I don’t remember the last time I bought a video game. Full disclosure. I am not the biggest video game fan on the face of the Earth. My comic book nerdiness does not extend into the realm of gaming. Not anymore, at least. However, a new video game based on the Justice League was just released entitled Injustice: Gods Among Us, and it has me thinking about video games again. It has me wondering what makes a good superhero video game and whether or not super-heroes in video games are being used to their full potential. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about video games. Even though I don’t really like them.
Well, it’s not that I don’t like video games. I grew up on them. Hell, I grew up with them. I remember when Game Boys were the size of a paperback novel and Nintendos were these clunky, dusty, grey and black behemoths. The games they played produced flat, hieroglyphic images and buzzy, chippy soundtracks. When the Super Nintendo came out, with its sleek curves and lush graphics, it was like we had been given a gift from some far off future science-fiction world. And then when the Sega Genesis came around, with it’s stealth bomber exterior and Tokyo nightclub attitude, it was like being a kid in the ‘60s and having to choose between the Beatles and the Stones. Video game weren’t just entertainment, they were the new face of rock and roll.
And then at some point, that all changed. At least for me. Right around college, me and video games parted ways. I still had all the latest consoles at my disposal, but didn’t really keep up with all the new games. Video games seemed to peak for me in the late ‘90s, with Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Resident Evil 2 representing a sort of high-water mark in my mind for games with immersive worlds, stunning visuals and epic storytelling. There were still a few games that I’ve made it a point to pick up and play over the last decade or so. Portal, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4, and Modern Warfare 2 being among the ones that impressed me the most. But for the most part I’ve shifted my nerdy interests almost entirely to comic books.
When I was a kid, video games based on comic books were a big deal. At that point we didn’t have very many comic book films to go see, really just the Batman films and the occasional b-movie flop like Spawn or Steel, so if we wanted to really see our characters jump off the page and come to life, we had to do it in a game. The games themselves weren’t always that great, but it was all we had.
At that time there was an overlap present between my interest in comics and my interest in video games that has largely dissipated over the years. In my opinion, this overlap should’ve never gone away. As comic books become increasingly more digital and comic book films become increasingly more epic, video games should be ascending to it’s rightful place in the comic book landscape as a perfect balance between the two media, one that offers advantages in its adaptation that neither comics or movies could hope to provide. All comics fans should, at this time, by default, also be video game fans. So how come I’m not?
Nowadays, comic book-based video games have to compete with Hollywood. Many of the games that come out based on movies like Iron Man or The Avengers are dead in the water because they are crappy tie-in games and can’t hold a candle to the actual film that it exists to promote. This has been the case with movie tie-in games for as long as I could remember (except for the occasional gems like Goldeneye). But recently a new slew of games has risen to the challenge of presenting a unique angle on the the characters that goes beyond what movies could hope to accomplish.
Games like Batman: Arkham Asylum (which I played) and its sequel, Batman: Arkham City (which I wanted to play), gave players a chance to step into the Caped Crusader’s role as he gathers clues and fights criminals in order to track down his most dangerous foes. The worlds are large and the characters are designed in a believable manner, existing aesthetically somewhere between the classic Batman cartoon from the ‘90s and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. Overall it perfectly simulated the experience of being Batman.
To my knowledge, the concept of the super-hero simulator was first tried out with a name-brand character in Spider-Man 2 (a movie tie-in game, actually). Whereas the first Spider-Man movie game set up arbitrary boundaries for web-slinging and punished Spidey with death if he descended to the New York City streets below, the second game took a page from the Grand Theft Auto 3 playbook and opened the entire island of Manhattan up to the wall-crawler. Now, in addition to the game’s main story, you could discover side-quests and go on patrol just like Spidey does. Since then, the open-world layout is pretty much the recommended format for a Spider-Man game (recommended by fans like me, of course) and pretty much works well with all comic book characters.
It seems, then, that what works best with super-hero games is getting the player into the hero’s shoes and then getting out of their way. It also helps for the developer to know a thing or two about the character, such as what environment they’d work best in and what kind of game suits them the best. Fighting games like Injustice: Gods Among Us have chosen to use the team dynamic of the Justice League (which every super-hero in the DC Universe is pretty much a part of) in a way that focuses on the fighting style of each individual member, allowing the player the simple gratification of playing as Batman and kicking the crap out of Superman for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance used the team dynamic of The Avengers to create a button-mashing, arcade-style hack-and-slash game a la Gauntlet Legends.
I’m sure these games are fine, but I’d like to see some other options available for the superhero team game aside from the instant gratification of beating people up. I, for one, have always wanted an RPG based on the Age of Apocalypse storyline from X-Men. This one always seemed like a no-brainer. Age of Apocalypse was set in a dystopic parallel reality where the world had been conquered by Apocalypse and divided up between him and his horsemen. Governments had been toppled and borders had been redrawn. There’s a whole world of literally post-Apocalyptic landscape to traverse. And as the world moved closer and closer to oblivion, only a small band of surviving X-Men, lead by Magneto, remained to fight these villains, a perfect setup for the party system of most RPGs. I always saw AoA as a dystopian fantasy in the same vein as Final Fantasy VII, with many of the artists at the time taking visual cues from anime and video games, further enforcing that synergy. And you could never do this kind of thing in a movie, it could only work as a game.
Speaking with some friends of mine who are still avid gamers, we were able to conceive of some other possibilities for games that bring players closer to the character than a movie ever could. One suggestion was an Iron Man game where more emphasis is placed on the piloting of the armor, similar to a flight simulator. Set up a story involving espionage and terrorism and S.H.I.E.L.D., open the world up to us, and then start us off in Tony Stark’s garage. Another possibility was a Hawkeye game based off of the current series by Matt Fraction and David Aja done in the same style as Grand Theft Auto.
Probably my favorite suggestion was a large-scale, Mass Effect-style sci-fi RPG for the Green Lantern Corps. This game would give you the chance to create your own Lantern, starting from scratch and learning to better harness the power of the ring as you proceed through the game, travelling through the universe and completing various missions. The narrative would also change depending on choices you make throughout the game, and your allegiance could shift between different colored Lantern Corps depending on your decisions. The game would culminate in a final battle above the atmosphere of your home planet between all the various Lanterns. To me this is another example of an adaptation that fits so perfectly that you’d think Geoff Johns had been secretly pitching it all along with his work on the Green Lantern titles.
Although I’m not entirely a video game fan anymore, these ideas would almost certainly bring me back into the fold. I’m a comic book fanatic, and there’s no other world out there that I’d rather have simulated for me than the world of superhero comics. Nothing else can do that as effectively as a video game. Plus, let’s face it, superheroes work better in games than in films because you can immerse yourself in their world without the awkwardness of having to actually see a human being wearing a big rubber bat suit. And yet, I’m inclined to believe that there are still a lot of missed opportunities out there for superhero games. A button-mashing fighting game is fine, but it isn’t really trying anything new.
These games should be competing neck and neck with Hollywood in terms of their adaptation of these characters, if not giving Hollywood a flat-out run for its money. Instead, they’re still playing it as though they’re interactive advertisements for the properties they’re based on. I might not be as intimately connected to the gaming world as I once was, but I’m more connected to the world of comics than I’ve ever been, and video games based on comics should be a stronger part of that connection. Games like Batman: Arkham City have shown us that video games can be used as a valid storytelling apparatus, rather than just a gimmick. Hopefully someone within the industry is receiving that message as well.