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Dinotopia is the best dinosaur game, and it’s got puppets

The 1990s were a golden age to be a dinosaur-loving kid. I grew up on The Land Before Time, Jurassic Park, We’re Back, Disney’s Dinosaur, Dinosaur Adventure 3D, Walking With Dinosaurs, the film Super Mario Bros., if you’re into that… the list goes on.

But what I wanted above all was a dinosaur game that captured my favorite fictional world: Dinotopia.

This year, I found that game. It came out in 1996, and it’s a children’s puzzle adventure game. It’s also an FMV, with dinosaurs played by huge, complex animatronic puppets.

But more on that in a minute.

WHAT’S DINOTOPIA?

For the uninitiated, Dinotopia began as a book series written and illustrated by James Gurney in 1992. It takes place on the titular lost continent of Dinotopia, a land where dinosaurs survived the extinction event. Over the years, humans discovered the island and formed a peaceful society with dinosaurs, one where both species live as equals.

As a kid, I was sucked into these books. Gurney is an accomplished painter who details every facet of Dinotopian life. For every pastoral image of a human riding a dinosaur, Gurney shows you a cross-section of a city built from the wreck of a 17th century ship, or a chair designed to seat huge sauropods.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=FY4OqoWyS4Q%3Frel%3D0

DINOSAUR GAMES

The thing is, there are a couple Dinotopia games. Dinotopia: The Sunstone Odyssey and Dinotopia: The Timestone Pirates came out in the early 2000s, on the coattails of the Hallmark miniseries starring David Thewlis and a young Wentworth Miller.

But both games had combat as a central mechanic, and that confused me. After all, Dinotopia is a pacifist utopia. It’s one of the key themes of the books, and one of the biggest challenges for storytellers working in the setting.

Timestone Pirates introduces, yes, pirates who are trying to steal T-rex eggs and need to be bopped on the head. Sunstone Odyssey introduces a separatist gang called the Outsiders that wants to subjugate dinosaurs. They also need to be bopped on the head.

It felt like an easy out to a narrative challenge. Of course there are tons of hugely popular games that don’t revolve around combat — hello, Animal Crossing! But that number shrinks when you just look at dinosaur games. A shame! I wanted to befriend dinosaurs, to help dinosaurs, to live alongside them and participate in, I dunno, civics or something.

And then I found Dinotopia, the 1996 CD-ROM adventure game.

It’s got two things the other Dinotopia games don’t have: puzzles, and animatronic dinosaurs.

The Sunstone Odyssey, Dinotopia, and The Timestone Pirates
Photo Composition: Clayton Ashley/Polygon

DINOTOPIA

Dinotopia, the game, stars a guy with the unlikely name of Nathan Drake! Nathan Drake is newly shipwrecked on Dinotopia and looking for his missing sister Constance. Along the way he solves puzzles and interacts with iconic book characters, all played by real people who look eerily like their illustrated counterparts.

The game’s publisher, Turner Interactive, brought on developer co-op The Dreamer’s Guild to make the game. The Dreamer’s Guild was an employee-driven business, with the developers themselves weighing in on what projects to take next. And they had just done a book-to-game adaptation: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the horrifying Harlan Ellison short story which you might recognize as freakin’ dark and not for kids!

But that adaptation was well-received! And if you’re an employee-run business you can decide to pivot from Hugo Award-winning sci-fi shorts to Children’s Puzzle Adventure Games.

As a side note, The Dreamer’s Guild’s website is still active, and it is a beautiful relic of the early Internet. I highly recommend it.

The Dreamer’s Guild wouldn’t be handling the game’s cutscenes. Turner Interactive made the incredibly big-brained decision to film the cutscenes with real actors, and the dinosaurs were played by enormous animatronic puppets whose voice actors perform as if they’re doing callbacks for The Jim Henson Company.

I’m not kidding. Watch the video.

Freitas and colleague working on a stegosaurus puppet.
Photo: Andre Freitas/AFX Studios

The resulting game is appropriately delightful and weird. The puzzles are charming — players use the Dinotopian alphabet to decode things, or create songs with a Parasaurolophus — and the puppets are incredible.

Andre Freitas and his special effects company, AFX Studios, made ten dinosaur puppets for the game, all with hand-painted latex skins and complex animatronics. Each one had to be piloted by multiple puppeteers — some working eyelids on radio controls, others using rods to maneuver the puppets’ massive heads. Freitas said Turner only gave him $85,000, which breaks down to not nearly enough per puppet.

Andre Freitas and colleague working on a raptor puppet.
Photo: Andre Freitas/AFX Studios

Freitas’ work is amazing, and it goes a huge way to making this game look like Dinotopia, even though the later games have better “graphics.” He also did the makeup on the actors, translating Gurney’s painting style onto a human canvas.

Check out the video above to see more of these incredible puppets in action and to learn more about Dinotopia. It’s a strange, wonderful ’90s gem, and my kid-self would have loved it.

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