Making Superheroes Work In Videogames: The Two Elements

So there I was, checking my Twitter feeds, when someone simply stated “no one can make a Superman videogame.”

I immediately took this simple statement is a challenge. It let me to speculate on superheroes, their use in video games, their more epic mismade video games, and what makes a good superhero videogame. It was a fascinating mental journey (and for the record, I do think a good Superman videogame is possible, but that is coming later in this series of columns).

Speculating on video games and superheroes is interesting, because the record of superhero videogames being good is highly inconsistent. There are games there praised quite rightfully, such as Arkham Asylum. There are games that are lambasted quite properly, such as . . . Okay, a lot of them, but Superman on Nintendo 64 does come to mind as kind of the iconic bad superhero videogame. Why such an erratic, and at times incredibly shameful and stupid record?

In fact, videogames are well-suited for superhero games. In a videogame world you can essentially do anything the programmer allows, within certain limits. This is ideal for superheroes, yet in many cases there have been some rather tragic games created, wasting money, wasting time, and of course fueling sarcastic comments on X-Play and review websites.

So, this leads me to ask “what is needed to make a good superhero videogame?” If we can answer this question, we can make better videogames, enjoy the more, boost the respect of game adaptions, and avoid humiliating titles, bad reviews, and so forth. For those of us in the game and comics professions, this can be a vital question, since we’d rather not be involved in making a dismal piece of software for entertainment – or have to market it.

As I contemplated the issues of superheroes and video games, it became apparent to me that there are actually two parts to making good superhero videogame. Getting one of the two parts wrong damages the game, getting both wrong leads to a travesty of technology and entertainment, and  if these two parts don't sync up, your game isn't going to work very well.

I call these two parts of superhero videogames the thematic and the mechanical.

The thematic part of video games (see superhero or not) is the “feel." The thematic part of video games is about the story, the presentation, the sound, and the visuals. All the elements that come together artistically to give one a sense of the character, plot, and genre.

To give an example of good thematic work in superhero videogames, look no farther than the much-lauded Arkham Asylum. This game got voice actors known and well-loved from the Batman animated series, had very deliberate character design, and well–designed environments. Though there is certainly much more to praise for this game, thematically it was very well done.

Ironically, the thematic element of video games should be very easy to do in superhero–related games. Get the right writers, do the graphics correctly (such as cell–dated for more comic book visual approach), get good voice actors. It's actually not hard if you think about it, and frankly no one making a superhero videogame has any excuse to screw this up.

(Of course they have been screwed up before, which is my point)

Though the thematic elements of superhero videogames should be relatively easy to do, they do not work unless the developers get the other factor in good superhero (see and any, really) videogame development. I call this part the mechanical.

The mechanical elements of game design are how the game actually plays, the controls, the rules, the game systems, and so on. Think of the mechanical sense of the game as how people connect to the thematic elements; the story, the characters, the “feel” of being the superhero. Thematic elements set the stage and help with the field–the mechanical elements bring it home and put you inside the game as the character or characters.

Needless to say, I think mechanics are actually more challenging to implement in videogames, superhero or not.  You have to pick the right ones (or invent new ones) and make it work with the theme.

A good example of the mechanical side of superhero games is well displayed in the game InFamous. In this game you played a person with electrical powers that evolve and grow depending on various actions, and can lead to very complex combos. It was surprisingly easy to use a variety of powers, leading to interesting battles, tactics, and impressive displays of destruction and carnage. The controls worked relatively well (though there were moments where they felt derived from a more military-shooter in my opinion), the powers had spectacular and satisfying effects, and you even had some fun superhero movement powers to play with (such as riding electrical power lines).

A bad example would be . . .  well, you don't have to look far.

Frankly, mechanics are where superhero games often fall down.  It takes a lot of thought to implement strange powers and abilities, give you the perspective and feel for the character and what they're doing, and draw people into the so–carefully created thematic elements. To be brutally honest I think many games suffer from the simple fact that a concept is shoved into the wrong mechanics.

In superhero games, it's all about the mechanics. It's deflecting bullets with bracelets, using x-ray vision to see through walls, and moving faster than anyone else see can beat up slow–moving folks.

Why do I think mechanics are screwed up in superhero games? I think it's actually the problem that plagues a lot of games–people shoehorn game concepts into the wrong set of game mechanics, and incomplete set of game mechanics, or those are just simply easier to do. How many superhero games seem to be basic brawlers? Even when good, let's face it, that's probably just easier to do.

Take a look at how many movie adaptions are just basic brawlers, platformers, etc.  You get the idea.

So, in my opinion the key to good superhero games is getting the thematics right (see which should be relatively easy) and getting the right mechanical elements of the game, which is the hard part.

So, before I get to the idea of a Superman videogame that actually works, next column is going to be on how I would use specific mechanics to bring specific superheroes and sets of superheroes to life is a game.

Steven Savage