“There is a right and a wrong in the universe and that distinction is not hard to make.”
I love gaming and I love comics, but rarely do the twain meet. Well, rarely do they meet in any semblance of awesome. We’ve been spoiled. The world knows what good video games are. The world knows what good comic books are: the ones produced by DC (shut up, Marvel). There have been some titles that combine the two industries into one, like Sunsoft’s Batman ’89 and Batman: Return of the Joker, Injustice Gods Among Us (you could argue that’s the first great Superman game), Lego Batman, or others from Marvel comics such as Marvel vs Capcom 2, or there’s the recent Arkham series too. But this article isn’t about those other heroes. And as amazing as Arkham Asylum, City and Knight are, this article isn’t about the Batman.
Today it’s about the champion of truth, justice and the American way, the Man of Steel, the most recognizable of all superheroes for he is the grandfather and origin of the concept: Superman. Nobody knows what to do with Superman. When I started reading Superman’s comics after getting tired of Batman and Spider-Man, it suddenly dawned on me. The things I was reading had been around for some time. All of the lore, the weight, the depth, the nuance, the cast, the setting and the meaning of this character of ideals were presented to me. And I realized nobody understood Superman. Sure, people know who he is by name. But they don’t realize what he uniquely embodies. They don’t realize that he represents aspirations, trust, goodness, acceptance and that he alone can have the unique adventures that he has.
Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, possibly the greatest title for the Man of Tomorrow there is, was written as a love letter to a character who can go anywhere, do anything, experience anything and fight anything. This concept alone sets him apart. No one superhero is that comprehensive, that boundless and without limit. Yet, despite his 75+ years of comic history and widespread fame, nobody has the slightest clue about how to make a great Superman game, how to get beyond the common, rudimentary ideas about him, the same old villains we see in every film, or how to get into the characters head.
People say that Superman is boring. What they actually mean to say is that they know nothing about Superman. But just look at the selection of game’s under the Man of Steel’s yellow belt!
Crap like Superman on Atari, Superman the arcade game, Superman: the Man of Steel on the Sega Master System, The Death and Return of Superman for the SNES (better), and everyone’s favorite punching bag: Superman64. The last one is widely accepted to be the worst game ever made, or one of them at least. These demonstrate that you can’t just throw Supes into a side-scroller beat ’em up setting or some stupid flying simulator. You’ve got to use a little more imagination for a guy who can literally do anything and go anywhere. Superman isn’t about just beating up bad guys or flying through rings around the city.
I personally believe that since Rocksteady Studios has wrapped up its delightful dive into the world of the Batman that they ought to take their psychological and comics-honoring approach and apply it to the Last Son of Krypton. In fact, there’s a great title right there. Just as the Arkham games drew from the rich narrative of the Batman and latched onto the name of Gotham’s house for psychos, why not draw from the similar wealth of information available for Superman? The Big Blue Boyscout didn’t survive for three quarters of a century of American literature for lack of creative material.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My apologies. Here’s what we need to do. Everything is friendlier with lists. So I made a list. Here are 5 things that Rocksteady needs to do at least to produce the first great Superman video game, one just as inspiring, just as captivating and just as shocking as the Arkham games. They can call it “the Last Son of Krypton” if they want and give me a cut of the share. Or not.
#1. Make it open-world
This is a no brainer considering how many open-world games there are now. Forget crawling through stages, Superman can go anywhere so allow him to go anywhere. I’m not saying they need to render the entire planet, or universe for that matter. Obviously give him due reason to stay localized around his pet project, Metropolis, with a few narrative-based excursions to the Moon, or to Smallville, to the Fortress of Solitude, to Alpha Centauri, to the Sun, heck if they have the guts, maybe even to Gotham or the Watchtower.
But don’t get carried away and make this a Justice League or World’s Finest game. Keep it about Superman. Allow him to explore the sprawling cityscape of the greatest city in the world and give the player a reason to understand and believe why Superman himself is fascinated by this burg. Invest us in Metropolis. Put it in a state of emergency, not the usual hum-ho. Make it huge. Make it busy. Make it packed with action. Make it visually interesting and detailed, complete with cries for help that he can hear all across the horizon, with x-ray vision that takes Batman’s detective vision to the next level and allows Supes to peer through skyscrapers to see what’s happening (which would also “inadvertently” solve another issue: the complaint that Superman can just fly through buildings and walls. Why would he want to if it caused property damage, if he had no good reason to and if he could see that there are people in the building?). Make Metropolis an environment worthy of the Man of Tomorrow with things for him to do ranging from the mundane car accident or cat in a tree to stopping an alien invasion, tracking down supervillains or fighting off a giant frickin’ robot. Make him fight a giant frickin’ robot, Rocksteady! Is this too much to ask? All of these things would push the technology to the next level, but it already exists and it was already implemented on a smaller scale in Arkham Knight.
Obviously, Superman’s X-Ray Vision will need to be less techie than Batman’s Detective Vision.
#2. Strip him of his powers
Perhaps the biggest reason why people complain that Superman is boring is because he is practically omnipotent. Thank the Silver Age of comics for that. They added baloney like super-mathematics, super-landscaping, and super-friction. Yes. I said super-friction.
And don’t even get me started on the super-kiss from Superman II. There are a multitude of articles spattered across the fringes of the internet discussing Superman’s weird and bizarre array of superpowers. We all know he can do stuff but in this game, make him do less stuff. At first.
Don’t start Superman off at the beginning of the game as a god-like entity capable of breaking the speed of light or pushing planets out of orbit. Take away all of his powers. All of them. Okay, almost all of them if you have to. Maintain his determination, idealism, intimidation, poise, selflessness, all of the things that make him a heroic person but get rid of his superpowers and have him slowly gain them back, opening up new areas to explore across Metropolis or the world, and new baddies to battle. While you’re at it, allow him to accumulate other upgrades like different suits, different artifacts, different allies, even different powers. Superman has gained new powers in the past. It’s not unheard of.
See the thing is peeps don’t realize that Batman doesn’t start off in Arkham Asylum as full on Mary Sue Batman. He’s stripped of all of his gadgets except for the batarang. He doesn’t even have his car right at the start. He regains his tools through the course of the storyline. It feels natural and eventually Batman reaches this colossal peak of physical and technical prowess where he can operate at comic book Batman level and take down hordes of thugs and giant muscle-heads. Keep the same approach with Supes. Have him regain the fundamentals as he goes along through the story (taking care to have it make sense that he would lose and regain powers in the first place). Have him regain super-hearing (doing so first would make him feel helpless, able to hear the weeping of a city but unable to do practically anything about it!), then telescopic vision, x-ray vision, and flight in an order that allows him to focus on saving people more efficiently, since that’s primary to his character. Then have him regain his heat-vision, frost-breath, super-strength, super-speed, the capacity to survive the vacuum of space, and finally his invulnerability once the credits roll. Doing so will allow the character to be broken, brought to his lowest level, so we can empathize and understand what makes him function psychologically. Allow the player to understand why he doesn’t wear a mask to hide his face, why he chooses to wear the bright primary colors, why he doesn’t rule the planet with all his power, why he operates during the day, why he hangs about Metropolis, why he chose to be a reporter, why he is infatuated with a human woman named Lois, why he believes in what he believes in, why he represents the ideal man in the face of insurmountable opposition, before bringing back his oomph and then we can all applaud the journey, the analysis and the return of the ultimate hero.
#3. Craft a story that pushes the character to the limit
Don’t make it a standard outing for the character. None of the acclaimed Arkham games made it seem like a regular “day-in-the-life” of the world’s greatest detective. The Batman lost something in those stories. He was hurt by them. They were based on some of the darkest moments in the Dark Knight’s history, referencing milestone stories like the Killing Joke and Death in the Family. This Superman game should do exactly the same. Figure out a way to wound the character deeply so that we can see why he is the greatest hero on Earth. Make him lose something dear so we can see what makes him tick. Pa and even Ma Kent are the obvious candidates for loss, but there are more inventive and inspired choices, I’m sure.
Here’s a novel idea (Rocksteady, if you’re reading this, I call 35% royalties on each sale): Lex Luthor’s (voiced by Clancy Brown) corporate sabotage, an area where Superman is woefully unequipped, allows the magnate to gain multiple supply companies that feed the bustling populace of Metropolis’ millions, and he uses his new vantage point to infuse the Metropolitan diet with an organic nano-machine produced in parts by obscure Lexcorp subsidiaries. The nano-machines are ingested, they react to the natural sunlight that the Metro-citizens absorb during the day and convert that solar energy into red-sun energy, a wavelength of radiation known to significantly reduce Superman’s super-capabilities. Luthor knows that this is a poetic joust against the Man of Steel, slowly killing him with the very people he has tried to keep safe through the same means by which he gains his powers: solar radiation, albeit perverted into red sunlight. Oh and also the radiation conversion is giving everybody cancer, but Luthor knows and doesn’t care. Superman cannot stop Luthor, even if he can figure out what’s happening to him, because that would entail destroying the citizens of his beloved city or abandoning them altogether. Coupled with this crisis is the fact that Luthor announces across live media that Superman has failed to protect the city from its recent crises (say an invasion or the attack of a main supervillain, doesn’t matter as long as it is really Luthor who has secretly instigated it). The public announcement causes the people to turn away from Supes like real life people have come to distrust the government and become cynical of the ideal of America, and they turn instead to Luthor as the solution to their problems.What’s more, the announcement draws all of the lowlifes and supervillains out of the shadows to confront Superman in his weakness. A man hunt. The Man of Tomorrow has to struggle to beat back all of these foes without his powers, solve the mystery of why he’s losing his capabilities, come to grips with the fact that he may have to live powerless, then figure out how to stop the red-sun conversion, all while trying to keep innocents out of harm’s way and eventually confronting Luthor (who, for kicks, should be in league with Brainiac for the ultimate final battle of a re-powered Superman against a gigantic Brainiac avatar; I’m dead set on my giant frickin’ robot).
#4. Reference Superman’s vast history
Something that really made the Arkham series shine was actually something really small. Besides for tight gameplay and involving story, the Arkham games paid homage to hundreds of elements of Batman’s history, coming up with the quintessential experience. It was even taglined: “Be the Batman.”
A lot of that was because the designers knew the character and his background, and because they enlisted top talent that knew the character, too: writer Paul Dini, veteran voice actors Conroy and Hamill for Bats and the Joker respectively. They relied heavily on the DCAU and on historic plot points in the life of Batman in the comics. The games were filled with cameos for lesser and greater villains, info snippets, nods, trophies, acknowledgements and references to some very obscure Batman lore.
All of that should be present in this Superman game, and he has had an even longer history than his darker counterpart. Not only should we feel the physics of pushing through the air at mach 10, the weight of Superman’s punches and the force of his heat-vision, we should also feel like we’ve entered into his rich existence through the wealth of his background. We should feel like we can “believe a man can fly”, like we can be Superman ourselves, because really, that’s what the Man of Tomorrow means as an ideal.
#5. Give him some real challenges to face
DC is the king when it comes to comic book villains, with baddies known the world over. But the world is tired of Lex Luthor. The world has seen enough of General Zod. Let’s have some great boss fights. Succeed by getting into the heads of these characters, the villains, and dive in to explore their psychology. This Superman game needs to turn Supes’ villains from walls for him to dash his powers against into living, breathing, messed-up individuals, serial killers, crime bosses, alien warlords, etc.
A narrative like the one above allows room for plenty of sidequests, exploration, open-ended strategy, and it could feature villains from Superman’s extensive gallery. Get Doomsday in there. Atomic Skull. Despero. Toyman. Parasite. Mr. Mxyzptlk. The forces of Apokolips. Darkseid. Solaris. Evil Kryptonians. Phantom Zone prisoners. Brainiac in various forms. The Legion of Doom. Alexander Luthor Jr. Superboy Prime. Nuclear Man on the Moon. Metallo. Waller, ARGUS and the Suicide Squad in the interests of the US government. Cyborg Superman. Bizarro and the Bizzaro-League. The Prankster. Mannheim and Intergang. The cult of the Antimonitor. A rogue Supergirl and H’el. Queen Bee. Maxima. Lobo. Mongul. Even Batman.
How sick would it be if you had to fight Batman in Metropolis, your city?
I’m not a game designer, but I’ve played some great games. I’ve read some great comics. I know and you know, like him or not, that Superman is one of the most enduring characters America has come up with. It’s time someone took him for what he is and made something great with his history, someone who understands the character. Capture all of the humility, the child-like awe, the adventurousness, the resolution, the honesty, the violence of the Man of Steel. And giving him a personality doesn’t mean making him a douche!
Do you agree with me, or think I’m full of crap? Is it possible to make a great Superman game and do the original prototypical Super Man justice?
Update: Well… it’s been cancelled.