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On games, comics, narrativity, and time

Chris Ware

From a longwinded, boring diary entry wherein I transcribe notes on a panel/Q&A/lecture with comix author Chris Ware, dated May 9, 2010:

That is because comics use space instead of time (McCloud, Understanding Comics).

Also, speaking of space-as-time, as the eye travels from (in our English-speaking world) left to right, the eye’s spatial movement conveys the illusion of the passage of time. And after all, the passage of time itself is illusory. So what happens on the left side of a panel happens before what happens on the right side of the same panel, and the eye arrives at each spot and puts them into that spatial/time order, into sequence. Or! If a panel makes your eye jump left and right and left and right, as with speech bubbles in a dialogue, you interpret it as a fast exchange, bullets shot back and forth in almost a single moment. And! A long panel is a long moment, or maybe a long sequence of moments, and a huge panel with not too much inside of it is a perfect and lingering, cinematic Tarkovsky moment which, you know, is the exact opposite of montage. So I want them to all talk about that.

During the Q&A session, and I do not know this yet, they’ll get to it.


Here come questions about scripting a story in advance. Do you? Do you script your stories? Ray [Ray Pride, the panel’s moderator] wants to know.

This question made me think about college and about Professor Gary Saul Morson’s excellent textbook, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which is important for you to read if you have any interest at all in not-linear, unscripted literature, and also especially Slavic literature, which is Professor Morson’s mode. That book is about time, chance, and narrative possibilities (McCloud’s Understanding Comics is about space, chance, and narrative possibilities, so there is your connective tissue).


Morson’s book is also pretty great if you like the idea that morality is grounded in all things being changeable. What I mean is, a lot of Doomsday Christians, right, excuse themselves from accountability because they believe we are driving toward a predetermined ending anyway. Eschatology allows for incredible human unkindness: if all that matters is the Next Life, what shit ought we give about one another in this life? And so we are preoccupied with saving one another’s souls when maybe instead we ought to pay more thought to how we are planning to feed, clothe, and shelter one another, etc etc. So if you believe in determinism, and I try so hard not to, how can you believe in living ethically also?

Anyway, “narrative freedom” is an important point to stress, because how can a story, told in seeming sequence, be full of narrative possibility, if it is true that the story is also barreling toward a predetermined end? How can that be so? Morson’s book is about that, about how the two can impossibly happen at the same time, and so is McCloud’s.

And actually, I have always dreamed of Chris Ware talking about this, because in his stories’ architectures maybe you are not always sure of which direction your eye ought to travel (or, and so, in which direction “time” and sequence ought to be moving), or in which order you ought to read, but his storytelling itself is good enough (and seemingly pre-plotted enough!) that the story works in all radiating directions, and so, in navigating the seemingly sequential narrative, you are free to wander and choose.

Here I have written in parentheses, “video games too,” and I don’t remember why.

But maybe this is an OK thought because, say, the Astro Boy game for GBA is about hopping around through “time.”

Like, OK, in any 2D platformer, time is plotted as “stages” (or “levels” or “boards”), and these are basically panels that usher you through the “timeline” of a game. And that’s interesting because if you are “stuck” on a level and can’t pass it, you’re basically locked in this stagnant moment in time and story. So Astro Boy is a pretty normal 2D platformer, and you play through levels like normal, as in any game. But when you are made to play through the narrative again, or maybe not directly play through, but “revisit” the stages, I guess—and this is happening in the game because, as Astro Boy, you have to make something right in another place and time, looking for the spots where a time-traveling villain has changed the narrative timeline to suit his own nefarious ends—you play the levels out-of-original-and-established-sequence and not-linearly, and there are all these clever little narrative changes happening in the levels as you are revisiting them.

Or, OK, I like Braid, and while I’ve long since lost my notes on Braid, that game is about time being represented spatially—like, in some stages moving left-to-right makes time move forward, and in kind, moving right-to-left makes time go backward—and you play through the levels asequentially, or you can revisit narrative sections on a whim, and so on. And that game is all about stopping time and reversing it so that you can rectify your mistakes: you have second, third, fifth, millionth chances to make things right again, not only as a gamer who made a concrete misstep, but also as a human who is incapable of loving people the way they wish you would love them. I think that’s what the story is about, anyway. Maybe it isn’t.

Or, maybe—I’m not sure why I wrote “video games too” in parentheses, remember—maybe I’m not thinking about different ways to afford a gamer his own narrative freedoms at all. Maybe I am wondering instead about what would happen if a game were not too, too well scripted before its developer actually began working on it. That could be why I prefer smaller, low-budge games to big-budge AAA games, which are terribly scripted and, also, terribly scripted.

On scripting, Ware—who pre-plots sort of, kind of, but not especially so—sez: “Scripting seems to make both the reading and the drawing of the work ‘drearily boring’”

I like that idea, too, because it’s easy to forget that, as a writer and illustrator, the not-knowing, the wide open possibility, is preferable to the mundanity of always-knowing, or always driving ahead according to preset goals.

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