If the just-released Batman vs. Superman movie/brawl was over who has inspired better games, then it really wouldn’t be much of a fight. There have been some real stinkers adapted from the adventures of the Caped Crusader, but there’s also been the Arkham series. Asylum is, in my humblest of comic nerd opinions, the best comic to game adaptation to have ever been hammered into existence.
What does Superman have? I suppose Injustice: Gods Among Us is an excellent fighter, and Supes is one of the combatants. Ignoring his ridiculous and utterly brilliant ultimate attack, he’s a bit underpowered for Earth’s most powerful hero, though. And it’s not really a game about him, even though he is a central character. The same goes for the highly entertaining Lego games. His most noteworthy video game outing is, lamentably, famous only for how terrible it is: Superman 64.
Could this ever change? Could Superman ever be the subject of a great game?
Superman is the archetypal superhero. He’s an icon, an ideal. How the hell do you make a player feel like they’re in control of an ideal? With Batman, it’s all so much clearer. He’s forged out of loss and anger, and those are immediate, powerful emotions that most people can understand. And though he’s The World’s Greatest Detective, he’s also a brawler, a ninja-level sneaky bastard, and a master of intimidation – all things that make for familiar video game mechanics.
You can’t make Superman a bloke who just beats up bad guys. There’s no denying that for a lover of peace, Kal El gets into a lot of exceptionally violent scraps, but that’s not Superman. He’s been around for so long, has inspired so many other characters, and simply inspired people, that he’s been jam packed with all these idealised, romantic notions of what a Superhero can be.
He’s an American patriot, but also has a deep, abiding love for the whole world, which he defends equally; he’s the most powerful hero on the planet, able to stop whole armies, crack worlds and fight suns, but he abhors violence; he saves the world, lots of worlds, on a daily basis, but pretends to be a bumbling reporter, humble and down to earth – he’s just too many things, and full of dichotomies.
Games so often get tarred with the mastabatory power fantasy brush, but still can’t nail down Superman, the ultimate power fantasy. It’s not really a limitation of the medium and certainly not the skills of game designers – Superman himself is to blame. Well, his writers are. He’s been a runaway train since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created him, getting more powers, having them taken away, getting new ones, losing and gaining origin stories
The solution to that problem is just focusing on an aspect of the icon. But we’re talking about video games here, a superhero video game. What do you think it would focus on? His love of farming? No, it would be his might and his absurd range of superpowers. And that just creates more problems, as we’ve seen in all the game’s where Superman is boiled down to just his incredible abilities.
It’s a bit boring, stripping Supes down to his super-strength and heat-vision, but that’s only part of the problem. The big, glaring issue – the red, yellow and blue elephant in the room – is that Superman is too powerful. He’s got two weaknesses: Kryptonite and magic. His strengths, on the other hand, are numerous. Sometimes he even generates new ones, as if he wasn’t already fit to burst. How can that sort of power be expressed in a video game, how can there be enough credible threats to maintain the tension that an action game needs? Everyone has Kryptonite guns and magic powers? How convenient! Every solution seems to end in one way: it makes the game shit.
Superman Returns, inspired by, but nothing like, the movie of the same name, actually showcased some good ideas when it came to making Superman vulnerable. Metropolis was his weakness. It was actually quite clever. He’s always worrying about those pesky innocents, and he always sees himself as a defender, so forcing the player to protect Metropolis, which has, unlike Supes himself, limited health, is quite elegant.
In practice, the mechanic was just awful. The city was transformed into this giant weak spot that you can’t stop worrying about, filled with idiots that won’t just move home. It’s like one long escort quest, where the NPC is actually thousands of NPCs and they won’t bloody move. The game was a disaster, but even with more time and care, I can’t see this solution ever being anything other than frustrating.
There is, maybe, one style of game that could, though I’m really not sold on it, be a fit for a Superman action game. Remember Asura’s Wrath? It was an action game mostly made up off incredible, QTE-laden interactive cutscenes. As ambivalent as I am about the game, the fights were at least incredible to behold, evocative of some of the craziest, escalating anime battles. Imagine a game made up almost entirely of Injustice’s ultimate attacks, but where one of the enemies is bigger than the planet. His hand alone is bigger.
Absent an open world, tied to tightly scripted scenes, focusing almost entirely on titanic boss battles, so many of the issues with a Superman action game just fade away. But once again we hit that wall that keeps coming up. Asura’s Wrath was a little bit crap. It was bursting with spectacle and absurdity, but actually playing it wasn’t nearly as much fun as the stunning action sequences suggested.
Perhaps we’re on the right track, though. But to go any further down this path, action’s going to have to be dropped, at least the action genre. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, but imagine what could happen if a Superman game wasn’t all about beating up the bad guys. What if it was an adventure game?
A traditional, point-and-click adventure game would never work, even if I’d love to see an attempt, but something in the Telltale vein? A piece of interactive fiction? It could work. Imagine not simply punching jaws and freezing villains, but wrestling with the moral conundrums that are so central to the character. Imagine arguing with Batman over the power of fear versus the power of hope in the Watchtower. Imagine trying to navigate the challenge of a dual identity as a reporter and a Superhero. You’re pitching an article to Perry, but you hear someone screaming. You make a crappy excuse and rush off to save a life. Perry will remember that.
There’s potential there, but it seems like a pipe dream, especially considering the success of the Batman games. If we do get another big Superman game in the near future, the chances of it not being an open-world action game are slimmer than Lex’s chances of pulling off a wig.
I wasn’t sure what my answer would be to my initial question when I started writing this. I was leaning toward no. There are just so many seemingly insurmountable hurdles. I’m still leaning that way, I think, but I’m not convinced. I’m getting stuck in my head, thinking of an exploration of this enduring archetype that’s defined superheroes, and what a remarkable adventure that could be. And now I wish I’d never even suggested it, because the superhero game of my dreams is probably never going to happen.