For the Man Who Has Everything - except a good game
For the Man Who Has Everything - except a good game
I worry because everyone seems to look up to me and it's making me a little uncomfortable. I can try but I can't solve every problem. I don't know if I can live up to this... myth they want me to be. - Superman, JLA, 1997.
Superman is not just DC's flagship character - he's the character that defines superhero for many. The super in superhero comes from his name, to put not too fine a point on it. He's a picture perfect replication of power fantasy - he's tall, muscular, intelligent, handsome, invulnerable and super-strong.
It doesn't make sense then that if games are about (in many cases) power fantasy and escapism - about doing what we can't in real life - then why hasn't yet been a great Superman game?
When someone says Superman and game in the same sentence the first thing to come to most minds is the infamous Superman 64 - a title so heinous I bring it up when any sucker attempts to tell me the N64 was better than the PlayStation.
Still, this isn't the only time Superman has been poorly represented by videogames. Superman Returns - released to coincide with the 2006 movie of the same name - suffered not because it was awful, but because it was merely inadequate. In 2002, Superman: The Man of Steel on the Xbox combined tedium with awkward controls to deliver a pretty poor overall experience.
Of course, it's not like other superheroes have had it easy - Spider-Man has endured a rough run since his 2004 hit Spider-Man 2, and while Batman Begins wasn't bad, The Caped Crusader didn't really find himself with solid digital representation until Rocksteady took over the reins and gave us 2009's Arkham Asylum (and 2011's Game of the Year, Arkham City).
But can the formula used for those games really work for Superman? To make a great Batman game, Rocksteady enlisted the help of Paul Dini to write an original story for the Dark Knight. They placed an emphasis on getting players to understand what makes Batman tick - and in AC they even used Bruce Wayne to sell the connection.
In Spider-Man 2 they gave us an open Manhattan to swing around, they successfully kept us engaged via interesting side quests and meaningful RPG(lite) systems and - most importantly - they had Bruce Campbell narrating.
Is making a great Superman game really as simple as making players understand what makes Kal-El tick? Is that even a simple task - can people even empathise with the extra-terrestrial, living, breathing embodiment of American Exceptionalism? Is Bruce Campbell too busy with Burn Notice to narrate the game?
I don't think so. The solutions used for other superheroes might not work for Superman, because it's very possible that he is the problem. The Death and Return of Superman is generally regarded as one of the best Superman games ever - and it doesn't feature Superman as the main playable character for a large portion of the game (instead focusing more on Superman's replacements following the Doomsday! arc).
Most games follow a familiar formula - the player starts off weak and finishes the game powerful. It's an easy way to define progression, and when games mess with this system it can occasionally go wrong. In Alan Wake, the fact that our writer hero lost all his weapons at the end of every Episode destroyed any sense of exploration - you were better off simply legging it for the end than attempting to fight your way through the flying tractors to get some extra batteries.
Obviously, some games have subverted this - even in the superhero genre. In Arkham City Batman kicks off with almost all the gadgets he had at the end of the previous game - to deliver a sense of progression the team at Rocksteady instead relied on a few upgraded gadgets and a heavy reliance on an excellent story.
As Superman is not a gadget based hero - his powers are intrinsic - he can't really upgrade powers. Perhaps the best plan would be to have Clark slowly learning how to hone his skills - to set the game early in his life, when he is only beginning to get his powers.
They'd also need to deliver a mind-blowingly good story - because let's face it, Superman's only as good as the story behind him. Mark Millar's excellent take with Red Son, Grant Morrison's untouchable run with All Star Superman and Joe Kelly's effort with What's so funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way? are all wonderful examples of what a great writer can do with the puzzle of a superhero who has gradually become too powerful.
A tight story telling the Superman myth from the beginning - not his birth, but from the moment he begins to get his powers - has the potential to take us deep into the motivations of this stranger in a strange land. And they could do this while allowing a game maker to cheat a little in terms of delivering player progression - by slowly building Superman's powers through some sort of RPG(lite) system.
He'd remain ostensibly invincible though - being impervious to damage is not a skill a person learns. In fact, a person with no knowledge of their invulnerability is still unbreakable, as demonstrated in the movie... Unbreakable.
So the challenge has to come from elsewhere - if 2008's Prince of Persia proved anything, it was that people aren't terribly receptive to not being able to die in games.
Again, this isn't a concept ignored previously by games. Superman 64 gave us the Kryptonite fog (which conveniently doubled to hide the game's awful draw distance) and trapped Superman (and the player) in a virtual world of Lex Luthor's design. Superman could die if he took too long to carry cars places. Why Lex Luthor was taking tips from the Riddler is something we'll never know, but it's a terrible way to tackle the situation.
Superman The Man of Steel also relied heavily on timing based fail states, which probably exacerbated the reaction to the game's awkward handling. The best approach was probably by Superman Returns - instead of our titular hero dying to damage or being too slow to put out fires or fly through rings, the game tied your failure to the destruction of Metropolis, forcing you to be the city of tomorrow's protector.
There is a problem in this approach however - one of restriction. What is the good of building an open world for people to fly around in if you're then going to tell people they can't do anything fun? Or worse - make them lose the moment they do anything fun.
Is the underlying problem of a Superman game not that he is too powerful but too good? That gamers aren't capable of wielding all that power and not destroying everything? The now (largely) defunct Radical Entertainment's Hulk game gave players an open world and a gross amount of power, and allowed them to essentially level the world. It featured a mini-game where players played baseball with a telegraph pole and soldiers. How would a Superman game give us this power and then stop us from wielding it for evil?
At his core, beyond the ice breath and laser eyes and Super strength and speed, Superman's real superpower is one of self-imposed restriction.
"I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something, break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment, or someone could die." - Superman, Justice League Unlimited, 2006.
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