Friday, July 24, 2009

What Influences Video Games? - Comic Books

My other main hobby, besides playing video games, is reading comic books. There was even a time when I was considering starting up a comic book blog, but changed my mind and created Art of Gaming 101 instead. Comic books and video games go together pretty nicely. If you follow comic conventions at all you will see that there is a chunck of coverage dedicated to video games (not all of which being comic book adaptations). Both comics and video games tend to capture the same audience making cross-overs from one to another inevitable. However, I will not be talking about comic book adaptations (like Spider-Man the game), but looking into how comic books influence game design decisions. Before gaming, comics were the rogue art-form not understood by many, and hated and feared by some. Since it is the older artform many things that comics made popular such as its take on story, art, and presentation have become standard in video games today. I will be focusing on Super Hero comics since they have loaned the most to gaming.


Super hero comics and video game character design have a lot in common. The first: colour. Super hero comic books had to use their limited set of colours in order to make dynamic characters. This led to super heroes with very strange and multicoloured costumes. In many cases these would not translate to reality, but looked great as art on a page. The main reason these outlandish costumes worked on a page was because the colours drew the readers attention to the character and allowed action scenes to read more clearly.

Superman is the original and quintessential superhero. A lot of comic book design starts with him and builds on his characteristics. This can also be said for video game characters.

I talked before about Mario and Mega Man and how their costumes led to great game design. The overalls on Mario help break the character up into easy to read movements (since his arms are a different colour than his body). Even though Mario's colour scheme may only coincidently be the same as Super Man's, there is no denying the similiarities.
Mega Man models his design directly after super hereos wearing his underwear outside his pants. Looking at Superman, Mario, and Mega Man together you can see how the video game characters owe something to Superman.

But not all super heroes and video game characters are created in capes and tights. Both gaming and comic books have a grotesque side to them, with characters who look much more ugly and not so heroic (at least at first glance). This doesn't neccesarily mean that these characters are not visually appealing though since they attract readers and players with their odd looks. The Incredible Hulk is a perfect example of this. He is one of the first main stream comics that had a odd looking character as the lead (there were tons of horror comics with strange looking creatures before this but none were as influencial as the Hulk or as consistently occuring). The Hulk's character design is one of many comic book characters that has influenced gaming characters.

The Hulk has a fairly simple design - big and green. He was originally grey and more ugly in his first appearences but he didn't take off as a character until he was redesigned.

Beast from the X-Men is another classic grotesque character. The big difference for him though is that he is heroic. Even though he looks somewhat frightening on paper, once you get to know him he becomes a lot more easy to relate to. He originally looked like a man and transformed into his current look much later. It wasn't until he was covered in blue fur that he took off and became an icon.

Blanka is almost like the perfect mix of the Hulk and Beast. His green skin definitely is borrowed from the Hulk and his features (facial, hair, and posture) are much more like Beast's.


When Action Comics #1 (first apprearence of Superman) came out, it started a pop-culture phenomenon. It was the first appearence of a superhero with super powers (their were other "heroes" in pop-culture like The Phantom and Zorro, but Superman was the first with real powers). Shortly after Superman every comic book company came up with their own superheroes each of which had their own unique traits. Currently there are thousands of super heroes in the comic book world. This idea of a specific character who has a certain set of specific powers is the basis for many action/adventure video games. Sometimes the powers and gameplay in a video game are very close to a comic book character.

Spider-Man is one of the most popular characters in the world. One reason he is such a fun character is because of his powers. He moves fast, and swings around on webs. The web swinging has made its way into games without being directly Spider-Man games.

Bionic Commando was an arcade game and a hit NES game that took out the jump mechanic for a grappling hook to swing from platform to platform. It was better than playing Spider-Man games that were out at the time and still reminded players of the super hero. The newer game has the swinging mechanic even closer to what it is like to be Spider-Man.

It is hard not to keep coming back to Superman, but he does lend a lot to both video games and comics. One of the most notable aspects of the character is his flying ability. Seeing Superman fly through the sky has captured many imaginations. (Side note the comic in this picture is AMAZING. If you are a comic book fan pick up the Final Crisis hardcover).

In Super Mario World for the SNES, Mario took the Superman influence one step further. In this game Super Mario could gain a cape and fly through the sky. Without a doubt the game designers were thinking of Superman when designing this.

The 80s/90s

When video games were first gaining steam in the mid to late 80s and throughout the 90s, comic books were extremely popular. However, many people see the 90s era comics as shallow. They focused more on action along with tons of characters appearing with big muscles and badly formed antonomy. Regardless of its merit it did leave an imprint on the video game industry as game designers took what was popular in character design in comics and transplanted them into their games.

Cable is the hallmark 90s era superhero. He is big and muscular with a tiny head, many lines all over his face, part metallic, and carries a big gun. You will see a lot of these traits in many video game characters. There were many characters before Cable who influenced games but he is an amalgamation of many character design choices. I have pictured him here because he is the easiest to compare to.

Another highly influencial series is the GI Joe comics, which predates Cable by nearly 10 years. It was a toy line at first but it was the Marvel comic series that gave the franchise its personality. This military/sci-fi/adventure was used a lot in the 80s.

Jax from Mortal Kombat was updated in the third game and redesigned with metallic arms. He is also a military man and could have easily been a GI Joe.

Contra captures a lot of the comic book feel of the 80s that GI Joe built. The big guns, the military atmosphere, over the top villians were all made popular by GI Joe beforehand.

Duke Nukem was a complete embodiment of the 90s. He was extremely violent, muscular, carried big guns, and trash talked. Duke Nukem could have fit in any comic book in the 90s and fit in perfectly. There is no doubt that the attitude of the 90s pop culture took some cues from comics and was then carried over into vide games.

Even games of today are influenced by comics of the 80s and 90s (maybe because current game designers grew up reading these comics). Gears of War features big burly men with big guns and tiny heads. The all look like offshoots of Cable.

I mentioned Bionic Commando before with its gameplay link to Spider-Man. The newer game does have this gameplay but the lead character design looks a lot like it was influenced by Cable.

Complete video game/comic book crossovers

I am not talking about games based on comic book properties but games that are almost completely linked to comic books in presentation. These games try to bring comic book ideas to life rather than just borrowing a few aspects.

Comix Zone is a Sega Genisis game from 1995. The gamplay was completely linked to comics by having the game take place inside a comic book. The lead character went from panel to panel in order to progress through the game.

Crackdown is a game about cops who gain superpowers. It is a simple game that makes you feel like you are playing as a superhero. You can jump though the air and lift heavy objects, it really makes you feel powerful. The game is also cel-shaded thus has a cartoony look making it seem like a comic come to life.

Prototype just came out and plays a lot like Crackdown giving the lead character insane power. This game though, is a bit darker and your lead character is not that heroic and more of an anti-hero. The game has a comic book feel to it. One of the main reasons this game is so closely linked to comics in presentation is because the designers previously worked on "Hulk: Ultimate destruction" and created a prototype as a spiritual successor. The game also has a 90s era feel to it, since it is bloody and dark.

Infamous is another game that came out recently. You can either play as a super hero or super villian. The games cut scenes are also done in comic book style. The gameplay also borrows from Spider-Man, as you are climbing buildings a lot.

Next time you pick up a game take notice of how much comic books could have influenced it. You may be surprised to find how much of it was borrowed from the world of super hero comics.