Playing with Panels: Some Thoughts on Comic Book Video Games – by Tyler Crissman
There don’t seem to be a lot of comic book-based video games. “What?” you ask in disbelief at my idiocy. “There are a ton: Spider-Man games out the wazoo, Batman games stacked to the sky…”
No, those are superhero games. Sure, the intellectual properties originated in comic books, but a good number of these games are based off of movies, and the ones that aren’t based on movies are just based on the characters and their respective worlds. Superhero games aren’t the same as comic book games. For one thing, equating “comic book” with “superhero” is more than enough to activate my pretentious-and-pedantic-comic-studies-minor impulse (and I’ll try not to give in to the urge to lecture whoever is reading this, but come on, in a world where Persepolis, Maus, and Scott Pilgrim can be found in Barnes and Noble, this shouldn’t be an issue). Moreover, your average superhero game—heck, even the Scott Pilgrim game—does little if anything at all to incorporate comic book elements.
Now, to some mindsets, perhaps “incorporate comic book elements” means having a certain art style, or implementing “BIFF!” and “POW!” as visualized sound effects (or, to beat a dead horse, simply having superheroes). Those things can be nice, when used tastefully, but I want to go deeper and more formalistic, getting into the things that make the medium of comics what it is, not just stereotypical comic book window dressing. The question I want to ponder is, how can the form of comic books (or comics in general) merge with the form of video games in meaningful ways?
Most video games don’t apply comics form at all, that makes sense: comics is (often) a static medium, using still images rather than moving ones, and video games often use moving images. Predicating a video game on static images would seem to only work for certain genres, like turn-based RPGs, and even then, what would using comics form actually do for the game? Would it add any meaningful gameplay depth, or even manage to benefit the aesthetics without being a detriment to pacing and gameplay? Of course, a possible solution to this issue is to apply animation to an often-static format, and/or work animated gameplay into a comics-esque, panel-based format. This again raises the question, though: what do the comics-based aspects meaningfully add to the game? I could discuss the possibilities of comic book-based video games for some time, probably talking myself in circles and ultimately arguing with myself—so, it’s about time for a more interesting approach. Let’s look at a few case studies of comics formally influencing video games.
First up is Comix Zone, a game released on the Sega Genesis (also known as the Sega Mega Drive, depending on the region) in 1995. On many counts, the game is similar to many of its time: it’s a 2D beat-‘em-up game with a lot of punching, a solid soundtrack, and a lack of forgiveness (i.e., one game-over puts you back at the start) that today’s video games would mostly steer clear of. The main thing that stands out is the one that you’ve surely guessed by now. The game’s structure is predicated on comic book panels, justified in the story by the protagonist getting sucked into a comic book. The comic panel form isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it is cleverly and even meaningfully applied. The main way this applies is that, in transitioning from one screen to another, the player is often given the option of multiple panels to traverse to.
While the game (I think) ignores the fact that jumping between panels in most comic books would affect chronology, this mechanic does actually affect the gameplay in that it offers multiple pathways. Of course, comic book panels are not at all the only way a game could offer multiple pathways—a game could do this in a myriad of ways, even as simply as presenting two different literal paths. In this regard, while the comic book panels are used in a way that actually affects the gameplay, it isn’t comic book panels specifically that afford the game that mechanic. The panelized way of approaching multiple paths just adds comic book style in a way that’s integrated into the game.
The other use of comic book panels in the game is a little fourth-wall breaking (even more so than the aforementioned use), in which a panel border is actually a breakable barrier within one screen, and perhaps other similar fourth-wall breaks. (I would have more thorough knowledge of the game, but I haven’t managed to play it all the way through.) Comix Zone is clever, but what about newer games, right? Surely the hybridization of comics and games has been deeply explored by now…right?
Well, let’s ignore that question for now, and move forward more slowly in time. (I think I have a gift for pacing, bested only, perhaps, by Michael Bay after an all-nighter and someone else’s medication.) So, instead of zooming ahead to today, let’s go to 2005.
Based on the comic book series by the same title, Ultimate Spider-Man came out in the Playstation 2/Xbox/Gamecube generation of games. There isn’t much to mention here, but I do want to note that it’s a good example of comic book-based visuals. The gameplay has no comics-form-based mechanics, but the cel-shaded visuals are pretty much the best possible 3D rendering of Mark Bagley’s art that that generation of game hardware could muster, and the cutscenes actually revel in panelization. For example, characters move across panels, and panels of previous moments can be seen on-screen but are frozen still. That’s pretty cool. It’s got no impact on the gameplay, though.
So, what playable, panelized productions have we got today? Well, I can’t manage to keep up with the nonstop releases in the world of video games, so I may be wrong. But it seems like there really isn’t much.
In my research, the one thing I found was a 2014 Android/iOS game called “Framed”, a noir-themed puzzle game in which comics panels must be rearranged to create the best outcome of a sequence. I haven’t played it, although it seems clever, but fairly limited. So… is that all?
Well, yes…and no. There is one game that, while not explicitly comics-based, comes closer than anything I’ve seen to applying the formal aspects of comics and making them part of a game. Hopping back in time to 2003 (and working on my speech for the Best Pacing Award), let’s take a look at Viewtiful Joe.
Developed by Capcom (specifically, their development team called Team Viewtiful, who would later become Clover Studios and then give rise to PlatinumGames) back when Capcom had a better reputation and fewer dead franchises, Viewtiful Joe was released on the Gamecube and later ported to the Playstation 2. The game is tastily cel-shaded (not unlike Ultimate Spider-Man), and is a tough-as-nails 2D beat-‘em-up (not unlike Comix Zone—although, in my opinion, Viewtiful Joe is the superior game by far). Now, this game incorporates film-based mechanics rather than comics-based ones, but the way it’s done could pave the way for equally smart use of comics form in video games. So, what are these mechanics? Well, the protagonist gets sucked into a tokusatsu-style movie (Does getting sucked into the medium always have to be the justification for using that medium’s formal features?) and soon acquired superpowers based on film effects. So, instead of just punching and kicking everything in their way, the player uses abilities called Slow (i.e., slow-mo, or bullet time), Mach Speed (i.e., speeding things up), and Zoom (i.e., zooming in the camera, but with added combat benefits).
These powers operate on three levels: as abilities, as thematic content, and as formalistic manipulation. Regarding that first level, “as abilities”, these powers function as actions the player can meaningfully use in the game.
That is, they are game mechanics, plain and simple. The second level mentioned, “as thematic content”, refers to the fact that these powers all derive from film, cementing the game’s thematic connection to cinema. They even draw on film tropes to both comedic and practical effect: using Slow means that the player can dodge better, deflect bullets, and make explosions bigger, for example—just like how slow-mo somehow causes these things to happen in countless action movies.
Finally, “as formalistic manipulation” refers to these abilities’ effect on the very medium. The aforementioned powers universally affect everything happening in the game at a given moment. By manipulating the entire game’s speed as well as the camera (the camera, interestingly, often being in the player’s control, but to less profound effect than in Viewtiful Joe), the player plays with the very medium of the game—and of film. What’s interesting about that simultaneity is the ease of it; video games (usually) use the technology of moving images, and add the element of control, so video games and film tend to share a common base of medium. Now, how does that work into comics-based video games?
Viewtiful Joe offers a great example of letting the player manipulate the medium. That mechanic is more than just superficial imposition of one set of formal features onto another form; it makes the imposition meaningfully. The game thus works as a springboard in two (non-mutually exclusive) ways: it can lead to deepening of medium manipulation, as well as leading to development of comics-specific medium manipulation. Regarding the former, there are ways to take Viewtiful Joe’s core concept further. What if, for example, controlling the camera combined with a lack of object permanence? A game in which only what the player sees exists could, with certain parameters, make for unique gameplay scenarios. Perhaps things not in sight remain frozen in time until looked at again, such that a boulder coming down a hill could be stopped by looking away, and then be used as a trap for gullible enemies with some clever use of the camera. There are, of course, plenty of other possibilities (and plenty far more creative and rich than anything I might come up with), but what about comics-based games? Well, the aforementioned camera manipulation could still apply, for example, but framed (no pun intended) as a matter of panels. Then, there’s the possibility of taking Comix Zone’s panel-hopping and adding time into the mix—what happens when you hop down to a later panel, not having done anything in the panels in between? What happens in later panels when you hop to an earlier panel and change things? Or, what if you base a mechanic on the text-image interplay of comics? Almost always, good comics will feature text-image combinations in which neither element alone delivers the same message as the whole, and each contributes to the other. So, what happens when the player is given some kind of control over the text-image interplay? It’s hard to imagine this kind of mechanic working outside of a puzzle game or some kind of turn-based game, and I can’t claim that it’s the greatest idea, but you never know. Heck, maybe some kind of comics-based game that meshes aspects of Scribblenauts (conjuring up just about any noun you can think of), Ōkami (drawing things and actions into existence), and Viewtiful Joe (see above) could actually be something good. (Anyone out there want to prove me right?) That’s just one idea, though, of basically infinite possible ideas.
Anyway, as far as I know, there’s a lot that hasn’t been explored when it comes to the intersection of comics and video games. (Feel free to prove me wrong, though.) That might be because there isn’t a huge market for the formalistic concepts involved in comics. Superheroes seem to be where the money’s at. For now, it’s just interesting to think about, and could even be a good thought exercise to foster more creative comics—at least, I hope so, because I have no skills in game development, and thus can’t use this train of thought to make any interesting games. I also hope this has been an interesting read for anyone who ventured this far into this fairly niche wall of text. Maybe all you took away from it is that you want to go play Viewtiful Joe. If so, well…I do, too. That’s an excellent idea.