Open a comic book and two things need to pop out to grab the reader's attention – the artwork and the story tone. Novels don't have the luxury of art, but authors – through carefully crafting words – must create the imagery in the minds of the readers. Video games have more in common, to a point, with comic books than they do with novels; a compelling game must combine graphics with a compelling story that pulls players through the adventure.
The video-games industry has relied on graphics to a great degree to sell the product, but there is strong evidence that developers are turning away from graphics-driven games and starting to focus on deeper stories that are capable of holding the attention of players. This is a trait that developer BioWare has often made part and parcel of its role-playing games. However, this is not exclusive to such recent titles as "Dragon Age: Origins" or "Mass Effect 2." While Bungie's latest title, "Halo: Reach," is certainly driven by action, there is a solid story underneath with strong characters.
But are video games becoming the equivalent of interactive comic books?
Mike Laidlaw is the lead designer on BioWare's "Dragon Age 2," which promises to be another epic bit of storytelling as well as a graphically compelling adventure set in a world that is fantasy touched by the darker tides of war, mistrust, and betrayal. Yes, hope is the tenuous thread placed in the hands of the player, but if "DA2" bears any resemblance to "Dragon Age: Origins," then what transpires in the world will be left mostly up to the players.
CBR caught up with Mike to talk about what makes for a good RPG game, how games are evolving in terms of stories and the similarities that exist between video games and comic books.
CBR News: What do you think are the necessary elements of an RPG game that can create an invoking response from players?
Mike Laidlaw: The obvious answers are a well-structured plot, compelling characters with believable personalities and a solid dramatic flow, with moments of triumph, sorrow and catharsis. To me, though, the secret ingredient to an RPG game is reactivity and choice. When a game lets you do multiple things, and then registers and responds to which way you chose to proceed? That's playing to the strength of your medium. So, you need both strong classical storytelling and a dedication to paying attention to how your player plays the game.
In your opinion, what are the main differences between a strong RPG experience and a good book or comic book, aside from the interactive qualities?
RPGs have a lot in common with books and comics, but I've always viewed a core difference as that of self-insertion. While comics provide a lot of fantasy fulfillment (who doesn't want to be Wolverine, Superman, Wonder Woman or Deena Pilgrim? Well, Ok, maybe not Deena all the time...), RPGs invite the player to "step into" the role in a more direct way. Shaping your characters face, or deciding what kinds of powers they have is an exhilarating experience, that offers a different and equally valid kind of escapism.
Do you feel that storytelling in the realm of games - "Dragon Age" notwithstanding - is starting to become more important and more compelling?
Absolutely. I remember an advertisement on the radio in "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for a faux-game where you "piloted your green square, destroying the evil forces of the red square armada!" As much as that was a send up, it wasn't too far from the truth, back in the day. Why was the guy from Lode Runner digging all those blocks? Why did the blocks re-appear in time? Who knows? These days you see much deeper and more compelling stories in games, backed by much stronger visual presentations.
You also see a lot of variety in how stories are told, be it the in-game horror of watching your wingman crash her fighter into an enemy space station in the "Wing Commander" series from the 90s, or the framed narrative that provides us with techniques like time jumps and unreliable narration that we're using in "Dragon Age 2" today.
Do you feel a good RPG is akin to a living comic book - especially in light of the way comics are created today, with deeper storylines and strong artistic expressions?
I would. Comic and RPGs both focus on strong character development and, perhaps moreso than novels, comics are often about character growth and progression. Whether it's a superhero gaining new powers or a zombie survivor finally finding a shotgun, there are character arcs in comics that mirror a lot of game mechanics. Similarly, games often have story arcs that you could imagine bundling into a trade paperback or hardcover. For instance, you could easily make the Warden's tale from "Dragon Age: Origins" into a compelling comic, and look at the story of The Champion of Kirkwall in "Dragon Age 2" as a new series under the same label.
Is the line between the worlds of comic books and video games narrowing? To some extent, perhaps. But in a larger sense, probably not. Comic books understood decades ago that while the graphic style grabs the initial attention, it is the story that stays in the mind long after the back page is turned. That element has been overlooked in games, but it is changing. Instead of the stock evil-overwhelming-the-world, games are now challenging the notion of what is truly evil and what is good, while also revealing the shades of gray that lay between the extremes. Games, on an increasing level, are involving the gamers, pulling the mind into the games while tantalizing the visual receptors. And this is a good thing.