Monday, 1 February 2010

What Games Can Learn From Comics

The ramble about games and comics in the last post was leading up to something!
Stuff Games can learn from Comics:

1. Get rid of the padding.
If it's not doing anything, cut it! CUT IT!!! Some fanboys seem to think that the play time of a game is the most important thing. I would disagree strongly. Some of the best games I've played have been relatively short. Just look at Portal! It's four hours long the first time usually. Or Chrono Trigger, half the length of most other JRPGs, but so good because every area is lovingly crafted, the animations are fluid and the plot moves along at a rollicking pace. One of the worst things in RPGs and adventure/action adventure games is artificial lengthening of the game through grinding, back-tracking, and needless fetch quests. Especially if it all takes place in boring stock dungeons. I would rather see Final Fantasy X, where the areas are short, but each one looks absolutely great and has real significance, than XII, with its miles and miles of bland scenery and dungeons and endless grinding in order to get on with the plot. Focus your energy where it's needed.

2. Show, don't tell.
Or actually, more accurately, "DO, don't show". In a bad comic, you will often have a character with an 'informed ability', other characters are constantly describing them as a badass, but they are never seen doing anything badass. The game equivalent of this, is having the character do awesome stuff in cutscenes, but not letting the player do them. I'm not talking about quick time events here. EW. NO. Quick time events are horrible! But you should try to allow the player to get the chance to do the fun stuff the character does. Use minigames, or give them a cool finishing move they can use at the end of a battle, rather than just showing the cool finisher in an FMV.

3. Make it snappy.
In a good comic, every page serves a purpose. This is particularly the case in webcomics, where you put pages up one at a time, so they need to be able to stand alone as well as in a sequence. In a good game, in the hour or so I play between two save points, I want something to happen. Something interesting or funny or cool. Whether it's gameplay or story, I don't mind.
The same goes for dialogue. Dialogue in a game should be neat and efficient. If I would criticise Planescape:Torment on one thing, it's the thing even it's creator, Chris Avellone criticises it for. It is just too verbose. I ended up skim reading chunks of dialogue because there was just so much to take in. Compare to Knights of the Old Republic 2. Same creator, sake kind of depth, but shorter chunks of dialogue with voice acting. It was neater and much easier to get into. KotR 2 had a much better balance of plot to gameplay, and dialogue to physical action.

4. Introductions with a BANG!
When I make a comic and I have a cast to introduce, there's one technique that works every time. When you introduce a character, have them do or say something which absolutely epitomises that character. This leaves a lasting impression on the reader. When you're doing a short comic, and you only have say 8 pages to tell a story, every panel counts. In a game, similarly, your dialogue and character actions are very important. Of course, if you're deliberately trying to mislead the player or reader, then you should have the character do something that epitomises what they want the protagonist to think about them. Example, a princess joins the party, but she's incognito as a street urchin (cliche, I know, but for the sake of example) now, you can either play this so that she's obviously not a street urchin and is terrible at acting the part:
"Oh! Pardon me, I'm being chased by thieves. You couldn't help me, could you?"
Or you can have her absolutely vanish into the role so well that it's a genuine shock when you get to the big reveal and she switches into 'Princess Mode':
"Oi, mate! Giz a hand! These bastards won't leave me alone!"

If a character is always sarcastic, then introduce them saying something sarcastic, if they're always joking, have them introduced doing that. If you don't, it becomes very hard to change the player's mind about them based on that first impression. This does lead to problems when you introduce somebody in the middle of an alien attack and they're scared out of their wits so that their normal, laid back personality doesn't come through, so it's a good idea to try to work out how you can establish that person's character and cement it in the mind of the player.

5. Metaphor and symbolism:
Now, I'm not saying here you should whack your player over the head with symbolism here. Especially not overused stuff like crucifixion imagery, floating feathers etc. But sometimes a good visual or verbal motif can work wonders. Try giving characters a colour association, or a personal musical theme. Throw in arc words or phrases. If you've read the comic and not just watched the film of 'Watchmen' (and if you have only seen the movie, you're missing out) you can notice that the imagery on the chapter covers is subtly repeated throughout those chapters (for example, in the first chapter, it's a blotch on a face or circle repeated from the splot of blood on the Comedian's smiley badge). Also there are adverts for things like 'Nostalgia' perfume permeating the backgrounds, and repeated images and words in graffiti, incomplete snatches of "Who Watches the Watchmen?" and the image of the shadowy embrace.
If, for example, you have a heroine called, say, 'Violet', and she's been kidnapped, and the hero is thinking about her, you don't have to have him narrate "I am thinking about violet", when you could subtly hint at it by showing a patch of violets growing by the path and him stopping to look at them pensively, maybe throw in a snatch of her personal theme tune. You'd be surprised what people will pick up on. The Japanese do this a lot more than western developers. For example, mentioning Final Fantasy X again, did you know that Yuuna (Yuna) is an Okinawan word for 'Moon'? And that the flowers decorating the character's hakama are a type of flower which blooms in moonlight and represents the moon? Notice how the colours of the character design reflect the colours of a white moon in an indigo sky too, and how her romantic scene takes place at night, under a full moon.
You can even work this into gameplay. For example, a character from your party has died, and they has a special ability that benefited the party. That ability suddenly winking out of existence can say an awful lot.


Elcura said...

Hmm, some interesting points, but you're hand picking the best comics to influence games, when you could just as easily pick the best games to influence comics. Some comics can be terrible, some games can be terrible, so it's not a matter so much of one learning from the other all the time.

A good game won't need padding, though some people do like to get their money's worth. Paying £40 for a game that lasts 5 hours is going to piss a lot of people off, which is why a lot of those games have some form of MP.

Show, don't tell applies for every medium ever, TV, movies, comics, games, this isn't an exclusive problem that one medium has and another hasn't. It all depends on how good the game/director/writer is.

As for dialogue, the games you mentioned are pretty old, and while long dialogue segments are fine, they usually drag on if you have no visual aid or stimulus. That's why money is invested in cutscenes, so you can have lengthy talks without getting bored. In general, you won't find this problem in a lot of games, even RPGs.

Kate Holden said...

I wouldn't say 'show don't tell' applies to EVERY medium EVER. In a play, you have to tell. You generally can't show. Shakespeare was an expert playwright because of his amazing ability to work every bit of info, even tiny nuances, into the dialogue, in a time when there was very little use of scenery or props, and all the female characters were girls. Also in a novel, you can't show there. You have to tell. So it actually IS a specific problem to visual media, and in terms of games, as I said, the question is not of showing, but of DOING.

While the games I mentioned are relatively old, this doesn't mean the problem has gone. Dialogue still drags on. Lately I've been playing Assassin's Creed 2, and the dialogue in that is full of stuff that's a lot of rambling without much punch, and very few characters have a distinctive 'voice' to their dialogue. I don't feel by any means that this problem has gone away.

Elcura said...

It was a means to say the problems are specific to those who make it problems, not to the medium itself.

Show don't tell applies to books as well, a character telling their history to another person as opposed to you reading about their history and events. You could devote an entire chapter or two, explaining how the character came to be, or you can spend a paragraph outlining the whole thing. Plays are exactly the same, show, don't tell is a wide concept. The difference being whether it's economical to show, if there's a time constraint (like in a play), then it might not be wise to show.

As for the dialogue thing, I didn't say it was gone, I was saying it's less of a problem today, or more of a problem but simply less boring to watch. If you're prepared for that sort of thing, you might enjoy it, but it you were expecting to jump into the action and shoot/stab/kill some people, then lengthy dialogue will irritate you to no end.

I couldn't imagine playing, err, I mean watching MGS without the right mindset. Like I said before, the problems you listed are only problems for people who make them problems (wut?) Webcomics can drag on for panels, but good ones can get to the point or joke nice and smoothly. Games are the same, as are comics.

Overall, I believe that what you said IS true, games do have these problems and could benefit from solutions. But the problem isn't exclusive to game, nor is the solution exclusive to comics. I mean, most of your points could fix Heroes, lol.