Is Technical Skill or Storytelling More Important in Video Games and Comics?
Have you ever read an astonishing comic, or played an addictive game and wondered what makes it so successful?
I know I definitely have. As both a creator and a consumer, artistic outlets like comics and interactive games have always caught my attention, making me ask the same question over and over again. Do I love this piece because it’s beautiful, or because its story is beautiful? If you’ve also wondered about this, then I ask you to come on this little mental trip with me to find the answer to the age-old question, ‘What’s a higher priority in art, technical skills or storytelling?’ Now, since ‘art’ is a very broad term, I’ll be narrowing this topic in particular to fit consumable media such as comics and video games. During my search for an answer, I noticed a prominent idea circulating in the view of such consumable media, which is what I will be focusing on in this article; it is not technical skill, per se, that elevates artwork but one’s knowledge of how to play with those simple elements that does the job. However, with no strong narrative foundation, an artwork will lack a certain aspect of it. Narrative and storytelling are the key foundations that give an artwork its strength. In this paper, I’ll go over some examples of media where the plot’s narrative is the main attraction, heightening the piece’s impact and significance.
Mario and Resident Evil Village
Often, when we talk about video games, we either think of our childhood memories with games such as Mario, or well-known games nowadays such as the ‘Resident Evil’ series, with the 8th installment in the series, ‘Resident Evil Village’, having been released in April of this year. In these video games, the aspects that stick in our memories the most are the visual elements of the games. We remember as clear as day Mario’s vivid and radiant red outfit, and ponder on the stunning visuals of a villainous character so well designed such as Lady Dimitrescu.
These games utilize both aesthetics and a strong narrative to capture the consumer’s attention and keep them interested in the game. This is best demonstrated with the example of Lady Dimitrescu, [SPOILERS FOR RE:8 UNTIL THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH!] and her relationship with the main character as the player. The boss fight for the character comes as a result of murdering her daughters, eliciting empathy from the player upon seeing her extremely hurt reaction to it. Along with that, there are multiple texts in the game that discuss Lady Dimitrescu’s feelings of inferiority in regard to others, making her a relatable character that is more easily understood than if nothing about her emotional state was mentioned. These small details in both the game and in the character design are truly the essence of the gaming experience to make it all the more memorable and emotionally impactful.
Undertale, by Toby Fox
However, there are other examples that slip the mind of more narrative-based games that had an impact beyond aesthetics or visual memory, but those that provide the viewer/player a more complex emotional experience towards the characters and events. A popular example of such games is ‘Undertale’ by Toby Fox. ‘Undertale’ is a 2D RPG game written, coded, and published by Toby Fox (the music score is all by him too!). The game centers around the story of a ‘banished’ city of monsters locked away underground and stripped of their ‘souls,’ leaving the main character, a child who fell down, to take a journey through the land to emerge from the other side. On your journey, you get to meet multiple characters who provide help as well as build a personal connection with the main character, despite you being ‘wanted’ as a human in the underground. The about page on Undertale’s website states that the game has an ‘emphasis on humor, character dialogue, and player choice.’ The art style featured in the game is focused around consistent pixel art illustrations and the gaming style uses basic up/down/right/left keyboard functions to navigate through.
Undertale relies strongly on storytelling and narratives; narratives of the monsters’ pain, narratives of each person you encounter, and the narrative you choose for yourself. The game allows for three storylines, a pacifist’s route in which the player chooses to end all conflicts peacefully, a neutral route where you end conflicts both violently and nonviolently, as well as a genocide route, where you can decide to end all conflicts violently. The plot-line is altered based on your choice and even after a game reset, the game ‘remembers’ your actions and continues to alter your plot as you re-play. Such genius in plot details makes the gaming experience all the more realistic and touching. The game also invokes feelings of attachment to the characters and the experiences you go through, with the help of the soft colors in the game and the emotion-based change of color hues, as the game is based on dialogue first.
But how was Undertale received by the masses? During the first year of its release, the game made a whopping $40 million, selling over 1.3 million copies on Steam alone, and got to be nominated for multiple awards. As of 2021, the game has now sold over 2.5 million copies and continues to be a fan favorite. I personally purchased the game in 2015 as soon as it was released, and have returned to play it over 5 times since then.
Goodnight Punpun, by Inio Asano
A comic series that reminds me of Undertale with its similar storyline to aesthetic ratio is the Japanese manga ‘Goodnight Punpun’ by Inio Asano. ‘Oyasumi Punpun’ follows the life of a little boy, Onodera Punpun, as he navigates through love, friendships, isolation, abuse, and mental illness. The manga delves into dark themes and is known for its ‘depressing’ discussions of difficult topics through the eyes of someone who experiences them in his life as a child in elementary school all the way into his early 20’s. Aside from its popularity in regard to the taboo topics it highlights, ‘Goodnight Punpun’ is known for the way the main character is visualized. Punpun is presented to the reader in the shape of a bird. The more situations he goes through, and the more changes that occur to his life, the more changes his looks go through. This is a clever way of demonstrating to the viewer of the current emotional state of Punpun, and emphasize the key points of the story which make an evident change in him mentally, and thus allowing for a new transformation.
While the aesthetic visuals of Punpun’s character are the simplest ones in terms of technical skill, the artist’s manipulation of the simple form of Punpun is intelligently executed and adds more of an impact on the viewer than if he was made like any other manga character. Going from a bird to a geometric shape such as a triangle is almost reflective of abstract emotions in art, and the usage of art to reflect a deeper narrative is what draws the viewer to the emotional complexity of the character and the manga as a whole.
What do people think?
To further investigate the success of narrative-heavy media and the possibility that consumers do prefer a story-focused game or comic over an aesthetic surface level one, I made an anonymous online survey and sent it to avid video game and film enthusiasts and consumers.
One of the main questions in the survey asked the question, ‘As a consumer/creator, what do you look for in consumable media?’ I’ll let you read some of the responses before elaborating on them.
‘I tend to look out for lovable characters with a deep storyline and characteristics I can relate to.’
‘A good storyline that engages the audience completely.’
‘I look for engage-ability.’
‘Something with a good plot to keep me engaged.’
‘I prefer content that is engaging and pleasing to look at.’
‘Excellent storyline and characters that the player is able to form a good emotional connection with.’
‘Sure graphics are cool and all but those mean nothing to me if I’m not invested in the storyline.’
The responses from the survey were pleasantly surprising, even to me! While I had my hunch that consumers do value a well-written storyline over a complex art style, it was overwhelming to see the amount of passion that media enthusiasts had for engagement with a story and a good emotional connection with both the characters and the plot-line in general!
Overall, the final verdict regarding the question of whether technical skills in art matter more than narrative seems to be the other way around. Often in media and works of art made for customer consumption such as video games, animated films, and comics, the steel foundation is always the complex and emotionally rich narrative. Whether you look at those media from the eyes of a consumer or a creator, you will find that it is beneficial to understand the key concepts of a beautifully written narrative.
After all, a good story only becomes a great one when told well.