This is my first time professionally writing a children's story, so I contacted an experienced illustrator who writes and draws comics that appeal to children - Joe Latham. He gave insightful advice.
Before I could write a draft and script, I had to make some decisions regarding the storytelling.
It's a digital comic for children aged 8-11 that'll tell a story that teaches them that video games can be good for your mental health, and they're there for you to use them if you need to. The video game genre in focus is life simulation/RPG games, and the story is more about games that aren't designed to help your mental health but have the ability to help you anyway (as opposed to video games that are designed with a mental health plot.) The mental health issues narrated are loneliness and anxiety but the general message applies to the broader scope of mental health.
The comic's plot is of a kid that's just moved away from their hometown, and is starting a new life. They experience said feelings of loneliness and anxiety. While sorting through some moving boxes, the kid finds some keepsakes left behind by their brother who went off to university. He had left them behind for her. A bunch of these keepsakes can be references to life simulation games, but one of the things they find in the box is a Switch game card (I think having a 3DS wouldn't be relatable for modern children.) It's a parody of Animal Crossing, mixed with elements of similar games like Stardew Valley and Minecraft. They play the game and the visual narrative shifts into something that subtly resembles pixel art effects, but not completely. A digital illustration/pixel art hybrid style.
The character enters this world where they have just moved to a new place, and the character resonates with this feeling that they're also experiencing in real life. They are taken in by the post office resident as a place to reside until they get some money, and the resident asks them to deliver some parcels to the other villagers. In encountering different people on this journey, the character learns how they are helping their own mental health, through simple things such as fishing and feeling the air, or another looks after their garden and breeds flowers. It's kind of hazy where to go from here. But the general idea is to borrow gimmicks from life sim games.
But in the general scheme of things, the character is positively influenced by the characters and learns to appreciate this beautiful new place. They finally feel like they have somewhere they can call home, somewhere safe where they feel like they belong. They come out of the game feeling refreshed and calmer than they were feeling before they played. And as the reader, you would come out of the story feeling equally as warm and positive.
The colours are blue and yellow. Yellow for its warmth and happiness post-reading the comic/playing video games, and blue for its calmness but also its loneliness and sadness before engaging with such elements. The colours can be used to emphasise the visual storytelling. The brush texture is to have a crayon-like appearance for it is gentle and suitable for the topic. Additional textures will aim to capture a similar approach.
The comic is completely digital to allow for interactivity with reference to the medium of video games. It is also suitable for the real-world Covid-19 situation (remote learning, everything is digital.) This also allows the addition of subtle animations that help bring illustration to life. Sequential art is my strength so while it fits the project, it is also what I need for my portfolio as an illustrator going into the animation industry.
I will be using interactivity less in the way of emphasising the visuals, but more in the way of enhancing engagement with the reader. The comic has a set number of pages, it is flexible, since it will not be a physical copy and therefore does not have to stay in sets of 4 pages. Page count should be influenced by children’s books/comics for the same age group for a guideline. The reader controls a very small pixel avatar matching the protagonist, using WASD or arrow keys. This is a page turning mechanic. It is a simple device that pushes the message of being in control of your life (your mental health) and is a reference to controls on video games. If the avatar touches the left or right side of the page, the comic’s page will shift in that direction to the one before/after it. At the beginning or end this does not function. I considered game elements such as “Can you win? Can you jump? Can you collect things and interact with the comic itself?” but I don’t believe those elements would assist the storytelling, but more distract from it. I think the navigation interactivity is enough.
In evaluating this mechanic, it would have been too much time to learn how to program this myself as it is a complex skill and there is a set deadline. Outsourcing it is the smartest idea. I will still do all the artwork and design, they will just make it function. The comic will be presented in the form of a downloadable .exe file on my website. The comic’s webpage can be presented similarly to a game’s sale page on Steam or Nintendo eShop. Alternatively, I can upload the .exe to itch.io free of charge. Perhaps this is an option for a later date when the project has been fully refined for a public release. Project potential is being able to send the comic to be distributed in primary schools for the relevant age groups.
I have been considering the use of a game avatar. Having a self-insert is common in life simulation and RPG games, but there are time-management problems that would come from having a customisable protagonist for the story:
Should I have a protagonist that would reflect the reader, or a self-inserted avatar? Think of the player customisation in Animal Crossing; the reader of the comic would create their character before reading, and that character becomes the protagonist.
Problem: I would have to redraw and reanimate every single comic panel with the character in, according to every single possible combination from the customisation.
Solution: Very basic customization, like genders, maybe hair styles, or hair colours. Maximum like 5 options?
Problem: People hate gender in games these days, so I'd have to not label them. Obviously male, obviously female, and something in the middle (NB)? Also have to show racial/equal representation.
Solution: Skip gender? Do like 5 different hair styles? 3 Different colours? 3 Skin colours? Stop there. Designing clothing and accessories might be too much work for the deadline. Animal Crossing skipped gender and made it work.
Problem: When it comes to stuff like that you get comments like "only 3 skin colours, not enough diversity in the hairstyles." If you don’t provide the options you get slated for not being diverse. But if you do provide a lot of options you give yourself too much work.
Solution: Need a starting point. I can meet in the middle with this - What if 3 different characters, so it’s not a representative of yourself as much but you can pick who you like the most. Pick your player. Like Elsword. Names can be basic, or beyond basic. “Sun, sea, plant, book” etc. Keep it distanced from reality.
Summary of Narrative Choices
The protagonist is a character that you choose at the beginning. There are 3 characters. Choosing the character is an aesthetic and does not change the course of the narrative, because for story paths/multiple endings you would have to redraw every panel, and dialogue would have to change (esentially writing 3 different scripts.) Having just one character personality means they can be multi-demensional, rather than relying on or worrying about stereotyping. You have more opportunity to write a character that, if you can't relate to, you can at least emphasise with.
Further options for having just one character personality but three appearances could include changing their clothes, hairstyle, aesthetic, skin colour. All characters would have the same colour palette so harmonies with panel colours wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps only slight alterations in dialogue wouldn’t be so much work and would give a little something to that character choice. Subtle differences are a consideration.
If they have the same personality, and only differ by appearances, you may ask, "what's the point, really?"
The point is that the idea of an avatar or chosen player can still be executed, without causing unrealistic work demand. The reader develops an attachment to the character they choose, right from the start, and it brings in a very core feature that is in many life simulation and RPG games.
Development compilation for Pixel Plasters.