Pixel to Panel: The Challenges of Writing Good Video Game Comics

Pixel to Panel: The Challenges of Writing Good Video Game Comics

'The Witcher' comic book, written by Paul Tobin Dark Horse

From early, oddball Atari tie-ins to full-on, big franchise side-stories, games and comics have a long history of cross-pollination

From early, oddball Atari tie-ins to full-on, big franchise side-stories, games and comics have a long history of cross-pollination

Walk up to Namco's Pac-Man in an arcade and everything you need to know is communicated by the artwork wrapped around the cabinet: ghosts chase Pac-Man, Pac-Man eats stuff – now play. Pac-Man does not have a lot of story beats. There's no character arc, no hero's journey, no three-act structure.

When Atari brought arcade-style games into people's homes in the Seventies and Eighties, they combined art and story in more complex ways, packaging some of their early cartridges with minicomics. Swordquest comics were essential parts of the game, with clues in the levels referencing page and panel numbers where hidden words could be found as part of a greater puzzle that had valuable real-world prizes. Other games came with issues of Atari Force, a sci-fi dream set in the distant future of 2005 in which Atari had replaced NASA as the premier space agency.

Those series were created by DC Comics which, like Atari, was owned by Warner – a company that devoured others like Pac-Man devoured fruit – but another of Atari's minicomics was made in-house. Space shooter Yars' Revenge was a tough game to explain, as you can see in this bizarre fever-dream commercial shown in cinemas, so they packaged it with a book that condensed both the future history of a civilization of mutant space flies and instructions for play into nine pages of slick, pulp sci-fi poster art.

Atari's comics told stories that were well beyond the capabilities of its games, but as technology became more advanced, games caught up. With more complex games came more complex plots and more complex game comics. Though the strips in Nintendo Power magazine were sometimes just wacky stories about the Battletoads getting up to cartoonish hijinx, games with more coherent stories like Metroid, Starfox, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past were turned into manga epics by respected creators like Benimaru Itoh and Shotaro Ishinomori (creator of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, which eventually became Power Rangers).

Today, video game comics have more raw material at their disposal. Much more, in the case of CD Projekt RED's The Witcher III: roughly a hundred hours of an aging man and his adopted daughter interacting with a setting so grimy someone should write "wash me" on it with their fingertip. The Witcher comics published by Dark Horse are based on the three Witcher video games, but also incorporate elements of the novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that the games were based on. Paul Tobin, who has written three comic book miniseries starring Geralt the Witcher so far – House of Glass, Fox Children, and Curse of Crows – was sent a stack of research material most certainly bigger than what was required to adapt Battletoads.

"One of the things I was really happy with is that they translated all of Andrzej Sapkowski's novels for me," says Tobin. "That way I could really immerse myself in the original vision." Tobin was also lucky that he'd already played the first two games and read some of the books when he landed the job, saying that "if I hadn't already been a Witcher fan, if I'd gone in cold, it would have seemed like an intimidating mountain of material."

What makes The Witcher: Curse of Crows better than the average game comic is that it understands one big reason why we The Witcher 3: the way it encourages us to ramble and wander. There are actual sidequests, brief digressions (sometimes just a single panel drawn evocatively by artist Piotr Kowalski) in which Geralt happens across someone who needs his help, unconnected to the larger storyline. "One of the things that drew me to Geralt's world, speaking as a player here," explains Tobin, "was that it felt like he existed in a world, that other lives were taking place, that ripples of effect were moving across the cities and the villages and the battlefields. In the game, it helps to pace the action, to lend greater empathy to main and secondary characters, and to flesh out the world of the witchers. It serves much the same purpose in the comics."

1996's Doom: Knee Deep in the Dead! is another comic that reflects the pace of its video game source material – this time to very different effect. While under the influence of a berserker power-up, Doomguy takes on a demon while ranting like a lunatic (actual dialogue: "You are huge! That means you have huge guts! Rip and tear!"). Then it wears off and he has to run into the next room to grab the chainsaw lying on the floor. The story of the comic is literally about collecting successively better weapons. It's gory, gleefully dumb and entirely true to the experience of playing Doom when you were 14 years old. Its writers – Iron-Man scribes Steve Behling and Michael Stewart – clearly had some latitude to have some fun.

Tobin was given an equally free hand on his Plants vs. Zombies comic. A very different beast from The Witcher, it's nonetheless a mini masterpiece. It takes the besieged defence-against-overwhelming-odds seen in movies like Zulu or The Two Towers and then shrinks it down to the scale of a suburban yard. Peashooters and watermelon catapults defend their owner from the implacable dead, and at the end, there's a song. Tobin was a fan of that game too, and was by coincidence playing it the moment he received a phone call asking him to write it. Tobin was given a blank slate because "nothing but the very first game had been released, so there was almost zero story. And so they gave me pretty much total leeway to do what I want, to create characters, the world, everything. They really allowed me to cut loose, so that's what I did."

Tobin is something of a go-to guy when it comes to video game comics, having also written stories based on Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Angry Birds. Surprisingly, there was a lot to learn about Angry Birds. "Not as much as Witcher," he admits, "but still quite a lot. There's a lot of history and world data to keep in mind when writing Angry Birds, a lot of it only known to developers: just things to keep in mind and rules to obey."

But there are still games being made that, like the arcade classics, don't come with much history. One game that doesn't need a comic to set up what's going on but miraculously received one anyway is the online shooter Team Fortress 2. It's the kind of game that embraces ridiculous, gamey concepts like rocket-jumping – using explosions to propel yourself beyond your character's physical capabilities – and builds an an entire class around them. Each class embodies a different playstyle, a simple idea like "standing at the front soaking up bullets" or "standing at the back healing others" or "moving real fast and annoying everybody."

Valve writers Jay Pinkerton and Erik Wolpaw created an unnecessary but wonderful story about this game with no plot. "In some ways, it's very freeing," Pinkerton says. "We've had a blank canvas to fill in a whole world full of ancillary characters, locations and two hundred years of backstory without contradicting anything in the game. Where we get tripped up is with very game-centric stuff. For instance: in Team Fortress 2, nine red-colored mercenaries fight their exact blue-colored duplicates. In a game, this makes sense. In a comic, it would require a mountain of boring clone-saga exposition to explain. So we just don't."

Pinkerton freely admits there are downsides to adapting Team Fortress 2 into sequential art. "In a game, the ultimate goal is omnipotence," he says. "In a story, it's the opposite: you want characters to be relatable and vulnerable. Team Fortress 2 has characters who can come back from the dead, teleport, heal people with a magic gun, and assume the identity of other characters – in the real world, any one of these abilities would literally alter the course of human history. So there's a built-in challenge with game-comic writing to tell a grounded story about characters who, if you stopped to think about it, would all essentially be gods."

Trying to tell grounded stories about god-like characters is a hurdle that comics have been trying to leap, in a single bound or otherwise, for time immemorial. It's the central dilemma of the superhero genre in a nutshell. Strangely enough, a recent superhero comic that found a way to make that work is also based on a game: Injustice: Gods Among Us.

The game, by Mortal Kombat developers NetherRealm, is basically an excuse for DC Comics characters to beat the living crap out of each other, which you wouldn't think requires much setup. And yet, like Team Fortress 2, having that superfluous story written down and drawn has proved surprisingly worthwhile.

The Injustice comics describe five years of alternate-universe history where Superman becomes a murderous tyrant and Batman leads an underground rebellion. What makes it great is the way it grounds those characters. The highlight isn't Superman ripping out the Joker's heart – although yeah, that happens – it's Harley Quinn and Green Arrow bonding over the fact he shoots arrows with boxing gloves on them. Who hasn't wanted to punch someone but been frustrated because they're all the way over there? Character moments like this just happen to take place in a comic that, not being canon, is allowed to subject those characters to violent video game fatalities.

"I'm a huge fan of Injustice," says Pinkerton. "I love any comic with consequences and an ending, dating back to reading Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as a kid. Modern superhero writers have this constraint to tell epic stories that change absolutely everything, but then they have to put all the toys back in the toy box every time, because this is billion-dollar intellectual property we're talking about."

Video game characters are also worth plenty of money, but the comics based on them seem to fly low enough under the radar that their creative teams get some leeway. While there are still plenty of duds in the world of comics based on games, series like the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Japanese manga, Legends of Baldur's Gate, Silent Hill: Past Life, and Archie's Mega Man all reflect their inspirations while deepening fans' enjoyment of them. They certainly have a better hit-to-miss rate than video game movies. Tobin suggests the difference comes down to clarity of vision but also cash. "With comics, we could do pretty much anything, and it doesn't skyrocket the cost of the special effects, or voice actors, or anything like that, so we don't have to worry about those boundaries."

Pinkerton agrees that money is a big part of the difference. "Movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars. With that much money on the line, they have to aim for a safe 'four-quadrant' space where they can appeal to every demographic simultaneously. A comic is comparatively cheap – it's someone writing and someone drawing. So it can take weird, crazy chances with its story and characters that a blockbuster movie would never dream of."