Sometimes, the lack of a product proves more noteworthy than the presence of one. To date, we have seen no video game tie-in to the recently released Man of Steel. Given the infamous history of subpar Superman titles, gamers welcome the omission. However, past developers’ inability to capture the experience of being Superman does not preclude modern developers from taking a fresh look at the challenge.
For inspiration, they should look to the Man of Steel’s DC Comics compatriot, the Dark Knight. The experience of being Batman was nailed by Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum. Playing that game and its even more successful follow-up Arkham City leaves the impression that the developers cared immensely about the character and his world. Rather than start with the goal of making a Batman video game, which had been done many times before, they set the bar much higher and sought to convey the experience of being Batman.
No doubt, the development process on Arkham Asylum began with a list of questions. What does it feel like to be Batman? How does he interact with his world? What are his limitations, and how does he overcome them? The answers then informed the game’s mechanics. Batman uses fear against those who would prey on the fearful. That means stealth, surprise, evasion. Batman depends upon his physical prowess and high-tech gadgetry to gain the upper hand in the face of superior numbers. That calls for a deep fighting mechanic and appropriate weaponry. Thus Arkham Asylum was built as a playground tailored to the character.
The challenge of producing a Superman game as successful as the Arkham franchise is accommodating that character’s immense power. When asking what it feels like to be Superman, how he interacts with his world, and what his limitations are, the answers prove much more intimidating. Batman remains mortal, bound by the finite strength and ability of a human being. Rocksteady can therefore confine him to an island, or entrap him within the walls of a city district, without it seeming like an unreasonable limitation. Superman, on the other hand, never met a wall he couldn’t bust through. Imposing limitations in the way video games typically do, with natural barriers, invisible walls, or some other contrivance, just doesn’t work with the Man of Steel. Ultimately, by limiting him, you take away from what makes him Superman.
That said, what would it take to make a satisfying Superman video game? The nature of the character requires rethinking established game mechanics and leveraging the emerging power of next-generation hardware to present a scope and scale heretofore impossible.
What does it feel like to be Superman? What does it feel like to be a god, capable of destroying anything or anyone, faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Surely, it ought to feel damn good! It ought to feel liberating, exciting, and above all empowering. However, it also has to convey upon the character a significant sense of responsibility.
How does Superman interact with his world? Pretty much any way he sees fit. He can fly. He can travel at tremendous speed. He can bust through structures, natural or otherwise. He can kill just about anyone with a minimal amount of effort. But these abilities suggest all manner of consequences.
What are Superman’s limitations? Physically, there isn’t much that can stop him. Kryptonite is a contrivance which the recent film respectably avoided. Superman gets his power from Earth’s sun. He could therefore be reasonably contained to its proximity. Regardless, the more relevant limitations are emotional and moral. Superman can kill. He can destroy. But should he? Will that achieve his goal? He seeks not only to protect Earth but inspire humanity. Will wonton destruction accomplish that?
Considering these questions leads us to imagine certain game mechanics. Character progression has become a staple of gaming, starting out with basic abilities and leveling up to more powerful ones. Superman shouldn’t play that way. He should be brimming with power from the outset. The challenge should be reining that power in, scaling it to a given situation, and avoiding more damage than necessary.
In the video game tie-in to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, developers made him appropriately invincible and gave the city of Metropolis a health bar. If the city took too much damage, the game was over. That’s the right idea. However, it should be developed further. Instead of a simple health bar for humanity, how about a balancing act between the threat posed by a given situation and the amount of power Superman may justifiably deploy against it? Knocking down a skyscraper while trying to put out a fire would be a failure. However, knocking down the same skyscraper while trying to stop an attack by General Zod would be par for the course.
The scale of the game world should be immense, nothing short of planetary. To be Superman is to be wherever you want in the blink of an eye. Players should be able to launch into space, zip over oceans, slalom the Grand Canyon, blast through mountains, topple cities, and any of a dozen other things characteristic of Superman’s power. The destruction should be real and consequential, something made possible by the next generation of gaming technology.
An opportunity exists to craft an interesting game mechanic out of Superman’s secret identity. There may be no greater restraint upon his godlike power than pretending to be a mild-mannered reporter. Much like the Arkham games convey Batman’s skill as a detective by presenting opportunities for him to find and follow clues, a Superman game could present opportunities for Clark to obtain information under journalistic pretense. The more that gamers could choose whether to proceed as Clark or erupt as Superman, the better.
The scale and scope made possible by the next generation of gaming technology offer a tremendous opportunity for a visionary development team to take a fresh crack at removing this particular Excalibur from its stone. Whoever succeeds will earn a storied place in gaming history.