“Tight storytelling” is a writing buzzword that I use a lot but have difficulty actually defining, so today I’m challenging myself to do so. A tight story, in my mind, is one that feels efficient – no time is wasted on sideplots or other developments that don’t directly serve the main storyline. This doesn’t necessarily mean a completely straight shot from beginning to end, but it definitely excludes the sprawling, twisting threads of most webcomics I can think of.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with sprawling or twisting, nor anything inherently good about an extremely tight story. Many stories need a long time and a lot of characters and arcs to develop satisfyingly, while it’s also possible to overtighten a story to the point where it becomes boring or pat. But when they’re so rare in the field, a well-executed webcomic under 200 pages is a treat. That’s what Ophiuchus is.
Ophiuchus is a skeletal robot who stands eternal vigil at some kind of monumental black warp gate, preventing trespassers from entering it. When something comes out of the gate instead – a strange robot afflicted with some kind of glowing growth – they infect Ophiuchus before dying. Moments too late arrive Sagitta and Pyx, robots from a civilization ravaged and enslaved by an entity called Serpentis who believe that Ophi’s undead nature and resistance to its corrupting virus is the key to defeating it. The three set off to the devastated robot city where the snake rules as a god.
These three are the only key characters in the story, which is a big factor in its ability to keep each scene pointing efficiently towards the climax. Fewer characters means fewer introduction scenes, less need for development, and fewer divisions of screentime. But for many storytellers, it’s a daunting task to take the grand story in their mind and cast off everything that isn’t needed. It means sacrificing a lot of good things, like character development, thematic development, backstory, romance, worldbuilding, even twists and turns. Ophiuchus, however, still manages to work in many of these, either in the background or in service to the plot. By the end, for instance, Ophi’s stoicism has given way to a hero’s fury at injustice, and Sagitta’s haughty reserve has grown into respect and trust. (Pyx starts and ends a very good boy without need for a development arc.) And while there isn’t time to explore their relationship, there’s definitely a strong connection that grows between Ophi and Sagitta.
Other details are left unspoken, but can be pieced together from subtle cues throughout the comic. I gather that Ophiuchus is the last of her kind, created by the robots from human remains encased in powerful regenerating armor to be guardians of the interplanetary warp gate network, their organic tissue a safeguard against digital threats. It also seems that despite her incredible ability to recover from any injury, her memories do not survive the regeneration process, leaving her an amnesiac at the opening of the story.
With scant exposition, this comic manages to paint an incredible picture of a great empire of robots spanning many star systems but bloated with decadence and reliant on an oppressive caste system, weaknesses that Serpentis was able to exploit to topple it. But Serpentis is no liberator, just an opportunist who manipulated and then betrayed the working class once their power was secure. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the parallels to our own world’s politics.
And that’s actually what interests me most about Ophiuchus: intentional or not, it has a deeply revolutionary message, that trust is not to be given to kings or gods, only earned among comrades. And that a world built on genocide and slavery isn’t a world worth existing.
Ophiuchus just wrapped up within the past week, and it’s a satisfying conclusion. This is a comic that manages to make its reader care deeply about its characters in a surprisingly short span, and it wrung emotions out of me with an efficiency that I’ve rarely known. I can’t recommend it highly enough.