One of the beautiful things about video games is the fact that a majority of them attempt to arm the player with skills and abilities to make them feel powerful and enabled. It’s using these powers to take out enemies and complete objectives that, in a sense, allow gamers to make themselves into their own heroes.
So considering all the similarities between the two and the appeal to fans of different media types, it should be safe to assume that superhero games have the potential to be the one of the strongest genres in gaming, right?
Well, history has proven to us that no, it really isn’t safe to assume that. Quite the opposite, actually.
In a way, superhero video games are much like the candy a kid picks up while trick or treating on Halloween night. Once you sit down and evaluate each of them, you’ll find that there are a couple awesome ones you can’t get enough of, a slew of so-so ones you could take or leave, and the occasional butterscotch Dum Dum pops or old moldy caramels you wouldn’t touch with a 20-foot-long stick.
And while the great games become classics we cherish and enjoy playing time and time again, they often get swept up in a sea of mediocre games and even games so bad you wouldn’t even want to insult your console by putting it in the disc drive.
So, why is that? Why is it so hard to make great superhero games?
Gaming seems like it could be the ultimate medium for superheroes to appear on. We’re getting more inventive with art styles, game development has improved to the point where we are playing around with new and innovative ideas that could really empower players, the actual integration of being a superhero and harnessing their powers gives us a uniquely immersive opportunity to experience the universe of a hero in a firsthand way, and storytelling has improved to the point where the lore and world of heroes could be easily captured. Add to that the fact that gamers, comic fans, and the more casual market all have some knowledge and vested interest in superheroes, giving games the opportunity to have a mass appeal that more niche forms of media might not necessarily have.
The fact that superhero games end up being so mediocre a majority of the time is due to two major factors in my mind: strategy and time. Often, they’re not made as standalone titles or adventures, instead being tied to film releases in order to be used as a mass marketing strategy to reach a broader audience in search of the almighty dollar. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the game is bad if it’s tied to movies, but it does restrict developers a bit as to how much they can tweak the story or change the game to make it feel different and innovative.
The other issue is time. So often these games are given a vastly shorter development time than their triple-A counterparts, resulting in the final product running the risk of feeling like an average action game with superhero character models.
The result is the eventual generic action game we’ve all come to recognize as the unfortunate average for superhero games.
So, what can be done in order to revitalize the genre? Really, it strikes me as a fairly simple fix.
The first and most important thing to consider here is story. Superheroes are characters built solely on story. How did they come to be? What sort of past experiences fed into the person they are today? Who are they fighting against? Why? What’s the setting? What are their powers or abilities, and what makes them different from other superheroes?
There’s an interesting opportunity to play around with morality a bit in superhero stories as well. While some choose to stick to the more tried and true Superman format where the hero does all good all the time, it could be interesting to branch out and start to offer players the opportunity to play with their powers and choose which moral side they take in decisions. Of course, this would have to be carefully handled in order to fit in with the character’s personality, but even the idea of choice and having to make difficult decisions would be a nice break from the typical good-overcomes-all hunky dory storytelling that goes stale after some time. It’s not uncommon to find gritty, realistic stories within superhero lore that could really make for a compelling narrative.
Either way, story is a crucial element to superhero games that cannot be overlooked. The hard part, however, is keeping it in sync with the character and making the story unfold in such a way that it could be believable in the character’s universe and psyche. Spider-Man would react differently to situations than Batman, and a master writer could potentially harness this and use it as a way to create a fascinating story.
Superhero games themselves might do well to take on a more stylized approach to gameplay. For Batman: Arkham City, the realistic feel of the character and the world works wonderfully; Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, instead relying on gadgets, stealth, and smarts in order to take out his foes and accomplish his goals.
For a different character, however, you’d need to approach things in a different manner. For super-powered characters like the X-Men, you’d need to find a way to employ their powers in a unique and interesting way that both gave players solid control and helped them feel just as powerful. It’s not an impossible task, and certainly one that has been successfully utilized before.
Finally, the world needs to be unique and interesting. Even if it’s a mundane city like Gotham or New York, it needs to have elements to it that would allow for a superhero to exist within it and still make sense. In Arkham City, Batman fit perfectly because not only was he sinister and powerful in his own way, the world was also, almost mirroring him and allowing him to fit in and make sense. When you’ve got the hideous Two Face or the eccentric Penguin taunting you and sending their minions after you, suddenly a man wearing a cape and bat ears doesn’t feel quite so out of place. Put him in a city out of GTA, for example, and he would feel laughable. That’s why it’s necessary for the world to be structured in a stylized and fantastic way.
While different genres have opened up and brought in superheroes, I’m of the opinion that the best format to bring superheroes into gameplay is through an open-world type game. Think back to Spider-Man 2 on PlayStation 2. The open world in that game was part of what empowered players; I remember sitting at my cousin’s house for hours playing that game, just slinging webs and moving quickly through the city while picking up side quests or beating up thugs. This range of freedom feels awesome and adds a whole new dimension to the powerful possibilities that comes with being a superhero. Freedom to roam about the world, the ability to pick up side quests and follow a main story mission, or even to have random encounters with enemies or thugs all work well together to create a seamless experience that encapsulates exactly what it means to be a superhero.
Now, there’s obviously countless other ideas that could be thrown around to improve superhero games, each one just as important as the next. And I don’t want to make it seem like I’m down on all super hero games in general. In truth, the lack of fantastic superhero games makes me more sad than anything. With all their abilities, back stories, unique worlds, and untapped potential at allowing me to feel like an unbridled badass, it just seems like a glaring missed opportunity that I hope is remedied in the near future.