s not an uncommon theme in tragic ballets, but Giselle hits it really hard: Giselle’s heart gives out while dancing, another character5 dies while dancing, and the prince, with Giselle’s help, fights for most of the second act to avoid that fate.
And in Crypt of the Necrodancer, “dance until you die”6 is a pervasive mechanic of the game. You’re less powerful when you aren’t moving to the beat and there’s a mode where if you miss a beat, your character dies immediately. Of course, as you’re moving here you are also murdering lots of zombies, golems, and skeletons.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is a game built to help you hit a flow state. And when you do, when you’re hopping your way through dragons and harpies and those really annoying gargoyle things, it can feel — briefly and transcendently — like you’re fighting and dancing at once. Your little chibi pixel art protagonist becomes a graceful badass — a fucking ballerina with a spear — until you miss a beat and the lights go away, returning the world to the dim banality of trying not to die, of risking your heart giving out.7
I recognize that ballet isn’t for everyone — and that something like Giselle may not be the place to start. But watching someone dance, someone who has trained for it, whose body is ritually formed into a mechanism for it, watching while they make the impossible look like breathing — it’s something we miss because it’s not a modernly appreciated art. There’s pleasure in learning to move your body with even a scrap of that precision, and we miss that because dancing isn’t regarded as important to our education (even in those rare atmospheres where the Arts are considered important). That’s a damn shame. Wonder and the satisfaction-of-moving-well8 are too rare in the world as it is — the second since we literally must inhabit these bodies of ours until someone invents a way to download our brains.
There’s something about the precision and flow you need to enjoy Crypt of the Necrodancer — something about the joy in movement and survival through movement that it implies — that makes me think we ought to pay more attention to dancing. In games and life. And probably, in general, to dance more.
- Despite a modern critical lens on the story
- While at the same time I’m horrified that she literally ‘dies of a weak and broken heart for a dude she met an hour ago’.
- A malevolent spirit. They are a variant on a faery sometimes called a vili or vily. The Veela that show up in Harry Potter are another version of these critters. In the ballet, they are the ghosts of virgin women that catch and murder men. Take a minute to think about that one…
- Who isn’t dead! There are so many dead mothers in stories. Seriously, let’s just give that one a break, eh?.
- I didn’t mention him before. A poor huntsmen is in love with Giselle too. He also shows up to weep on her grave. Giselle apparently didn’t like him much because she leaves him to the willies to be drowned post dancing to exhaustion. He’s generally played as a bit of a jealous villain, but come on. Sigh.
- Or beat the level. But you’ll probably die a lot.
- You can play this game with a dance pad, and I would love to try that. I’m sure I would be terrible at it — but I don’t think that would stop me from trying to flail my way through. Might not induce the same flow state til I’d practiced quite a bit.
- I feel like there’s got to be a specific word for this, in some language if not in English