Interactive Comics
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 11 (November 2004)

Interactive Comics

While many of today's action-game titles are striving to use the power of PCs or consoles to provide near-photorealistic, interactive entertainment, others are harnessing the technology to render unique, stylized imagery. Toward this end, several developers are releasing games based on popular "old-style" comic book characters, and are offering their own interpretations of the classic comic book look using state-of-the-art tools and techniques.

Perhaps the most popular style used for comic book-inspired games is 2D cel-shaded rendering, which itself has been a growing graphic trend in gaming, with such popular titles as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Auto Modellista, and Jet Grind Radio. Although some developers, including Ubisoft (with XIII) and Radical Entertainment (with The Hulk), consider this style an obvious choice for the graphical representation of comic books, others such as Irrational Games (with Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich) have produced unique variations on the theme.

Even though their artistic approaches varied, each developer fought the same battle: one that entailed using sophisticated high-tech tools of today to mimic a low-tech look of yesterday. In doing so, they had to satisfy the high expectations of the current generation of game players, who require more from a title—increased interactivity, better story lines, more action, and a higher degree of problem solving—than simply a nod to nostalgia.

Stepping out on a limb, Irrational Games is using the full power of 3D technology to craft its comic book-inspired PC title Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich—a follow-up to its 2002, highly stylized game Freedom Force—that's scheduled for release early next year.

The Third Reich will include a graphic style that differs somewhat from its boldly textured forerunner with the addition of Golden Age imagery from the 1930s and '40s: softer cartoon-like models and textures that have a hand-drawn appearance and include the familiar dot-color newspaper comic look from years ago. This will augment the earlier version's bold textures representing the Silver Age of the 1960s, a design that still will be reflected in some of The Third Reich's new characters, as well as those returning from the original Freedom Force title.

"Going with a 3D look [as opposed to a cel-shaded one] is a risky decision for any game that is aiming to emulate a comic book," says Jonathan Chey, project manager. "Cel shading is a technique that gives a highly stylized, 2D representation, but we didn't feel that it was appropriate for the kind of characters and environments we wanted to portray.

For the initial release, the team used a straightforward rendering solution along with textures and shapes that were bright, stylized, and clean. "This gave the game a comic feel and ensured that it didn't seem dated from a technology standpoint," Chey explains.

The Silver Age-style graphics that still dominate the game—from the fonts used in the menus to the bright, colorful costumes of the superheroes—instantly conjure up images of popular DC and Marvel comics: robust characters with highly detailed musculature and dynamic poses, incredibly complex settings, and the use of abstract geometric forms.

In contrast, The Third Reich, based on a "time travel" story line, introduces new heroes who are represented using the "dot color" style. "I looked at an old comic book from the era and studied the red, green, and blue pattern combinations," explains concept artist Robb Waters. "I then made my own dot pattern fill using [Adobe's] Photoshop. Each pattern is applied on multiple layers, so I can stack them up against each other to achieve the illusion of various colors."
Irrational Games is using a dual-style approach for its characters in the upcoming Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich title by including the bolder textured look from the Silver Age of comics (above) and the softer, "dot color" look from the Golden

The pre-rendered cinematics feature stylized 2D graphics complemented by animation with slow camera pans often used in late-1960s cel-animated TV shows such as Stan Lee/Steve Ditko's Spider-Man series. Conversely, the in-game graphics, while also stylized, are fully 3D and present an overhead camera perspective.

While some art assets are being carried over from the first game, most of the imagery has been either partially or completely remodeled and retextured within Discreet's 3ds max 5. Additionally, the development team is employing NDL's Gamebryo as a middleware rendering solution, which is enabling the group to achieve the unique style for the imagery.

A popular aspect of the current Freedom Force game continues to be the ability for players to create and add their own characters. "One of our priorities has been to advance the quality of the graphics for The Third Reich while maintaining consistency with the old characters and environments," states Chey. "Additionally, we have ensured that our data formats are backward compatible so the user-created content developed for the first title will still be valid."

Aside from attracting players with a dual style of comic book imagery, The Third Reich also offers a unique form of gameplay that is a combination of role-playing and tactical combat. In addition, it contains atypical audio effects, including overdramatic hero voices delivering traditional cheesy lines, as well as enhanced character skinning that adds more depth to the models and dynamic lighting effects that enhance the adventure.

In contrast to Freedom Force's full 3D approach, Radical Entertainment's The Hulk uses subtle cel shading to transport the Silver Age comic book hero into the interactive 3D world of computer gaming. This choice, however, represents a compromise by art director Martin Bae, who had to ensure that the game character closely resembled its movie-star alter ego.

The early Hulk comics created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1962 were stylistically true Silver Age. And while the inspiration for the game's graphics came from many areas, Bae notes that he was primarily influenced by Kirby's work from this era. "A cel-shaded graphic style was the first thing that popped into my head when thinking about the game," he says. "I grew up reading The Hulk and other Marvel comics, and what really stood out for me were the colors, rendering techniques, and dynamic composition panels."

However, because the game was to be tied in closely with last year's live-action film, Bae and his team were asked to graphically align their game, which was created in Alias's Maya and Photoshop, with the movie's CG protagonist. For Bae, this meant that if he chose to go with cel shading, he'd have to find a way to keep it relatively subtle. So a compromise was reached. "Our cel-shading technique represents the hard-edge line used in comics," he explains. "Nevertheless, we chose to exclude the black outlines to help blend the characters into their surroundings."

This past summer, for the second time, yet another Marvel comic hero, Spider-Man, dominated both the big and little screens simultaneously. Yet, unlike The Hulk, the Activision Spider-Man 2 game took a different tack with a far more detailed character who sports a costume similar to his movie counterpart.

Like Radical Entertainment, Ubisoft chose a cel-shaded look for its XIII game, but opted to take it further toward its comic book roots by employing full cel shading with a modern twist.

While perhaps little known in North America, XIII is a popular French comic book created in the 1980s by Europe's renowned comic book artists/writers Jean Van Hamme and William Vance. So when game giant Ubisoft decided to create a first-person shooter based on the comic, it was only fitting that the job go to its French division.

Like The Hulk, XIII uses cel shading to visually tie the game to the original comic book. And while art director Nathalie Moschetti and graphic project manager Nathalie Provost looked to the original artwork for inspiration, they were also influenced by classic works of architecture, old movies, and other comic strips. "People who are familiar with the comic will recognize it immediately, but we've modernized it with a more sophisticated look," says Provost. "What gives XIII such a distinct style was the fact that neither the art director nor myself is a big game player; therefore, we looked for our graphic reference points outside the world of games."

Provost had gained previous experience with cartoon-style rendering of game graphics while in Japan working on a Manga game, based on Japanese anime. "The game never went beyond the design stage, but the experience got me hooked on a cartoon-effect plug-in we developed," she says. "I was sure we'd find a way of using it, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to push the mood of a game. And a game with a cartoon-strip license seemed like the perfect opportunity for trying it."
Ubisoft's French division used a cartoon-effect plug-in, developed in-house, to create the unique shaded look in its XIII game.

The cel-shader plug-in, used to render all XIII's 3ds max characters and many of the game's weapons and objects, gives the 3D models a flat tint that makes them look 2D. A black line permanently surrounds the objects, while on the surfaces, the lighting effects create clearly defined shadows.

Provost's team originally wanted to treat all the geometry with this plug-in, but the process resulted in extremely dense 3D models. "With the plug-in, you couldn't cheat by using falsely textured surfaces," Provost explains. For this reason, she opted for a cel-shaded look, created by applying Photoshop textures with black outlines to surfaces and polygonal objects, making them appear as though a black silhouette surrounded them.

Beyond its intriguing characters, XIII also features text-based visual "sound effects" such as BANG! and BAM!—a well-loved comic book technique—as well as 3D visual effects created within Epic's Unreal Engine, which was modified for the game. Provost refers to the result of mixing cel shading and 3D effects as the game's "hybrid" style. "XIII has a mix of 'true' and 'false' that's always kept in balance," she says. "The characters are cartoon-like but have human proportions. The decors look sketched, but the effects are realistic. This remains consistent in the game. Despite the technical constraints, we managed to do something original using simple techniques."

XIII has received numerous game awards, and Provost and Moschetti themselves received the Imagina Best Graphic Designer award for their work on the project.

Comic books—once a predominant form of entertainment among youngsters—began to be displaced in that demographic beginning in the 1980s by interactive media forms. But cyber heroes such as Mario and Link from the gaming world have proven no match for the legendary comic book characters of yesterday. As a result, the tie-in between games and comic books continues to proliferate.

In an unusual twist, an original computer game with a comic book style actually sparked a soon-to-be-released comic book series that's based on the game, rather than vice versa. Inspired by superhero comic characters, City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game released in April, features its own unique 3D, brightly colored, graphical interpretation of comic book imagery.
City of Heroes, an original cartoon-rendered MMORPG, has spawned a comic book series that's based on the game.

Proof of their popularity is the fact that comic book heroes have been front and center in a number of Hollywood blockbusters recently, with several more comic book-based films in development. While these movies often feature live-action stars, CG is playing a critical role in enhancing their super powers, creating fictional cities, and delivering effects-packed action scenes. And while the film versions are taking the characters away from their native art forms, stylized games are putting the original POW! back in.

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at