Friday, February 5, 2010

Taking the Super out of Superhero

You know, Doc...i just don't feel super enough. Every culture needs its mythology.  The Ancient Greeks told stories about a Pantheon of horny, buttinsky gods and goddesses.  Royals and commoners alike of Elizabethan England flocked to the theater to watch plays about horny, buttinsky monarchs.  In the United States, we have superheroes.

Superheroes.  Men and women possessing incredible abilities.  Moral lessons woven in the very fibers of their being.  Garish costumes aside, they represent the best (and sometimes worst) that mankind has to offer.  Superheroes face insurmountable obstacles and somehow find a way – occasionally with the help of some super friends – to surmount them. 

To accomplish great feats, many costumed crusaders wield superpowers.  You know the drill.  Superman flies (among other things).  Cyclops shoots lasers out of his eyes.  Batman’s…rich (more on that later).  These flashy powers make great fodder for videogames, which thrive on subtle variations of the “Go there, Shoot that guy” template.  There’s also a high chance that someone into comics is nerdy enough to care about videogames.  Bingo, bango, established customer base.

There’s just one problem: games rarely get superheroes right. 

Modern games, in an effort to hook the stereotypical, increasingly time-crunched player age 18-34, routinely dole out rewards.  Ignoring the social disease that is the Gamerscore (mine’s 9689, by the way), developers usually award the player new abilities and mechanics as the game progresses.  I say modern, but this practice goes all the way back to the original Nintendo (Famicom, for any Japanese readers out there).  Just look at the Mega Man or Metroid series and you’ll see franchises based on the careful dishing out of powers and upgrades to reward the player for time spent with the game.

Unfortunately, this organizing principle of player empowerment is at loggerheads with what is alluring about superheroes.  Part of a superhero’s appeal is his or her vast array of abilities.  Translating this to a game means locking key aspects of a hero’s identity (i.e. his powers) behind arbitrary experience and upgrade systems.  No one wants to play as Superman unless they have full access to his considerable arsenal: flight, ice breath, laser eyes, x-ray vision, super strength, et cetera (I’m looking at you, Superman 64).  It also rarely makes sense for superheroes to improve at wielding their abilities.  No amount of punching dudes in the face is going to justify an increase in the range of Spider-Man’s Spider Sense.

These scenarios often result in the player starting a game with a Superhero Lite, stripped of his memorable powers until later in the game.  This is rarely justifiable in the fiction without making it some kind of origin story.  And seeing as how the major comic houses reboot a character every five years or so, I generally don’t trust game writers – with their short resume of impressive stories – to handle the task of explaining why Magneto can’t pull iron out of people’s blood at the beginning of the game but please just wait until he gets to Level 15 when he can cast Kill You So Fast With Your Own Blood.  Games shouldn’t waste time toying with the fiction; they should enable players to play through it.

Punching the crap out of a dude in Prototype. Attempts to skirt the issue of funky fiction typically result in less than stellar original properties.  Take 2009’s Prototype.  Developer Radical Entertainment has experience making games based on the Hulk, and it shows.  You play as Alex Mercer, a douche of a protagonist the likes of which haven’t been seen since the first Assassin’s Creed.  A mish-mash of free-running, clunky espionage, and helicopter-kicking, Prototype feels less like any sort of superhero story than a love letter to breaking shit.  Mercer handles like a drunken gorilla and so does the narrative.  I used to wonder why companies so rarely launch new superheroes.  Now I know.  They end up with crap like this.

The luxury an absolutely forgettable story like Prototype’s affords is the ability to justify why a superhero might gain new powers along the way.  He’s discovering the full extent of superness, one hollow plot twist at a time.  Real superheroes don’t have this luxury.  Tomes of canonical backstory exist in online repositories, supplying nerds with ammunition to call shenanigans on any incongruous plot lines or character reinventions.  The rich character histories are double-edged swords for game designers, providing years of minable fiction but sowing a minefield of logic problems for those with even a passing knowledge of superheroes.

Marvel’s tried to obscure the issue by stuffing Smash Bros. levels of fan service down the player’s throat.  The Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series operates under the assumption that nobody will notice that Wolverine getting better at regenerating makes absolutely no sense when they can control a party of Iron Man, the Hulk, Johnny Storm, and Deadpool.  It doesn’t help that this Throw the Comic Encyclopedia At You technique is also an attempt to disguise Gauntlet-style gameplay so shallow the Charge Shot!!! crew renamed it simply Combo!  Yes, Iceman can surf on frozen air molecules, and Jean Grey can summon Phoenix abilities.  But it’s all so abstracted that the rewards feel minor.

An outstanding exception to the rule is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.  And I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Batman is one of the few superheroes without any real superpowers.  Sure, he’s rich and smart and sneaky, but he isn’t the fastest being in the known universe or an Omega-level mutant or imbued with the power cosmic.  He’s a guy in a suit with some gadgets.  This fragility factors heavily into the gameplay of Arkham Asylum.  Engaging armed enemies is almost certainly suicide, so stealth becomes incredibly important.  Trapped on the island, Batman is at the mercy of villains like the Riddler, Scarecrow, and Joker, and must play along with their schemes until an opportunity to strike presents itself.  There are of course logic issues regarding his upgradable armor and equipment (why doesn’t he just grab the Ultra Batclaw the first time he goes to his cave?), but an excellent Scarecrow sequence toward the end totally justifies all of the gaminess.  Plus, he starts the game with enough combat prowess and a well-stocked inventory of tools that the player feels like Batman from the get-go, not some neutered Dark Knight knock-off.  Few games so accurately capture what it would feel like to actually be that badass.Choke that joker Videogames will continue to rely on the world of superheroes (just as film has) because it’s so familiar it would be hard not to stumble into an audience.  But that’s no excuse for stale design tropes impinging on the superhero experience.  Batman: Arkham Asylum set the bar high by telling a cohesive, compelling story that hits all the Batman touchstones without trying to reinvent the wheel or cripple the hero.  I refuse to play another superhero game that fails to live up to its protagonist’s promise.