Rebuttal – Superman in Video Games

(Remember when I said someone on Twitter had said a Superman game couldn't be done?  And I wrote about it?  The person who got me, thinking, Julian of,  volunteered to contribute his insights on the idea of a came, and the fundamental flaws such a game would have)

A few weeks back, I threw the gauntlet. I still stand by it, and while much of the things I'm going to say here will already ring the cry of 'cop out,' I was very specific in what I said. “I honestly feel that Superman fundamentally can't work in a videogame.” Savage, of this website, took issue with that, which turned into his posts as well as my guest post here. And I want to explain more what I mean.

Buzzword for this post: “Fundamentally.” Superman, fundamentally, can't work in a videogame. Any real application of change would end up kind of undermining the entire thing, altering much of what makes him Superman. And it works in a story when things such as distance or a person's strength and toughness are merely variables.

I recall someone speaking of their sci-fi universe being asked how fast a certain starship goes, and they replied with, “It goes at the speed of plot.” This, I feel, is analogous to how Superman works. He can, after all, intervene in most anything. He cannot, however, be in two places at once. He has all powers, just so long as Kryptonite is not in the area. He is incredibly resistant to damage, unless the damage is specifically Really Strong or Magic. This is the same character who has a magical memory-erasing kiss, the ability to travel through time by sloppy writing, and in All-Star Superman he even gets the power to extend his own energy field around him.

So Superman, to me, is a character not of his inability, but a character of his personality and what he represents. That was, after all, what All Star Superman was primarily about, and it's basically the all-purpose explanation of why he's great. This doesn't translate well to videogames.

For one thing, can you imagine the nightmare of control that would be involved? Sega has a hard enough time making Sonic be fast, and that's all he does. In addition to the speed at which the Man of Steel zips around, he also flies. What about his heat vision? Freeze breath? Blow breath? Super hearing? Controlling Supes would require the same hardware as flying an F-14.

But okay, controls can be wrangled into obedience potentially, but what about the mechanics of the game? The obvious one is making a sandbox Metropolis with crime you have to stop, which sounds like a moneymaker, but let's keep in mind games like Champions Online or DC Universe Online. Every time you get the ability to fly, it ends exactly as you'd think it would – you zip up to the highest point possible, look around, and go, “Yep, that's a nice looking city.”

The ability to explore requires actual exploration mechanics rather than an instant travel button from A to B, and Superman's speed and flight operate as pretty much that. This is why Spider-Man 2 was awesome, with the ground as your starting point and the highest tower possible acting like a challenge. If you could just zip up there it'd lose all of the fun. Or Prototype, for example, where you zip up and down building sides without even blinking, elbowing cars out of the way like you were at an automotive rock concert.

The obvious one also stands out here – “He's invulnerable.” This as an excuse for Superman not working is improperly placed in fiction, and I stand by that statement, since his invulnerability really only means you need someone bigger and stronger to punch him instead. After all, Batman goes out fighting criminals who can kill him with a single handgun bullet. Any conflict where Superman is at risk of dying either has Kryptonite or is someone obscenely powerful, like Doomsday or Darkseid. Besides – if you think Superman's invulnerability means he's boring then you probably didn't like The Dark Knight, a movie in where nobody was trying to kill Batman.

 Superman's conflict comes from trying to help people. Utilizing this would require extremely out-of- the-box thinking else it'd become infuriating subquests, something that nearly wrecked Spider-Man 2. You know, while swinging around in the city you look over and see four different instances of some kid losing his balloon, some one getting mugged, etc. Any sense of helping the city would feel lackluster after stopping the same out-of-control train for the five hundredth time that day. And what happens if you did fix the city's problems? Where would the conflict be in helping people if you actually fixed all the city's problems?

In Batman: Hush, Batman says this: “Even more than Kryptonite, he's got one big weakness. Deep down, Clark's essentially a good person. And deep down, I'm not.” This is leading us into our next point – nonlethal combat.

Superman can break basically anything. But he's a really nice guy. He doesn't like violence except against clearly evil threats. Most of the times he tries to just carry people to police stations and lets things go from there. Arkham Asylum operated on how visceral and crushing Batman was to his opponents, clearly not caring about the criminals' suffering or pain.

This really strikes out a majority of the fun in sandbox games. Take Prototype, for example, where you can grab someone by the head and run up the side of the wall while they flail about. In a Superman game, I'll tell you what my first instinct is – to throw someone hard enough to send them to China. Superspeed and splatter someone into the pavement. Heat vision a trellis onto someone's head. Being a jerk in sandbox games is fun, but also very much against the point of Superman.

But okay, maybe you can ignore that and just make dicking about more non-canon. You're not supposed to do this, but you can, and just ignore that it's really not what Superman would do. Maybe he's on Black Kryptonite or something.

So schaudenfreude aside, Superman still has the fundamental problem of not being able to kill unless he absolutely has to. I guess you could just make all sorts of things non lethal, including when you drop a garbage truck onto someone, but at this point we're starting to stretch it into just nonsense.

Plus, what would the risk be? No common criminal or grunt soldier can really hurt you. Supes has taken on Braniac repeatedly, after all, and each time Braniac was less of a threat than that he couldn't stop all of his drones simultaneously. If we were to put it according to most gaming conventions, you'd need the occasional grunt to be able to whack around.

A vast majority of these things can be fixed by clipping Superman's theoretical wings. Cutting down his invulnerability, taking away his flight, reducing his strength, and so on. But as I said, that's a majority of what I'm saying here – Superman, fundamentally, has everything at his disposal, and it works brilliantly in story, but not so much in a videogame. Most of the mechanics I like could work just as well in another superhero's game, but better, like Spider-Man or the upcoming Batman: Arkham City.

He is a guy who doesn't want anyone to die, ever, and works to fix that. It just won't fit in a videogame. The things you could change to make him more playable would just change too much. The tone, the theme, everything about Superman could totally work. Make it big, bright, and shiny; paint Superman as the American icon that he is. But the gameplay mechanics would just fall apart unless there was some drastic surgery, and really, I want Superman's name to be done justice.

Julian Williams