What are comics really? Yes you have your 22-page floppy magazine divided into panels and ads, but that’s a pretty narrow definition of the format. If you go for a more expansive definition – sequential words and pictures that impart a narrative – you can start seeing comics everywhere. A PowerPoint presentation could be a comic (a point I’ve tried to make before). An eight-part Instagram story could be a comic. Arguably everyone on social media is a comics creator now.
In fact a lot of artists have found success creating comics specifically around Instagram’s carousel feature. The limitations of the format – no more than ten images, all square and of equal size – takes comics back to the newspaper strip, and most of the creators I follow work in the humour genre, two panels setting up the joke and a third giving you the punchline.
One of the aspects of the language of comics left out by these digital or social media examples is the power of layouts to convey meaning. It’s hard to do something like an early Warren Ellis Wildstorm action thriller story when you don’t have easy access to a non-rectangular panel, page bleeds or the all important splash page. All of these things make comics more complex to look at, and perhaps less accessible to a general audience. But something is surely lost when comics are confined to a format where every panel is equal to every other panel.
I started thinking about this while playing Florence – an iOS game that’s really more of a visual novel with interactive elements. I mean, what is a game really? Florence’s story is completely linear, and your choices as a player have no impact on it whatsoever. There’s barely even a fail-state, unless you count stopping and not completing the game. This is actually used for quite a clever effect towards the end, where the player has the choice to stop Florence from walking away and ‘moving on’, but doing so will halt your progress and stop you from finishing the game.
What Florence does do is add a new vocabulary to comics, using interactive mini-games to evoke ideas and emotions. This is not just in terms of layouts, where you switch from player-controlled scrolling and game-controlled left-to-right tapping. In Florence you piece together shapes into word balloons to advance a conversation, and the puzzles get easier as the characters warm up to each other. You decide which items to put on the shelf when the boyfriend moves in, brilliantly evoking the compromises couples make when having to live together.
Florence’s story is charming but slight and cliched. It feels like a beta version or a pilot of an interactive comic – exploring a new possibility space but never really mastering it. A lot of the mini-games are barely games (tap to eat pizza, swipe to close box), and it would have been nice to have some of the choices the player makes (such as which items to put on the shelf, or how you respond to your mother’s calls) have an effect later on, even if it’s very minor. A more ambitious project would have included a branching narrative and different endings. It would have turned Florence’s story into your own.
That would certainly have required a larger team and a bigger budget, and it would be unfair to get mad at the game given it’s a shoestring indie that won plaudits but barely turned a profit. The scope of Florence is limited, but what it does is show there’s a future for digital comics beyond reading the latest Marvel issue on a tablet or swiping through an Instagram post. It brings something new to the virtual field, and for that it deserves its accolades.