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Compromised Divisions: Thresholds in Comic Books and Video Games

By Laurie Taylor


Comics occupy a precarious position in media studies both because they prove difficult to analyze and because of their cultural subordination as a juvenile medium. Part of this subordination stems from the difficulty in comic analysis — difficulty due to the hybrid nature of comic’s verbal and visual components — which often disrupt even the categories of verbal and visual. Interestingly, video games have not fallen into the same precarious spot with comics despite their problematic joining of the verbal and the visual and their placement as juvenile works. Part of the reason video games have not been subordinated to other media is that video game scholarship and popular reception connect video games most closely to film or digital media such as hypertext. While video games do have many connections to film and digital media, as is apparent in their presentation, video games also have extremely close ties to comics. The ties between comics and video games need to be explicated in terms of structure, style, narrative, and audience in order to accurately study video games, and for apt media studies of comics and video games. Along with other considerations, the connections between video games and comics also need to be explicated to demonstrate the importance of comics to the development of other media and to help move comics from their subordinate position. While drawing connections to comics and video games may seem grossly evident, much of the current research on new media and video games, including Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media and Jay Bolter’s Writing Spaces, has largely neglected comics in discussions of hybrid media. In Manovich’s explication of new media and video games, he does touch on the issues addressed here: “We do not have the same wealth of concepts to help us think about the poetics of navigation through space. And yet, if I am right to claim that the key feature of computer space is navigability, we need to address this feature theoretically” (259). In order to address navigable space, we must also address how those spaces are constructed and delimited and how those spaces are encountered. In such an investigation, comics greatly aid new media in formulating a poetics of navigable spaces in that they provide a method of spatial encounter dependent on the user.

In order to illustrate the structural connections between comics and video games, this paper addresses the spatial nature of each medium and the implications of their particular spatial representations for acts of reading and playing. Comics and video games exhibit sequential narratives like print and film, but, unlike print and film, they are also intrinsically spatial narratives. While there are certainly exceptions to any sort of clear divide,1 comics and video games are inherently spatial in a manner unlike print and film. Scott McCloud alludes to this difference in Reinventing Comics where he writes of comics as interactive, but this interactivity, like most of the interactivity in video games, is based on spatial interaction rather than sequential, or narrative interaction. That is, comics can be read in different sequences spatially for the panels on the page, as video game areas can be explored in differing sequences, but that the overall movement of comics and video games still most often follows a sequential narrative with this underlying spatial interactivity. This spatialized skipping in reading/playing is unlike Barthes’ tmesis, or skimming in reading print, because it is first and inherently spatial, rather than sequential (S/Z). In order to address the complex spatial nature of comics and video games, this paper focuses on but one connection between the visual structure of comics and the visual structure of video games in terms of reader/player perception. The reader/player perception is founded on an often sequential reading, but follows an overall sequence with a micro-level variation, within comic pages or video game sequences, where the spatial areas must be re-covered or re-read. To specifically confront all of these elements, this paper addresses the use of exacting thresholds: places where the viewpoint dramatically changes after movement over a specific line or point. I use examples found in survival horror video games and graphic novels as illustrations of the framing similarities in terms of reader/player perspective, the actual threshold points, the retraceability of panels in video games and comic books, and the overall movement in terms of threshold partitions with the serialization of both survival horror video games and comic books.

Thresholds and Demarcated Spaces

Exacting thresholds exist in both video games and graphic novels, and their usage in one medium bears more than a passing resemblance to their usage in the other, relating to the depth of field in the spaces of each. These exact thresholds can be seen on a comic page with the panel borders and the gutter that separates the panels from each other. While many comics use borderless panels, or panels that fill the entire page and then have other panels superimposed atop these page-size panels, the panel border remains a fundamental element to the construction of a comic page space even when in negation. Similarly, certain video games frame spaces as exactly as a panel border frames the panel. These video game spaces allow the player to move within the single frame or panel, but the movement is from a fixed view, and an exact line demarcates that space. When the player crosses that line, the viewpoint shifts dramatically and the player operates within a new space which, while adjacent to the other space, is fundamentally separated in the same manner that two comic panels depicting the same room can address the space in fundamentally different ways.

The connections between panels and frames within comics and video games further illustrates the significance of spatial borders in each medium. While video games are most often linked to film, film presents photorealistic representations which normally focus on the center of the screen with blurred borders. Comics and video games may focus on the center of the particular frame or panel, but the overall focus is not always on the center. For instance, an individual comic panel may have a focused center that then ‘skips’ to the next panel, or the panels themselves may border each other in a significant manner, and the entire layout of the comic page may move the center of the perceptual frame outside of the individual panel and into another orientation on the page. Part of this re-orientation or re-centering is due to the chunks of centered information on any given page and part of it is due to the nature of reading comics which situates information spatially rather than within the chronology of film.2 In the same manner as film, video games generally focus on the center of the screen; yet, video games also play in the periphery and in some, the borders are equally important and function equivalently to the panels and gutters in comics.

Many video games are more filmic in that they focus on the character action in the center of the screen, with the borders being simply areas that can become the center at the press of a key or twitch of the controller, but other video games are not, or are only so in varying degrees. Survival horror games most clearly reveal the connections between comics and video games in terms of the significance of borders and in terms of the frame and panel similarities. These thresholds as the border structure between game spaces or panels and the nature of these thresholds, with the readings they create, need to be addressed in order to study how video games draw on comics for structure and to show some of the complex relationship between these two forms.

Figure 1. Marv from Frank Miller’s Sin City. © Dark Horse Comics

Survival horror games are generally defined by their dark world view (often involving monsters, the occult, and/or the dead), third-person perspective, action-adventure gameplay, heavy reliance on puzzles, and extremely constrained movement with the heavy use of confining spaces and camera angles; yet this limited movement forces players to travel these limited spaces repeatedly to accomplish tasks which would normally be spread throughout a large game space in other types of video game. Many survival horror games also use three-dimensional characters on a two dimensional background, which necessitates the framing devices because the games seem to display as three dimensional spaces (through clever camera tricks and confined camera views and spatial movement) when the spaces are in fact only two dimensional visual spaces. For purposes of comparison, I specifically examine Resident Evil – Code: Veronica – for the Dreamcast (RE-C:V-), the most accomplished of the survival horror genre, and Frank Miller’s Sin City. I have chosen these based on their similarly dark world views and their consistent following (except during aside sequences) of a single character per level, section, and/or collection. In order to facilitate this application, primarily a single character for particular comic or game moments will be used for clarification since both comics and video games tend to have multiple characters and the abundance of names could prove difficult.3 Sin City follows the ‘tough guy’ stereotype Marv who is a large, strong, dumb male, who has a soft spot for women. RE-C:V- follows, depending on the gameplay section, either Claire Redfield, who is searching for her brother Chris; Chris Redfield, a member of an elite fighting force which was forced to fight the enemy zombies; and Steve, whose parents worked for the enemy bio-terrorists who made the zombies.

Figure 2. Claire and Chris from Resident Evil – Code: Veronica – as shown on the cover of the game. © 2000 Capcom

The use of threshold points in video games is cinematically linked in that camera angles and views are reoriented during a single scene, but the repeatability of the movement to, and back over, a single threshold point is much more like reading a comic book, because readers are not set to one way of reading or viewing the panels and the visual layout of the comic panels often cue the reader to read in non-sequential ways. Similarly, video games require players to re-cover or re-trace certain spaces in order to continue the game narrative. While comics cannot require readers to re-read or re-cover panels already read, the page layout often creates this sort of spatialized reading and re-reading. This re-tracing or re-reading is inherent in playing video games and reading comics. This re-tracing/re-reading does not disrupt the sequential nature of the comic or video game narrative, but rather exists as a spatial subset within the overall reading. These re-readings could occur in film, but in film the viewer is not encouraged or eased in the attempt to move from one viewpoint and then to rewind back to another viewpoint and to continually repeat the process. Viewing a film means submitting to the cinematic conventions that the ‘right way’ to watch involves accepting the connections made through the actual screen shots and the film’s time constraints. Reading a novel also involves some level or re-reading as human eyes skip across and over words, but these re-readings are not set in clearly demarcated chunks.

The ability to move back and forth across thresholds in both video games and comics allows one to orient one’s perspective in that space, constructing a mental “map” or an abstraction of the relationships in space between objects, characters, etc. in space. How comic frames and panels operate for the reader is problematic because the reader is able to see so much at once, but sequencing — even with the retraceability and the limited omniscience available from the design of the comic book page — remains very important. Comic book writers and game designers both argue for the need for the work to direct the reader/player. Will Eisner postulates that comic book frames should lead the reader in a directed and controlled manner; “In sequential art the artist must, from the outset, secure control of the reader’s attention and dictate the sequence in which the reader will follow the narrative” (40). This sort of secured control of the reader is also required in survival horror video games because the reader/player must understand the connections that are meant to be made, or the player/reader can easily become rather hopelessly lost in the game, not knowing which goal must next be accomplished. While the artist tries to dictate the reader’s movement through the panels, comic books allow readers the opportunity to read and experience the panels out of sequence, even to retrace through the panels. Survival horror games require that the player’s re-play in the same way that many comics require the reader to re-read through the spatialized layouts of the games and the panels. Scott McCloud has lightly touched on this process in Understanding Comics stating:

Unlike other media, in comics, the past is more than just memories for the audience and the future is more than just possibilities! Both past and future are real and visible and all around us! Wherever your eyes are focused, that’s now. But at the same time your eyes take in the surrounding landscape of past and future. . .Yet we seldom do change direction except to re-read or review passages. (104-5)

McCloud’s analysis is problematic because, unlike Eisner, McCloud is not speaking of the comic writer’s need to control or lead the reader. McCloud is speaking of the reader’s choice in reading comics and the retraceability in reading comics, but at the same time he downplays the significance of being able to see everything on two pages at once, even if only through peripheral vision. The retraceability and limited mobility within sections in comic reading is like that in playing survival horror games and, in both, the significance of the panel is given by its juxtaposition with the other panels, positioning that changes based on the reader’s method of reading and movement through the story. The importance of single panels within comic books and video games comes from the overall placement within the larger story, but the individual relationship of the panels on a certain page or level do change the understanding of the story. While the comic book panels are fixed to a certain degree, most panel work can be, and is, read in several ways at once, which is akin to the retracing or ‘rereading’ of areas in a video game. The sequentiality of films, comics, and video games also shows an analogue between comics and video games because in the videogame, internal, local repetition and recursion are openly embraced as modes of reading – one may watch a film many times, but one rarely has occasion to re-watch portions of it. Likewise, one may re-read portions of the comic while within those page areas, even outside of re-reading the entire comic as one would re-watch a film.

Thresholds in Comics

Figure 3. Frank Miller’s Sin City. © Dark Horse Comics

The retraceable reading can be seen in Sin City on the two pages where Marv has been captured by Goldie’s friends because they think that he killed Goldie. The first page only has two panels and the adjoining page has only three, as shown in Figure 3. The top panel of the first page has Marv tied to a chair with the women surrounding him and the bottom panel has a close up of Marv’s face being hit with a gun. When the reader sees the page, which has only twelve words outside of sound captions, the reader is able to see the entirety of the page and has to know that Marv is about to be hit even outside of the textual cues toward that possibility. This particular page allows the reader to already know the next sequence while reading the current panel, which also allows the reader to re-traceably read the comic panels. Many comic panels are far more explicit than this, resembling more of a montage sequence where the reader is not given any direction as to what should be read next or first, but is presented with all the images on a one or two page spread and then has to decide how to read the panels in terms of order and repetition. These pages connect more directly to video game playing and thresholds because the divided areas are still clearly demarcated spatially and in terms of chronology, unlike the montage/collage sections. These pages also show how each panel represents a separate and unique area, as defined by the panel border and gutter (the thresholds of the panels), but how these areas are still connected in such a way that the reader reads the images holistically and non-sequentially while also reading sequentially. While the borders keep these pages from being collage areas, the readings are collage readings because of the page structure. In the same way, certain video game areas are demarcated by threshold points that function as panels, and the repeated movement over these spaces make those spaces function within multiple sequentialities.

Figure 4. Frank Miller’s Sin City. © Dark Horse Comics

Overall, Sin City has a more linear sequence than many other comics, but even within Sin City, the nature of comic book art leads the reader to read retraceably. The two pages with Lucille and Marv after they have both been captured by the cannibal in Figure 4 exhibit this process. The top left, or first, panel shows a collection of women’s heads. The significance of the heads is unclear to the reader because the heads are less than realistic. But, the third panel on the page, which takes up nearly a third of the page, is filled completely by Lucille’s shocked face. Because this panel is so large and so visually dominant, it is read immediately with the other images on the page. Lucille’s haunted and disgusted visage alter the reading and the feel of the entire page; the reader can not simply read the panels in order, but is led to read Lucille either first or simultaneously with the rest of the page.

Thresholds as Space and Time

In both comic books and video games, the movement through panels/thresholds is directly related to time. Because timing is spatially judged in both comic books and video games, the movement through the panels and thresholds equates to movement through time. This time as space exists in comics and video games as a marked space of the instance. While a dozen comic panels may illustrate a single second of time, each panel would still indicate an instance of time. Likewise, movement through a video game space indicates a time instance within that space. The movement in each of these instances is spatially judged. While the movement does take time on the reader/player’s part, that time may or may not indicate any sort of determined movement in time within the game or comic. Multiple panels on a comic page may exist in the same time instance, as movement through multiple video game spaces may be collapsed into the same amount of game world time, but the spatial aspect of this movement is not reduced or reducible. The movement and spatiality may equate to movement in time, making time exist as a complement based on space instead of existing independently. Certain video game spatial progress may be timed and have an enforced time standard, but many video game spaces are timed only in the amount of time that the player spends in those spaces. Movement through these spaces is thus a collapsing of movement through spaces and times, with the times relative to the spaces and user. This can easily be seen with older video games where time limits were strictly enforced — making the movement through space directly proportional to the movement through time. In Comics & Sequential Art Will Eisner writes:

In essence the panel (or box) makes that postulate [that time is relative to the position of the observer] a reality for the comic book reader. The act of paneling or boxing the action not only defines its perimeters but establishes the position of the reader in relation to the scene and indicates the duration of the event. . .The act of framing separates the scenes and acts as a punctuator. Once established and set in sequence the box or panel becomes the criterion by which to judge the illusion of time. (28)

Panels and frames in comic books act the same way that thresholds in video games do; the movement through space becomes also the movement through time. Timing, in addition to time, is directly related to panels in comic books and video games because if the flow of the panels is disturbed, even by too much rereading/retracing, then the timing can be thrown off. Timing in comic books and in video games relates not just to the time frame in which events occur, but also to the pacing from one event to the next. Timing is thus very difficult for artists and designers to control by in both video games and comic books because of the freedom that the reader/player is given. Panel work in both video games and comic books should be viewed as a form of complex linearity — it is not the same sort of linearity as is found with the majority of primarily print books and with most films. It is linearity that allows for variation and movement within this overall structure of linearity. The low level reading and playing experiences of sections — two page layouts or video game levels — equates to a complex movement of re-tracing and re-reading — and the overall structure of reading and playing leads the reader/player from the initial point to the end. The overall structure is linear, but the internal movement of that structure is not. As long as readers have peripheral vision, comic book reading will always involve some sort of re-reading, just as the required repetition in survival horror video games always creates the need for some sort of re-reading of the section or the idea of the section. The re-tracing allows video games and comic books to create a mood outside of the time sequence of the narrative, but still only within the limits of the two pages, or particular video game section.

Thresholds in Video Games

Panels as divisions are used in survival horror video games like Resident Evil – Code: Veronica- to sustain the mood of the game and to aid the reader in understanding the nature of the represented game space: the trapped, confined, and limited space with some areas being part of a larger structure and then those larger structures being separated from each other — just as the pages of a comic book are a larger structure, connected to the other pages, but still cut off with the turning of the page. The individual frames or open areas within RE-C:V- act as panels because of their emphasis on connections to other panels and pages within the larger game setup. RE-C:V-‘s frames delimit certain spatial areas. These areas can be of various sizes and shapes and can join other frames in various ways. The player can move the game character within the single frame without a shift in perspective. But, as soon as the threshold point is breached, the view shifts dramatically, as may the proximity of the screen space. For instance, one frame may face the great hall from the side to the left of the entry doors and from a close proximity. The same room may have another frame that faces the entry doors from a distant vantage point. The “rooms” or frames of the videogame are often not spaces in which the story of the game “happens” but rather landmarks for the work of reading — the reader must pass through them in the guise of the character in order to advance the game — in this way, they are comparable to the frames of the graphic narrative.4

Where thresholds operate for comics with the panel and frame borders acting as the thresholds to switch to the next scene(s), video game construction should seemingly be more like cinematic construction where the thresholds are less noticeable, except in the game-controlled cinematic cut-scenes. Yet, video game construction inherently allows for exacting and clearly evident thresholds to exist because video games must be played through. Because video game space is played through, Espen Aarseth has noted that space is the defining element of video games, but as that space must be traversed movement is equally pivotal to any video game design and play (Cybertext and “Allegories of Space”). With movement, the way in which a game world allows a player to traverse even a small space, such as a single screen, is also pivotal to the larger game world because each game world is the compilation of the many individual screens. With the playability requirement, video game genres vary not only in presentation and theme, but also in game play and the perspective during game play.

Because the exacting threshold transition spaces do not exist within many game genres at all, or they exist only in limited quantity and consistency, this study focuses on survival horror games with their thresholds and how these thresholds relate to comic book panels as transitions. Survival horror games are almost entirely composed of these threshold transitions and so present an excellent place to begin this analysis. Other games certainly do use thresholds, but generally not the same screen threshold points, and not to the same extent as the survival horror genre. Survival horror games have highly segmented game worlds with items being necessary to open new areas and to complete each section of each larger level, and items needed to switch from section to section. Items to open new areas in survival horror games are generally just single use items; the items are not reusable nor do they generally alter the player character.5 Survival horror video games — the Alone in the Dark series; the Resident Evil series (except the first person shooter versions); the Silent Hill series — are unlike other video games with their extreme reliance on objects to open new areas, and their limitations on ammunition and/or weaponry, health and/or healing items, and overall confusion; all of which are used to sustain the mood of terror in the games. The extreme internal segmentation of survival horror games is best seen, not with their insistence on items to open new areas, but with the perspective views and the actual movement from one screen to the next. This internal segmentation has been noted by Steven Poole when he states that the segmentation is the failed use of cinematic techniques (66-69, 81-83). By connecting video games immediately to cinema, Poole fails to recognize these games’ intentional use of thresholds. This intentionality can be seen with the later games in each of these series, which all keep the same threshold segmentations despite no longer needing this sort of game space construction that formerly occurred in response to technical limitations.6

In varying degrees, survival horror games use thresholds which orient the perspective inside a single panel or portion of a scene. These views are generally high and tightly enclosed, trapping the player-character in the space of the screen while also limiting the player’s vision to the point of absurdity because the player-character would be able to see more than the player is actually allowed. These techniques are used to heighten and sustain the sense of fear in these games. These techniques were immediately linked to horror film techniques because the games are animated, but the same techniques are used to the same ends in comic panels. These conventions in survival horror were certainly influenced by films like Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead, with the victim-protagonist, trapped in a closed and shrinking space, which she must defend against the monsters. But, these games also draw equally upon comic conventions for spatial creation.

Survival horror games’ singular use of these techniques links the games to comic book paneling and framing because the camera views switch as single screens have threshold points which, when reached, change the view — often drastically altering the view from one angle to a complete reversal. This changing of perspective is common from panel to panel in comic books, but it is not common in films, television programming, and other video game types. The views switch only when the player-character (PC) moves across the threshold points: the views do not slowly alter nor does the game give any sort of indication that the PC is nearing a threshold point and with it a new view. The threshold points, with their dramatic view alterations are not like previous video games, where threshold points were used, but the camera view remained at least relatively unchanged.

In Clip 1, Claire is in a save room in the Training Facility. When the player first enters the save room, Claire is facing the actual screen, as if facing outside of the game world, and so only half of the room can be seen. The player can move Claire anywhere on this part of the screen and the view will remain relatively static: the player sees no more of the room than before, even though Claire, the player-character, would clearly be able to see the rest of the room. Once the player character moves Claire enough towards the screen, then the view reorients to place the screen in the middle of the room. Thus, Claire can move anywhere within the room, but a line effectively divides the room into two rooms, or panels, making it impossible for the player to see the entire room at any given moment. While this is useful in other areas to increase suspense, save rooms with the item trunk like this one are always completely safe: no enemies can attack in these rooms. Thus, the use of thresholds in rooms like this is unnecessary except for consistency with the spatial and visual practices of the rest of the game.

[[Figure 7 not available]]

In Figure 6 Claire is in the room outside the Training Facility save room, this is a small room with two doors and a hallway leading into it. One door is locked, as is common with survival horror games, and the other door is where Claire just exited. Notice as Claire is moved through the section of the room closest to the two doors that the depiction of the room stays consistent. It is not that the camera is following Claire, but that the camera is set in one point of the room and never moves until the threshold point is reached and the view is then completely and immediately reoriented. As Claire moves forward, the view switches and the player can see the second section of the room from a vantage point in the hallway. If Claire is moved within this section of the room, the camera angle remains static. But, as Claire is moved towards the screen by being moved down the hallway, the camera follows her until she reaches a new threshold point and the view is switched again from watching her approach the screen, to watching her walk away from the screen: the view that was at her front is now at her back. The switch occurs over a very limited region of space; the threshold is exact, just as the view changes for panels are exactly demarked by the panel borders or ever so less exactly marked with open panels fusing into other panels which do or do not have borders. After passing through the courtyard, the interior panel sequences in the mansion use panels to increase the mood of the game as the first room in the mansion, shown in Figure 7 is frightening because the first view is shot behind a giant foot. As Claire moves throughout the room, the leg and the dress of the thing become more evident. Because the view cannot be reoriented, the player is forced to travel throughout the main room of the mansion to see whether this leg is human, zombie, or something other. It remains unclear as to whether or not the thing is partially flesh until Claire is up the stairs and able to see the face clearly, which is that of a giant doll. The panel work dividing this room into half a dozen separate units serves to prevent the player from ever seeing the complete doll, fragmenting the experience of this room as with the other game areas.

From the examples given thus far, the extreme segmentation in RE-C:V- would seem to be more marked by the divisions from room to room and within larger rooms than by panel based thresholds, but many other game segments tell otherwise. For instance, when Claire is in the Palace save room, going through to the main room of the mansion. The save room and its panel performance is nearly identical to the other save room (in terms of room divisions and thresholds), as is the hallway or tunnel leading to the palace. But, the outer courtyard of the mansion is still divided into panels as threshold based areas. The division of the outer courtyard is significant because the divisions here do not increase fear or frustration. These divisions do not increase fear or frustration because the monsters that Claire encounters here are the enemy genetic mutant Arm Stretchers, which are swift and loud; they inhibit anticipation by allowing the player to immediately know that they are present and where they are. This division of the outer courtyard and the save rooms illustrates how RE-C:V- uses panels even when they are unnecessary except for consistency.

For these examples, common conceptions of navigable space collapse. Lev Manovich states that improved computer technology and speed developed, and “the game space became more of a coherent ture 3-D space, rather than a set of 2-D planes unrelated to each other” (256). Manovich errs in assuming the sequential connection in film in relation to video games. While 2-D planes may appear to be disjointed for their connections to each other and they may appear lacking for a presentation of space, the 2-D planes can present depth of field and the appearance of a full 3-D space through their interrelations. Any individual panel in a comic or individual frame in a video game, when taken alone, may appear to lack depth and internal spatiality. However, the spatiality of the medium with the frames and panels taken within the scope of the whole, as they are read/played, creates a different sort of spatiality. The spatiality of the media thus allows for the presentation of an internally thick and developed space on a 2-D plane, as it also allows for the connections between the seemingly independent frames or panels.

Doors and Windows as Panels and Thresholds

Figure 8. Load Screen as a door in Resident Evil – Code: Veronica – © 2000 Capcom

Load sequences in RE-C:V- provide another example of this paneling structure. For load times, most games use some sort of image to let the player know that a new area or cinematic is loading and the image is generally very simple so it does not require additional processing power. Typical load sequences are often a picture of the main player character on the screen (either animated as running or walking) or simply an image on the screen with words like “Loading” also on the screen. The Resident Evil series uses the load sequences to increase and sustain the horrific feel of the game by making the load sequences either a door or stairs, depending on what the character is using to gain access to the next area. In these load sequences, the screen is black with only the door in the center of the screen (Figure 5). The door swings open slowly, often creaking, and the player-character’s heartbeat pulses along with the background music as the controller vibrates with an artificial heartbeat When the loading image is a stairway, the stairs slowly slide forward as the noise of each hollow footstep is projected. The use of these images to help sustain the mood of the game rather than simply having the word “Loading” or something of that nature is interesting in itself, but more importantly it shows how the screen operates as a single panel in which action occurs in the games. With many other video games, having a door as the entire screen would be as unrealistic and as awkward as it would be for survival horror games to use “Loading” screens. It is not awkward in survival horror games like RE-C:V- because the player is already accustomed to viewing the screen as a panel with a limited vantage point — of course the wall could be on the loading screen with the door rather than simply having a floating door or stairway, but in panels often only a single aspect of a place is shown as representative of that place.

In Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner mentions the use of doors as panels when discussing frames as narrative devices, “The ‘panel’ here is actually a doorway. It tells the reader that the actor is confined in a small area within a wider one — the building. It narrates this visually” (47) and again when discussing frames as structural supports stating:

In these examples the frame’s outline becomes part of the apparatus for suggesting dimension. The use of the panel border as a structural element, when so employed, serves to involve the reader and encompasses far more than a simple container-panel. The sheer novelty of the interplay between the contained space and the ‘nonspace’ (the gutter) between the panels also conveys a sense of heightened significance within the narrative structure. (49)

The use of doorways in comic books and survival horror video games does heighten the significance of the door as a transition space within the narrative. While this is also true for film when film uses a close-up or prolonged shot of a door for significance, the door in film is often structured differently because the door and the surrounding area is shown. In survival horror video games, only the door or stairway is shown with no surrounding materials — the door itself effectively becomes a panel with the surrounding screen as the gutter, as used in frequent comic sequences. The gutter here is not like the gutter in comic books because it does not signify the transition between the two panels, but it is nonetheless an unused area which is used in direct relation to the door or stairway panel it surrounds as part of the transition movement of the door. These doors and their counterparts in comic gutters conceal impossible transitions. In doing so, they signify a break point or at least a gap between the two panels or spaces, which serve as thresholds to mark and divide the spaces of the overall structures of the comics and the video games.


While the links between video games and film are easily visible, the links between video games and comic books are also significant. Comic books are a unique media for many reasons. Comics’ use of the page or pages as a basic format upon which panels and frames are placed presumes a level of intentional form development not seen in many other works, just as the levels of creation required in video games require codes and engines upon which the representation of spatiality is developed. Comic books and video games are clearly very different, but they do overlap within the areas of limited choice of movement through each text and within the panel as a form constructed over the screen or page. Further work is certainly needed on the connections between comics and video games in terms of audience, narrative plots, narrative structures, imagery, and physical structuring. This paper links one structure in video games and comics to better illustrate how comics are designed and read and how video games are designed and perceived. The use of thresholds within these media also opens up the possibility of more precise discussions of reader response and interactivity, where video games could learn a great deal from the hypertextual nature of comic seriality and comic narratives.

In terms of interactivity, a hotly debated term in new media, this argument on thresholds in comics and video games serves also as a delimiting of a certain form of interactivity. Notions of interactivity in reading comics and in playing video games must equally recognize how that interactivity, or user interaction/participation, is included. In the examples addressed in this paper, interactivity refers to user action in reading or playing spatially through subsets of the narrative — this sort of interaction does not change the narrative outcome, nor does it drastically alter the reader’s perception of the text, but it is significant for the user’s act of reading/playing. Comic analysis requires further work regarding how comics are read and how this reading differs from reading print or film. While much work has been done in these areas, studying comics as possessing both a level of limited interactivity — in terms of how readers read the panels — and studying comics as having a undetermined sequence that underlies their overall sequentially proves beneficial to notions of reading comics and to notions of how reading comics connects to reading other visual texts.


[1] The spatial nature of narrative and onscreen presentation can be seen in the writings of Blake and ee cummings, in films like Requiem for a Dream, but film and print are not inherently spatial in the same manner as comics and video games.
[2] Clearly there are exceptions to this typical structuring of comics and film.
[3] This analysis could easily be applied to any number of games and comics: for instance, a video game like Gauntlet and a graphic novel like From Hell or a Spawn comic would work equally as well, but they would require more explication in terms of narrative and characters.
[4] In addition to the structural similarity in terms of panels and frames, the levels in RE-C:V- act as individual comics, or a single story arc for a comic series. The overall game equates to a single story arc, like Sin City telling Marv’s story. While Marv is just one character in the world of Sin City, he is the focus of the entire book and the others act as side characters even though they will return in other graphic novels about the world that Sin City displays. Similarly, RE-C:V- begins with Claire Redfield, who is the sister of Chris Redfield, the main character from the first game. Claire has been searching for her brother since the second game, and continues her search for him in RE-C:V- (See’s article on the history of Resident Evil: repetition of characters and world is necessary for similar reasons for both comic books and video games. Both comics and video games need to immediately immerse the reader or they will often lose their readership/playership. Comics have a very limited amount of space and time with financial constraints, as do video games. The confines of each medium thus often lead both comics and video games to follow and continue characters and worlds because the readership is more secure, less is required for the storyline and character base to expand, and the authors are able to cover more within the confines of the medium because the world and character development are pre-established.
[5] The game world segmentation of survival horror games was originally based on the need to fit the games to the technical limitations of the hardware on which they are played. The first Resident Evil was released on the Playstation and so had to have pre-rendered backgrounds which made them effectively act as two dimensional backgrounds with three dimensional characters: the only way to effectively do this was through the use of constrained areas. Yet, RE-C:V- kept using the same design even though the game system for which it was released, the Dreamcast, no longer required such limitations.
[6] For a discussion of single use items and other powerups, see 51-4 in Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy.


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