Applying Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics to Video Games

by L.B. Jeffries

1 September 2009


When they are first starting out, all forms of media borrow from other forms until they are able to stand on their own two feet. Movies mostly often recreated plays and books for their first few decades to give a recent example. At a certain point, this act of borrowing becomes problematic because the medium must eventually rely on its strengths, yet appropriating new ideas is always a useful tool for innovation. One of the most interesting borrowing of techniques that’s going on in video games is borrowings from graphic novels. For a variety of reasons, abstract concepts in the form of visual symbolism are constantly applied in video games. This is something that is still relevant to both 8-bit graphics and the still awkward characters seen today. Matthew Gallant pointed out in the comments of the above post that Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics develops this concept and lately I’ve been seeing a lot of game designers reference it in their blogs. So, here’s a breakdown of what the book brings to video games.

The most important thing McCloud outlines in his book is how abstraction works in comics. A photograph is an example of something with no abstraction; it is a visual approximation of a person’s face. A smiley face is the ultimate abstraction because it could potentially represent anyone. As McCloud explains, “The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe.” (31) Most comics fall somewhere in the middle of these two standards because abstraction allows a person to psychologically project themselves into a character. Citing Marshall McLuhan’s research into driving and inanimate objects, this concept can even extend to vehicles. They become “an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (38) This is extremely important to grasp when looking at a video game. They are constantly balancing between enough abstraction that you project yourself into the avatar while at the same time supporting more realistic graphics and art styles. Many developers balance out their graphics with techniques like the silent avatar or by never letting us see a character’s face. Others rely more heavily on comic book styles by keeping the visual environment that characters inhabit within a comic book or anime template. In all games, some degree of abstraction is needed to allow for projection.

The more complex levels of abstraction come from communicating a projected identity back to the player. McLuhan’s car example is a good one for understanding the inherent problems in this process: nothing physical is actually happening in the game. This relates to the second point that McCloud makes in his book on how symbolism works. The letters that you are reading right now are technically phonetic symbols strung together that represent what these words sound like when spoken aloud. This is only one kind of symbol, another example would a the red circle of a no smoking sign or the icons on your computer. These are visual representations. The phonetic symbol is less abstract than the visual symbol. There is nothing to project into when you are looking at the written word, instead you are thinking about what it means and internalizing that. As McCloud explains, “[Visual] icons demand our participation to make them work. There is no life [t]here except that which you give to it.” (59) He uses the example of a drawing of only his upper body, explaining that our mind is filling in the rest of the details and thinking of him as a whole person despite the literal depiction. 

In terms of games, the most readily applicable place for these ideas is the HUD. A bar that decreases until the red better communicates the player’s health rather than a sentence saying “You are hurt.” One is more abstract and requires our mind to engage with it, while the other is just informing us of information. Where this representation really starts to come into play are in complex RPGs and other games that have extensive interfaces. A game like Fallout 3, which relies heavily on numbers, has to balance this quantatative infromation with other elements like coloring and bars. Sound effects and direction indicators for where damage is coming from also build on this principle of finding ways for the player to project into the game. A fully realized abstract interface should be able to allow the player to visually observe information and physically flinch in a manner relative to that information. The sizzle and dwindling health of your character when they fall into lava, the flash of red when a bullet tags you, these are all ways of feeding information back to the player more smoothly and thus make them “feel” it more.

This is possible because of a principle in comics that McCloud refers to as “closure.” That is, I don’t have to punch you in the face to make you sense a mild approximation of that feeling. Take the example of only seeing part of McCloud’s body yet assuming he is a whole person and transfer that to the notion of action itself. A picture of a man swinging an ax at another person can be followed by an “EEYAA!!” without having to show me an axe mutilated corpse, I can infer the action that has occurred. McCloud explains, “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.” (68) In film, this would be the same thing as showing a couple kissing and falling into bed before cutting to a shot of the next morning as they lay sleeping together. You don’t have to show the audience a scene of the couple having sex to get the point.

In application to video games, closure highlights yet another reason why comparing film and video games breaks down fairly quickly. Cutting the player’s visual feedback for any reason is problematic, much less removing the visual reaction to an act that they have performed. The player is going to want to see the ax connect, the couple having sex, etc. because they instigated it. Where closure does kick in is explaining the bridge between seeing a bullet hit my avatar and inferring that I have been hurt. The abstract symbols of the HUD, along with its visual representation, communicate that the event happened. The process of closure, due to the abstractions creating it, is what makes the player feel this moment. Like seeing the visual image of a man swinging an axe at a person and feeling horrified, seeing a bullet hit our avatar is communicated through our imagination. The player must actively participate with the game’s imagery and HUD for it to create an immersive experience.

Other portions of the book are interesting but difficult to apply to games. McCloud touts the importance of balancing words and imagery and relying on both to properly communicate a story (156). He highlights several techniques for doing this and the cultural origins of them. The final chapter presents a useful diagram for how an artistic creation starts (idea), develops through a tool (a pen for comics), is observed by a reader (eyeball), and leads to them forming their own ideas. He explains, “Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.” (195) He considers this process a kind of artistic gauntlet and laments how hard that it is to maintain an artistic vision as one makes their way over all of these hurdles.

One can’t help but wonder what a visual diagram for a video game would look like. There have been attempts at it numerous times, but it always ends up a jumbled mess of circles and lines going between developer and player that all connect into a giant explosion in the middle. A few things do remain consistent though. As with all other media, eventually the game leaves the developer’s head and has quite a journey to make before it becomes an idea in the the head of the player.

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