Thursday, 12 April 2012

Video Game Manga: Victory Fanfare or Game Over?

The video game industry is big business, and with the plethora of different games around, it's chock full of different stories for people of all ages and genders to play through. So it's no surprise that the rest of the entertainment industry decides to take advantage of the popularity and adapt the tales we've all come to know and love into another medium. When it comes to anime, there are myriad titles based on dating sims, such as Clannad and Amagami SS. But it's not just eroge that get the anime treatment, one of the most successful and widely known franchises is Pokemon whose games have spawned countless tv series, movies and specials; then there's the obscure OVAs featuring Nintendo's signature creation, Mario. But while I could ramble on about how anime has cashed in on the popularity of these games, in this post I intend to look at the lesser known manga adaptations of some of our favourite RPGs.

What spurred me on to write this post is that I've recently finished reading Hiro Mashima's Monster Hunter Orage, which has its roots in - surprise, surprise - the Monster Hunter franchise. As I was working my way through the final volumes, I kept thinking about what it is that game-based manga bring to the table and whether they're a good thing or not. Unfortunately, I have been unable to come up with a definitive answer myself, but I have noticed that with each video game manga I read, the same things keep cropping up.

The biggest issue with video game manga that I've found is that they're not inclusive and they often expect the reader to be familiar with the game franchise. The two biggest culprits of this I've found have been Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry 3. I've never played any of the games in either of these two series so when I read the manga, I knew next to nothing about them. Unfortunately, in both of these cases it's clear that the manga expects the reader to know the basic plot, gameplay and character histories, so they don't bother to fully explain things. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the story moves so quickly and the dynamic of the world is never properly introduced that I had little idea of what was going on and found it very difficult to really get what was happening and why. To me this is a huge flaw as it not only makes for a poor storytelling foundation, but it also alienates a potential new fanbase who may have gravitated to the games after enjoying the manga - after all if you didn't like the comic why would you want to try the games?

That being said, there are times when game-based manga catering purely to the fans can actually be a good thing. My favourite series of games by a long margin is the Legend of Zelda franchise and undoubtedly the best videogame manga I've read is Wind Waker: Link's Logbook. However, where Link's Logbook differs from the aforementioned Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry 3 is that it is a 4-koma gag manga that explicitly states that it has been made FOR the fans. And it really is. The game often pokes fun at itself and the manga continues this and takes it to the extreme, making it one of the most hilarious things that I've read, but that's only because I know the game. Non-fans may smile at the slapstick elements, but by not being familiar with the source material, they probably won't find it all that humorous and all the in-jokes will go soaring over their heads quicker than a frog on a cloud.

To me Link's Logbook is the epitome of the best that video game manga has to offer for the seasoned fan. It takes you through the story and shows what essentially feel like outtakes, but it still wholly encapsulates the spirit of the game. It makes you relive yourplaythrough as you remember doing some of the stupid shit that Link gets up to (such as accidentally jumping off the top of a huge tower), or pokes fun at some of the weirder characters out there - Tingle anyone?

Likewise, for fans of video games, reading the manga does have two other functions. Firstly, it makes for some good geek spotting. With series such as Monster Hunter Orage even the mere mention of fighting Rathians or wearing Kelbi armour is enough to set off a small squeal from the fangirl (or fanboy) inside, which undeniably gives some enjoyment as you read. Secondly, as fans of the franchise it's brilliant to see your favourite characters in print and it does allow for you to rediscover your most enjoyed games for a second time. By reading the manga you can re-experience the story in a much shorter space of time and enjoy it. So instead of playing through thirty or forty odd hours of game, you can follow Link's time-travelling Ocarina adventures in the space of an hour or so.

Now from what I've written so far, it may sound like game manga is exclusively for the fans and only they will enjoy them, but that isn't the case. There are several manga series out there where the mangaka recreate a game story that doesn't alienate non-fans. Sounds great, right? Well, yes it is, except it still comes with pitfalls as more often than not in the quest to make a comprehensive plotline, things shift. Details change, things get omitted, or added and while this makes the stories more universally accessible it can piss off the purists. The first thing to spring to mind for me in this case is Ocarina of Time. As a huge fan of the game, I couldn't wait to devour the manga when I discovered its existence, but when I'd finished reading the second volume, I felt more than a little disappointed because they changed so much. Among the many alterations, the entire existence of the Shadow Temple was skipped, while a scene was added in near the beginning with young Zelda and Link running around the market. Similarly, when Link first ventures into the Great Deku Tree, he isn't alone like in the game, instead Mido accompanies him. While this does make for a better manga story as it shows Mido accepting Link and apologising for all the crap that went on before, the gamer geek in me can't help but yell "THAT'S NOT HOW IT IS IN THE GAME!"

Ultimately, I'd say that adapting a game into manga is pretty damn hard. If you go for a retelling of a game's plotline then it's likely to either confuse or alienate those unfamiliar with the source material, or in order to make it more universally friendly, plot elements will be altered which will annoy or disappoint the hardcore fans. However, there are the games that don't have a linear plotline, such as Monster Hunter, which instead takes the world and its creatures and creates an original plotline. In my mind these have the potential to be the most successful, as so long as you introduce the relevant elements - in the case of Monster Hunter, the presence of the guilds and quests etc - then you can appeal to the casual reader who enjoys a nice adventure tale, as well as the fans who can geek-spot all the game references.

In the end it all comes down to what you want out of a video game manga. If you want something that will be faithful to the original content, then you may be disappointed, as when all is aaid and done, games and graphic novels are VERY different media with entirely different storytelling methods. If you're simply looking for an easy read where you can play "spot the familiar game references" then you'll probably be quids in. And for those of you who don't know the games and just think that the plot sounds interesting, well, just give it a go. Don't let what I've written about prior knowledge sometimes being a necessity put you off, because that isn't the case every single time and you could be missing out as so many games out there have awesome stories that deserve to be shared with a wider audience.

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