The Golem is a well known Jewish folktale you are all probably familiar with. Rabbi Loew of Prague creates a giant man out of clay to protect his people from the cruel Czech ruler. The golem is brought to life from the divine energy of creation, channeled through the Rabbi’s own creative energy. The golem protects the Jews of Prague for awhile, and then something goes wrong. What exactly happens depends on the version of the story told, but whatever the case the golem goes beserk and starts destroying the city. He has to be shut down by the Rabbit who created him. It is an archetypal tale that serves as the roots or inspiration of countless works of fiction today.
It is also a classic puppet performance, and is often thought of as being an archetypal story about puppetry and our interaction with art and objects in general. The Rabbi brings the golem to life, animates it to serve his bidding. The golem is a puppet for the Rabbi, an extension of his own creative force. An object given life through imagination. The golem develops its own existence outside the Rabbi’s animation (the cause for this varies incredibly widely in the telling), with tragic results. It is a cautionary tale about the power the art and stories we create have, and how art develops a life and identity separate from the artist.
I’ve talked before about what I believe the connection between puppetry and video games is. Video games involve the player acting through a digital object in the same way puppetry involves acting through a physical object. There is one particular game that should come to mind when thinking about video games and puppets, if only because it relies so strongly on puppetry as a visual aesthetic. That game is Treasure’s Dynamite Headdy.
Dynamite Headdy is a gorgeous platformer for the Sega Genesis. Created by fan-favorite developer Treasure, the game is packed with color, detail, and creative subversions of platform expectations. The game is a cult classic that lives up to its promise. The game takes place in Puppet Land, a world made out of a theater and stagecraft, where the Dark Demon is leading an actual genocide on all undesirable puppets. If you do not fit the Dark Demon’s new story and setting, you are tossed into an incinerator. Dynamite Headdy is a puppet with the power to use his head as a weapon and swap it out for various other puppet heads with different powers. He fights to restore Puppet Land to peace, a fight that takes him across various sets and even backstage. The theatrical aesthetic is very well done, with enemies attacking you from off-stage or transitions between stages being accomplished with stage hands replacing scenery. What is truly remarkable about this game, however, is the secret ending.
There are four bonus levels in the game. Completing the bonus level gets you one number in a four-number code randomly created at the start of each playthrough. At the end of the story, after the credits end, Dynamite appears at a door backstage and is given one chance to punch in the correct code. Failure means the game ends normally, while success brings Dynamite Headdy face to face with a secret final boss.
This boss is a fat business man in a fancy office. In the Japanese version he says something to the effect of “fantastic job Headdy! Your adventure has made us rich! We’ll have to get started on your next adventure, and it has to be bigger and more dangerous. We’ll really destroy Puppet Land this time and make even more money!” It is never specifically stated if this man represents Treasure, Sega, the video game industry as a whole or even capitalism itself. In order to make a sequel, Headdy and his world must be put in danger again. Horrified at the thought of all his hard work to acquire peace being undone by the cruel forces of capitalism, Headdy rebels against his boss or creators. They attack by throwing deadly money at you, and when they are defeated the game simply ends with Headdy disappearing back to his world. Like a digital golem, Headdy breaks from the creative control of his creators and raises arms against them. Unlike the golem, Headdy’s end is happier. There was never a sequel to this game, and I hope there never is. Headdy broke out from the bounds of his own universe to insure that his world truly has peace, a peace that can never come as long as we hunger for more cartoony destruction to entertain us. Headdy may be a new archetypal puppet hero. An object given life by his creators and the actors controlling them, who manages to successfully escape from our world into one we cannot follow.
All screenshots are from the VGMuseum