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The Six Layers

Comics, Video Games

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
  • Balance
  • Difficulty
  • 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.

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Defining Video Games

Comics, Video Games

Over the holidays, I picked up a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. It’s a comic about comics as a medium, and the concepts and vocabulary (abstraction, closure, transitions, etc.) that define it. McCloud avoids using specific artists, styles, genres or themes as a template, focusing instead on a critical universal examination of the artform. As someone who recently rediscovered comics, it’s been a truly fascinating read. The book also interests me because I can relate many of his ideas to another nascent medium that is of particular interest to me: video games.

In the first chapter of Understanding Comics, McCloud asks “what is comics1?” He begins with Will Eisner’s definition “sequential art”, which he considers too broad (for instance, animations are sequential art) and gradually refines to: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

This, of course, made me wonder: “what are video games?” What qualities define video games as a medium, and could be used to distinguish non-video games. We could begin by examining video games as a compound word, where a game is generally defined as:

Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
– Merriam Webster Dictionary

Note that this definition already implies a purpose, entertainment. This quality is true of the large majority of games, but does it truly define the medium? We’ve seem games such as The Passage and Execution whose function is less amusement and closer to the purpose defined by McCloud for comics: “intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” “Video game” therefore works poorly as a compound word.

This raises many questions: is “game” then a legacy term? Have video games outgrown “games” in the same way comics have outgrown “comedy” (via Latin, from the Greek komikos)? Would the term “interactive art” be more appropriate? Note that “art”, however, implies a value judgement and therefore cannot define the medium. While these are interesting considerations, they don’t answer the question of “what are video games?”

Next, we can examine what definitions already exist for video games. Merriam Webster defines a “video game” as:

An electronic game played by means of images on a video screen and often emphasizing fast action.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who let out a frustrated groan at the “emphasizing fast action” bit. However, there is some value that can be gleaned from this definition. I think defining video games as being “played by means of images on a video screen” is valid, and helps to distinguish video games from card games, board games and sports.

The Cambridge Dictionary of American English defines them as:

A game in which the player controls moving pictures on a television screen by pressing buttons or moving a short handle.

While pragmatic and largely accurate, this strikes me as a particularly narrow definition. For instance, specifying a “television screen” excludes both PC and handheld games. Must the player input controls by a button or “short handle”2? What about Wii Fit, which is played entirely with the balance board?

Finally, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary includes the following definition:

Any of various games played using a microcomputer with a keyboard and often joysticks to manipulate changes or respond to the action or questions on the screen.

Ignoring the bit about keyboards and joysticks, this definition introduces an intriguing point about microcomputers. Video games are software, but do they have to be? It’s certainly possible to display images on a video screen without a processor.

However, what distinguishes video games from film is not a “short handle” or “fast action” but interactivity. The player “responds to the action” and the game changes what is displayed on screen accordingly. The quality of interactivity necessitates a computer processor, therefore video games must be software3.

While it lacks the succinctness of McCloud’s comics definition, I would propose the following definition for “video games”:

Software which displays images on a video screen, interacts with a player or players and is intended to provide challenge and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

Note what this definition excludes: a board game isn’t played on a video screen, a screen saver isn’t interactive and an Excel spreadsheet isn’t intended to produce an aesthetic response. Wii Fit, The Passage and Final Fantasy meet the criteria, and it’s likely that future games will as well4.

However, you don’t have to take my word for it! I invite you to please challenge my definition and come up with your own. How would you define video games?

1 This isn’t a typo, McCloud defines the entire medium as “comics” singular.
2 …or a long handle for that matter!
3 Occasionally only hardware, I suppose.
4 Until video screens become obsolete?

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Dark Knight, Dark City

Comics

Dark Knight, Dark CityWhile I’m a relative neophyte to the world of comics, I’ve become a rather big fan of two series: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Jeph Loeb’s Batman stories (such as The Long Halloween.) Both revolve around a stoic world-weary anti-hero, and they share a certain dark sensibility that I rather enjoy. If you were to combine the mystery, folklore and occult of Hellboy with the familiar faces of the Batman universe, the result would be the mini-series Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City.

The story begins in a cellar in 18th century Gotham, where a group of robed cultists (including a young Thomas Jefferson) prepares to sacrifice a young woman to gain control of a demon they have summoned. The ritual goes awry and the men flee the evil presence they have unleashed, locking the girl inside with it. Scarred by what they have seen, they decide to dissolve their group and forget the incident.

Back in the present day, Batman pursues the Riddler, a character portrayed in most comics as a minor criminal, Bruce Wayne’s intellectual equal at best. However, his latest crime spree has been inexplicable and cruel in equal measure. In their first confrontation, he nearly hangs a security guard and makes his escape while Batman resuscitates him. He kidnaps four infants and holds them for ransom (despite the fact that none came from rich families), drenches Batman with blood at the hospital, and has no qualms with sacrificing his henchmen. He’s slowly and deliberately leading the hero somewhere, but for where and for what purpose?

The fact that the narrative revolves around the protagonist being lead by mysterious forces is one of the story’s strongest points. The comic isn’t really about Batman or the Riddler, but rather about the conclusion of a three hundred year old ritual and the dark origins of Gotham. This is also the story’s strongest connection with the Hellboy series, where the titular main character often journeys at the whim of spirits, ghosts and demons.

Dark Knight, Dark City was released in 1990 as Batman #452-454, but unfortunately has yet to be collected in a trade paperback. I hate to recommend a story that’s difficult to get a hold of, but for what it’s worth I managed to find all three volumes on eBay for a reasonable price.

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The Long Halloween

Comics

Batman: The Long HalloweenAs part of my ongoing exploration of graphic novels, I just finished reading “Batman: The Long Halloween”. I can’t say it was the type of book that I had initially pictured myself reading. Traditional superheroes were, in my mind, characters that fans loved too much to let go of but had long lost their innovation. How many times could you watch Superman defeat Lex Luthor before you moved on to other things?

Despite my preconceptions, I was confronted with Batman graphic novels at every turn in my search for reading material. Books such as “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke” kept popping up in lists of highly recommended titles. A little casual research told me that Frank Miller, who later penned 300 and Sin City, revitalized the campy character in the 80’s with a darker, more gothic interpretation. This spark set off a firestorm of creativity, leading to some of the best graphic novels of the era. I instantly felt a mild discomfort in my paradigms, perhaps due to the shifting.

Ostensibly a murder mystery set in Gotham city, The Long Halloween has Batman trying to stop the “Holiday Killer” over a period of one year. It has a real film noir feel, with mafia boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone a clear homage to the Godfather. Set during the earlier days of Batman’s crime fighting career, it also deals with how the supervillains and freaks wrested power from the more traditional mobsters in Gotham.

The Long Halloween is a real page turner, with any number of equally valid murder suspects to ponder. Like any good murder mystery, the clues were right in front of you all along in retrospect. What I found especially interesting was how little space was allocated to fight scenes. Unlike the Batman films, which feature the mandatory car chases and long fight scenes against endless minions that we’ve come expect from action movies, most of the novel is devoted to dialogue and character exploration. In that sense, The Long Halloween really does have more in common with its film noir influences than it does with “Batman Begins.”

I’ve added some of the Batman graphic novels to my rapidly growing reading list, and have fully dismissed my view that old superheroes couldn’t learn new tricks.

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Transmetropolitan

Comics

“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.”

– H. L. Mencken

Transmetropolitan - Spider JerusalemFor reasons I can’t quite fathom (although it might have been more than one person professing their undying love for Watchmen to me in the space of a week), I took the time this week to explore a medium that I had long neglected: comic books. This first foray took the form of the postcyberpunk comic Transmetropolitan.

I was very impressed; Transmetropolitan follows the Hunter S. Thompson-esqe gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem on his mad quest for truth in the politically corrupt world of the future. It deals with themes of dissent, censorship, propaganda and journalistic integrity, and is a profoundly human drama (absent of solipsistic robots and intergalactic space battles.) Furthermore, it’s nice to see a hero armed with nothing but a typewriter, a lot of drugs and the truth.

I could say more, but to be honest I’m still letting what I’ve read swirl around in my head a little. I will however say that if, like myself, you haven’t opened up a comic book in over a decade, Transmetropolitan seems like a decent place to start.

Since I enjoyed Transmetropolitan so much, I went ahead and ordered a few graphic novels off Amazon.ca, namely Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those should be arriving towards the end of January, and I’ll be perusing Y: The Last Man until then.

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