The Power of Suggestion [1]

One of the great tools at the disposal of the cartoonist is the ability to imply much by showing little. A few marks under characters’ feet suggest pavement; throw a jagged black shape in the background of a panel, and voilà — cityscape. The thing I like about suggesting something over showing it in detail is that it invites the reader to complete the picture. The same effect occurs across all media, really, with comics toward the cooler end of the McLuhan thermometer and movies toward the hotter end. All visual information demands a basic degree of interactivity, but some asks for more than others, and in the continuum that runs from a person’s actual physical experience (where all senses are engaged in maximum detail by the real world) to the open invitation of a blank page (where nothing is provided), the imagination is stimulated more by suggestion and less by exacting description.

Generally speaking, as a work of art “heats up” and provides more sensory stimuli, at least two things begin to diminish: 1) the inventiveness of the medium’s practitioners, who have fewer constraints to work within; and 2) the degree of imaginative interaction the work invites from its audience. For instance, as sound and color were introduced into film, certain previously necessary devices (broad physical acting, intertitles) became obsolete, and viewers no longer needed to imagine what Gloria Swanson‘s voice sounded like.

With every step “forward” in any area of human endeavor, something is gained, and with rare exception there is a concomitant loss. I feel this keenly in video game design, as the cutting edge of graphics slices into the future, opening up new and ever hotter arteries of experience for the player, but leaving imagination dead in its wake. Consider an informal visual chronology of computer game graphics:

Left to right, top to bottom: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Rogue (1980), Lords of Midnight (1984), Master of Magic (1993), Age of Wonders 2 (2002), Battle for Middle-Earth (2004).

The earliest text adventures used words alone to suggest the game world, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in all of the details. Later, the ideogrammatic use of ASCII characters made possible things like the dungeon floorplans of Rogue to be clearly delineated, but that “*” that represented a pile of gold was still something to conjure with. With each step in the progression from limited-palette, low-resolution graphics to high-res 3D models and particle effects — with each step toward a more photorealistic rendering of the game environment — the player has to do that much less creative work, that much less imaginative interaction.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad progression. The trade-off is that we get games that are more immediately, actively immersive, as opposed to ones in which we have to work to immerse ourselves. Something is lost, but something else is certainly gained. Even as better and better graphics technology is erasing the need for an active imagination in playing video games, increasingly sophisticated game design has made possible a range of consequential (as opposed to imaginative) interactivity that is unparalleled in any other medium. Plus, I’d hazard that most people who play video games don’t want to use their imaginations — they just want a fun ride¹. The more bells and whistles the better.

Each of us probably have our own sweet spot between abstraction and representation, a point where our imagination is fired up by the power of suggestion, but would be extinguished by too much more information. In video games, that sweet spot for me is best exemplified by Steve Barcia‘s classic Master of Magic, specifically on the tactical combat screen:

The average “figure” or unit graphic in MoM is 12 pixels high by 7 pixels wide, and the potential of that tiny canvas (+256 possible colors) is maximized to artfully evoke specific details of each of the 86 unit types available in the game². In the above screenshot, the lizardman shamans carry staves and wear some sort of broad golden collar, but the player can still read a lot into those combinations of a few colored squares. When I play MoM, my imagination fills in the details and I find myself picturing the collars as having a sort of Aztec design.

By comparison, the units in Battle for Middle Earth leave little to the mind’s eye:

Nothing about these units is suggested — everything is described. Beyond rounding off the occasional sharp-edged polygon, the player’s imagination just has to sit back and relax.

In comics, my sweet spot is probably best exemplified by the work of Hergé or Chester Brown:

The level of detail that both of these artists bring to their work is just right for me. They draw characters and environments with enough specificity to create a believable, grounded world, but leave enough open for a sense of mobility and life to be triggered by the reader’s participation. Generally speaking, too little visual information in a comic makes me believe less in the world of that story. And too much (something I struggle against in my own work) can rob a comic of whatever vitality it might otherwise possess.

Bringing this questionable ramble back to film, last year it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will be turning the adventures of Tintin into at least three new motion pictures. In the cinematic equivalent of the graphic progression noted above, these films will be created using motion-capture and state-of-the-art CGI.

Jackson said WETA will stay true to Remi’s original designs in bringing the cast of Tintin to life, but that the characters won’t look cartoonish.

“Instead,” Jackson said, “we’re making them look photorealistic; the fibers of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people — but real Herge people!”

I will of course reserve judgment until we see the final results, but I couldn’t help but shudder when I read this bit of news. Although some Tintinologists might delight in the prospect, When I can count the threads in Captain Haddock’s sweater, some small part of me will die.


¹ There are, of course, innumerable scattered subcultural pockets wherein “antiquated” forms of electronic gaming continue to thrive and grow, encompassing everything from interactive fiction to roguelikes to abandonware.

² Incidentally, the art director of Master of Magic, and several other Simtex games, was Jeff Dee, who will be familiar to any fan of tabletop RPGs from the late 70s and early 80s.


30 Responses to “The Power of Suggestion [1]”

  1. John Says:

    Alex Toth is a good “sweet spot” guy, too. He’s the guy I always think of in that regard.

  2. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Great post. In classes, I’ve used Strongbad’s e-mail on video games ( to teach a similar point, but without involving the medium of comics. You made a lot of valuable connections here.

  3. Pablo Says:

    Hi Jason
    Loved this post.
    Very well explained.
    It reminds me also of Mc Cloud´s abstraction triangle.

    Saludos desde Argentina

  4. Pablo Says:

    I think this is a very goog way of illustrating your point between cold and heat. This are children drawings which were represented with photography and actors.

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    I couldn’t agree with you more about the photoreal Hergé. The master will be spinning in his grave I suspect. When will someone use Hergé himself as the art director/production designer of Tintin cartoons? It’s all there already people! By all means make it 3D, but toon-rendered so it keeps that perfect flatness and consistency of colour and line. Oh that line! How can these supposedly visually literate directors (Spielberg and Jackson) be so ‘blind’?

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