Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics continues to be a fascinating read. This is, in large part, because so much of his analysis of comics can be directly applied to video games, a new medium currently sorely lacking in critical vocabulary. McCloud has a knack for asking the right questions, and the further I read the faster the little wheels in my head begin to spin. The first chapter of the book asked the question “what is comics?”, which led me to question the definition of video games.
The second of McCloud’s concepts that I’d like to explore is his idea of the six elements of art (illustrated above). He believes that “any artist creating any work in any medium will always follow these six steps whether they realize it or not”, and that their order is innate. “All aspects of comics have the potential for self-expression” argues McCloud, “but the more a creator learns to command every aspect of their art and to understand their relationship to it” the more likely they are to focus on innermost aspects. Indeed, he makes the case that an artist’s skill is fundamentally related to the depth of their understanding in relation to these layers.
As they are innate to art itself, these six layers can also be applied to video games. I’d like to propose the following framework for how this might be done, using McCloud’s definitions as guidelines:
6. Surface: “Production values, finishing… the aspects most apparent on the first superficial exposure to the work”
In video games, this layer is best exemplified by cutting-edge graphics, sophisticated visual effects, high fidelity audio and overall technical polish (lack of bugs). These elements are very impressive, and can contribute greatly to the sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief. However, the surface is shallow and ultimately says little about the quality of the game.
5. Craft: “Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention and problem-solving”
The fifth layer (craft) is the realization of the concepts of the fourth layer (structure), and as such describes the concrete elements that make up a game. The aspects defined exclusively in this layer include:
- Level design
- Camera control
- Control layout
- Game feel
The key distinction in the fuzzy line between structure and craft is that the latter describes execution. For instance, I’m sure you’ve all played a game with a terrific concept that was ultimately made worse by sloppy controls, steep difficulty curves and poor level design. In other words, craft is to structure as engineering is to science.
4. Structure: “Putting it all together… what to include, what to leave out… how to arrange, how to compose the work”
The fourth layer describes the game in a conceptual manner, at the level of a detailed design document. It builds upon the skeleton defined by the first three layers, fleshing out abstract ideas into detailed systems.
What are the rules of this game? What is the role of the player, and how will they interact with the system? If there is a story, what is it about and how will it be told? Who are the characters? What will the art and music direction be? The structure of a game is defined by answering questions such as these.
3. Idiom: “The ‘school’ of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to… maybe a genre of its own.”
While the value of legacy genre descriptors is highly questionable, in a general sense most games are deeply rooted in the paradigms established by their predecessors. For instance, modern first person shooters are the evolution of the vocabulary and perspective established by Wolfenstein 3D and Doom in the early 90’s. Mario Kart, Gran Turismo and Wipeout are very different games, but they share the common goals and language of the racing genre.
Of course, games should never be restricted by genre. Indeed, games that defy classification (Katamari Damacy and Indigo Prophecy are examples) deserve our attention, as establishing a new idiom is a feat of significant creative ability even if the game lacks craft or surface polish.
2. Form: “The form it will take… will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A comic book?”
In a general sense, the form is the medium: video games. However, video games take many different forms: PC games, console games, handheld games, mobile games, etc. Each form has a unique identity, with idiosyncrasies, strengths and limitations, and usually addresses a particular audience.
1. Idea/Purpose: “The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes of the work… the work’s ‘content’.”
Put another way: what does this work mean? What is its thesis? What insights about life, the universe and everything does it communicate to the player?
Unfortunately, at this point in our medium’s history the answer is that most games mean very little. RPGs in particular classically have the veneer of “good vs. evil” or “value of friendship” morality lessons, but when the game mechanics revolve around combat and violence it’s clear that the commitment to these ideals is shallow. In reality, the thesis of Dragon Quest is closer to “fighting monster after monster until you’re strong enough to kill stronger monsters”. I love a good dungeon crawl, but consuming media with such shallow purpose is insubstantial and unfulfilling in the long run.
However, if we love video games, it’s because every once in a while a game crosses our path that speaks to us on a deeper level. A gem like Braid comes along and compels us, sending us in search of true meaning (fruitfully or otherwise). Games like System Shock, Planescape: Torment and Silent Hill 2 come along that give us meaningful experiences and reveal the exciting potential of this nascent medium.
In the future, I’d like to take the time to refine this framework and explore its implications for critique and design. For now though, I’d very much appreciate feedback and criticism both on my interpretation of McCloud’s six elements, as well as the basic premise that they represent.