Though it only had one unchanging screen, Yars’ Revenge for the Atari 2600 was as high concept as any modern game. An evolved race of the common housefly, the Yar, has peacefully colonized a distant solar system, but an evil alien race called the Qotile has arrived to wipe them out, having already destroying one of the Yar worlds. A single Yar must ‘fly’ out and strike back to stop the Qotile’s mother ship and seek retribution for his people.
is positively obtuse compared to , whose plot is entirely contained within just those two words. So when game developer’s ambition is growing faster than a gaming technology that could barely handle a score counter, let alone allow for cutscenes or even just pages of expository text, how does one tell a game’s story?
“Back in the 70's and 80's video game companies, Atari especially, employed artists to create visualizations of [their] game worlds, giving players a visual guideline as to the world they were entering when they played a game,” according to Curt Vendel, an Atari hardware developer, founder of the Atari Museum and video game historian. “Back [then] many games were more about the story then the graphics, the story enhanced the games.”
For the home gaming consumer, these visualizations took the form of comics that told the game’s story and acted as an instruction manual. Atari made ten such comics, five of which featured the , which went on to a twenty-two issue run at DC Comics. The other five were created to be specific to their game, including a nine-page Yars’ Revenge comic.
The comic was written by the game’s creator Howard Scott Warshaw (), Ray Garst and Hiro Kimura. Called it packed in the Yars’ origin story, their exploration of space, conflict with the Qotile and their desperate plan to stop them. Vendel explains, “The comic […] added more depth to the storyline of over the simple one paragraph blurb on the box.”
Although comic books proved to be a great way to tell a game’s story during an age where the technology prohibited it, the relationship between traditional art and video games may go back even further. Curt Vendel speculates that art painted or decal-ed onto the sides of classic arcade cabinets fulfill more than filling a blank space or act strictly as advertising. A large image of how that arcades game’s world looked inside the mind of the developer, a detailed image as a representation of ‘reality,’ when compared to the simple blocky images of the actual game, like a reverse cave painting or petroglyph. The cabinet’s decoration gives the player more of the necessary context to enjoy a game the way it was intended.
Today the technical barrier that gave birth to game comics has been overcome and their role has evolved. New game comics are released at retail on a weekly basis, not just to advertise a new game’s release, but to build up a franchise. The new gaming comics go into the game worlds with the level of detail that while not being impossible do within modern games, it would instead hamper the gaming experience. The comics also server as a way to keep fans’ attention in the long spans between a single franchise’s game release.
At the same time, the instruction manual, long the source of not just a game’s story, either in comic form or in plain text, is being phased out to save on localization costs and as in-game tutorials do a better job teaching gamer operation in context. The aforementioned technology also allows for more varieties in storytelling using everything from FMV to hand-drawn animation, rather than static panels
However, not all think that the end of the era that spawned game comics was a positive event in gaming. On the shift, Vendel muses, “Today's games hand all of the graphics, backgrounds and sounds to the player, there is no individual imaginative creativity in today’s games, its all spoon-fed to gamers today.”