Thursday, July 02, 2009

AdVantage Point: InFamous (2009)

Give an idiot a scanner and a comic book and let him to pick out all the advertisements for video games. This is AdVantage Point -- a chance to document the winding timeline of comics/gaming history as it was canonized by the adverts. Musings, rantings, observations, stream of consciousness.

So, you've decided to create your very own superhero?
Before you get started there are a few things you should know!

Despite the multi-million dollar success of superheroes on film, the comics industry remains dependent on a niche market. While DC and Marvel dominate monthly sales of comics, even they regularly cull the weakest titles in their catalogue based upon minimum sales milestones. This controlling corporate inundation makes creating an independent superhero a careful consideration of the balance of market viability based upon the success of these types of characters, versus the potential to provide something unique.

Following on from the success of his Mandrake the Magician news strip, Lee Falk contributed one of the first recognised costumed superheroes in 1936. The Phantom predates the icons that have permeated through Marvel and DC, extrapolating the exploits of pulp adventurers into something inexplicably different. His contribution helped influence subsequent icons, namely Batman, who was immediately inspired by the success of Superman in 1938, as well as the characteristics of precursors like The Phantom, The Shadow, and Zorro.

The proliferation of this adapted form of costumed mythic demigods created a platform upon which an industry has been defined. Over the span of seventy years, a legion of thousands of successful characters have been developed through large catalogues of regularly printed material, making wholly unique creations highly unlikely. Modern understanding of this saturated art form has given license to many creators to derive originality from the perception and exploration of familiar ideals, such as the revered maxi-series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen.

When creating your superhero, it's important to remember this lengthy history because it will provide valuable insight into what will be required of your creation. It will inspire you to seek new concepts and help you fashion a character that might yet find it's way through the barren profitless landscape of independent comics.

Realistically, many comics creators, even very successful ones, might never explore the medium to such an intimate extent. For those developing characters in other mediums, the requirement arguably becomes even less significant, which brings us to InFamous and Prototype.

I have to admit, as a guy forged in the fires of comics over the past few decades, I never quite understand the appeal of the mostly generic superheroes who are born in other mediums. More often than not they seem to lack the confidence of those informed references described slightly tongue-in-cheek above, and consequently melt away to insignificance. The same could be said for the lead protagonists in InFamous and Prototype, the latter of which I was already critical of in a previous post [AdVantage Point: Prototype].

As an medium built on sequential storytelling and mass marketing of iconic heroes; the comics industry is potentially a wizened big brother to the video game industry. Comics have crossed generational divides and experienced the various stages of growth that have seen it's characters and production reach extreme highs, and equal lows.

As an interactive art form with it's own history, video games inevitably benefit from their own diverging perspective. While comics might provide suggestions of what the future holds, games are ultimately creating their own future out of their own context. This interactive element immediately deviates the creation of a superhero from the laborious considerations of comics, where a pantheon of superheroes are the measuring stick for everything else. While icons of DC and Marvel comics are now staples of video games, they are not the controlling entity of an entertainment form that has developed an army of super-heroes, but done so with the benefit of youth and incremental differences based upon "gameplay."
Mario and Sonic are as much superheroes as Superman and Batman, and one wonders if we won't eventually come to perceive them in a similar fashion as time goes on. One could arguably already derive comparisons between Superman and Sonic as two long running characters bogged down in the perceptions of an audience convinced their least successful moments are their only potential.

Gameplay creates distraction and an immediate sense of interactivity that often excuses failings of concept or narrative. Modern gamers of the current generation have come to embrace this lack of story or direction with gusto, content to shoot and run with minimal motivation, even going so far as to consider story an inconvenient distraction, no matter how tangential. As this new generation foregoes the dreams of concept that once were hampered my restrictions of technology, high budget games give way to a corporate mandates of generic imitation and a willing lack of artistry (to certain extents).

This atmosphere, as described in a previous article, is very reminiscent of the comics crash of the nineties, steered into a nosedive by nonsensical design and a general disregard for strong story and artistic business practises. One wonders if games aren't creating for themselves a similar situation of depression as technology advances to a point where mechanic and gameplay are no longer the specific keys to attracting gamers to a brand. As this generation of players matures, will they be so easily convinced by familiarity and mechanic, or will this maturing medium finally be forced to reach the same contemplative plane as comics?

The success of the Nintendo Wii and games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band arguably points to some necessity for change, an example of struggling efforts to differentiate exclusively through  novelty or mechanic.
Prototype and InFamous conveniently encapsulate the growing issue of repetition in games under the microscope of a superhero fad that has not yet become so widespread as to be perceived as a genre platform. Their similar aesthetics, gameplay, and concept highlight a necessity for the kinds of differentiation developed by the reflective and informed narrative, characterization, and story, that comics have mastered.

With great console power comes repetitive cityscapes and familiar abilities.

To the point of these posts, I was very critical of the advertising design used by Prototype, which emphasised the least admirable qualities of their lead character, Alex Mercer. There can be no doubt that InFamous' striking advertisement (which has a red variant) is far superior. That said, as an outsider looking in, it seems to lack the same punch of character and Biohazard-meets-NYC-superheroes plot.

From the hat and cloak of Mandrake and The Shadow, to the colourful union suits of The Phantom and Superman, superheroes and costumes have always been an on-going discussion. Modern creations have pressure to comply with timid filmic references, and that's probably had some influence on the urban nature of these two designs. The Iron Man film remains one of the most successful modern examples of having confidence in the colourful iconography of superhero design. Much of the film's success seems to have hinged on the "refreshing" twist of superheroes on film as 'robot fighting men,' and this aspect of machining gave Iron Man a unique opportunity to deliver a colourful design in a way audiences were ready to understand. The character of Iron Man arguably has a less ingrained design than Spider-man, who was also faithfully realised in full colour, making it an exceptional step forward for the mainstream understanding of superhero design.

Time has given DC and Marvel's characters great weight. It will be a little while before we can really assess the value of Alex Mercer and Cole McGrath. The next step in either franchise could elevate the characters from generic equivalents to the mid-nineties, to lasting icons far from infamy. Imitation has given comics some of their greatest stories and characters, but with great power, must come great responsibility.

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