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"An entire universe of art": Kieron Gillen on what comics and games can learn from each other

None more goth

Autumn. Nature renews itself. Green shades turn to warm reds. The air gets chiller, the days get shorter. Kids return to school. Columns come and go. Games journalists become narrative designers. It's the circle of life.

But autumn is also the season when the laws of nature gets tweaked, and the dead wake up again to haunt the living for a day. Let's salute this column with an act of impromptu necromancy, then. One freshly resurrected Kieron Gillen, to talk about his un-life after games journalism. He's always been the goth-est of us, after all.

You're one of the few game journalists who did NOT become a narrative designer after leaving RPS, Kieron. Why? Did you find the medium unappealing, or did you dislike the way the games industry treats its writers?

It's mostly because I have a very old-fashioned idea about writing. Writing is about power. If you are not truly deciding what things are happening, you are not really writing in the way I am interested in writing.

The kind of roles I was interested in were those lead designer/writer crossbreed, like in Planescape: Torment, where someone who does most of the writing also decides how to approach the whole project. But when I was in that place of maybe trying some narrative design, lots of studios treated writers like texture artists. You know, a game exists and you come in to write a narrative wrapper, in the same way an artist adds textures and decorations to a level that has already been blocked.

A screenshot from Planescape: Torment showing the main character standing in a mysterious room, looking at a scientific pod holding an unknown figure

What makes me interested as a creator are meaningful decisions that shape the narrative in a way which is important. So I would never go for AAA games, unless I could somehow skip 30 years of work. And to be honest, there wasn't enough indie work at the time to consider making a career out of it, so...

Did the term "narrative designer" even exist when you were a journalist?

Narrative designers started to become a thing before the end of my role at RPS, but we would just call them writers; that's the word we would use. I've been watching with interest how it's been shaking down.

You did end up writing for a couple games, though.

Yes. I did some localisation for a game called Chaos League, back in the nineties, and I wrote an NPC for Failbetter Games' Sunless Skies: the Princess, who is a delight. Also, I occasionally program some text games for my own amusement. In fact, I probably did more game development since leaving RPS than videogame playing. Just for my own sake.

I write tabletop games too. For my comic DIE, I wrote this whole pen and paper RPG on the side, and it's over 100k words now, I think. And I did it for free! I plan to put it out as a game, eventually, but this is a significant amount of work I'm doing solely for the art.

A nameplate for the comic DIE, reading 'An ongoing series about mid-life crisis, the purpose of fantasy and how much of his RPG expenditure Kieron can make tax-deductible'

Can you tell me more about your collaboration with Failbetter Games? How did it came to happen?

I met Olivia (Failbetter's Editor) on Twitter. I played Fallen London back in the day - I think I even wrote about it on RPS? - so I was keeping up with Failbetter's work, and when Olivia asked me if I was interested in writing one of the NPCs I said "YES!".

I would normally say "yes!" the first time anyone asks me to do anything, depending on the people who ask me, because I like to do something just to see how it feels. And I already knew how to use narrative tools like Twine, so it was quite easy to get into the CMS. They offered me a variety of NPCs concepts, and I picked one that appealed to me: a cross between a Disney Princess and a Lovecraftian God.
There's a creepiness to her I have really enjoyed writing. You know when you meet a friendly NPC and immediately think "this person is just trouble"? But you can't get rid of them, because they're just that powerful. So how do you get rid of that thing without them murdering you?

Have you found any big difference between writing for comics and writing for games?

Comics and games are quite similarly made in a few ways, in that both are bastard mediums. Comics are a multi-media exercise. So many other disciplines — design, architecture, prose — can be incorporated within a comic, and the only medium in the world which has more is games. Games have interaction, and that's a thing comics don't have in the same way.

Hey, what about interactive comics?

I am writing one at the moment! That's me taking my thinking about games and applying it to comics. Especially narrative games, arty narrative games, because — spoilers — this comic appears like a choose-your-own-adventure comic, but there's no solution. You have to break the rules of the comic to make it to the end: if you follow the numbers, you can't win. You have to deliberately ignore the numbers to reach the end, and it teaches you how to solve it.

And that's absolutely me having played a lot of adventure games in the 90s. I'm always looking at everything outside of comics and thinking "okay, what applies well?". One of the best scenes in Young Avengers is a flight scene made in the style of the safety instructions in the back seat of airplanes. I simply saw one and thought "I should do a comic like that".

A panel from the Young Avengers comic showing, yes, a fight scene but drawn with numbered annotations similar to a flight safety instruction sheet.

Comic writing is also done collaboratively. If you are a comic writer working with an artist, you are always thinking about somebody else. You are aware that you are not the end. I talked before about power. It's about the interplay. It's about the chemistry you have with other people.

Also, modularity. One of the reasons I got into comics is that it's quite similar to journalism to me. It takes me a week to write a comic, speaking broadly. And I don't remember how long it took me to write a big article — one of those 4-5k words articles — but it was like, a week's work. In the same way, a lot of game narrative tasks are quite modular, in terms of "now do this for a week". And that creates a lot of structure.

Do comic writers even approach you asking for advice about getting into games, or vice-versa? Because I don't know that many that work in both mediums myself — and that's a bit weird, considering everything you just said.

Comics are hard work. You know, I've been very lucky. I am one of the most successful comic writers around — which is such a scary thing to say, you know what I mean?

You know how I said I get more for scripts than for indie games? Not many comic writers can say that. And I don't mean it in a bad way. There are some people who seem to naturally cross over between comics and games, and I know a lot of comics people who have also written for games, like my good friend Antony Johnston. He's the guy who read some of my first comic scripts, and he wrote for a lot of games. And he does presentations about how it's a transferable skill, because game writing is often based around a clarity and precision of prose. You don't get to ramble out. In comics, you average 25 words for a caption. The length of a videogame line and the length of a comic balloon are very similar.

What do you think games could learn from comics, and vice-versa?

The way the game universe works is different than the way a fiction universe works. A game universe is an excuse for things to happen. It's not meant to have its own story; it's a place where a story could exist, where players can make their own. And that structure applies very well to comics, especially to the two big superhero universes. There's some synergy in there — in the idea that there are all those smaller stories inside a big story.

One of the things games can take from comics, I think, is that comics had that artistic development. Comics started being taken more seriously as art like 20 years before games, and therefore games people can look at comics and see what did comics do right, what comics do wrong, and what things comics do which can be applied to games.

I think games and comics might have reached the point where we can be a bit less defensive about what we do. We have proven ourselves. Maybe we should be more mature now. Maybe we should be able to handle criticism better? Which is one of the things I think games are definitely having problems with.

Many of your comics, like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine, focus on the relationship between fans, creators and the media they consume. Did you notice any radical difference in the way people approach comics and games?

Comics are an older medium. But games are a bigger medium, and therefore have more mass dynamics. It's easier for a critical mass of fans to gather together and create a culture in games. In comics, there might just not be enough people to create a blob, and for the blob to do stuff. For the better or worse.

Comics also have this weird thing where people can be reading comics without realizing they are reading comics. If they read a comic strip in a newspaper they are not gonna say "I read comics", even if that's exactly what they're doing. The same with people playing games on the phone or tablet: games are part of their life.

A panel from The Wicked + The Divine showing the floor plan of the London Fantheon, a convention for fans of the Pantheon. It has been annotated by one of the characters.

Games culture has become big enough that you have smaller scenes inside it. One of the great joys of games (both digital games and analogue games) is seeing how all those progressive little communities have coalesced, and that's because the medium is big enough so there are people to feed into it. The mainstream always feeds the underground. And the bigger the mainstream is, the more radical the underground can be.

The big difference between comics and games, I think is, comics tend to be about people. The fact that they're not made by very big teams makes more oblivious that Kieron Gillen is a person, and people have a parasocial relationship with me, in the same way when I was a journalist. People who read my comics, who follow me on Twitter, know me — or at least they think they know me. You only get that thing in games if you're the front person on a game.

Or if you are a streamer.

That's something that did not exist when I was a games journalist: the streaming culture.

(Whispering) I don't get how it works.

I am quite glad I don't. I used to be a bit sad. You know, when you are growing up, you get this idea that your parents don't understand new things — like when they listen to your music and scream "this is just noise!". In my life I never thought that way about music. I might not like a song, but I usually understand what it's doing.

I mostly get games. If you were to sit me now in front of a videogame I would mostly get it. But the thing I didn't get was streaming. Because the entire point of games in my generation was rebellion against passive consume; the point of playing a game was "we are not watching television". Everything I came to games for is anti-streaming. Therefore I don't get streaming on an emotional level — but I love that I don't get it, because it implies culture is moving, you know? I'm a 45 year old man. I shouldn't understand it. I should be confused.

It saddens me a bit, the way people sometimes decide to self-exclude themselves from a medium — confusing mediums for genres, deciding that something is "just noise" without even trying to engage with it. I think they're missing out.

You're right. This is was drew me in as a games journalist: I was into the cross-pollination between media. Comics and games can take from everywhere. For me as a gamer, I was always into playing lots of different stuff. As a teenager, there was no genre of games I did not play, because for me it was part of what gaming meant. As things went through the 90s and later than that, the idea of being a fan of a genre of games sort of appeared. But we never used to have that in the 80s. You just played everything, because you had no choice.

Now you can just buy first-person shooters, or devote your free time to a single game like Counter-Strike. And that's... Utterly alien to me. As an emotional thing. It's true in comics as well. Like the hardcore manga scene... There is not enough crossover between manga, American comics or French comics. Even the American indie scene and the American mainstream scene are divided.

I've got my preferences, but I always try to take from as many different places as possible. Most of my close friends work in the Anglophone or Francophile scene, but I'd like to see more stuff I don't know, and as a game critic, that's what I always tried to encourage.

One of the articles I like seeing on RPS is "have you played?". That call to action. "Why not?" There is an entire universe of art out there in every form of medium and we should try to sample all because even if you find something new you don't like, your world gets bigger.

Disclosure: This interview was edited for clarity. Kieron was one of the founders of RPS. Giada did an incubation at Failbetter Games a few years ago and is still friendly with the studio.

Most of Kieron's comics are currently available on Humble Bundle, by the way. Get yourself something nice to read. See you, space cowboys.

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About the Author
Giada Zavarise avatar

Giada Zavarise


Giada writes for games, and sometimes writes about games as well. She likes comics, cats, and ranting against crafting systems on Twitter.

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