In comics, context is critical. Can one read (and enjoy) Marvel’s Doctor Aphra without knowing the minutiae of the Star Wars universe? Can someone with only a passing knowledge of Batman pick up “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” the storyline currently running through the main Batman title? The ongoing debate about writing for new readers versus writing for longtime readers isn’t one that’ll go away anytime soon—and, as fictional universes grow, finding a balance between the two is increasingly difficult. Recent years have brought an increase in the number of comics set in the world of games, both board and video. This prompts some of the same questions when writing something set in the world of a different medium: how does it function as a standalone comic, and how does it function in connection to its source material? But writing in the space carved out by a game poses some additional challenges.
In some cases, the world created for a game is as expansive as a cinematic universe or a shared one inhabited by cape-clad vigilantes. The Dragon Age series of video games is one such example: it’s set in a fantasy world with an extraordinary amount of detail, featuring warring nations, conflicts within groups of characters and clashing belief systems. Numerous series of comic books have built on this fictional universe, which isn’t a huge surprise—on the surface, there isn’t much more difference between writing a story set in the Dragon Age universe as in the world of Star Wars or Aliens. (To say nothing of the fact that a comic based on Sonic the Hedgehog ran for over 20 years.)
That said, there is one substantial difference: a game, whether played on a console or on the top of a table, involves playing and a heightened degree of agency. Reflecting that experience in the pages of a comic book can be a challenge. In an interview about the process of writing the series Dragon Age: Magekiller, writer Greg Rucka talked about one particular challenge. “If you don’t play the games, I want you to read it and enjoy it,” he said. “If you do play the games, I want you to read it and enjoy it and see where it threads in, and allow it to thread in a manner that does not diminish your play-through.” More specifically, he needed to be able to reference the player character from Dragon Age: Inquisition without being at all specific—given that the character is fully customizable in the game, in terms of race and gender—so that a reader who played Inquisition could imagine their character in this world.
Dragon Age: Magekiller Cover Art by Sachin Teng
Board games provide a different set of challenges. It’s something of a two-way street: in recent years, board games have translated the storylines and conflicts of stories like Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica into something that’s playable. In the case of the first issue of Dead of Winter, out last week from Oni Press, there’s some reverse-engineering going on: how do you translate the dynamics and gameplay of alternating turns, shifting group dynamics and other elements specific to the gaming experience? A review of the board game on the site Ars Technica gives a good overview of the gameplay: “[T]he game weaves between a fairly by-the-numbers cooperative resource management game and a cutthroat game of guess-the-traitor.”
Dead of Winter, in its comic book iteration, opens in a fairly archetypal way, with a family taking refuge from a horde of zombies in a house. They’re rescued by two zombie hunters and their canine companion, which makes for some nice visuals from artist Gabriel “Gabo” Bautista
of an adorable dog happily tearing apart the ravenous undead. Writer Kyle Starks’ dialogue neatly establishes the setting: a small town in the midst of winter, where the survivors have taken refuge in a fortified structure. Concerns of limited supplies are paramount.
Largely, the first issue is about setting up the world, laying out different factions with different goals in this new wasteland, and suggesting that some of these tensions might turn nasty before too long. It’s a world that feels familiar, where the most interesting aspects are the most distinctive: the dog, the bleakness of the winter and a sinister guy in a Santa costume. Upon reading, one can see some friction inherent in the concept. If you create too nuanced or idiosyncratic a concept for a board game, you risk making it too niche—but those same nuances and idiosyncrasies can make a narrative stand out and take readers into unexpected places. Alternately: in the back of the first issue is an ad for Dead of Winter, the game. It begins, “Dead of Winter is an experience that can only be accomplished through the medium of tabletop games.” It’s a curious statement, given that the preceding issue makes a solid case that Dead of Winter can function as a perfectly solid comic book as well.
Clue #2 Cover Art by Derek Charm
There are a few other board game to comic book adaptations out there: a few months ago, publisher IDW began releasing a series based on the much-loved board game Clue. Its first issue received solid reviews, with at least one site praising it for going in unexpected directions and embracing comic-book storytelling. And there are plenty more board games that would seem ripe for adaptation: Scythe in particular comes to mind, given its alternate-history setting and vivid imagery.
Narrative storytelling has rules, conventions and guidelines; so do games of all shapes, sizes and styles. But the process of turning a game’s world into a graphic narrative can be particularly tricky. What’s archetypal in a game can feel generic on the page, and certain aspects of gameplay don’t translate well to pages and panels. Those games that have made the most successful shift onto the page tend to have a detailed-enough setting to sustain grander storytelling—or those whose creative teams have found a way to evoke gameplay without merely copying it.