Up and Atom! How Comic Book Videogames Need to Change
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:40pm 19/11/12 | Comments
We take an in-depth look at the failed comic book videogame field, why it fails, and how this can be fixed in future projects...
Back in the day it was a laughable thought that comic book movie adaptations would not only get it right, but become a genre (of sorts) all their own. The culprits are too numerous to list, but it wasn’t until the more modern round of Marvel movies and Nolan’s Batman reboot started breaking through that the classic Funny Book had made the big time and was treated with the respect it dearly deserved.
That was all roughly 12 years ago and since then, among the most bankable of yearly blockbusters, is comic book films. But what of videogames?
In the past few years we’ve seen a slightly better, more revered approach from licensees of comic book IPs, specifically when taking in the critical success of Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series, but it still feels like we have a long way to go before comic books are as bankable in videogame form as they are on the silver screen. I put this down to a number of current and past factors that are definitely holding up the natural evolution of these two mediums finally being able to hold hands and skip happily into the sunset.
These factors then, are numerous and varied, so I’ve broken them up into digestible chunks of opinion for you to agree or disagree with, but hopefully we can get a decent dialogue going, and maybe a publisher/developer or two is paying attention as well.
Environment is important, and often a character unto itself. Moreover, how these character stomping grounds are presented within their respective comics is often off-the-wall and twisted, even though it might be based on a real-world location. Take Marvel’s New York, for example -- it has the Baxter Building, Stark Towers, Horizon Labs, Nelson and Murdock Attorneys At Law, the Night Nurse and all the underbelly lairs a cowardly villain could hope to plot the destruction of the world within. These few landmarks are massive components to the Marvel universe, and are ripe for the exploratory picking. However, as we’ve seen in almost every single Spidey game ever released, New York is merely a backdrop; a contextual visual component to his web-slinging or wall-crawling, and sterile beyond belief.
Again, to pull the Batman Arkham card, Rocksteady understood the value of not only Gotham City, but specific parts of Gotham City. Instead of giving us a whole city to play within, they gave us cleverly walled sandboxes such as Arkham Island and Arkham City. By focusing more directly on these play areas, the team could offer more solid art-direction and level design to reflect a Batman-centric playground. Scale played an important part in both games as well, where a genuine sense of geometric progression was felt with every step, glide or Bat Claw pull you did. Interiors didn’t feel removed from the greater outside hub and it all fit together nicely. Verticality was also an important and fun element to both games’ level design.
However, in most ‘open-world’ Spider-Man games the scale just feels way off, and Spidey’s web-slinging often just doesn’t play nice with the city. Buildings are lifeless impediments more detrimental to the somewhat binary traversal system than the physics factors they need to be, and it all feels stale and lifeless as a result. And let’s not even get started on the mindless Peds going about their limited algorithmic walks. If GTA and Red Dead has taught us anything about the importance of a city or world, and its inhabitants, it’s that these NPCs are like the blood flow through a living organism, and without them, the city or world essentially has no heart.
On the other end of the scale, we have comic book videogames that offer nothing more than a corridor forward-progression, with players being funneled through an empty world with a set path to an end goal (usually a boss-battle). It’s not always the case, and in a handful of games this limited path of progression has given the art team all the boundaries they need to craft an intricate and reflective world from its source material, as seen in Raven’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but you might as well be reading a heavily directed comic book in something like that -- the one thing a videogame can offer this medium that neither the medium itself or movies can, is the ability for someone to finally experience what it feels to be that character.
Proposed Solution: Explore the background of not only the character’s world, but the publisher’s universe as a whole. DC and Marvel both have interconnected universes among their respective characters, while other comic books often carry with them a huge amount of lore and backstory, as is the case with the likes of Hellboy or even Frank Miller’s Sin City.
And while my own preference for any comic book adapted videogame is of the sandbox, open-world variety, if you do have to craft a linear game-world for players to explore, at least expand upon that in ways that make them feel like they’re exercising the character’s powers or abilities.
Finally, comic book fans are a dedicated bunch, and attempting to appeal to them with hidden costumes or floating comic pages is pretty insulting. Cameos, mentions or physical marks of the presence of other characters -- good and bad -- will go a long way to selling a universe and its myriad denizens who likely neighbour any titular one you’re working with much more than arbitrary collectables. Something as simple as having a Spidey fight sequence make its way through the window of Daredevil’s alter-ego law firm would not only be cool, it would tell fans you’ve done your homework and respect the character and world they come from.
Characters Matter, Not Popularity
The Good...There are some characters who are popular, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily make great videogame characters. There’s also the idea that some characters who aren’t necessarily as well-known as your Wolverines, Spider-Men or Batmen could make incredible videogames. While the aforementioned have enjoyed a lot of success, a continual flow of bad games (well, more recent Batman aside) means that at some point, it might be time to put them on the backburner and try something new. Thankfully we might see a push in this direction given the recent greenlight from Marvel and Activision for High-Moon Studios (Transformers: War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron) to take on the Dead Pool license. Unfortunately I’m already worried the major “Stomping Ground” pitfall explored above might be the biggest let-down to what has major potential, especially in its exploration of Dead Pool’s breach of the fourth wall, as has been explored in more modern interpretations of the character. But I digress.
Good comic book licensed games are hard to find, here’s our list of the five best of the best:
1. Batman: Arkham City
2. Batman: Arkham Asylum
3. Spider-Man 2
4. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
5. Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
The other issue that stems from an overuse of the more popular videogame characters is this ideology that whatever it is that’s making them big (read: movies) is what needs to be explored. Making a game from a movie based on a comic, as I’ll explore more deeply in a moment, is counter-productive to any potential that book and its characters might have had. It also heavily restricts the richness of the comic book world from where it all stems. As mentioned above, a place like Marvel’s New York is home to myriad heroes and villains, and the likelihood of playing through a whole game that spans weeks in-game, or even months, without coming across any of them, even in a non-meaningful way, is ludicrous. What comics offer is character through characters, and choosing to ignore the greater volume of these is a massive disservice to what made them popular enough to be given any form of transmedia treatment in the first place.
Proposed Solution: Start looking at the world around the hero you're building a game out of, or thinking of building a game out of. Or, in say Activision or Warner Bros. case, take a long, hard look at the massive manifest you have access to from your respective comic rosters. Acti appear to be doing the right thing bankrolling Dead Pool -- a character who has nothing really going on outside of his Funny Book pages, while word of Warner and Rocksteady delving into Silver Age Justice League is definitely tantalising, but it’s a slow start.
It’s also ideal to look at what works in videogames today, and which characters would fit better into that. Imagine a Doctor Strange game -- it’d be dark and mystical, and could carry with it a massive emphasis on the usual Mage side of RPGs, or a Hellboy game that featured twisted and interconnected dimensions where Hellboy is feared and revered at the same time because of his prophesied hand in the end of all things.
Honestly, the potential is actually endless, regardless of the popularity of the character -- having a videogame and comic that fit together in principal and action could have amazing results, provided there’s reverence and respect handled by the developer -- and, it really isn’t that difficult to get right.
A Videogame is a Videogame, Not a Comic
Linear storytelling with little exercise in allowing players to explore a character’s powers or strengths is a massive disservice to what a videogame initially offers: an opportunity to finally be that character and not just read about their exploits. Moreover, modern games are leaning more and more towards character and environmental “systems” for varied, player-driven results. Games like Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and both Batman Arkham games are excellent examples of open-world gameplay married to player-driven systems, each resulting in emergent gameplay that is authored by the player, and not necessarily a specific game script.
Other titles like BioShock, Dead Space or Dishonored are more linear games that also employ the “systems” direction of player-driven power, the results of which leave puzzles, enemies and progression up to player interpretation and exercise, which ultimately leads to empowerment and ownership of the game's direction.
...The Bad...Obviously as most comics feature superheroes and villains, each with unique powers, this makes perfect sense, and so any videogame should represent this aspect. But to expand upon a point made earlier, it’s not conducive to an exploration of these characters or their powers, by players, to have them essentially locked into tightly-scripted, handheld level design. The two Spider-Man games prior to the most recent open-world one come to mind: Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time, where all players were doing was essentially activating the next chapter in a story they had very little impact over.
There are also games that could have been better, but fell just shy:
1. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
2. The Amazing Spider-Man
3. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. X2: Wolverine’s Revenge
Edge of Time, in fact, is one of the worst culprits for not realising both the true potential of the idea on paper (which was brilliant, I might add), and mistreating the universe and character the game was based around. Think about it: a game featuring two Spider-Men, each from different time periods, with one having to manipulate time for the other to advance in his quest -- genius. Except the developer told you what it is you needed to change instead of you actually just coming up with it yourself.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking when you consider the complexities of time-travel and paradoxes, but if a set of rules, or “systems”, were created regarding the time-travel stuff, with the end result (in a controlled spectrum) being crafted by the player to claim actual ownership over, this could have been an incredible concept come to life, but alas, the whole product was ostensibly treated like the creation of a comic: Story is submitted to the artist (in this case, the “artist” is Beenox), and they decipher and create a visual tale, as instructed, with minor input from the player barring typical combat and collectables -- like turning a page.
Proposed Solution: I honestly can’t stress enough how important it is to offer a player freedom (or at least a sense of it) when it comes to handling a comic book license. The idea that you get to not only interact with, but on behalf of, superheroes, should be a selling point, not a static, regular-ass gameplay feature. Moreover, a manifest of powers (or “systems”) with varying results based on how you use or combine them would give the greatest sense of reward and elation for not just combat, but exploration, traversal and puzzle-solving. Equally exploring a character's dimensions and depth, such as Batman's tenacity coupled with his stoic Detective abilities, is a formula for success by way of mixing up a game's pacing.
The bottom line here is really to just focus on what makes the character you’re working with special, and how any of those specialties can be applied to the videogame formula, and in the hands of the player. Freedom of choice to approach tasks and objectives in the way the player wants is going to give them ownership over that character’s abilities and direction. Don’t tell a player when it’s right to use a Bat Claw, for example, let them work it out on their own, and have level design reflect the different approaches players can take with the given character and his or her abilities.
Brother From Another Mother
Comic staples are the same as videogame staples. Boss-battles, for example, make perfect sense in the world of comics, because of the super villain dynamic. Which is a factor that should be married with the above. Ultimately, if you take away any linearity, which again is fast becoming a thing of the past, even in linear tales thanks to character systems and exploitation, utilising videogame tropes in-line with comic book tropes -- that is, the ones that actually work together, you’re going to find a common ground on which to stand.
For example, earlier I talked about arbitrary collectables in Spider-Man games. A fair point, because collectables don’t belong in a Spider-Man comic, yet they’re a videogame trope. Batman Arkham Asylum and City, however, married the gaming trope with The Riddler, but having collectables tied intimately to Edward Nigma’s own hubris, via riddles and puzzled sections of the environment, brings the videogame trope, and the Batman/Riddler trope together in a happy relationship of love, and not convenience. Again, looking deeper into the product you're working with, from a license perspective, and actively tying videogame tropes into that license through proper context will not only sell your passion for it, but engage fans of both mediums beyond measure.
Proposed Solution: Make a list of a character’s powers or abilities, then construct a very basic idea of a small level built from that character’s universe. Now, relate those powers and abilities to the videogame equivalent. Throw in some goons, henchman or low-level villains as combat impediments (another videogame trope) and have the player explore the powers and abilities of the character in comic book context so it doesn't wind up being a mindless beat 'em up or the like, as they progress to another gaming trope: the boss-battle.
Introduce a super-villain as the boss and have him or her equipped with their own systems (read: powers or abilities) and let the player utilise combinations of wit and power to defeat the super-villain. Ensure that the reward for this victory is in keeping with the comic book universe in which the game is set, throw in some Easter Eggs or cameos from other inhabitants of the world and let the player move on.
Now, just take the above formula, add a rich and relevant story to it with enough sway to give the player a sense of progressive ownership, and expand it to the nines adding components of everything else mentioned in this feature.
Chicken or the Egg: The Movie
Basing your videogame on a movie that was just made about a comic book is pulling from what was obviously worth making a movie from in the first place, and adding an arbitrary value to what could be something awesome in its own right.
I almost feel that this one is such a no-brainer I shouldn’t have to mention it. Or, at least, if it absolutely must be done, it could be done on a much smaller scale (in the vein of a PSN, XBLA, iOS or Android entry), otherwise, the only time a movie’s obvious boon to a character’s popularity should be used is for an original, non-movie related iteration of that character in videogame form, and even that is a bit of a stretch. There have been quite a few examples of this souring over the years, but all I need to do is point you in the direction of the last Spider-Man videogame which, while not being specifically pulled straight from the movie, was an expansion of it and took very little value in the actual Spider-Man comic book universe from which it should have.
Proposed Solution: Honestly, just don’t do it.
Cross Platform, Cross Creation
...The UglyWithout this whole thing turning into a massive Batman Arkham love-fest, this next point is about the two mediums working in unison, which can be exampled by the Batman Arkham games actually spawning a whole Batman series of comics, despite both games having no specific basis in the medium. In fact there are a number of big, Triple-A titles that have emerged over the past few years that have spawned their own comics, showing a reverence from, and for, the medium that speaks volumes of the obvious intrinsic links between the two, and their respective audiences.
Then there are just the worst of the worst:
(The top two feature YouTube links for visual proof because they're just that horrible.)
1. Superman 64
2. Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis
3. Batman: Dark Tomorrow
4. Hellboy: Asylum Seeker
Probably the best example of this cross-pollination though, comes with news the 2012-announced Injustice: Gods Among Us -- a fighting game from the Mortal Kombat team at NetherRealm, featuring their own interpretation of DC superheroes -- was to be turned into a major book for Detective Comics (penned by Australia’s own Tom Taylor). This type of thing, especially when the comic book publisher is directly involved, is of massive importance to comics and games reaching a palatable and bankable plateau, and it’s not the first we’ve seen of it either.
Mass Effect and Darksiders are two properties with undeniably rich universes to explore, which is why they’ve equally found their way into the world of comics post-videogame release. And honestly, the more we see of this type of exploration, the closer the two mediums are going to get to playing nicely with one another. Conversely, in the comic book world it’s also very important to note that the Funny Book treatment of games needs to be done seriously, with decent writers and artists, otherwise it can reflect as poorly as a terribly-made videogame based on a comic.
Proposed Solution: Transmedia is very quickly becoming the norm for popular games, comics, movies, novels etc, and so it makes sense to follow through with a more in-depth exploration of your product. The Dead Space animated flicks, for example, are a decent way to explore more of the world and bridge gaps, while Halo has been enjoying massive success in the novel area since the first game was released. But a more focused look into the comic book world is needed. Their inclusion is nice, but as mentioned above, they need the same respect dealt in their creation as I’m proposing comic book videogames are here.
Both are big business. Among the biggest, actually, so it would make sense to combine them in more intimate ways and, with comics, there’s so much more room to explore what you’re touching on in your game. Mass Effect is probably the best example here, as the universe is massive and rich in character and characters with myriad alien races and worlds to explore, plus a hugely in-depth backstory that has infinite potential in the comic book medium.
Time is an Essence
Pacing a comic book tale over a 20+ hour experience is more beneficial than not. This is also another example of why it’s not conducive to base your game on a movie that is based on a comic because you’re just referencing something full of exposition instead of actual exploration and a true sense of fleshing out. It also means you can actually explore some great, lengthy tales that have come before and even set your game up for a sequel or post-release DLC in episodic (or issue) form.
Imagine a Spider-Man videogame that was built around the first symbiote suit (that later became Venom). You could start the game with Spidey in a sandbox New York where the player could explore his powers, only you have him come up against a villain who kicks his ass. The second part could then have Spider-Man whisked away to take part in the Secret Wars where he not only comes across the alien suit, but it would also feature all the Marvel characters who took part in that epic story. The third part could then be broken up into Spider-Man being back in New York loving his new suit until it eventually runs him ragged and he parts with it. Throw in a story component that features Eddie Brock being exposed and end the whole thing ends with the suit and Brock creating Venom, and you could actually end the game on a sour note -- which I’ll explore in a moment in my last point.
Proposed Solution: Pretty much what I mentioned above is a solution to what isn’t specifically an issue, it’s just never properly explored. The important thing to remember though, is the average hardcore game these days is between 15 and 20 hours long, with deeper experiences often breaking even over 30 hours. Comics aren’t a 90-minute to two-hour read (unless it’s some Mark Millar book, who seems to just write comics to be turned into movies), and so the exploration of story arcs, TPBs or even multiple issues is not only plausible, but recommended.
That said, both Batman Arkham games only covered a single night, each, in Batman’s life, yet through a carefully crafted experience that featured almost everything I’ve mentioned as a “proposed solution” here, Rocksteady delivered one of the best new IPs of this generation, and changed the way we look at comic book videogames forever.
Unhappily Ever After
It’s not a risk in videogames or comics to have an unhappy ending and more often than not is a better lead-in to extra content (or issues), as well as sequels -- something films just aren’t actively capable of with resonating results (mild end-of-movie teasers in Iron-Man, Thor and Captain America aside). Arkham City ended with The Joker’s supposed death, for example, and while it should be cause for celebration, through some of the best writing out there, you couldn’t help but feel sad at his alleged demise.
Obviously there is a risk involved in assuming the videogame interpretation you’re working on is going to be big enough and successful enough to allow for a sequel, but it would speak volumes about the faith you have in your vision and execution. Even it was just DLC which could end on sad or sour notes after a reasonably happy ending in the game proper, the concept is something explored openly in comics and often to great success (Death of Superman, Killing Joke, Watchmen, Sin City, Irredeemable, Superior et al).
The options here are, frankly, quite robust when you consider everything above, and crafting a game with more player-input than direction. Being able to option different endings, or outcomes, for particular choices is fast becoming the norm in open-world games, and as comics are so rich in reward and turmoil for their characters (who are often battling their own demons) -- as a point of narrative ebb and flow -- it makes perfect sense to combine this direction with everything else on the proposed recipe throughout this feature.
Proposed Solution: Like the Time is an Essence point, this is more an idea barely explored in the field of comic book videogames (Batman Arkham’s aside) than anything, so the solution would be to actually attempt to get it rolling in your project. Ideally it, again, would show a respect for the character and their universe, as well as the fans of both mediums you’re attempting to tap into.
Hopefully the above is a heady wind up of where most comic book videogames fail, and how those failures can not only be broached, but put right in development of the field in the future. The most vexing thing for both gamers and fans of comics is how long it’s taken for anyone to get it right, because the two mediums are so in-sync and so on the same page as far as pop-culture goes, it makes very little sense that bringing the two together could ever go wrong.
What it boils down to, and the main thing I found while writing this feature and exploring how to get it right, is a respect of the source material beyond a point of popularity. Slapping Wolverine’s name on a game not built for Wolverine is doing no one any good. It’s as simple as understanding the character and their exploits, as well as the greater world they come from, that’s going to get you heading in the right development direction. Respect. Plain and simple.