Exploring the Art of Turning Video Games into Comics
Developers have long been influenced by the world of comics – but in recent years that relationship has reversed, with comics taking cues from video games.
This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here.
"Without the [The] Last of Us: American Dreams comic book, we never would've made the Left Behind DLC," Neil Druckmann, creative director at developers Naughty Dog, tells me. And if that's not a huge endorsement of comic books based on video games, I don't know what is.
The use of comics to expand upon a video game's story has been happening more and more over recent years, to the extent where it's likely more prevalent than you think. In this article I talk to the writers of comic books that tie in with games such as Hotline Miami 2, Not a Hero and Gods Will Be Watching, from publisher Devolver Digital. I talk to Druckmann and Josh Scherr of Naughty Dog about American Dreams and the Uncharted series' accompanying comics. And I talk to Shawn Kittelsen and Peter J. Tomasi from DC Entertainment, the writers for the Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight comics respectively.
What can a comic do for storytelling that a game can't?
"At their best, comics deepen and extend the mythology in ways that just aren't possible in the game," says Shawn Kittelsen, writer of comics based on the recent Mortal Kombat X. In the game, he says there isn't enough time to explore every character in depth: "so the developers have to make some hard choices about where to focus their story."
The story that Druckmann wanted to tell in American Dreams, of Ellie and her friend Riley, would not have fit into The Last of Us: "It would've deviated from the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and everything in the game was about that core relationship." There's also a different pacing to comics that make them interesting as a medium. "Especially for an action game, like the ones we make [at Naughty Dog]. It has to have a certain pacing to it, a certain cadence, that in a comic book you don't have to adhere to."
"We thought it would be fun to show how Chloe and Nathan Drake meet," says Josh Scherr. "For the Uncharted comic it was an opportunity to explore a time that we weren't going to be making a game about any time soon because they take two or three years to make. Comics can be made in a considerably shorter amount of time."
Why a comic, instead of something like, say, a novel?
"Pictures!" says Kittelsen. This is particularly important for a franchise like Mortal Kombat. "It's more visceral to experience fights unfolding panel by panel than paragraph by paragraph." Describing a fatality in a book wouldn't have the same impact as seeing it in pictures. "Early on, we challenged ourselves to include a fatality every ten pages. That turned out to be impossible... if everyone dies, we've got no story. When we finally kill a character, we try to build meaning around the event."
"Comic books are a unique art form that brings to the table the best of both worlds," says Peter J. Tomasi. "And when a writer and artist are firing on all cylinders, nothing beats the way they can craft a story on a simple page with words and pictures."
"I could be totally wrong about this," begins Federico Chemello, producer of the Gods Will Be Watching and Hotline Miami 2 comics, "[but I think] comics have more appeal than novels as a side dish to games, because people immediately associate comics with pure entertainment in the same way they do video games, so it's easier to see one as the extension of the other."
"I think perhaps that comes down to accessibility?" offers John Ribbins of indie developers Roll7, the makers of Not a Hero. "A novel, or even a short story, seems somehow more daunting – it's a lot of text, and that's something we shy away from more and more it seems."
How do your comics work? Are they separate entities, or do they fill in the gaps of the main story?
"The comics we've made so far were all conceived as bonus or promotional material," says Chemello. "As for the future, we'd love to make some video game-related comics that also work as a separate product. We're already exploring that possibility, but I can't tell you about that just yet!"
Jordi de Paco, aka "GreyShock" and CEO of Gods Will Be Watching developer Deconstructeam, tells me that their accompanying comic "was a prequel to help players understand the motives of the antagonist and their common past with the main characters of the game... If you didn't play the game, the comic may feel a bit empty and inconclusive. It ends with a cliff-hanger."
"I think you could still enjoy [our] comic without playing the game," says Ribbins about Not a Hero. "But as someone who reads comics, I think part of the appeal is that you have a story that gradually unfolds and evolves over time... More often than not with comics for games, they're a prologue for the action that's about to take place, so you're not waiting for the next episode, you're waiting to play the game."
"My main objective was simply to tell a good story set in the world that [Arkham series developers] Rocksteady built," says Tomasi. "Readers can dive right into it without playing any of the games; but if you do play the games, the reading experience becomes somewhat more textured. The Arkham Knight character originated at Rocksteady, and I'm having a blast working with him."
How closely do the writers of the comic and the game work together?
"In my case, I gave the team at [comic-makers] Dayjob Studios a big window for creativity," says Jordi de Paco. "We had long talks about what the Gods Will Be Watching game was trying to communicate. Then, they presented us story concepts until we both were satisfied with the story we were going to develop."
"So far we have worked on three comics for Devolver Digital," says Chemello. "We always collaborated with the developers during the whole production of each comic. Sometimes we were given pitches or background stories to work on, other times we came up with ideas, but in both cases we shared our material with the developers at every step."
For Naughty Dog, it is absolutely essential that the comics live up to the same standards as the games. "I think too many games use comics just for promotional material," says Druckmann. "And it's like, 'Okay, you guys take this secondary or tertiary character and do whatever you want with it, and it's not gonna affect our storyline so much.' But with The Last of Us I wanted to take the opposite approach. Here's the character we care most about, so we're fully invested in how this thing turns out.
"Even with Uncharted, where I wasn't the primary writer, I was still heavily involved. Poor Josh, he would send me the first draft of a script and I would send it back just completely marked up in blue from top to bottom. Everything we put out there that is connected with our material has to have the same kind of care put into it as any of our games."
What the better platform for putting out a comic nowadays: physical or digital?
"Digital comics are great, and that's coming from someone who was a bit of a sceptic at first," says Tomasi. "The presentation on screen is vibrant and inclusive, and writers taking the delivery platform into account when crafting their stories can really bring something special to the table."
The Mortal Kombat X comics are "digital-first", but are also printed. "Your audience can enjoy reading it however they want," says Kittelsen. "Some people like the weekly chapters, others prefer the chunkier monthlies, and others wait to binge on the trade paperbacks."
"I like physical over digital ones a hundred times, even if there's less space for creativity," says Jordi de Paco. "As a guy who spends 75 percent of his life in front of a computer, physical media feels almost therapeutic. Even so, I don't think we're making any physical versions of our comics the same way we're not making physical editions of Gods Will Be Watching. Real life things are expensive!"
"As an old-school comics reader, I obviously prefer physical editions," says Chemello. "For these projects, a print release only makes sense as a second step – for example, our Hotline Miami comic will be collected along with both games in an upcoming 'Gamers Edition'."
The Hotline Miami 2 comics were released on Steam as a digital download. "Having a dedicated app for the comic allowed us to add music and a nice interface to it," adds Chemello. "I think that's an amazing possibility, and it definitely enhances the reading experience."
What sort of feedback do comics based on video games get?
"More than a hundred thousand people downloaded our Hotline Miami comics," says Chemello. "Hundreds of them wrote comments on Steam's discussion boards and the vast majority of those comments were positive."
"I don't really know what amount of financial success the comic added to our game," says Jordi de Paco. "But, egotistically, it felt amazing to have a comic based on your game within the universe you've spent so much time developing."
"I wasn't on Twitter when we did Uncharted," laughs Druckmann. "The most recent one was American Dreams, and a lot of people said they were touched by it, that they were moved, that they liked seeing more of Ellie's backstory, how she met the love of her life with Riley." He attributes much of the Left Behind DLC's success to that early character building in American Dreams.
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Does the feedback influence decisions about future comics?
"We talk with Devolver Digital's Nigel Lowrie and see which of their next releases would be suited for a comic," says Chemello. "Then he talks with the developers and if they like the idea he puts them in contact with us."
"I wouldn't say it spurred us on to jump into another Uncharted-based comic straight away," says Scherr, "but the opportunity is there if and when we feel we have a good story to tell." Druckmann continues this thinking: "Yeah, do we have a good story to tell, and is there an interesting person to collaborate with? With The Last of Us comic, we said there's probably one more story to tell there, but I want (artist) Faith Erin Hicks to be on board. Maybe when she gets some free time we can talk about it."
It seems that comic books are a perfect supplement to a video game. A lot of the people making games these days grew up reading comics, and we partially have comics to thank for one of the most-loved games of recent years. " The Last of Us started out as a graphic novel I was working on, like, ten years ago," Druckmann mentions to me. "I pitched it to a publisher and it never got picked up, so I put that on ice." A decade later on, I imagine he's pretty happy with how that story turned out.
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