What Can Games Learn From Action In Comics?
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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.
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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 1920x1280 and I'm thinking sticking to that maximum screen size could be, ironically, restrictive.
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DOCTOR NO IDEAS punches Graham into outer space.
CAPTION: The End...?