The unexpected ways comics have influenced games

The unexpected ways comics have influenced games

It’s easy to recognize videogames that are influenced by comic books. Games that use flat colors and strong outlines, like Ubisoft’s XIII, or games that use comics in their cutscenes, like Max Payne and Battle Chasers, owe an obvious debt. What might be less evident is that comics have helped to define and develop the language of videogames in more subtle, and interesting, ways throughout the history of the medium.

In the 80s, “evolving 2D graphics enabled the creation of visually distinctive characters in games, as opposed to the generic figures of the previous decade,” professor Nicolas Labarre, videogames and comics scholar at University Bordeaux Montaigne, explains. “[C]omics and animated cartoons offered models of visual narrative forms employing simplified yet expressive characters, whose stable appearance made them easily recognizable.” It’s the “amplification through simplification” technique discussed by comics author Scott McCloud in his seminal comic-essay Understanding Comics. In cartoons and early videogames, characters are not just simplified in order to make them fit into the limited space of panels and sprites; while unnecessary details are eliminated, the most important features are emphasized and exaggerated instead. 

Professor Hans-Joachim Backe from the Center for Computer Games Research of the IT University of Copenhagen draws further connections between characters in comics and videogames, specifically superheroes. “I’d say that there is a legacy of the superhero in what our game avatars can do, how powerful and resilient they are and how we accept that. If we had not had that pretext of the impervious superhero, we’d have a harder time parsing how these game heroes work.” 

(Image credit: Future)

It’s important to note that in the same period mini-comics were often packaged with the cartridges and were a fundamental tool for enriching games’ narratives and setting their tone. Comics were the basis of our understanding of games’ stories, characters and visuals. And maybe they also taught us how videogames could convey their information. “Games have integrated signifiers that come clearly from comics in their language,” says Professor Backe. “Think of Metal Gear Solids question and exclamation marks, and quest markers in MMOs like World of Warcraft. All those signs we see rendered in the game world, as real as the enemies themselves, but we have that understanding (and my hypothesis is that’s because we have grown up with comics) that they are like thought bubbles; they are something that both exists and doesn’t exist in that world.”

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