Thursday, August 7, 2008

Whatever happened to the superheroes?

For a day or two last week it looked like I’d be asked to join in a radio debate about superheroes. It wasn’t to be, but it did get me thinking about about superhero games, and so I checked out the Rough Guide to Superheroes, to see what it had to say on the matter. Well, out of 320 pages, about 40 pages were devoted to films, TV shows got twenty pages, and games? Scarcely a page. I was horrified, grumbling about games not being given proper recognition as a popular artform, and then I tried to think which games I’d write about – and there was the crux of the problem. There just aren’t very many good ones. But why not?

Curse of the licence

Technology must be partly to blame. Superman has been around since the 1930s, far longer than videogames, and for most of that time it hasn’t been possible to reproduce his particular talents. Sure, there are some excellent Marvel fighting games, even a roleplaying game. But no games I know of gives you the feeling of what it’s like to, say, plunge through the skies, cape flowing behind you. In terms of technology, though, it’s distinctly possible now – check out Super Mario Galaxy.

Perhaps it’s the curse of licensed material. Especially when the release of a game is tied to that of a movie, developers have sometimes been given scarcely enough time to create something competent, let alone a standout game. Plus everything needs to be approved by the licence holder (and anyone who’s produced anything for a client knows how long that can take). But perhaps to those who make the decisions, the quality of the game hasn’t always been top priority. Gamers aren’t so easy to sway these days, though, when games can cost $60 and there’s such a plethora of titles to choose from.

Even pursuing a script that’s faithful to the film or comic has its share of dangers. If you read comics and have a fondness for a particular superhero, then the game of the film or comic can feel like a travesty. Comics are more closely related to film than either of them is to games, being essentially passive entertainment (okay, you have to turn pages and navigate the DVD menu, but most of the time you’re absorbing). If it’s well written, you’ll sympathize with the characters, but you don’t internalize them to the degree you do when you’re responsible for their actions. This connection can makes it harder for a superhero to feel like one, because he’s not always doing what you want him to do (missing a jump for example). In fact, a superhero under your control is destined to disappoint at some stage.

Watch the film, read the comic

Despite all these pitfalls, there have been some successful superhero games, including the beat-’em-ups mentioned above, but they require a shift in expectation. My favourite was Spider-Man: The Movie (2002), which belied its title as it followed two previous Spider-Man games, building on some strong foundations. It made you feel super powerful at times, while swooping in exhilaration amongst the rooftops of New York City.

The latest Batman game was based on Batman Begins [not Dark Knight as I originally posted] and it received generally positive reviews (I haven’t played it). Far from capitalizing on the current smash film, Warner Bros. and EA (the company producing the game) are estimated to have lost out on $100 million by not releasing a game alongside the movie, according to a report at Edge Online. If the game ever does come out, it may then get a chance to be judged on its own merits; it’s unfair to expect it to replicate the experience of the film, not least because you’ll be the one in charge. Personally, I want my superheroes to be more distant, more glamorous, more dramatic, even in their failings, so for the moment (until Lego Batman comes out), I’m sticking to the movies. And the comics – I’ve uncovered my 1986 copy of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and can’t wait to read it again.

Next time: Superhero substitutes

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you could be right about playing a superhero in a videogame not feeling quite right. My experiences in Pen & Paper RPGs haven't been great either although Green Ronin's Mutants & Masterminds is meant to be very good. In that game you get to create your own superhero, rather than playing Batman or Wolverine.