The long-standing Mad magazine comic strip “Spy vs. Spy” is occasionally like a puzzle — a short back-and-forth that asks the reader to piece together images to see which spy has the upper hand. If it were a film, the cuts would be fast and the swapping of one frame for another would change the entire outcome.
Now imagine dragging the frames around the page. Instead of resulting in one’s demise, the larger-than-life hammer or roped-together dynamite could set off a brief tale of revenge. Or we could call a truce. Perhaps we could rewrite the end of the narrative to reveal a twist. Maybe the two spies had been played as pawns in a larger scheme all along.
If you get rid of the Looney Tunes-like imagery and turn all that into a game, the result would feel something like “Framed.” Released this week for iPhones and iPads, the slickly elegant “Framed” is probably best described as an interactive comic book. But even that phrase sells “Framed” short.
By giving players control of the narrative rather than control of the characters, “Framed” is one of the year’s most engaging and exciting games — mobile, console or otherwise. The story is created on the fly, and then the action is watched to see if the player pieced it all together correctly. Developed by the small Australian studio Loveshack, “Framed” is a $4.99 hand-held experience that sees the player acting as director of a three- to four-hour animated film, one that includes a few dastardly puzzles set to an original dance-meets-jazz score.
Boasting a bold and clean design — the blue- and purple-hued art, coupled with main characters who are little more than shadows, creates a proper noir setting — “Framed” is certainly stylish. It’s like playing inside the digital world that might surround Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting.
Long after the story ends certain images tend to linger — the neon-red lipstick on a darkly outlined chin, the glow of the urban signage, the smoke of a cigarette butt and the back-stabbing meeting between a woman in a bowler hat and a man in a fedora.
We create a story that stars each of these nameless protagonists — sometimes directing the dame to jump onto moving trains or shock lazy police officers by flipping on an alarm; sometimes leading the man to use his briefcase as a bullet shield or to help him glide on a clothesline, where a pigeon can become our bullet savior.
The man and woman appear to be working together, but as the story develops allegiances appear to be loose. There is an evil man with a limp, turning him into a villain with a Bond-series like tick, and he is most definitely to be avoided. Same with police and security.
Notes are passed and a briefcase can’t be lost, but the narrative remains a mystery until its final moments. The goal, until then, is to keep our man and woman alive.
With the scenes laid out before us like a comic strip, panels can be moved around the screen or turned to face horizontal or vertical. At times we have the ability to change the entire flow of the narrative, from left to right or top to bottom. Our characters jump on rooftops, run through alleys, straddle passenger trains and break into apartment complexes. Some of the alley scenes, in which color-coded walls dictate what direction the characters move when the frames are rearranged, can be especially challenging.
Though I completed the game in one afternoon, more than a few screens had me vexed for 25 or 30 minutes. Some also require some fast swiping, as late-in-the-game scenes necessitate certain frames to be reused on the same screen.
Of course, part of the fun is spent simply watching the animations unfold. Once the action in “Framed” gets going — and the high-hat gets underscored with a dance groove — there’s a desire to not want to miss out on any of the combined cinematic sequences. Essentially, expect to spend time arranging panels just to see how they affect the outcome, even if the known result is one that will require the scene to be replayed.
If there was one thing I missed, it was that when “Framed” was solved it didn’t allow me to watch the whole comic play out. No doubt there were moments worthy of closer inspection. Just who, for instance, was drugging the coffee? Was the woman waiting for the get-away cab? Did I miss a telling detail on the close-up of the gun?
But that’s a minor gripe. What’s important is that “Framed” ultimately presented not only a new way to play but a novel way to experience a comic. Now it just needs to get serialized.
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