Friday, June 20, 2014


The Man of Steel has struggled to find his footing in modern pop-culture. For almost three decades now his greatest successes still remain in the medium that birthed him. The character is supposedly difficult to translate into a variety of artistic mediums in a manner that resonates with modern consumers, and in a manner that still honors his origins.

I believe that this perception is a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, a misunderstanding of the character that has evolved into a flawed, easily accepted notion that "Superman is just difficult".

He's not difficult. He's terribly easy. And perhaps that's why we've felt a need to turn him into something he's not.
The Internet Age and the GroupThink it inspires has clouded our judgment with this character and allowed us to forget what's so great about him.

Despite the financial success of Superman's latest incantation in the Man of Steel, the film is terribly divisive and, arguably, misses the mark when it comes to tapping into the natural joy and wish fulfillment inherent in the Superman character. It is a dreary film (both in look and subject matter), that approached Superman as a character in desperate need of a gritty overhaul. The filmmakers went to great, transparent lengths to distance their version from all previous "Boyscout" representations of Superman in order to appeal to today's supposedly pathos-seeking moviegoer.

As a result, it is a blatantly superficial film indistinguishable from any other current summer blockbuster, and the hopeful and fun icon is reduced to an angsty brute in midnight-blue tights. The truly exciting, inspirational nature of the Superman character (which in no way needs to veer into sentimentality or sappy Americana anachronisms) has been completely abandoned in favor of flashy special effects, big muscles, and uneven psychological examination.

As a fan of the character, and someone who desperately wants him to be realized in a universally appealing way that is in no way influenced by the fleeting dictates of a self-obsessed culture, this current iteration troubles me and I fear that Superman's greatest characteristics will be lost on future generations.

I believe such an approach as Man of Steel is not only resultant from misunderstanding the true worth and value the Superman character has for society, it's resultant from a misunderstanding in why most people like comic book characters and go to see comic book movies in the first place; joy.

Beyond all the potential angst, commentary, and religious allusions the Superman character allows, he is, at his core, pure wish fulfillment.

Where Batman represents everything that we are and desperately want to avoid, Superman represents everything we desperately want to become, but never will.

He takes on the magical attributes of flight and super strength that almost every child dreams of attaining. His real-world origins and initial appeal comes from child-like wonder, goodness, altruism, and kindness - such themes Richard Donner, Mario Puzzo, and Christopher Reeve understood.

The Superman character, by the fundamental nature of his construction, simply doesn't belong in a shadow-filled, blue-tinted, angry movie with quick cuts, neck-snapping, massive catastrophes that aren't addressed for the horrors that they are, and a decidedly miniscule amount of hope.

Certainly Superman can be approached from a mature, dark, and psychological perspective, but that should never come at the expense of the character's benevolent, powerful soul and the hope and joy his existence inspires.

In Superman's latest dark-reboot transformation, something beautiful and universally appealing about the character has been lost in the name of "seriousness", and both filmmaker and movie goer never seem to consider that lots of screaming, death, destruction, and darkness is not synonymous with "depth" and "quality".

People today are not averse to the positivity, joy, and moral righteousness of Superman. They're averse to the cheesiness associated with his past, and feeling as though the character is rubbing his goodness in their face. That's all. They don't want him to be obnoxious. They want him to be tough and strong and capable without saying trite things or behaving like a "goody goody". The cheesiness is what needed to go, not the pleasure, not the wish fulfillment, not the altruism and the selflessness of the character.

It is time to inject some hope back into Superman, to return him to his universally appealing roots whilst simultaneously making him pertinent to modern audiences.

If Superman is fundamentally about joy, goodness, morality, happiness, and wish-fulfillment as I contend, then he is best suited for the medium founded on the same principles.

Superman belongs in a video game.

The nature of Superman's powers, particularly his ability to fly and travel virtually anywhere (even into the farthest reaches of space), seems to raise a pretty clear conundrum for developers. The trouble with any video game structure when Superman is the lead playable character is that, given the current technology, there will be inevitable contrivances set in place to limit the Man of Steel's abilities and thus impede a player's desires.
These inevitable limitations are seen as a hindrance, and, in the past, have resulted in terrible video games that negate what's fun about the Man of Steel.
Even with a massive open-world to explore, players would eventually hit an invisible wall or ceiling. Players wouldn't be able to fly through the ground to the center of the earth. Players wouldn't be able to fly to Australia. Players wouldn't be able to fly laps around the sun.
Players wouldn't be able to do things that, conceivably, they could do as Superman and that they've seen Superman do in comics, cartoons, and films.
Due to Superman's super strength, punching any human opponent would result in that opponent's immediate death.
Who are Superman's enemies in a video game then? Where is the challenge? With so much power, what can Superman actually do in a video game that's consistently fun and representative of the character?
When faced with the possibility of a Superman game, commenters, gamers, and video game journalists will harp on the fact that Superman is just too powerful for there to be a challenge and, simultaneously, that if his power is reduced in any way that it will result in a less enjoyable experience that compromises the character.
So Superman is caught in gaming limbo, a Catch-22 that has plagued him in various mediums for a long time.
But no one is offering a solution to this supposed problem. No one has an answer, even going so far to suggest that developer Rocksteady (famous for The Arkham series) shouldn't even bother with Superman, and instead tackle the likes of Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

I refer to this Catch-22 as a supposed problem for one very simple reason:

it is not actually a problem!
Our perspective is the problem. Not Superman.

What if we simplified our approach to the character?
What if we considered who he really is and what his values are?
What if we reimagined integrating him into a video game, allowing his personality to dictate his actions and his environment?
What if we started by realizing one simple truth: if the game is good (regardless of inevitable contrivances that limit a player's ability) people will love it?

If the gameplay is good then the inevitable limitations and contrivances that get in the way of a player's ability to "do anything" as Superman simply won't be a problem anymore. It's important to remember that there hasn't been a Superman game with fundamentally good gameplay. The lack of good gameplay is the most basic reason for the lack of a good Superman game, not necessarily the limitations placed on Superman in such games.

People didn't think Batman would work in a game either, and that's because the essence of the character wasn't brought to life in a game that actually played well.

Put Superman in a game that actually functions, looks good, and feels good, and people will love it, inevitable limitations and all.

And this is why Rocksteady has proven themselves the best studio to tackle the Man of Steel. They put limits on Batman in Arkham Asylum, and yet you never feel those limits. They understood the fundamental abilities of The Dark Knight and how to make players feel like Batman. It is in creating that feeling that the success of a Superman game lies, and a good writer and good designers with open minds could easily realize this elusive dream.

How do you make players feel like Superman in an inevitably limited open-world Metropolis?
How do you make players feel like Superman and give them enemies to fight, without putting too many limitations on their power and sacrificing fun?
How do you make players feel like Superman and provide a challenge?
Here are some possible answers:

Superman actually provides a lot of solutions to typical design issues. He is a self-contained multi-talented gameplay entity that acts as his own vehicular transport and suit of gadgets. With Superman there's no need for players to have to steal pedestrian vehicles or upgrade their powers over time. Superman's all purpose nature immediately strips away typical barriers between gamers and an open environment.
That's a good, unique, and fun aspect of the character that should be permitted to flourish, regardless of the invisible walls that make it impossible for gamers to achieve any conceivable feat of strength or flight.
An intelligent design team would offer gamers Superman's suit of powers immediately, with an accessible open world right from the start.
But to reign gamers in without compromising the fun or the character, it will be essential to remind players just who they're inhabiting.

Superman, the man, wouldn't randomly blow up a building, fly to the center or the earth, or even fly to the edge of the galaxy simply because he could. There would need to be a reason for all of those actions and that reason would be dictated by altruism.
What if, in the video game's story, Metropolis was under threat of constant attack? What if Brainiac invaded Earth and remained hovering over Metropolis? This would likely cause mass hysteria, perhaps inspiring some of the Man of Steel's greatest foes to attack amidst the chaos, thus providing players with a wide assortment of activities and battles.
What if Doomsday was unleashed upon Metropolis?
Superman simply wouldn't leave. He would stay until everything was returned to normal.

In this way, typical complaints leveled at inevitable contrivances that comprise a player's fun and Superman's ability to do anything are answered with a logical solution - player's are inhabiting Superman's skin, not the other way around.
Instead of placing arbitrary invisible walls that keep players from exploring the entire planet or doing anything they want, a good Superman game will contextualize those limitations as Superman's choices, and integrate barriers in a more natural, less obvious way.
Our typical open-world whims would need to be provided the kind of focus Rocksteady offers in the Batman: Arkham series. In placing Batman in a situation where he wants to stay on Arkham Island, the sight of that inaccessible Wayne Tower in the distance doesn't sting so much. Firstly, you're just happy to be playing a good video game (that's what you're focused on - what you can do, not what you can't), and secondly, you understand why that limitation is there and how it makes sense within the context of a story.

The same could very easily be achieved with Superman, albeit in a larger, more open Metropolis.
Superman wants to be around his friends and family. He wants to be near Metropolis so that he can protect it. And this is where the supposed limitations inherent in video games actually provide some creative solutions to the "problem" of Superman.
Because he wants to be around his friends and family, there are only so many conceivable environments we would ever actually see in a typical Superman story:

The Fortress of Solitude
A section of outer space/The Moon
And so the game has its basic environments, dictated more by Superman's wants than his abilities - dictated by his humanity, his love.

The way this could literally function in a game is that when players fly upward, after breaking through the clouds, they enter into a transitional cut-scene/loadscreen that shows Superman ascend into outer space, or perhaps The Moon. Players would then regain control and navigate a limited section of space, gathering collectibles, helping astronauts in trouble, engaging in boss fights, or repairing satellites; small asides that fit in line with Superman's altruistic nature and simultaneously give players the freedom to experience environments they associate with the Man of Steel.
If players fly toward the stretch of country beyond Metropolis, a similar transitional cutscene would show Superman arriving at the Kent homestead in Smallville. Once there, players could transform into Clark Kent, run chores for Ma Kent, visit Lana Lang, explore the town etc. And littering these small, but playable sections with easter eggs and memorabilia (as Rocksteady is well-known to do) would contribute to the sense that players are Superman in Superman's world even if they can't fly to Paris and Italy on a whim.

Batman: Arkham Origins makes use of this cutscene/loadscreen transition when players use the Batwing to get from the Batcave to various points in Gotham, and there is never a break in one's persistent sense of being Batman.

The exploration of these areas would be driven by the movements of the story, all the while permitting players to visit them at any time (as is the case in the smaller Arkham games). Even if the activities in these areas eventually run out, it's always nice to simply have the option to examine these areas in a game, especially when they're as beautifully realized as Rocksteady's environs.
This blend of seamless transition, beloved locations, and Superman's abilities and actions being dictated by his personality, could easily provide players the feeling of inhabiting Superman and his world.

Superman's most recognizable and most enjoyable ability is flight. While those ever-present naysayers argue that Superman's speed can't possibly be captured in a game, and that he'd be able to zip from one side of the map to the other too quickly, I contend that we should remind ourselves of not only who this man is, but how fun actually works.
Fun in a Superman game does not mean doing anything you want whenever you want because you're Superman and you can.
Fun in a Superman game means experiencing, in a well-constructed way, his powers and his world. This can be achieved in a few subtle ways, least of all the actual presentation.

A good Superman game will offer the very best motion-capture available, and watching the Man of Steel naturally shift arms as he banks in the sky, watching his cape flap wildly in the breeze, and seeing him transition from the ground to the sky in explosive, exciting animations will go a long way in capturing the essence of the character. Small graphical and technical touches like leaving small craters in the concrete when he lands and feeling the controller rumble with every step he takes subtly engender the experience with a uniquely Superman feel.
I'd like to see his speed dictated by simple momentum; how much pressure one applies to the left thumbstick so as to establish a clear link between the player and Superman. And then, to give players the thrilling sensation of going faster than a speeding bullet, perhaps one of the shoulder buttons could act as a boost, where you see Supes clenches his fists and gradually stretches into a red-blue, sound-barrier-breaking streak.
This is one concept the Superman Returns video game implemented quite well, even though the majority of the game was unsuccessful.

This is the trickiest to envision, especially given I'm merely a gamer and a Superman fan and not a designer.
The combat obviously shouldn't be a typical beat 'em up with combos and the like. Such has never worked in a Superman game, and such doesn't make proper use of the character.
When it comes to everyday crooks on the city streets, players should be able to dispatch these thugs quickly and with ease by just grabbing them and tossing them in jail or knocking them out. Or such shouldn't even be an aspect of the game.
Boss Battles involving powerful enemies that can put Superman's abilities to good use would have to make up the majority of the combat, and possibly exist as persistent, random events. Think Shadow of the Collosus meets Batman: Arkham City - powerful bosses scattered throughout the world that appear at certain times throughout the story, each challenging a different aspect of Superman's strengths.
The best point of reference I can think of for the intense, diverse combat possible in a Superman game is the BioShock series. Multiple abilities are tested in dynamic environments, often feeling like action set-pieces while somehow remaining largely unscripted. One of the reasons this works, apart from the enemy AI, is that the controls are easy to understand.
In our hypothetical next-gen Superman videogame, perhaps each of the buttons could function as one of Superman's abilities to create a quick, fluid, one-button-press combat system that permitted gamers to switch between and combine all abilities on the fly, in contextualized combat scenarios.
X - Punch
Y - Grab
B - Laser Eyes
A - Leap/Take off
LT - Enhance Super Power
RT - Super Speed
LB - Super Sight/See through objects (except led, of course)
RB - Super Sound
These abilities could be put to good use for puzzles created by Lex Luthor a la Akrham's Riddler Challenges, enemies dispatched by Brainniac or whoever the main villain is, and the ever-present bosses lurking throughout the city.
For example, Doomsday could always be a potential problem, in the way that Big Daddies are a persistent threat in BioShock.
The game might not be the largest open world adventure with the ever-present combat activity other, similar games boast, but such is non-essential to the Superman experience.
Superman's activity is about more than punching people - it's also about saving people, but more on that later.


It's important to remember that Superman does get tired. I don't suggest there be any arbitrary meters of any kind. In fact, there shouldn't be any HUD whatsoever in a Superman game.
Superman's powers, from super-speed to super strength to laser vision, are powered by the yellow sun. Every so often, players should have to catch some rays to have access to the higher-powered versions of their every-present abilities, and to keep Superman in overall good health.

These subtle "limitations" placed upon Superman's abilities should be woven into the story and made explicitly clear from the get-go: that he is not an all-powerful god, but an alien who requires energy, and that there is a correlation between how much energy he takes in and how much energy he can exert. Establishing this logical connection between the sun and Superman's power, not necessarily limiting him, but contextualizing and grounding him in a recognizable relationship, would go a long way in addressing the many issues people have with the character's powerful nature.

This is not to suggest he ever arbitrarily lose his powers or be stripped of powers or that he has to upgrade his powers at any point. He should always be able to fly, lift heavy objects, hear "everything", see through objects except led, and shoot lasers from his eyes. But how well he does these things should be determined by how often players soak up the sun.
When players get drunk in Grand Theft Auto IV and V the world suddenly starts to look fractured and fuzzy, and players begin to lose actual control of their avatar.
Perhaps something similar, but less severe, could be implemented into a Superman game. When he's exerted too much energy for too long, without basking in the sunlight for an extended period, he could grow weary and perhaps a little unruly. This kind of situation often occurs in Superman stories, and, when handled well, really creates a sense of accomplishment, relief, and godliness when he finally bathes in sunlight.
The visual cue for when Superman is at his strongest/highest-powered should be represented by his character model, not a visible meter. When he's feeling a little low on yellow-sun energy, he should look a little less pumped up and maybe even a little less bright. After he's bathed in the sun for a little while, he should be more beefed up and radiant.
Not only does this make a player feel like Superman by requiring them to participate in recognizable Superman-activities, it provides a payoff with access to sudden over-powered versions of laser-vision, super-speed, and super-strength.
Again, players should always have access to Superman's basic suit of powers, but offering a way to gain over-powered versions to be used at key points in the game is a typical video game trope that can actually work in Superman's world, and bind gamers to that world in a tangible, emotional way.

Actually seeing Superman gradually grow tired and downtrodden after having endured great hardship establishes a strong link in a gamer's mind between themselves, the events in the game, and the Man of Steel. Such a system is not unlike the gradual wear and tear Batman's suit takes in the Arkham games throughout the course of the adventure, only this system wouldn't be purely cosmetic, and instead subtly influence gameplay.

Such a feature would also inspire sympathy for Superman, revealing that he is indeed affected by the constant altruism and goodness he shows Metropolis. This allows for interesting thematic issues to develop; the more selfless Superman is, the more beat-up and downtrodden he becomes. The more time he takes for himself, the stronger he becomes.

And so players are forced to deal with a problem Superman himself would naturally deal with - how do I balance my need to save all of these other people with my need to maintain my own health?

There needs to be an overarching narrative that cohesively unites the environments and side-missions of the game. As the Arkham games demonstrated, providing a coherent narrative where a single villain motivates the actions of the hero is key. That narrative could then be peppered with logical challenges and adversaries for Superman to overcome.
Using the previous example, let's imagine that the mysterious presence of Brainiac's ship has inspired wide-spread panic throughout Metropolis. Villains such as Metallo or Doomsday have been unleashed amidst the chaos and Superman has to stop them.
Between these prolonged boss battles and main story objectives, Superman should have to restore Metropolis to a place of peace and stability. Activities could involve rebuilding structures, stopping fires, and putting high priority criminals back in jail. And players would see the effect their kindness has on Metropolis as the city turns from chaos to serenity (just as players have to take care of Superman, they have to take care of the city).

"Helping people" in games often results in incredibly obnoxious gameplay, however, and it's important to keep in mind what's fun about Superman when building side missions. Far too often side-missions in super hero games are not nearly as grandiose or satisfying as they should be, playing like nonsensical filler and reducing heroes to mere errand boys. The trick to making the aforementioned "rebuilding/helping" activities actually fun is in how they use Superman's power and in their presentation.

While Superman would certainly stop to help an old lady across the street, such an event should be an exception rather than the rule (perhaps an amusing way to get an achievement/trophy).

The foundation of Superman side-missions has to involve visitations to space, Smallville, and The Fortress of Solitude, as well as allow players to engage with Metropolis in an exciting, less passive way. Rather than filling the world with obnoxious obligations, designers need to create brief, thrilling adventures within the larger narrative that test the player's ability.

While runaway trains, falling planes, and burning buildings are old Superman standbys, even passé to some, implementing such events in a detailed, satisfying way through a mix of cutscenes, the use of Superman's specific abilities, and a brief, but strong subplot is far better than fisticuffs with mob bosses and purse snatchers on the sidewalk.

To discover these side-missions, various non-essential activities, and collectibles, players could fly up above the city and activate Superman's super-powered-hearing. Scanning the city below, players would be able to locate where crimes are taking place, where people are in need, and where help is needed just by listening to the world.

This, coupled with his superior vision, could even be reimagined as the actual map.

Superman is not the problem.

We are the problem.

The Superman character lends himself perfectly to modern video games (and any medium so long as he's actually written well and understood by the artists creating him), and it is only in our limited perspective and approach to the character that he seems ill-fit for the medium. So many video games have successfully provided gamers with a suit of empowering super-abilities and an environment tailored for the use of such abilities: BioShock, Crysis, inFamous, Assassin's Creed, and Batman: Arkham to name a few.

For the Superman character to work well in a video game, developers need to reimagine inherent video game barriers as natural extensions of the character's psyche and world instead of creating arbitrary limitations. And gamers need to be reconditioned from the start of the game to understand that they are becoming Superman, that Superman will not simply act as a vehicle for achieving their far-fetched whims.

Grounding the character in tangible relationships with his friends, his family, and his environments, populating his world with an assortment of exciting activities that highlight the character's altruistic nature and his relentless power will surely give players the Superman experience they crave.

Superman remains every bit as pertinent and significant to society as ever, he simply deserves to be handled with intelligence and care. He comes from a place of innocence a joy, and this must be embraced and appreciated for all other aspects of the character to flourish. He is unique in his morality and kindness, a comic book character that exists in a complex, but instantly recognizable human dream.

He deserves to be more than just another brooding thug that does things "on his terms". He is infinitely more fascinating as our adopted son, a friend who yearns to give thanks and is willing to sacrifice all for the betterment of all. This is a message that needs to be passed on to a new generation, a positive, nourishing notion that inspires imaginations, not frustrations. It is a message that deserves to be shared, and it has become more and more scarce in Hollywood's increasingly bleak comic book interpretations.

Being that videogames provide a level of interactivity and depth of experience unavailable in other media, and that both the Superman character and the videogame media originate from the same joyful, childlike need for play, imagination, and benevolence, there is no better place for the Last Son of Krypton to find his home, and for his enduring message of peace and bravery to thrive.

Follow on Twitter @MaximusWrestler for more gaming editorials, news, and reviews.

1 comment:

  1. Great idea and an enjoyabe read. Shame you are not a developer. That pitch for a Superman game would win over any publisher and if executed like you described would sell millions. Either way kudos to you and hopefuly Rocksteady can/will create a game like thi.