Steve Manale admits he is not much of a "game guy." He owns a Wii, and somewhere he might still have an old Gamecube he managed to spill paint on. He works with lines all day, but they're filled with colors, not code.
The Toronto-based artist might still be surprised as anyone that he can now claim co-creatorship of a video game among the accomplishments of his career.
We're No Angels, one of five games made through the Comics vs. Games project, is a collaboration between Manale and veteran game developer Jamie Fristrom. A twin stick shooter with notes of Gauntlet, it pits died-too-young rock stars against Heaven's armies as they try to flee an eternity of private performances for God.
Not only is Manale responsible for the stylized figures of Elvis, Tupac, and other characters that flit about the screen, he came up with the concept for the game itself. Fristrom took the idea and pieces provided and made them move, shaping the gameplay and adding new elements and perspectives as inspiration struck.
It would be somewhat romantic to suggest Manale always had We're No Angels in the back of his mind and wanted to present it as inspiration for a game -- a Doug TenNapel with Earthworm Jim kind of story. The truth is that Manale says he never previously recognized how the style and ideas that inhabit his work in magazines and editorial cartoons could cross over into a more interactive medium.
"I design a lot of comics and have done a lot of comic strips and comic characters over the years," Manale said. "It has never once occurred to me, 'Hey, these characters might translate well into game form.'"
We're No Angels
Part game jam, part social experiment, Comics vs. Games joined independent game developers with comic artists to explore what potential lies in their combined creative powers -- and beyond their comfort zones.
Toronto is a city blessed not only as a hub for independent art and design talent, but also with organizations vested in seeing them grow and succeed.
TIFF Nexus, an initiative of the Toronto Independent Film Festival, started up in September 2011 as a sort of molecular gastronomy lab for multimedia, seeking to identify the elements that make the region's game, digital, film and other artistic communities great and blend them into tasty new concoctions.
"It's designed to equip a new generation of Ontario's storytellers with the network, skills and partners to help us succeed in sort of the rapidly evolving digital media landscape -- this trans-media universe -- that we are living in," said Shane Smith, director of programs for TIFF Nexus.
When the organization approached Miguel Sternberg, co-founder of the Toronto game makers' coalition The Hand Eye Society, to organize a project for its first phase of events, he thought back to the "artxgame" gallery and exhibition he had witnessed in San Francisco three years earlier. Similar developer/artist collaborations could also be made on the opposite side of the continent, he believed, but there appeared to be too few people forming links between the scenes. The indies were being, well, rather independent, and what possible content comic artists could contribute to game design aside from occasional requests for art was going largely untapped.
"Here are these two really interesting creative communities in the same city that are both doing their thing really well," Sternberg said, "but they're not really talking to each other when they could be."
For Comics vs. Games, Sternberg sought out five independent game developers and five comic artists who either lived in or had ties to the Toronto area. Paired into five teams, they were given simple rules: design a game in three months. Multiplayer games were largely encouraged for showcase purposes, but not mandatory. No quotas for gameplay elements or "artistic merit" were established. Whatever teams made were the culmination of their own decisions, leading to some interestingly varied results.