What Can Games Learn From Action In Comics?

PAGE ONE, PANEL ONE

Graham lies in a crumpled heap beneath the looming figure of DOCTOR NO IDEAS.

CAPTION: This looks like a job for…

PAGE ONE, PANEL TWO

Pip, dressed in a (heroic) frog costume, sits typing at a computer.

PAGE TWO, PANEL ONE

A closeup of a Gchat window with the text “G, are there any games which do violence as well as comics?”

Graham: Oh thank god.

Pretty much no. I love comics, and while I read fashionable indie comics about subjects like EARLY ’90S BRITPOP and SOME OTHER THING KIERON WROTE, I also enjoy comics about PUNCHING and TIGHTS and SOME OTHER THINGS KIERON ALSO WRITES. Part of that is that comics are really good at depicting satisfying action.

Specifically, I think comics are really good at making action a natural extension of their plot and character development, while also making those plots and character developments relatable. I’m thinking specifically of Marvel comics, of which Spider-Man is probably the best example. Because Peter Parker is a loser: poor, stressed out, unlucky in love, and constantly beaten down. And the comics do a very good job of weaving those Peter Parker storylines together with the Spider-Man storylines, in such a way that when Spider-Man punches Green Goblin the face, it’s not just a resolution to a ‘I better save the world’ plot but also somehow advancing his relationship or understanding of Mary Jane or Aunt May or any of the other things going on his life.

In other words, violence is a form of emotional conflict resolution for the the character, in a way that games are almost universally bad at. Games tend to have introductory cutscenes that offer context that, 30 hours later, means very little. Comics do it every issue in a way that makes the eventual inevitable biffing much more satisfying.

The only game I can think of that does this even slightly well is maybe Shadow of Mordor, which has the same crappy cutscene thing, but then makes the combat personally engaging in some way through its procedurally generated personalities and rivalries.

Does that make sense? What do YOU think?

Pip: I think I’m not far enough into comics yet to have seen so much of that. I got a kind of introductory selection box for my birthday and the most recent treat from that has been All-Star Superman. I know you’re more of a Marvel guy but something I started to think about more generally when there were fight scenes was choreography. The fight sequences in comics aren’t chaotic, they’re these neatly choreographed things with a kind of narrative flow and that really lends itself to the beat-by-beat-ness of the panel form. In games I don’t often have that sense of control and fight narrative. I get too easily lost in button mashing or panicked actions strung together instead of carefully considered. Perhaps that’s more on me and how I play, but it means that the journey towards a final punch doesn’t have that same flow and therefore it doesn’t have that same crunchy, visceral payoff.

Graham: Do you feel the same way in turn-based games? XCOM is very good at creating drama from its fights because of the way you can personalise your soldiers, and the turn-based rhythm to it is, I guess, both an approximation of the panel-to-panel comic format and a way of dodging panic? Or do those games still lack something that you get from comics?

Pip: I think I get it a bit with FTL, actually. I’ve previously not been a big player of turn-based games because you could often sink a lot of time into something then realise you’d been doing it wrong and the only way to repair it was to go back and start again. I guess I found the idea of there being a wrong move paralysing so I started to shy away from them. But perhaps something’s shifted in my brain now and I’d find them more rewarding. Certainly that’s a more interesting way of thinking about them that you’ve just put forward!

Graham: I always think of turn-based games like FTL, XCOM and so on as more about the story than I do the winning. I’m there to get a good anecdote out of it, and that takes the pressure off screwing up.

But you make a good point about staging in general. I feel like that’s something that games have become better at in the past last ten years, though. Like – that’s why cover systems are cool, right? People claim to be sick of them sometimes – they’ve become ubiquitous since Gears of War in 2006 – but before that more often than not first- and third-person protagonists in videogames would just stand in the open while shooting. That’s absurd and it means that action has a strange, single pace. Cover systems make the choreography more dramatic because you can dive for cover, you can hide, you can have your back against the wall, you can perform these actions you’ve seen in comics. Does this go any distance towards introducing the control and fight narrative you’re talking about?

Pip: Actually, yes. I think to a certain extent they do. You’re right about them introducing another note into battle, although it needs to be in conjunction with other factors to ensure you haven’t just changed it from entirely shooting at each other in the open to entirely shooting at each other from cover. One of the ace things about cover systems is that it lets you pause and plan so you can do some of that choreography more easily. Same deal with the Mass Effect action wheel thingy and the spacebar pauses in Dragon Age: Origins.

In fact, risking treading similar ground to my own next supporter post, I think Superhot is capable of doing fantastic things in that space. The idea with that game is that time moves when you do so when you’re thinking about your moves you’re standing still and the bullets and enemy movements slow to a crawl, then when you’re ready to attack or dodge or whatever you’ve decided you’ll hurtle back into almost-realtime and pull off these fancy moves. In their Kickstarter they said heaps of people had been begging for a replay mode and it’s not hard to see why. You want to see the results of that cool action sequence you just pulled off.

Graham: SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HEROES?

It sounds like there are ways that games can introduce the pace and flow that’s partly responsible for making fights in comics satisfying, while dodging some of the problems introduced by interactivity. Are there other things in comics that are responsible for the punching being satisfying? I’m wondering if there are just innate benefits to the comic form that games will never be able to achieve, or whether you think videogames will eventually conquer all?

Pip: I think some is down to the reader having to cede control to the artist and writer for the pacing and structuring – videogame creators have to build for an audience that tends to explore or follow their own preferences or whims. In comics there’s some flexibility too though – I’ll skip back a few panels and re-read or re-watch things, or maybe I’ll linger over some and skip quickly over others. Perhaps that helps with the structure because in some ways I can decide what’s important or let things come into focus. With a game you can’t go back unless you either fiddle with a checkpoint system or save files or whatever or if it’s built into the game mechanics.

In terms of satisfying punching, I think some art styles lend themselves to that over others. The typical art style you’ll find in things like Superman or Spiderman (is it Spider-Man?) allows for all kinds of drawn effects that others don’t – there are shifts in focus, puffs of perspiration, motion lines, sparks, exaggerated musculature and poses. If you’ve got a game which doesn’t have that art style you lose access to some of those augmenting touches. Something I’ve noticed is that fighting games sometimes slow time when you pull off a complicated move or a finishing move. I think that taps into comic book violence because you are suddenly in a position to start appreciating the visual rather than concentrating on the buttons.

Graham: It is Spider-Man! But there should be a character called Billy Spiderman. Perhaps he’s an accountant.

The Batman Arkham games do the slow-down thing a little bit, giving you an extra sense of impact behind certain strikes. You’re absolutely right, though, that the visual language of games is comparatively stunted. Again because of their real-time pace, clarity of information is favoured over anything else.

I wonder if there’s a videogame equivalent to changing panel size. Comics do wonderful things with suddenly switching to a full page or even double-page spread when something DRAMATIC or SHOCKING is revealed or when Superman does a particularly strong punch.

Pip: I wonder if there are any stats on how many people play fullscreen. My instinct is that most people do because of minimising distractions and maximising what you can see. It wouldn’t help with blowing actions up and making them seem even more bombastic but maybe you could use shrinking to interesting effect. For example, quieter and more intimate moments, perhaps, could benefit from it?

Graham: I suppose we have a glimpse of how people would respond to this by looking at games that have enforced letterboxing, in order to create feelings of claustrophobia or to evoke cinema. People freaking hate it because it’s not using all of the monitor and, even when it’s an artistic decision, think it must be some technical flaw or porting issue. Would be interesting to see someone ignore those complaints and do it anyway.

To wrap up, if you had to pick one thing from comics for games to steal outright, what would it be?

Pip: It’s related to that last point, actually. I want them to start experimenting far more with screen size. It’s something I miss about art history and art galleries and the theatre – that variability of the staging area. Cavernous halls and tiny nooks and huge over-the-top canvases or tiny miniatures that fit in a locket. Virtually all of what I play is 1920×1280 and I’m thinking sticking to that maximum screen size could be, ironically, restrictive.

You?

PAGE SIXTEEN, FULL PAGE

DOCTOR NO IDEAS punches Graham into outer space.

CAPTION: The End…?

43 Comments

  1. JB says:

    “I wonder if there’s a videogame equivalent to changing panel size”

    Glam-cams, like in XCOM for example? (A cheap answer, purely brought on by the fact that an XCOM screenshot is directly under that section!)

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      Grizzly says:

      FNV’s killcam shots.

    • Jackablade says:

      I think that’s what your fancy quicktime event cutscene is supposed to do.

    • RARARA says:

      How about Hitman: Blood Money, where you had triggered off camera events appearing in a new frame?

    • boyspud says:

      Manhunts executions spring to mind. Nearly anything that happens in Bayonetta and Azuras Wrath. That section in Kingdom Hearts 2 where you are fighting Nobody snipers(don’t remember their actual name), and the view changes to the snipers POV when you are killing it. Sora teleports back and forth, getting closer and closer to the sniper till only Sora can be seen delivering the killing blow.
      The spectacle fighter genre (and those games like KH that, while not necessarily spectacle fighters, have combat that is quite the spectacle at times) has been pretty good at this in fact. Look at Metal Gear Rising, the very first bossfight has several parts to it that totally feel like that double page comic spread, from when Raiden picks up the Metal Gear Ray and tosses it, to when he runs along its blade arm chopping it up. Granted, the control you have in these instances isn’t necessarily amazing, but in my opinion this is more a problem with the human to computer/console interface. In fact, I feel the biggest thing holding games back these days are input methods, and while things like the Occulus Rift will go quite a ways to help with that kind of immersion, a controller or a keyboard and mouse will never give the reactive feel of combat. Granted, combat can still feel great, with things like micro slowdowns on strike. QTEs also aren’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, but they really need to be more than a couple of button presses and then mashing of a single button. If you pull off a complex enough QTE you can get a feeling of control there that does genuinely feel good, regardless of it being a hated QTE.
      Anyway, apologies if I’m a little rambly, I’m just out of bed.

      Edit: Also, I’m aware most of my examples are dreaded console games, but this isn’t a system specific discussion. No boundaries in game design and all that.

      • hotmaildidntwork says:

        I always liked the quicktime events in the arkham games. Missing them wasn’t usually a failure state and since they used more or less the same controls as the normal game they felt less like an interrupted FMV and more like regular gameplay. Plus if you pulled them off they made you feel like The Goddamn Batman.

  2. AugustSnow says:

    Final Fantasy games had some great comicy battles (and lots of boring grinding). I think it’s achieved mostly by smart multi-stage bosses, and mechanics that let you do your best attack only after some time, as opposed to whenever you want but it costs resources like in most western RPGs, which creates a sense of sparring in the beginning and gradually moving up to huge powerful attacks. The crazy art on the bosses and the fact that they’re always huge probably helps.

  3. thedosbox says:

    I wonder if there’s a videogame equivalent to changing panel size. Comics do wonderful things with suddenly switching to a full page or even double-page spread when something DRAMATIC or SHOCKING is revealed or when Superman does a particularly strong punch.

    The XIII game used its comics heritage well. For example, you’d get a picture-in-picture view of soldiers feet as they sprung into action when you triggered an alarm.

  4. amateurviking says:

    I do so dig the dialogue style articles.

    The ‘impact slow-mo’ you mentioned can be really effective. Dragon Age: Intermission does it when you combo, although the combat is so over-blown and flashy in that game that it took me a while to figure out exactly what was causing it. 300 does it well, during the stabby stabby bits, to better invoke it’s comic origins.

    I think comics can be more impactful because they have the intrinsic rhythm of the turning page, TV and films are tightly controlled too, whereas your average chunk of game might play out in a hundred different ways.

  5. Rizlar says:

    It sounds like there are ways that games can introduce the pace and flow that’s partly responsible for making fights in comics satisfying, while dodging some of the problems introduced by interactivity. Are there other things in comics that are responsible for the punching being satisfying? I’m wondering if there are just innate benefits to the comic form that games will never be able to achieve, or whether you think videogames will eventually conquer all?

    Part of it is that action is implied in comics, even in the most literal stuff that tries to show you everything in graphic detail. And there is a lot of drama in a series of punchy (pun not intended) images implying action. This is a huge limitation for comics, that images must be static, action can never really be shown. But the fact that action exists only in the viewer’s mind is also a strength, a defining feature of the medium and a source of much drama and interesting visual communication.

    link to guybingley.files.wordpress.com
    link to img.blorgblorgbl.org

    The idea of varying screen sizes is interesting. Although the equivalent in games seems to be using the environment to frame things. I guess it’s closer to cinematography than literally varying panel sizes but games are very good at dictating rhythm and framing scenes through the environment. Kentucky Route Zero does some really interesting things with framing but it’s special.

    Apologies for the ramble, I feel uniquely unqualified to comment on this article since I have a sort of willful ignorance of superhero comics despite being really interested in comics as a medium.

  6. LogicalDash says:

    What of Vlambeer and their exquisite use of screen-shake?

    • Tacroy says:

      Vlambeer screenshake is pretty much the only acceptable screenshake.

  7. caff says:

    Forget violence – the best bit about comics for me was always the end of the Asterix books, when they all had a massive feast and chubster Obelix ate a boar. Why can’t more games have a feel good ending like that?

    • SigmaCAT says:

      Grim Fandango? Okay it’s not very new.
      Deadly Premonition had such a feelgoody ending I think

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      teije says:

      Because no comic has ever equaled the brilliance of Asterix. Except maybe Tintin.

  8. Vandelay says:

    “The fight sequences in comics aren’t chaotic, they’re these neatly choreographed things with a kind of narrative flow and that really lends itself to the beat-by-beat-ness of the panel form. In games I don’t often have that sense of control and fight narrative. I get too easily lost in button mashing or panicked actions strung together instead of carefully considered. Perhaps that’s more on me and how I play, but it means that the journey towards a final punch doesn’t have that same flow and therefore it doesn’t have that same crunchy, visceral payoff.”

    I would say that the Arkham games do a good job of getting this flow right. When you get the hang of it, it feels almost like a rhythm game and Batman responds by eloquently dancing between foes (at least, before the dancing become him diving 20 feet to reach the enemy in the later games.) This becomes even more rewarding when you start to flow the gadgets into your fights and continue to build up the massive combos. I suppose the reason many don’t notice this is because the single player doesn’t require you to play like that and the button mashing works perfectly fine. Moving into the challenge mode it becomes more apparent when you are reaching for those top scores though and I imagine the New Game + is similar (not played it myself to judge.)

    “that’s why cover systems are cool, right? People claim to be sick of them sometimes – they’ve become ubiquitous since Gears of War in 2006 – but before that more often than not first- and third-person protagonists in videogames would just stand in the open while shooting. That’s absurd and it means that action has a strange, single pace.”

    I know it is tired to bang on about cover systems, but I feel you have this the wrong way round. If you stood still while playing Doom or Max Payne you were playing it wrong and probably dying a lot. Maybe I am just playing cover system games wrong, but I move around so much more in games that don’t have cover. Games with cover just require you to sit behind a wall and pop up to head shot everything around you.

    • simontifik says:

      The Arkham games seem like the obvious choice when we are talking comics but I was going to say the same thing. There’s something about the combat in that game that makes every hit feel meaningful. There’s weight behind each strike but fluidity in the movement that makes each fight feel like a dance. There’s something about taking some of the control away from the player that strips Arkham’s combat down and makes it feel great. When you break it down you are really just picking a direction and an action, punch, block, dodge, stun rather than having to make every move your own.

  9. April March says:

    Spiderman, Spider-man
    Don’t know if it has a hyphen

    I can’t add anything of worth to this discussion, but Pip’s comments on how videogame action is frantic when she’s playing made me realize that the same is true for me, and I also tend to get bored and find my mind wandering during action scenes in movies, even in movies where the action scenes are the main reason for watching. So I guess I like whatever excuse plot a movie has more than I like the payload, and I suppose I also should actually read Playboy for the articles? So in games, I like it when there’s no action at all, or when it’s balls-to-the-wall constant action, like in most roguelikelikelikes. If I have to switch out of narrative mode, I don’t.

    • welverin says:

      Hyphen

    • Philomelle says:

      I sadly cannot find the exact book right now, but at one point Spider-Man goes on a rant about how frequently people disrespect his beloved hyphen.

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    Mungrul says:

    Two words: Viewtiful Joe.

  11. Noc says:

    I think my sense of comic-book action is that it tends to convey a great sense of back-and-forth? Like, my mental image of comic book fights tends to go something like this:

    Panel 1: A beautiful dutch-angle shot of Doctor Von Malice bracing a death ray the size of his torso, blasting away, monologuing about THOSE FOOLS and how they LAUGHED at him for about a paragraph.
    Panel 2: Captain Liberty in midair, backflipping over the death beam and throwing his Freedom Torch back at Dr. VM, while saying something pithy.

    The idea here is that each character gets a panel to do something meaningful, and to express themselves somehow. Something like Jane Damsel (the Metropolitain Tribune’s Most Kidnapped Reporter) shouting “Watch out, Captain Liberty!” probably won’t get its own panel, so she’ll call it out from the background.

    We can see some of this in how XCOM handles its camera focus! For instance, it’ll stop and focus on the shooter when an overwatch shot gets triggered, because that’s a panel-worthy moment of drama. But a move triggers multiple shots, they’ll all get taken at once because each individual shot isn’t as important.

    Contrast this to a lot of other turn-based RPGs! You’d think that the turn-based structure is ideal for mimicking a comic’s action flow…but for most fights, not every attack or action is significant, so you end up with this “x happened, then y happened, than z happened” rhythm. The game itself might well be very interesting, but it’s not paced and presented in that same compelling way!

    . . .

    But on the other hand, in something like FTL a lot of things are often happening at once, so your brain’s doing the pacing and prioritizing on its own. Maybe you’re watching the enemy’s shields intently, waiting for the perfect moment to fire your cannon…or maybe your guns are just firing away on their own while you frantically organize a defense to some boarders.

    I also played a bit of Warframe around the holidays, and it also seemed to have a good comicky feel — but that was also very much down to this really cool sense of well-paced, meaningful actions and reactions, of the game throwing something at you and then you doing a cool thing in response.

    (Turn a corner into a crowd of enemies? Curl up into a ball while they shoot at you, then blast them with power! A big guy with a rocket launcher is across the room? Take careful aim, then reach out and mind-control him! The survivors are dug in behind cover? Pick them off with your bow!)

    It feels like a very different sort of comic, but it’s got that same kind of compelling back-and-forth, and that seems to be the primary feature of something feeling comicky to me. It’s not the only thing that can make a game fun, but it’s a specific, pretty neat feel that I appreciate when I notice it.

  12. PlanetTimmy says:

    A great example of the game version of the ‘double-page-spread’ is the slo-mo x-ray kill shot from Sniper Elite V2 and V3, surely? And a lot of games have the cutscene or set-piece as the double page spread, but there’s something a bit different about them – perhaps it’s something to do with they way they are one-offs? Not sure.

  13. Robert Post's Child says:

    The point about it being choreographed is accurate, but also violence in games often holds the opposite functionality it does in comics: Superman goes through a story and fights people as a result. Videogame Protagonist goes through a fight (or series therof) and gets a bit of story as a result. These aren’t hard rules, of course, but I think that’s how it tends to play out.

    Something like Asura’s Wrath might be the a good comic-book equivalent, in that it’s highly stylized, specifically choreographed action, but that kind of thing is definitely harder to translate once you take the QTE reins off. Pacing a fight is crucial in comics (and film!) but just about impossible when you’re relying on the player to move things along.

  14. quarpec says:

    super heroes are lame

  15. vanhisa says:

    Valkyria Chronicle gave the appearance and feelbof comic book right withbthe visual style. And its also a turn based. And it has its own comic/manga to boot.

  16. AlexHeartnet says:

    Comix Zone anyone? It’s an old Mega Drive game that is exactly like a comic book. Exactly. You start out in the first comic book ‘panel’, beat up a few bad guys, then move to another panel and do the same, and eventually you reach the end of the page – the end of the level. And then you move on to the next page.

    Turns out a lot of stuff can be crammed into one comic book page. On one level you start out fighting a few martial artist-type guys, who ask you if you are here for the “tournament”. And sure enough, by the middle of the page you unwillingly find yourself in the middle of a death sport fighting tournament. At the end of the level you face off against this kung fu master who has been training all the bad guys.

    While the game has its own set of flaws, the pacing and presentation is excellent.

  17. AyeBraine says:

    People in comics talk all the time while fighting, sometimes getting off half a page while doing a sommersault or drop-kicking someone from a ceiling.

    This gives the whole affair a somewhat theatrical, satisfying pathos, without breaking the comics’ tie to the cinema. Like even the grittiest, silent-est badass can actually cram in a momentous soliloquy or a flowery one-liner, and still not miss a beat of a cool action scene \ movie storyboard.

    It’s not possible in movies nor in games, and, strangely enough, even in books (you can’t describe a monologue mid-jump on a page, or make a character unexplicably stop to describe his lost love during a chase). I mean, movies have slow motion (but only for voiceover, which comics also have in spades), and books have author’s voice and thoughts, but neither have “free dialogue coupons”.

  18. Jackablade says:

    I’d like to see a turn based game where each turn makes up the panel of a comic. The objective isn’t so much to defeat your enemy but to freeze frame at the end of your turn looking particularly stylish. Bonus points for throwing in an appropriate catch-phrase.

    I don’t think it’ll really solve and of the concerns mentioned in the article, but it seems like it’d be pretty neat game.

  19. Hypocee says:

    Violence no, but action-wise Spelunky feels like it qualifies as being very moment / moment / moment. You could make story strips from screenshots.

  20. bill says:

    This may be because I’m more of a gamer than a comic reader, but I’m not sure I agree with the general thrust of this article.

    Personally, I find a lot of comic book action rather odd. Of course that is probably down to the limitations of the medium (displaying action in a static medium), but it usually comes across to me as very slow paced and relaxed. I think this is partly because every frame tends to have the characters speaking/thinking half an essay of thoughts. One fight becomes a series of photos of the key reversals, over the course of a few hours as the characters spend their time ruminating on their love life and career and the details of the plot.

    The changing of frame sizes, while often cool, seems to be essentially trying to re-create the kind of dynamic camerawork that you get in movies and games, but can’t get in comics.
    Simply resizing frames while playing would be annoying in most situations, and more importantly probably wouldn’t have the desired effect. That effect can be more easily achieved with camerawork, slomo, etc.
    (Though it has worked well in a few specific games based on comics, like XIII).

    A lot of the tricks that games use to make moves more dramatic are ones that we tend to complain about – taking control away from the player, moving the camera, cutscenes, long animations, quicktime events, etc..
    All of which can have their place, but can also be annoying if used badly.

    I don’t play a lot of 3rd person action games, but don’t most of them emphasise their power moves and fatalities by doing things like pausing, zooming, slomo, etc.. ? Isn’t that effectively the same thing?

    Of course, games tend to simply include much more combat and repetition than comics do, so the impact is often diminished through familiarity.

  21. noodlecake says:

    Without the little cutscenes for the Orc’s, Shadow of Mordor would not work. You wouldn’t care about the orcs who were getting revenge on you. You wouldn’t be familiar with them. You simply wouldn’t notice the system in action and every orc would be practically faceless and devoid of any personality. This blanket hatred of cutscenes is ridiculous.

  22. Love Albatross says:

    Dear Games Developers. I would like an open world Punisher game set in New York that rips off Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system and applies it to the power structures of gangs and gangsters. Thank you.

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      Mungrul says:

      WANT.
      Bonus points for having it occur in the Ennis Punisher Max universe.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    I feel like if games are going to borrow more from comics, French and Belgian bandes dessinees would be more interesting than American superheroes, for the sake of variety if nothing else… though maybe less so specifically for the “punchy combat” thesis of this post. Walk into any comics store in France and you’ll find a staggering range of art-style and subject matter. If the extent of “what comics do you like?” can be answered with Marvel and/or DC, you are missing out.

    >I wonder if there’s a videogame equivalent to changing panel size.

    This seems (as Bill points out above) analogous to cinematography, going from say a close-up to an establishing shot, which there is no shortage of in games, though more so in cutscenes than in gameplay… but experimenting with frame shape and size could also be interesting. There is the occasional split-screen thing but that’s about it.

  24. sonson says:

    I was reading Walt Simonsn’s classic Thor run just before Christmas and thinking about how much gaming could learn from well plotted comics, economy, and economy of storytelling in particular. A lot of modern DC and Marvel comics are pretty poor at this themselves sadly but at their best comics can communicate an enormous amount of information which is nonetheless digestible and designed to deliver narrative with specific limits in mind.

    Too many games are 70+ hours because…well, just because they can be, they are. Gaming is potentially a limitless medium in regards to restraint on time consumption, and in many ways it’s a real strength-thinking rougelikes, procedurally generated random content etc.But it can also justify tremendously lazy design that relies upon an audience simply being willing to play forever rather than trying to design something with intent in respect to pacing.

    Bastion is a shining example in this regard-much of it’s strengths come from the designers having clearly thought about what is revealed, how, and when, per level, to the instant, as opposed to just some arbitrary-you kill some bad guys, and then meet this person, and then big reveal, and then more of the same. It drips story as you go, rather than rely on a conversation or cutscene or big dialogue piece to unload exposition. I would argue that its themes, its set pieces, and its story is just as big and epic in its own way as say Dragon Age III, but delivered in a quarter of the time.

    I was also thinking about why I’ve been spending so much time with DOTA, and I think a huge part of it is the character design. Much of the reason for the superheroes iconic status is that they were instantly readable, through their costume, their physique, their movements, the way they throw a punch. The best pencillers can bring a character to life simply through the clothes they wear and the poses they strike. See, for example, how Simoson makes a *frog* clearly take on the aspect of Thor with no gimmicks or visual guide aside from expression here:

    link to denofgeek.us.

    In spite of this, there is a continuity to consider, an established canon; how does an artist make a character his own without just making him look entirely different? How do you draw the entire cast of a universe and maintain their character while adding noticeable value and perspective, all the while meeting the direction of the plot?

    DOTA’S character design is similarly excellent. The way every character’s spell looks, feels (both in terms of feedback and input) sounds, the way they move, the way they talk, their animations, their lore, there is so much life and feel to every single one of the 100 plus characters. There are something like 10 teleport effects in the game and not one of them is the same. Playing one archer feels entirely different to playing another archer. The characters communicate who they are through what they *do* and how they look, not through what some narrative says or reveals about them. I can pick up a support one game, and then another the next, someone who looks entirely different, sounds different, acts different, has different skills and skill requirements, while still recognisably being a support and knowing what I need to do with them in the content of 4 entirely separate characters on my team.

    And this is all within the wider limitations of the fact that there is an existing if whimsical lore already. Designers have to work out how you can have heroes from the Dire and Radiance on the same team without that looking stupid. They have to ensure that roles have enough similarities as to be graspable if that is your usual role, but not so similar as to be boring, and not so different as to render their similarities useless. Then there’s all the extra content-how do you design a different costume that makes a character visibly different that nonetheless maintains the ethos of the character?

    Many games instead crib from the more modern and tedious comics trope of the backstory-the idea that to understand a superhero you need it to be made explicitly Freudian. This itself is careless plunder from the likes of Alan Moore’s comics, where a lot of people missed the point; they weren’t good because they had a more pragmatic exploration of the superhero and gritty psychological elements; they were good because they were written by a superb writer pursuing one element of the genre, rather than attempting to lay a template for what all superhero comics should be. It is very easy to write that stuff badly, most people do in fct, but that is what is demanded of the audience-stories which are “real” (in spite of the fact that they are utterly fantastical) and mature (as if the travails of an explicitly fantastical, escapist universe could ever be relatable).

    A lot of games have taken the same road, where hefty dialog and explicit backstory takes the place of visual storytelling. Consider the Amnesia trope often found in gaming; many games explicitly work on the premise that you can only find out about your character through external sources of information, but good storytelling such as found in the best comics, and the visual design of studios such as Valve, Double Fine, Amplitude, Big Giant Games amongst others; these show that this is absolute nonsense. You can and indeed in many ways should be able to tell a lot about something simply by seeing what it does and doesn’t do.

    I think many of the same lessons that comics teach can also be picked up from children’s literature, where character and carefully planned plot progression take the place of an obviously moral or openly polemical structure. As with comics, there are millions of novels that prove effective execution is better than lofty ideological content or epic volume. It means little if you can’t communicate it well. That’s the whole point of being a writer. It’s not about having ideas-everyone has those-it’s about having the craft to make them into a reality for other people to consider.

    Fundamentally I think both comics and games are fighting over a lot of the same issues just now-gender representation, adult themes, bloat, revamping old licences and concepts and and smug a “retro” self consciousness-and the best examples in each field I think are those which are least slavish to audience demand and genre groupthink and go instead with their own passions and influences, while nonetheless understanding why it is they are choosing to make their idea in a given medium, why it is an experience that can be best told as a comic or played as a game. And I think the worst evidence that they haven’t properly considered the medium they are made in anything other than passing.

  25. jonahcutter says:

    As far as the comic panel thing, I saw this recently on Steam:

    link to store.steampowered.com

    I haven’t played the game so no idea how effective it is, but the addition of a constant extra perspective was kind of interesting. It even switches perspective and angle at times. The recent Space Hulk games do a similar thing, providing you with a first person window to watch while also seeing the main overhead view.

    It’s a cool concept that’s only been occasionally toyed with. I would like to see if it can be used as an even more integral mechanic.

  26. Kosenator says:

    I have found the combat in XCom to be very exhilirating: that might be due to some people calling my imagination hyperactive, but a skirmish between my six guys and four heavy floaters, three muton elite, two mutons, one muton berserker, two cyberdisks and four drones (all coming into visible range at once) do add a bit of tension hard to find in other games.

    • Kosenator says:

      This is to say, i do believe that games have the ability to carry the same sense of “back and forth” (as another commenter’s post put it very well), as comic books. Even better, dare i say, as i have never lamented seeing a comic book character die or getting lost. Those six guys at the entrance to the Harvester? Those are my guys, and i hate losing my guys – so much i actually feel tense when i see how overpowered they are. Something not really available with Superman and Batman, well knowing that, except for Doomsday, there is none available to truly kill or constantly outsmart them.