Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Superheroes That Should Be Games

Shamus Young | 28 Jan 2014 15:00
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You'd think that superheros and videogames would be a natural fit. Both are good at portraying the classic empowerment fantasy, and the audiences have plenty of overlap. But for some reason the genre is a graveyard of failures and missed opportunities. Yes, the Batman Arkham games are a runaway success, and Spider-Man 2 is considered a classic. But the list of failed Batman games is much longer than the list of successful ones. (And a lot of the really horrible offerings have been largely lost to time.) It's been fifteen years since Superman 64, and that game is still considered to be one of the worst ever made. Not worst superhero game, just worst game, period. Spider-Man 2 was good, but the other two games in the trilogy were a mess. Not only do the bad superhero games greatly outnumber the good ones, but they tend to be really, REALLY bad.

Obviously part of the problem is that too many superhero games were cash-grab movie tie-ins that made no attempt at quality. But the deeper problem is that it's taken developers a long time to work out mechanics that felt right, and it took us a while to get the technology we needed to portray open-world spaces that superhero stories demand. I don't care how good you are at making side-scrolling platforming beat-em-ups, the player is never going to feel like Superman or the Silver Surfer in one of those. We need big 3D worlds to make this work, because freedom is part of the empowerment fantasy and it's tough to feel free when you're trapped in an endless procession of corridors.

But now we've got the technology to depict large spaces and we've got established mechanics that are fun and intuitive. The runaway success of the Arkham games has shown that the public is hungry for this sort of thing and superheroes haven't been this popular in decades. Now we just need to figure out what superheroes are a good fit for videogames.

Superman is right out. Not to knock on Supes, but he's too powerful to work in a conventional game. In most action games a vast majority of our gameplay hours are spent defeating identical mooks, and Superman is too strong for mooks. Who can pose a credible threat to him? Who can keep him from just flying away (through walls, if he needs to) if a fight goes against him? Who can endure more than one punch from him? What could the game designer possibly do to keep Superman contained in the gameplay area and prevent the player from just flying over or through all the obstacles? And even if we do contrive some mooks for him to fight (say, space aliens) are they going to be interesting and varied enough to support a whole game? And can we count on them for sequels?

Superman fights space demons and gods and natural disasters. Either you'd need to dial his power level way down (at which point you're no longer making a Superman game) or you'd need to make every challenge in the game into an epic boss fight or set-piece catastrophe. Not only would you need to invent entirely new gameplay for that sort of thing, but it would cost a fortune to produce. I'm not saying a proper Superman game is impossible, but I am saying that in today's climate it would be impossible to get AAA funding for a game that's risky, experimental, and even more expensive than usual. Forget it.

Guys like Green Lantern and Dr. Strange are probably a difficult fit for games as well. Dr. Strange has all sorts of crazy, reality-bending powers that work well in print but would translate poorly to "exploring and fighting mooks". Same goes for Green Lantern and his ring of "make any green shape you can imagine". Their powers work wonderfully in comic books where you have artists that are just looking for an excuse to draw something outlandish. In-game, those powers would translate to "magic missile" and "green fist" respectively. You could probably make a decent game out if it, but it would require taking away the wild, imaginative spark that makes them so interesting.

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