Metaphor and Mechanization in Banjo-Kazooie — Part One

From the first shot of the opening cutscene, something about Yooka-Laylee felt off. It begins with the camera nestled in some foliage, panning upwards to reveal an industrial building atop a hill in the distance. In the mid-ground between this hillside and the wooded area of Shipwreck Creek, some rust red pipes jut out of a glowing green pool of chemical runoff underneath a sign that reads “Hivory Towers”. We are then introduced to the game’s primary antagonist Capital B (and his vice president Dr. Quack) who enters upon a large golden statue of himself in Hivory Towers’ main foyer. Capital B’s first lines of dialogue here are extremely crucial, both to his character and Yooka-Laylee as a whole: “Do you think this new statue is golden enough? Or too golden?” and when Quack fails to provide a quick enough answer he quips, “Focus test it!”

Unlike the evil witch Gruntilda from Banjo-Kazooie, the game to which Yooka-Laylee is meant to be a spiritual successor, we come to understand that Capital B is not driven by vanity but by “profit-plumping technology”; an Ebenezer Scrooge by way of David Brent, who converses in corporate doublespeak rather than rhyming couplets. His convoluted scheme — though it’s Dr. Quack who lays out the specifics — involves a device called the Noveliser 64, which physically vacuums up books en masse into a giant funnel. The supposed end to this is to give Capital B a monopolistic choke-hold on “the market” (a Jeff Beezos of sorts?), however there are also ulterior motives at play which are hinted at but unimportant for now.

We are then introduced to our protagonists, Yooka the Chameleon and Laylee the Bat, as they sunbathe on a rock in Shipwreck Creek. It’s worth noting that both protagonist and antagonist are implied to have just recently arrived to their respective locations. To an extent this choice makes sense, it has long been considered a plot hole how Banjo-Kazooie’s main cast could have possibly coexisted as next-door neighbours without ever once interacting. But the fact that Yooka and Laylee are essentially squatters in their new home speaks to a deeper un-belonging that underscores Playtonic Games’ approach to world-building. Narratively Shipwreck Creek serves a few purposes: 1) As a staging area for the admittedly endearing file select animations 2) To tick “cool clubhouse” off the list of 90’s Rareware tropes and 3) Most importantly to juxtapose Yooka and Laylee’s naturalistic environs with the inhuman machinery of Hivory Towers.

This is where the game starts to falter for me. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong or lazy with this sort of blunt visual shorthand for establishing the status quo of good and evil. Ever since the industrial revolution there have been reactionary counter-revolutions in art, philosophy and politics which reject different facets of industrialization, and pop culture has yielded a thousand reiterations of these themes. In this way Yooka-Laylee treads the same well-worn path as other platforming franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Oddworld and even Rare’s own Donkey Kong Country. Yet when this trite setup must then play out in the form of a (notably weak) tutorial section, I found the game incredibly clunky and jarring, not solely in terms of gameplay but more remarkably in its level design and lack of aesthetic cohesion.

This disconnect is not aided once inside the hub world proper. Hivory Towers appears as a factory but does not actually produce anything — a mishmash of brickwork, bookshelves, pneumatic tubes, shipping containers, and 1950’s reel-to-reel and nuclear control panel tech. The series requisite of foreshadowing the World 1 gimmick through the hub world design (in this case tropical island motifs) only throws the ludic and narrative functionality of the space into further disarray. I mean, shouldn’t chameleons and bats come from the jungle, not venture towards it? This led me, as the game practically begs of its players, to reflect upon the Banjo-Kazooie titles of yesteryear — but for my purposes to gather further insight into why, before I had even set foot in the first level, Yooka-Laylee rang so hollow.

Banjo-Kazooie is at its essence a postmodern fairy tale, not the first of its kind but definitely yet to be played-out in what I am going to unironically call a pre-Shrek era. Its simple but serviceable plot recombines Grimmian folklore (namely Hansel & Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella) with filmic elements from Universal’s Frankenstein and Cronenberg’s The Fly with regards to Gruntilda and Klungo’s beauty-snatching antics. Above and beyond that Banjo-Kazooie is also quintessentially British, with all the regrettable instances of colonialism that entails (it must be said that fan-favourite Mumbo Jumbo’s name, character design and overall shtick is super racist). To look at it from a more anglophile angle there are also many subtle artistic flourishes which give the game its distinct richness. For instance how the hyper-detailed yet resolution-crunched texturing creates a sense of perpetual overcast, which even in the games more chipper outdoor levels feels very true to the cliché of U.K. weather.

Another example would be composer Grant Kirkhope’s appropriation of the intro melody from “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” in Gruntilda’s Lair theme — not an English tune per se but certainly inspired by the same pastoral countryside. Unlike the serenity and non-urgency of Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64, Grunty’s Lair provokes immediate dramatic tension, that sinking feeling of entering upon enemy territory which most games, especially platformers, usually reserve for the final act. Although I’ve always had some qualms with its TARDIS-esque dimensionality, I believe Grunty’s Lair may be the best candidate there is for why hub worlds ought to exist in the first place, not to be relegated to menus and map screens.

The tendrilous climbing-and-branching structure gives the impression of a living, breathing, self-sustaining ecosystem; a tyrannical fiefdom whose denizens are clandestinely planning a coup. I’m even inclined to say the eponymous spiral mountain that leads to Grunty’s Lair is like a miniature thesis statement as far as the game’s level design goes. However across the nine levels there has always been one which has consistently received the ire of even the most ardent B-K fans. I believe this site is the first piece in the puzzle to understanding the big picture motivations which inform some of the wayward directions Yooka-Laylee took.

It would be a bit overly precious to call Rusty Bucket Bay misunderstood, but I really feel as though the not insignificant difficulty spike it presents has given it an unfair reputation which overlooks some of its more intriguing aspects. In fact, some of my personal favourite descriptors for the level actually come from those who loathe it. In a piece entitled “Levels of Hell: Rusty Bucket Bay” Marshall Garvey describes the level as “gritty and impersonal”, “relentlessly hazardous” and above all else “stressful”.

And I don’t disagree: Rusty Bucket Bay is a horror show of polluted air, oily water, oxidized metal, toxic waste, nigh-impassible whirling propellers and dying sea life (which always reminds me of the Little Lisa Recyling Plant). Even accessing the level requires finding a somewhat hidden water-raising switch, nothing to the extent of Ocarina of Time’s infamous Water Temple but certainly more involved than any obstacle within Gruntilda’s Lair up until that point. It’s a workplace safety PSA come to life, and hits upon the mixture of hesitancy and reckless delinquency one might feel sauntering past a “Danger — Do Not Enter” sign.

Injury and bodily harm lurk at every turn, sometimes quick and gruesome, sometimes slow and agonizing, and even the life rafts and preservers are out to get you — truly nothing is safe. By comparison, the previous “spooky” Halloween-themed level Mad Monster Mansion does not have anywhere near the same unnerving or dis-inviting quality. For being in a game that is ostensibly about the boundless joy of exploration, Rusty Bucket Bay is a level that seems as though it does not want to be played (several of the ship’s cabins can only be accessed by breaking through non-obvious porthole textures) and moreover it does not care if you die inside it.

So my theory is this: Rusty Bucket Bay is not vehemently disliked for its sheer difficulty alone, but for its tonal dissonance with the rest of Banjo-Kazooie, and the sort of emotional reaction that breakage elicits. After all, a shipyard does not exactly mesh with the other caricatured fairy-tale environments. To illustrate this let’s look at another less-beloved level: Clanker’s Cavern. While it has seen nowhere near the same vitriol as Rusty Bucket Bay, it also doesn’t present the same harshness. I would also argue that Clanker’s Cavern has a least some tenuous link to the folkloric, with Banjo and Kazooie exploring the insides of the titular trash-compactor like a cyberpunk Pinocchio (its worth mentioning in the beta version of the game Clanker was just a regular whale). Moreso than the dankness of Rusty Bucket Bay and Clanker’s Cavern I think it is this overt presence of mechanization which aesthetically aligns them, and unites certain players against them.

Even though Banjo-Kazooie’s protagonists are anthropomorphic polygons whose entire raison d’etre is to engage with codified videogame mechanics (Kazooie, a bird, can only fly when Banjo stands on the correct flight pad), narratively speaking they are still very much flesh and blood creatures, not suited to be cogs in an unfeeling machine. Rusty Bucket Bay may not scream fun and adventure, but in its own way it actually reinforces the ecology of Gruntilda’s Lair. Had it simply been another carefree nautical romp like Treasure Trove Cove or Mario Sunshine’s Ricco Harbor, the implication that Banjo and Kazooie inconspicuously fit into such a hostile environment would only have been further at odds with the game’s worldview. Any such redesign would have also made Rusty Bucket Bay far less impactful; certain to be forgotten in the same way that Dire, Dire Docks is often conflated with Jolly Roger Bay. We’re still talking about it 20 years later, aren’t we? That has to count for something.

Aerial photo by Paul Machacek (2016)

There’s one last detail within Rusty Bucket Bay that also sets it apart from every other level, that speaks to both B-K’s Britishness and its context of production. On the stern of the Rusty Bucket, embossed in a white serif font are the words “TWYCROSS ENGLAND”. In a game full of literal Easter eggs this appears to be yet another — a fourth-wall breaking reference to the real-world location of Rare’s headquarters. However it also poses a sort of conundrum: Twycross is not only landlocked but mere miles away from a point determined to be the actual geographic center of England. So perhaps a freighter with “Twycross” written on it is just a cheeky visual pun, and that’s very much on-brand, but if you read more into it I think it really says something about the kind of culture Rare cultivated in its heyday and the sort of livelihood they were looking to escape.

Rare were well-regarded for many reasons, stellar game design and cutting-edge tech chief among them, but to me what most defined the studio and the Banjo-Kazooie series in particular was a sense of subversion and rebellious free will. This spirit manifested in a few ways, like the many innuendo the team snuck past PEGI and the ESRB, but was also to some extent a reflection of the actual environment in which B-K was born. From what I have gleaned from interviews, press materials and architectural firm webpages, Rare’s various development teams worked together in a series of custom-made “barns” which radiate around a common area that used to be a farmhouse estate, all surrounded by the picturesque rolling hills of the midlands. I think this is important, not only because sustainability was a major design consideration in the construction, but also because it represents a Pythonian reclamation and re-purposing of the spaces of manual labour for technological and artistic endeavours — a new meaning of “cottage industry”.

So am I suggesting that Rare intentionally made player-unfriendly design decisions in a late game level in order to critique the social and environmental failings of a capitalistic society, beckoning us to lay down our lunch pails and join them in their backwoods hippie commune? Probably not — as it should also be noted that the camaraderie of their motley crew often turned to crunch (and not the crocodilian variety) to meet their goals, working 12 hour days plus overtime. But I do believe that on an unconscious level Rusty Bucket Bay addresses a working class struggle and cultural resistance to the drudgery of blue collar existence, while simultaneously reveling in its aesthetic ugliness. Through the videogame medium Rare echoes themes explored in 70’s and 80’s brit rock, punk and heavy metal, from Pink Floyd to Factory Records, as well as the industrial genre.

Rusty Bucket Bay was softened somewhat in the 2009 XBLA re-release of Banjo-Kazooie, due to changes to the note collection save system which made it a bit more merciful and approachable. This could be seen as akin to baby-proofing a barbed wire fence, but for me it’s a non-issue, as it indirectly addresses and improves the level’s more glaring issues like the infamously unfair engine room bottomless pit. Ultimately whatever hastens trespass through and exit from the level’s clutches is an improvement of the core design. When you finally move on to Click Clock Woods, to reconvene with nature and return to your animal instincts, you’ll feel so relieved that you’ll gladly play it four times over. To once again quote Garvey, “The rain, leaves and snow will easily wash that oily taste out of your mouth before the final showdown with Grunty”.

Hivory Towers and Rusty Bucket Bay are both contested spaces, torn between their playful purpose and workaday conceit. However because the mechanical landscape of Rusty Bucket Bay is so unlike every other level— rather than a shaky foundation upon which everything is built — it actually manages to come across as a successful form of meta-commentary, if you choose to read it that way. Of course aversion to technology doesn’t automatically make art meaningful, and in the videogame format requires a degree of self-awareness. As I will expand upon in a forthcoming installment on the underrated sequel Banjo-Tooie, sometimes embracing mechanization can provide an even greater understanding of how to find a sense of place in a post-industrial world.

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David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada