Timeframing: The Art of Comics on Screens

Temporal Momentum in Framed

The way we read time in a print comic is anything but simple. Our eyes scan the page, encountering images, text, and symbols that impact our understanding of the story’s pace, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Framed, an iOS game by Australian developer Loveshack, turns time into a force that propels the reader past these ambiguities, remixing sequential art with a player-centered approach to time often found in single player video games.

Each screen in Framed is a puzzle that looks like a comic. Panels are arranged in a landscape format, some with drop shadows indicating they can be moved; the player can reshape the story by dragging these panels into a new sequence. Story, however, means something different in Framed than it does in a typical print comic: in Framed, the story, and the time in which it unfolds, are entirely embodied by the physical movements of the main character.

Most panels in Framed depict scenes where something is about to happen. Time doesn’t begin to pass in a given panel until the main character arrives. Some panels have multiple entrances and exits, and this is where the puzzle comes in: by moving a panel to a new position, the player can change the entrance used by the main character in the following panel, enabling him or her to get around obstacles in the environment.

In this example from the beginning of the game, the opening layout leads to the capture of the main character in panel two when, entering from screen left, he is seen by a police officer standing in front of a door. The solution to the puzzle is to swap the order of the panels so that the main character enters through the door, hitting the policeman and giving the protagonist a chance to escape.
This temporal schematic shows how the screen's time flow is altered as the puzzle is solved (More about temporal schematics).
The player quickly learns that they can predict the path of the main character through each panel as long as they know which entrance he or she will use. If the character enters from the left, they’ll keep moving to the right. If they reach a flight of stairs, they’ll climb the stairs. And when they get to an exit, they’ll always take it. These rules set up the core spatial and temporal logic of the game—logic that trumps all other continuity. 

In this sequence, for example, the main character, attempting to escape through a locked door, must use falling luggage to knock out a police officer who holds the key to the lock. The protagonist, propelled by the logic of her own spatial and temporal momentum, which prohibits her doubling back, cannot pick up the key that has fallen right next to her; instead the player must allow her to exit the panel to the right, and then move it such that she can then reenter the very same panel from the left and retrieve the key.

Even though the creators of Framed have generally chosen to keep time from passing in all panels except the one containing the main character, the content of the game does not strictly require this. If, instead, all the panels on a given screen were “live” at all times, the game’s puzzles could still be solved in the same way. What would change, however, would be the visual metaphor that hangs over the work. Multiple live feeds of static tableaux would feel more like a bank of security cameras than a comic book, deflating the romantic concept of “a comic come to life” that is key to the title’s appeal. 

Further, to make each panel continuously “live” would throw into awkward relief the primary conceit of the game (and, indeed, of many character-based single player games): that things only happen in the game world when the protagonist is around. It’s easy to imagine a first person shooter rendered in Framed style: as a variety of panels depicting areas where the player is about to be, arranged in linear sequence as most FPS levels are, with scripted events held in abeyance until the player arrives, bringing both time and story with them. Seen in this way, Framed continues a tradition found in many single player games by treating time as a force carried by the protagonist’s movements. Where most games simply encourage the player to suspend disbelief in this regard, however, Framed uses the visual language of comics to seamlessly fuse this artifice with the medium that carries it.

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