Monday, April 13, 2009

Crossing the medium divide

Caffeine-induced ramble ahead:

This afternoon, while I played Marvel: Ultimate Alliance a thought occurred to me.

Comic books are big business. However it's a business around a medium that appears to be on its last legs. Now it seems that the most popular comic book characters are merely grist for the mill. I sometimes wonder if the net worth of the history of comic books is the vault of properties from which so many movies, television shows and video games are produced.

I have been a life-long comics reader. That last bit is emphasized because the action of reading is important to me. So often people have asked me if I have collected comics and my response is often "No, but I read them. They tend to collect themselves." If we believe Scott McCloud, the notion that comics are read is vital. One qualitative difference between a film and a comic is that the film is paced entirely by the editor. While the layout of a comics page is determined by the artist/creator, the reader is left to move at their own pace through the images.

Another key theorist in comics is the late, great Will Eisner. One of his complaints that I remember is (and I'm near certainly misquoting) the stories in comics always revolved around the notion of pursuit. The super-hero meme is only one facet of the world of comics. Yet most folks can only think of super-heroes when the word comics are discussed.

That's all well and good. When it comes to it, though, it appears that comics and all print publishing are undergoing a huge shift as their respective media become obsolete. As has been reported elsewhere, new generations of children are not being introduced to comic books in those formative years. Instead, they learn of those memorable characters through movies and video games. In fact, it seems that video games may serve to this new generation what comic books did to the 1950s kid. That's the generation that was hit by Seduction of the Innocent.

This would appear to bring us full circle. However, to go a little past that, I think to the potential of video game stories. It's clear to me that the majority of video game adaptations tend to work in that same "pursuit story" mode that Eisner supposedly complained about. Can the player complete such and such objective? If not, keep trying until they do. The stories don't ever seem to do much beyond that. It feels to me like story developments are in service to the action. I don't know that I can remember a game where the pursuit was the Macguffin for a richer experience. It seems to me that there's untapped potential in the video game arena.

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