Sequential Riot

This was originally contributed to State Magazine. I lob back online here, as it’s relevant to a debate I’m having elseforum. And – y’know – I thought it was a cute abortion of an idea. I’ve never significantly developed it further than presented here. And – re-reading – Christ, I hope that some of the Ego was ironic. People think I’m bad now. I’m a monk in comparison.

As much as I’d like to be the mercurial genius, it’s just not me. I’m a slow, obsessive thinker. I chip away over days and weeks to eventually reveal my final theory which is – usually – pretty much unassailably right. I’m a work in progress.

Here’s how one’s going. Excuse its roughness.

Scene 1: I’m passing through Canary Warf on the way to a bed. In my ears, the echoes of Godspeed You Black Emperor are slowly withdrawing. The Godhead retreats and leaves our conversation quiet, intimate. Sinister Jim, Andy JimFriend and myself on a train seat.

We talk comics. Andy is interested, but distant. He asks about the current developments in its little world – how to bring them to a wider audience and so on. He asks if they’re still being called “Graphic Novels”. “Kinda”, says I, “But that’s really referring to a specific form of work”. Referencing Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”, the best term for them- and really the only accurate one – is “Sequential Art”. Everyone pauses, looks at each other, and laughs at the utter pretentious banality of the phrase.

A moment’s realisation: “Of course, that’s like saying music is sequential noises. True, but missing the point entirely”.

Fade to black. Lights up on Scene 2.

Scene 2: Cattle class on a British Airways flight to Seattle. I’m off to see a developer. I’m sitting next to Mathilde Remy, the legendary insane French-Woman of Joystick Magazine and probably the most important games journalist alive. We’re loose acquaintances, but the flight’s our first real chance to get familiar and tell stories. We share a love of the Looking Glass Aesthetic. She has Doug Church’s phone-number. I’m green with envy.

Conversation turns to a debate she witnessed at the GDC between Will Wright – of the Sims fame – and Scott McCloud about games, describing how the sequential-art gentleman was entirely outclassed by Will’s theory. To be fair, hardly unexpected – it’s not his chosen form and Will is a visionary in the most literal terms. Conversation turns to Understanding Comics.

She argues that Understanding Comics is – in fact – not a comic. It uses the tools of the form, but is in fact something else entirely. Comics exist to provoke emotion – they are a narrative form. Understanding Comics is, therefore, not one. I take the McCloud line, pulling out the plane’s safety card, and pointing at the the diagram of people donning safety gear that couldn’t possibly save them from any aeroplane mishap. “This is a comic,” I say. She disagrees. It uses the techniques, but is not in itself a comic

I take her point, and extrapolate further. She is stating the word “comic” should /not/ be expanded to include anything that shares its tools. Comic is a specific use of these tools, rather than a description of the tools itself. Therefore, I expand, Comics is a subset of a greater over-arcing technique of Sequential Art – images placed in juxtaposition to one another to express meaning. It’s a category error to say that just because the tools are used to make comics, means that anything that shares those tools would also be a comic. A knife can be used to prepare a salad or slash open a man’s chest. This does not mean open heart surgery is a light meal for the calorie conscious.

We move back to games. Since the logical way to express comics potential was to use the tools of comics to dissect and explain themselves in the form of “Understanding Comics”, to make people understand how clever the internal mechanics and language of games are, you would logically make a game called “Understanding Games”. Except, equally logically, if “Understanding Comics” is not actually a comic, merely appearing to be, then “Understanding Games” would merely /appear/ to be a game and in fact be something else, a pure application of the techniques which games rest upon.

So – at the fundamentals, what /are/ games techniques. Try this: Games give sensory input to a user in response to an input to the system. There is a feedback loop, essentially, modulating the experience of the user. Or, in simpler terms, games present stuff to us (sound, visuals, implied situations) when we tell it to do stuff (Press buttons, select options, whatever).

Which means that games are, in fact, a subset of multimedia. As “sequential noises” is to music (or speech) and “sequential art” is to comics (or information pamphlets, tapestry, wall-paintings), “Multimedia” is to games. It’s what games do – and the reason why being a videogame isn’t exactly the same thing as being a /game/. At the systemic roots of them, there’s an entirely different set of tools – with experiences as varied as Final Fantasy, Microcosm and Defender as radically different extrapolations.

Videogames are not games – they are, in fact, an application of multimedia.

Fade to black. Light up on Scene 3.

Scene 3: I’m at work, at lunchtime. I kill an hour carving at the lock of this Pandora’s box and jimmy it open. I let the sprites go free. Let’s see what people make of this and can make out of this attempt at a Paradigm shift or, at least, a new critical spotlight to idly direct at some of the forms darker corners.

I return to chasing PRs for games. It continues.

Hmm, I think you’ve convinced me.

I definitely consider Understanding Comics and the aeroplane saftey card to be comics, and think its a daft definition of comics which would exclude them both.

So I suppose by the same token, BG&E and MMORPGs and rhythm action games have to be video games, despite the fact that none of these entertainment products share much in common with the video games that I love.

Perhaps we need a name for the traditional stuff – “proper video games”…

I don’t agree with Mathilde’s definition of comics either, but playing along with it allowed me to approach the issue in a way differently to how I would normally. It’s an interesting example of how a name has spread to cover other stuff – I mean, if novels were the only form of Prose, we’d be trying to call *anything* which used prose a “novel”. We’re trapped in language which isn’t *quite* sufficient to describe what we’re talking about.

I tend to use stuff like “Classical” videogames when talking about old-skool stuff, but “proper” ones mean. Part of me thinks this could end up a little bit like the critical schism between Rockist and “Popist” music discussion…

Which is a horrible thought.


Actually – one of my more contentious thoughts about music might also come into play in games. While a fanatic doesn’t make a good critic, a fanatic is (on average) a better *creator* than most dilettante. Because the most interesting music (or games or whatever) normally comes from an extreme position which you have to actually *commit* to get to.

(Then you get into the utilitarianism of beliefs. In that a creator can take on a completely untenable position as it allows them to approach the work in a certain way which a more liberal position would neuter.)

Er… not sure much of this post made any sense.


It’s all semantics. You can divide and subdivide comics or games into millions of tiny sub-terms, but it won’t necessarily help people communicate their thoughts about them better. Once a term like “video games” gets locked into the lexicon, good luck getting people to use “interactive entertainment” instead — or even understand that you mean the same thing when you say it.

No matter what term you use, the idea you’re thinking of and the idea the receiver gets in their mind will be slightly different. Breaking down the taxonomy is interesting theory-wise, but not very useful in practical terms.

Okay. So imagine I wrote the best part of a thesis here. Then imagine that I deleted it. Here are the highlights:

“Comics exist to provoke emotion – they are a narrative form.”

At this point, you should have (metaphorically) choked her with a floatation device. A non-fiction comic is still a comic. A piece of non-fiction prose, however, is not a novel. “Emotion” is irrelevant. The straightforward transmission of information – what makes a medium a medium – is not.

I mean, you create a sequential art experience by walking round an art gallery. But you wouldn’t put Wolverine on the cover and charge £2.20 for the privilege, would you? (although, yes, now I’m thinking about doing more or less exactly that)

Since “games” set up a feedback loop between System and User, and the state of one depends on the state of the other, from moment to moment, maybe we should start using the term “Dynamic Arts” to cover all forms of interactive multimedia.

(of course, that sort of turns a cash machine into a videogame, but bear with me)

And relax.

Ah! Yes! The point was that “Understanding Games,” while a bosting idea (for real), might be a bit unnecessary. Because Games have a cultural currency (or something) that Comics can only dream of. Games don’t need a Declaration of Principles, do they?

(oh god, now I can’t stop thinking about a multi-level game where the object is to get off your home computer and into a MMPORG, literally fighting your way into the future through a potted history of videogames)

Yeah. SOmething like that.


dear mr gillen, bless you and your rss feeds. i would love to read more on this topic. Can you point us to the elseforum you refer to in your post?

Over here:

Though it’s mostly about something else. More a conversation between Mr Pickford and myself which span off.


Every time I think I’ve got things nailed down, they start crawling around in new patterns. Thanks, man.

Just to muddy the waters a bit… Since we’re already poking around…

Neil Cohn uses the term “visual language” to refer to anything using that “juxtaposed in sequence” bit, because he’s less concerned with examining it as a tool for narrative (“comics”) than he is as using it as a medium of communication (which would include the other subsets, like airplane instructions). He’s gone on to examine the syntax of the thing. Sometimes I think he forces the point a little, but he’s the only one I see heading that deeply into that territory, so I’m glad for him.

At the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to narrative itself, there’s a thing… things like MMORPGs and what have you are mentioned above as being very fundamentally different from “traditional” video games, and I think it’s worth considering. Yes, they’re all applications of multimedia, I can get behind that. If we look at the narrative forms, though, the last five to ten years have been causing a pretty significant divide between… I don’t even want to call them “passive” and “active” as they both require input, but some games are requiring a greater degree of immersion. Professor Stuart Moulthrop wrote a very solid essay talking about games and comics together with other new forms, and was testing the waters with the term “Interstitial Fiction,” which I think is a solid one.

See, my concern with reducing video games to multimedia is that “multimedia” is SUCH an inclusive term… what internet experience isn’t, these days? Even if we stay restricted to games, there’s worlds of difference between a console video game and, say, an ARG – “Alternate Reality Games,” the most well-known of which was the internet-wide narrative phenomenon “i love bees” that did so many different things…

It seems to me that even as we scramble around for vocabulary, the pioneers are out there knocking all the walls down between media before we can get to them.

Ah! Yes! The point was that “Understanding Games,” while a bosting idea (for real), might be a bit unnecessary. Because Games have a cultural currency (or something) that Comics can only dream of. Games don’t need a Declaration of Principles, do they?

Tell that to Roger Ebert. I think every medium deserves a basic primer. “Understanding Comics” isn’t perfect by any means, no, but when I was first snivelling my way into high school, knowing intrinsically what comics were capable of but (at the time) having no evidence of it in my very limited reading experience – and thus, very little to support my claims – reading that book was my way of finally understanding why they worked.

And that was what mattered to me, not so much running out to make an ill-considered “bid for respectability” but understanding why the medium I loved worked at the base level, and how. We have plenty of texts to explain, say, why and how film works. The fact that film is so cultural that most of us don’t need to sit down with one doesn’t change the fact that there’s a kid growing up right now that loves movies, might even be destined to make great ones, but isn’t yet old enough to understand exactly how they work at each level.

I take Ms. Remy’s point, though I don’t think that she expressed it well; as other folks have observed, “narrative” and “emotional” are not quite the place to hang your hat in describing the thing which Understanding Comics isn’t. I’d say that that Understanding Comics talks about artworks in a certain medium, uses the same medium, but is not itself an artwork.

But I’m puzzled by the meaning of the word “multimedia” to describe the medium in which games are artworks. Having worked in game design in the past, and now making my living at doing interaction design for tools — business software applications, consumer electronics, electronic medical instruments, and so forth — I would say that “sensory input to a user in response to an input to the system” is characteristic of both of the kinds of systems I have worked with in my career. These are much closer in medium than many other things that I associate with “multimedia.”

Though the word “interactive” was unhappily (to my sensibilities) colonized by web brochureware that may have been lovely but had little or no complexity in the feedback loop with users, I would like to reclaim “interactive systems” as a name for the medium that includes video games, desktop software, consumer electronics, and so forth. As you say, the user acts and the system provides feedback in a complex relationship. The medium is the action between, the inter-action.

I would say that executions of this medium include tools, games, toys, and more. Here I’m echoing a distinction in interactive artworks which Will Wright makes: games have an objective inherent in their structure, while toys simply have structure and permit players to choose their own objectives. 4

That’s… interesting.

But I think that Understanding Comics does provoke emotion: I first read it ten-or-so years ago and the narrative voyage through the history and mechanisms of what I’d previously thought of as a very familiar medium was definitely a dramatic experience for me. As a story (or story-chapters within a story) rather than a list of bullet points it allows the reader to get involved.

That’s all I feel capable of nitpicking at the moment – but it is a very interesting idea.

Defining games as a feedback loop between a user and a sensory experience device is either way too broad…
(All of life is a game)
Or terribly limited…
(A comic is an interaction between a creator and a drawing implement)

I’m not sure what the answer is but I think a clue lies in breaking away from the video game mindset and looking at the broader concept of games from Tic-Tac-Toe to Golf to Nomic.

I think games all have at their core an element of testing the player. For instance you might wander around a First Person Shooter level just to look at the scenery or see if you can get yourself blown up spectactularly but at that point you aren’t really playing the game.
To truly play the game you must be attempting to ‘win’.

“I’m not sure what the answer is but I think a clue lies in breaking away from the video game mindset and looking at the broader concept of games from Tic-Tac-Toe to Golf to Nomic.”

Funnily enough, this is the way my thoughts went in the intervening years since writing the piece. In the introduction to The Book it’s more the approach I take.

(My problem with taking the ludologic approach to games is that a lot of what makes videogames interesting is actually *entirely unprecedented* in other previous iterations of games)


(To choose your example – wandering around and looking at the scenery is pretty much what the first half of Thief III’s the Cradle is… and it’s one of the most critically acclaimed sections in a videogame of the last two years. Is it not a game? If not, what is it? It’s certainly not like anything else ever…)


“a lot of what makes videogames interesting is actually *entirely unprecedented* in other previous iterations of games”

Yes! Exactly! I had this discussion with me Mum yesterday, sort of. We watched the advert for the new Prince of Persia, and impressed, my Mum started to extol the obvious virtues of the thing – to which I replied “Fah!”

Part of the magic of the original Prince of Persia – for me, at least – was the relatively smooth and “realistic” motion of the character. The graphics may have been a bit simple, even for the Amiga, but dayumn, that boy could move.

In fact, thinking about it, I can (but won’t) trace the moments of exhilaration I’ve felt playing something really…new, back from GTA 3 through Tekken, Tomb Raider and back to bloody Pong. Not that I actually play that many games, of course. I have both RSI and terrible taste, as my ownership of Vib Ribbon indicates.

I probably should have added “video” to my earlier point. It is, of course, the dynamism of the system that applies, here. I mean, allGAME is just a text of physical and/or mental dexterity, right? The diversion – the fun – comes from the player’s emotional response, which is itself a dynamic thing (I’m ace, I’m doing well, I’m the best, oh this guy’s better, I’m shite, I’m bored, I’m off to read the paper). In that respect, he half-joked, life is indeed a great big game of Ego.

“A comic is an interaction between a creator and a drawing implement”

See, I think this is brilliant. I mean, I sort of disagree, in that I think that the key interaction is between the Artist(s) and the Reader, mediated, perhaps, by the page. But no. You’re right, too. The struggle between the artist’s mind and the terrible blank page is where the art is.

But my monitor has died on me twice in the last five minutes. So I’d best stop now.

See! It’s all dynamic.


(My problem with taking the ludologic approach to games is that a lot of what makes videogames interesting is actually *entirely unprecedented* in other previous iterations of games)

I think the ludologists are rather unfairly characterized as not recognizing this point, in part because the scope of ludology isn’t confined to videogames, and because much of the point was to understand even videogames within the context out of which they arose: non-videogame games.

Kyle’s right that this is really semantics. It’s what’s called a lumper/splitter issue: you can look at “videogames” as either dramatically expanding the category of “games”, or you can just try to cut off the category “games” at the point where we get “videogames”. I prefer the former, because accepting the latter screws up the language we’ve been using forever.

Either way, you’re right that videogames are capable of substantially new things that non-videogame games aren’t capable of. But I’m not sure that this was something ludology ever denied.

In researching my Understanding Comics-esque book on Evolution, I came across a statement which goes something like “The merit of a theory isn’t in whether it’s right or wrong, but in what questions it raises.”
So by that definition Mathilde Remy’s theory that Understanding Comics isn’t a comic is a good theory. But I think extended debate will reveal that comics are a tool. Comics are a medium the way writing words are the medium/tools of both Hemingway and Restaurant Menus. Remy should really re-read the work because she has missed the point entirely if she still confuses comics with genre.
When extended to games, it would be like saying video poker isn’t a game because it doesn’t have a narrative. Understanding Games would be a great way to raise questions about the artistic potential of the media (I know there has been at least one gallery to explore interactive art- aesthetic/abstract games- but I don’t remember the name). I know I have been watching the game industry, waiting to see how it will change the way we tell stories.

Blimey- I wish I’d never asked now!

Don’t worry, Kieron, I am slightly ‘distant’ with everyone- it’s nothing personal.

UC has sparked a range of responses from the comics world — some of them quite emotional, from the young creators who felt exhilirated by the possibilities they felt that it opened up to them, to the sputtering critics who were outraged by, say, McCloud’s position on the relative unimportance of the words in comics. UC: a very emotional book. Reinventing Comics, even moreso …


“To truly play the game you must be attempting to ‘win’.”

A year ago I would have taken issue with this but now I’ve mellowed as a person I’ve come to relise a few things:

If we assume a game to be an activity then I would say that we can only be said to be “playing” a game if we are attempting to win (or as I prefer to think: not lose). Playing the game involves the solving of it’s systems in order to progress in some manner.

However in many instances a game is also a place and we can consider ourselves to be “enjoying” the game even if we are not “playing” it. This might involve our experimentation with the games systems not for progress towards a defined goal but for our own amusement. It also includes taking in the scenery, listening to the sounds and immersing ourselves in that place.

I personally believe that we can create games that can be enjoyed and not played. We certainly can create games that are played but not enjoyed. The best ones though are when the two combine and we enjoy what we play.

I maintain that our only real comparison to videogames as a medium is life itself . Even Tetris.

“Chiaro Sciaro” categorizations of mediums are inherently faulty. Why can’t mediums overlap or even work together? Is music as we know it today, prose with music or music with prose? Names that we give to forms and mediums are really just references of what best describes the work.

This does not mean open heart surgery is a light meal for the calorie conscious.

*snort* Best metaphor ever!