Grant Morrison on Game Narrative as Environment

July 24th, 2010


I was very impressed to read a recent interview with acclaimed comic book writer Grant Morrison who, with brilliant articulation, identified the medium-specific advantages of video game narrative (environment as character) and then elaborates on how he’d like to introduce these elements into the comic book medium. This makes me terribly excited because Morrison is fantastically talented, really understands whatever subject matter he chooses to become invested in and is testing out this new approach on nothing less than Batman, w00t! In anycase, I’ve pasted the particular excerpt below, please click here to read the full interview.

IGN Comics: We also know you often draw much inspiration from the world around you – music, film, research, etc. Is anything in particular informing your development of Batman Inc?

Morrison: So many comics are still inspired by Hollywood movies, (many of which are now inspired, in turn, by comics in that pop-will- eat-itself way), and by extension a kind of approach to narrative which dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics and the fundamentals of Greek Drama, almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the name of our dear lords Hermes and Zeus Almighty!

It occurred to me, immersed in my 50th hour of Just Cause 2, how far beyond that silent audience, proscenium arch, here’s some well-paid ‘actor’ pretending to be someone else experience we’d gone and how very timidly other forms of storytelling entertainment had reacted to the challenge of the beast in their midst, this ultimate choose your own adventure playground that in some cases simulates ‘life’ and terrain so effectively it’s like actually like going on vacation (how many gamers know the geography of Silent Hill as well as their own town? Do streets and locations from Liberty City, Panau, or Saints Row, turn up in the dreams of other gamers like they do in mine? I’ll lay odds they do. These amazing virtual environments appear in my memories as real as Chicago or London. Paris, Venice, New Delhi, Jogjakarta or any of the non-CGI cities I’ve been to.

Although many current video games are constructed on a narrative spine which follows the basic action movie hero-beats-baddie script, it’s never that aspect of the player’s interaction with the virtual environment that’s important. I know I tend to skip the cut scenes in games without losing any awareness of the arrow of narrative progression. Batman Inc. is an attempt to do a comic influenced by the storytelling structures, images, senses of scale, movement and perspective and so on that I’ve absorbed from games. The experience of actually being Batman in the Arkham Asylum game was profoundly eerie and I’d love to find a way to capture that depth of involvement and identification with the character and environment. I’m not sure how much of this I’ll be able to realise but this is where I’m beginning my thinking on what might make Batman Inc. different from other books.

Batman Inc. is Brave and the Bold meets Just Cause or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! That’s my pitch! Throw in a dash of Mission Impossible and a pinch of The Magic Christian and it’s nearly there.

As research for my book Supergods, I re-read a lot of my old comics and got really excited by that old ‘musical’ approach to writing superhero comics I saw especially in the work of Roy Thomas (the Kree/Skrull War is an amazing orchestration of plot, characters and ideas into a multi-levelled narrative that uses several interwoven voices – including blended 1st, 2nd and 3rd person captions – to practically conjure sound onto the paper. Almost every scene has some reference to sound, in fact, from the opening, apocalyptic door slam, through Black Bolt’s whisper and the continually pointed out lack of sound in space), Steve Engelhart, Doug Moench, Don McGregor and the others of Marvel’s ’70s auteur generation.

The popular ‘cinematic’ approach to comics has largely done away with those poetic narrative captions but an even greater loss is that free flowing multi-perspectival viewpoint – when was the last time you read a comic that addressed the character directly ‘You are the Batman!!’ before sliding into an omniscient 3rd person narrative voice, ‘He is the Batman!!’ then shifting to a 1st Person ‘I am the Batman.’ voice, all in the same story! That kind of writing has a metamorphic, psychedelic and very refreshing quality that seemed to tap more directly into the way comics can work together as words and pictures. The dance between writer and artist seems more fluid and the comic book artist is set free from the constraints of being a mere storyboardist, the writer gets a chance to express his or her own voice rather than just the voices of the characters etc. So with this book, I’m trying to find a road into that kind of multi-narrative approach that feels modern rather than retro.

We’ll see how it works out and how far it seems appropriate to push in that direction but these are the influences I’ve been absorbing and the thoughts I’ve been having at the beginning of the process. For me, it’s about seeing the familiar from a slightly different perspective.