Game Design

get your mind in the gutter: the in-between medium of comics

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

In the world of storytelling media, books and games sit at the extremes.  Books are seen as passive – the story is laid out, and the reader is witnessing it rather than actively participating.  On the other hand, games are an (inter)active medium, where players are taking part in the action first-hand.  When considering these two ends of the spectrum, it is difficult to see what they can effectively take from each other to improve, and the sloppy hybrid that is a Choose Your Own Adventure book proves the point.
In fact, Choose Your Own Adventure books show that we want our books to be more interactive (more like games) and our games to have better stories (more like books).  We want to meet in the middle between storytelling and interactivity, but how?

Why not film?

To find ways books and games (or authors and game designers, rather) can learn from each other, we need to look in between them.  What, then, is the medium that forms the common ground, sitting at the midpoint between books and games?  Terence Lee argues that it is film1, stating his case in increasing number of dimensions as follows:

ideas over timeideas over time
sensory experience
ideas over time
sensory experience

Lee also claims that film is a suitable middle point by talking about the increasing intimacy level from literature to games:

the author describes the subject to the audiencethe audience observes the subjectthe audience is the subject

While his idea of a spectrum makes sense, I would argue that books and movies are far more similar than he claims.  I don’t think “3rd-person” is suitable to any art form, even books, because they require the reader’s involvement to work.  Books and movies, to me, fit in a “2nd-person” point of view, as in both cases, it is true that “the audience observes the subject”, albeit with more sensory input in movies.

I think Lee is missing an often-overlooked medium in between 2nd-person and 1st-person, comics.
My revised intimacy table:

Books and MoviesComicsGames
the audience observes the subjectthe audience observes and affects the subjectthe audience is the subject

Extending this view to the dimensional model, I propose that comics border cinema on both sides, having less sensory experience but more interactivity, thereby being closer to literature on one side and closer to games on the other.

My revised dimensional table:

Comics (1.5D or 2.5D)
Literature (1D)Cinema (2D)Games (3D)
ideas over timeyesyesyes
sensory experiencenosomeyesyes

And thus, the medium at the intersection that we can use the most to learn how to better write stories or design games, is comics.

Why comics?

Using sequences of pictures to tell a story has existed a long time, perhaps as far back as cave paintings or hieroglyphics.  Eventually, this led to comic strips, comic books and graphic novels, a collective medium that I will say is as much like the passive book as it is like the active game.

Not convinced?  Let’s start with the easier-to-understand claim.  Comics are obviously like books, as they have a structure that can be read, a pre-determined story, and a way to jump around in time to different parts of it.  When you read a comic, it is much like reading a book, in which you are a passive observer not directly involved in the action that goes on on the page… or are you?

I would argue that comics are a highly participatory medium, and this is why they are like games.  The reader is given huge freedom and must play a crucial part in carrying the story forward.  I will illustrate this with an example.  Take a look at this sequence of two pictures and think about what happens in them before continuing.

Panels from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
What is happening here?  (Panels from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

By looking at the above two panels, you should easily be able to tell me what happened.  “Oh, the car crashed into the tree,” you say, but hang on.  Did you actually see the car from the left panel move forward and crash into the tree in the right panel?  How do you even know that the two panels are showing the same car, or the same place?  Effectively, your brain has actively participated in reading a comic strip without you even noticing.  Your subconscious mind has effortlessly made the leap for you from one image to the other, coming up with the rest of the story somewhere in between the pictures.

Thus, this space between panels in comics, called the gutter, is the most important part of comics.  This phenomenon is not present in books or movies, but in comics, it is where all the action occurs!  What’s more, the action can be different each time you read it, and different for another person who reads it.  The car could be moving at a different speed, it could have swerved to avoid a deer, or the driver could have lost control, all in that 3mm of blank space.

Scott McCloud puts it better than I ever could, in Understanding Comics:

Panels from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
The axe never falls the same way twice.  (Panels from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

So, comics are both a passive and active art, at the same time.  Somehow, the reader is all at once causing the action to happen while observing the action.  When speaking about introspection, Jesse Schell warns against “paralysis by analysis”, saying that it’s difficult to observe an experience while playing it, but I think comics get readers the closest to doing and watching at the same time.  How, then, can we apply these lessons to experiencing and making things of our own?

Simple: we need to get our minds into the gutter.

First, we should pay attention to how we experience books and games (or any media, for that matter), and find moments when we experience them as we experience comics – when we are simultaneously participating in and watching the action.  I often find that this happens when I allow my mind to wander and make connections between what is happening in the book or game and my own emotions or memories, while still keeping up with reading or playing.  It’s difficult to do because captivating stories and interactions often draw our full attention and focus.  However, developing an ability to cause an action to happen while watching it occur may bring us closer to the elusive unity of the observing mind and the experiencing mind.

Next, when designing our own pieces, we should pay more attention to the gutters instead of just the panels.  This is not to say that content is unimportant, but that because our subconsciousness does the heavy lifting to get us past the spaces, we don’t pay attention to these spaces and tend not to design for them.

When writing a novel or designing a game, we are often focused on content generation.  Whether it’s a good plot, or a well-rendered environment, or a cool sound effect, we bombard the guest with stimuli that tell them, “this is how the world works, because I as the creator say so”.  The most important part of reading a book or playing a game, however, is not the content, but the experience.  Experience occurs in the gutters, in the space that the guest has to develop their own ideas on just what it’s like for that axe to fall.

We need to search for the gutters in the experiences we create, or make room for gutters where there are none.  This can be within the medium or out in the real world.  For writers, maybe it is unnecessary to have five pages dedicated to describing the food on the table (George R. R. Martin, I’m looking at you).  For game designers, allowing players the freedom to explore and enabling emergent gameplay rather than giving all the explanation about a character’s backstory would not be such a bad thing.

Designing gutters in games

I’ve chosen three examples of games that appear to have been designed with the gutters in mind, to illustrate gutters in narrative, aesthetics and mechanics.  Of course, there is some overlap, as these three areas of games impact each other, but I will focus on each game with respect to one of these categories.

1. Gutters in Narrative: Shadow of the Colossus

Narrative gutters are perhaps the easiest to understand and thus easiest to create, because comics (and other media) already do such a great job at exemplifying them.  The common idea of the “ambiguous ending” comes into play here, and in games, we can extrapolate “ambiguous ending” into a full “ambiguous story”, as shown in Shadow of the Colossus.

Gutters in Narrative: Shadow of the Colossus.  Image from: PlayStation.

Narrative gutters in Shadow of the Colossus:

  • Very little information is given about the protagonist Wander and the girl he seeks, Mono.  There are no backstories, character biographies or even traits and skills that would help the player piece together the identities and intentions of the character at the outset.  Additionally, who or what is the mysterious Dormin?
  • The player discovers the story about the environment and the truth about the Colossi as they progress through the game, which makes them question their character’s intentions.  This gives the player freedom to define their own role in the game – a noble prince seeking to rescue a princess, or a selfish wrongdoer seeking to destroy the Colossi guardians for his own means.
  • An unexplained ending leaves a lot to the imagination.  I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that the story leaves in a place that is very open to interpretation, and there are various theories about what it could mean, another example of how gutters in narrative can enable players’ creativity and freedom.

Design challenges:

  • Finding the right place to draw the line with story – too little can be confusing, and too much can be overwhelming.
  • Using indirect control to guide the player in the game so they can discover the story and feel a sense of discovery and accomplishment doing so.
  • Avoiding a cliche unexplained ending, or the spinning top from Inception syndrome that everybody seems to copy now.

2. Gutters in Aesthetics: Limbo

Gutters in aesthetics serve to support gutters in game narrative, by allowing players to develop their own ideas of the mood of the world, what it looks and feels like.  Aesthetics are created by the art, animations, music and sound effects of a game, and in Limbo, these develop a rich world without providing too much detail so that they players can make their own conclusions about it.

Gutters in Aesthetics: Limbo. Image from: Playdead.

Aesthetic gutters in Limbo:

  • All the mist, the black and white, the creepy yet serene yet dangerous ambiance, Limbo has so much going for it even though it presents so little.  The minimalist art strips away the details and by doing so allows the player to imagine them.
  • Lack of traditional game aesthetics, such as UI, tutorial screens, maps, dialogue and complex characters, simplified the game and made it easier for the player to get immersed in the world.
  • Gutters in aesthetic throughout made the ending all the more emotionally powerful, in my opinion.  The connection between the start and end of the game came through with more impact for me than it would have with more complicated art, and left me questioning the story and most of all whether the whole thing was one cyclic level experience, and why.

Design challenges:

  • Leaving gutters in aesthetics means that every piece of art and sound must do more – every asset must contribute to the overarching theme and mood of the world.
  • Without detailed UI and instructions, game designers need to communicate how to play the game in a way that isn’t frustrating for the player yet does not rely on providing too much information.  This means that more attention to game flow and indirect control is necessary for a smooth experience.

3. Gutters in Mechanics: Octodad

Gutters in game mechanics are probably the most difficult to design, because games rely heavily on players knowing what controls to use and what to do.  Octodad is a great example of gutters in mechanics because of its quirky movement controls.  It tells you exactly what needs to be done but not exactly how to do it, causing you to enjoyably flail around as an octopus performing simple everyday tasks.

Gutters in Mechanics: Octodad. Image from: Young Horses Games.

Mechanic gutters in Octodad:

  • Octodad’s humour comes from the manipulation of tentacles to do simple tasks, and there’s no way to (initially, at least) be good at this.  The game is great at ramping up difficulty and allowing players to experiment, and making it funny to do so rather than frustrating.
  • Allowing players freedom to fail without terrible consequences works well with gutters in mechanics.  In Octodad, players can typically take their time to wander around and test the waters, and doing something wrong is okay, things get knocked over but it doesn’t end the game.  This adds to more enjoyment and finds the fun in the mechanics.

Design challenges:

  • The line between funny and frustrating is thin, and walking this is key for designing gutters in mechanics.  Being sensitive to different types of players, different difficulty levels and feedback from playtests are some ways designers could make a mechanic that gives players the freedom to figure out how to use it but isn’t so convoluted that it is impossible to master.

The Emergent Gameplay Trinity – Gutters in Narrative, Aesthetics and Mechanics: Journey

A piece about designing gutters would not be complete without a tribute to Journey.  Journey pulls this off spectacularly, using the gutters in narrative, aesthetics and mechanics to enable a player-defined experience that is known as emergent gameplay.  The gutters in Journey are everywhere.  In narrative, there isn’t much backstory, which places the player directly into the role of the protagonist.  Players then strive towards a mountain and develop their own journey and story.  Aesthetically, the characters and environment are simple enough for players to derive their own meaning, and the gutters in creating your own shout or musical note based on the length of the key press or the tune of the current background music give players a sense of agency.  Finally, the mechanics of collaborating with other players through wordless communication showcase the gutters the game designers left in creating one’s own path through the game world, allowing players to define their own experiences.

Gutters Everywhere: Journey. Image from: thatgamecompany.

Why is this so difficult?

It is difficult to find a balance between providing too much and too little information.  The worlds we create require stories, rules and goals in order to function, but they certainly don’t require everything to be defined.  On the one hand, we don’t want to provide too little so that players are confused, and on the other, we don’t want to provide too much so that players feel trapped.

The problem in games, however, being rich sensory experiences able to incorporate the strengths of books, movies and comics, is rarely providing too little.  I think putting gutters in our works of art is so difficult because we like to be in control of our creations.  As creators, we want to have the final say in every minuscule aspect and detail of our worlds.  It would do us well to remember that we are only one half of the work we create.  My conclusion, therefore…

Art is not a statement, but a conversation.

We need to learn to let go to give the audience a role to play in the definition of our shared world in collaboration with its creators.  We need to understand that once a novel is published or a game is released, it belongs to the audience as well as to the developers.  We need to trust our audience not to “mess up” our precious work, and not only allow, but enable them to contribute to it in the creation of their own experience with it.  With this mindset, the media we create will be unique, ever-changing, and different each time and for each guest.  To do this, however, we need to be okay with leaving the gutters empty so the guest has space to make the leap for themselves.

We need to make sure there are cracks in our worlds so that the light gets in.


References Cited

  1. Terence Lee. “Designing game narrative.” Hitbox Team. Hitbox Team, 24 October 2013. Web. 11 April 2016.