A Comic Influence

The medium of comic books has its origins steeped in history, far more so than most people would think. Everyone knows that video games started with Space Wars, but not everyone knows that comics started with the Egyptian Book of Death. Rather like the video game medium though, comics have gradually metamorphosed into something almost (save for the very basic concept) indistinguishable from how they used to be. Once used for illustrating governmental records of genocide and death, they’re now used to tell thousands of unique stories every month. They’ve gone from being the artistic form of red tape to the home of reflective rhetoric and escapism. From recording Pharaohs’ lives, to the lives of the X-Men. From the Nile to Hell’s Kitchen.

The reasons for the longevity of the medium are obvious. Unlike movies or games, comics have never been dependent on electricity, or modern technology – or indeed, anything much beyond having something to draw and write with or the ability to read, three things that most of us have had since goodness knows when. They’re novels for those who can’t be bothered with the reading. Sex without the foreplay. That is, perhaps, the most predominant reason for their success. The throwaway, ‘dime for a day’s entertainment’ nature of the early titles such as Yellow Kid may no longer exist in today’s industry of monthly £1 plus, advert every-other-page titles, but the exuberance and individuality of many comic book labels’ creators, and the thriving web comic scene, is the closest parallel to the apparently halcyon days of video game creators working from lofts way back when.

It would be nice to think that the instantaneous nature of comics, and their typically larger than life, action filled storylines and themes would be the reasons behind the proliferation of comic book to game translations, but in reality it’s a far more telling reason that’s to blame for the often roughshod and detached-from-the-source products that come to fruition. Licenses, and in particular in recent times: movie licenses.

That’s not to say that it started like that – far from it. In fact, it almost ended like that with the tremendously dire game version of the horrifying (for all the wrong reasons) film, Batman Forever, selling ludicrously few units – prompting the ‘chaps in suits’ to give the viability of comic book based games a quick think over. Of course, both the ‘Comic Book Film’ genre and all subsequent tie-ins were to be saved and then revitalised with the X Men Movie in 2000, and the astonishingly successful Spiderman Movie in 2002. At the moment, comics and films of comics and games of films of comics are very much in vogue – but probably for all the wrong (or right, depending on which way you look at it) reasons.

Okay, one reason then: money and Money, being funny, (funny, funny, in a rich man’s world) dictates that the more people that can buy your product, the better. This has meant that the proliferation of comic book games and license lead games in general, has been concurrent with the increasingly popular strategy of simultaneous cross platform releases. See:

Spiderman: The Movie – released on: GameCube, PS2, Xbox and GBA.

X2: Wolverine’s Revenge – released on: GameCube, PS2, Xbox and GBA.

Hulk: The Movie – released on: GameCube, PS2, Xbox and GBA.

This is all well and good, and it’s far from being a trend exclusive to the comic book game genre – Harry Potter, a game of a film of a novel was released on more platforms in all its incarnations than any other game in recent history and it made money.

But it can’t just be about that, can it? Money? “Of course, at the root of everything in the games industry there’s money” says the Lead Designer of a development house in America, whom DarkZero unfortunately can’t name due to restrictive NDAs. “I can’t speak for other developers, but it’s fair to say that we partly chose to develop a license based on a comic book for two main reasons. One; the enormous richness of this particular comic book universe, which was fantastically rich and deep. This is almost 70 years of the same series we’re talking about — it was essentially a far more consistent and interwoven universe to convert and take influence from than the latest movie, for instance”. And secondly? “Money.” Oh, shame.

Either way, part of it is no doubt down to the indemnification of major comic book characters in the public conscience. Just as idioms of our modern society have developed out of such facets of pop culture as television and film, so some of the more famous and long running comic book characters have become just as equally and culturally prominent. Perhaps the popularity of games featuring comic book characters owes something to do with this? “Sure, there’s that” our Lead Designer continues, “But, apart from the history of many comic book series, I wouldn’t say there’s much to differentiate such a medium from the latest movie or television series in terms of predominance in the public’s consciousness.” Oh? How different is it developing a based on a comic in comparison to, say, a film then? “Well, with comics, of course, there’s always a lot of interest from the hardcore comic book fans — but there’s not much difference in terms of the development process when developing a comic book license and developing a movie license… a little less repeat viewings of movie tapes though, I guess”.

Maybe that explains why noteworthy titles featuring comic book characters, despite their popularity, are few and far between. Spiderman: The Movie is probably the best of a somewhat substandard bunch, and that game being the pinnacle of the genre perhaps says more about comic book games than anything else. DarkZero has nothing against license lead games; when done correctly and when done with the source material in mind they can often transcend the two mediums to offer something especially unique. Recent examples of license games done properly, such as EA’s The Two Towers, owe their positivistic qualities to being fundamentally pure video game translations of a particular film, rather than a generic game with characters from the film pasted in. A good comic book game could easily be created – but perhaps the developers need to look closer at just what it is they’re trying to translate, before they start scribbling away.