From Hero to Zero?

This October two superheroes have specific games being released in their name. One of those is Spiderman in the Beenox-developed Spiderman: Edge of Time.  The other is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City. One of these has a Metacritic score of 59, is criticized for its blandness, and shares many of the disappointing traits synonymous with attempts to adapt different media into a videogame format. The other sits higher up at a rating of 95, and has been declared as the greatest superhero game of all time by some journalists. As a hint, the good one has wings…

Sadly, the default position is that having this high-quality interpretation is a welcome surprise instead of the accepted norm. The idea of a licensed videogame adaptation is one that rarely manages to deliver much player excitement, with superheroes in particular having had less than decent stabs at interactive outings.  Superman was perhaps the most egregious, but others have hardly showered themselves in glory; Wolverine, Thor and Iron Man have all suffered from poor gaming incarnations, with Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Star Wars at least managing some modicum of quality without ever managing to hit the giddy heights of amazing — despite the might of Lego blocks.

This makes Rocksteady’s achievement of creating not just one but two almost peerless interpretations of a character many have different perceptions about a remarkable feat. The major reasons that most of these games fall by the wayside are easy to identify, but apparently difficult to overcome: a sloppy reliance on the brand, a compressed development time, failure to grasp the fundamentals of the franchise appeal, and worst of all an inability to combine engaging mechanics to the facets of the license. Examining Batman, none of these apply.

So, to discover what normally goes wrong, we must first look at what Batman: Arkham Asylum did right. The most important of these factors was aligning Batman’s abilities with environments and actions that fitted the known traits of the character in a way that provided challenge, entertainment and logical sense. It took every aspect of the character’s arsenal and provided reasons to use them that fitted within the game world. The cloak-and-dagger nature of Batman’s work was superbly replicated through the quasi-stealth mechanics implemented and the way the thugs became increasingly alarmed with each successful takedown carried out. Swooping between gargoyles, looking on from above, and slowly planning each move within from the shadows provided the power trip any player should feel. It re-enforced the feeling of player empowerment through making what the character actually does a fulfilling experience and showing the impact of this within the environment. In simple terms it made the player feel like the Dark Knight; it provided a window into the life of the avatar onscreen that any player could enjoy.

Crucially, Arkham Asylum did not make Batman invincible. The importance of power can only be balanced by re-enforcing fragility as a superhuman protagonist becomes boring against sub-standard hazards. Batman worked by creating a hand-to-hand melee expert who could be cut down in seconds by gunfire or sloppy planning. By toning down the difficulty, or incorrectly identifying the correct balance, the compulsiveness starts to wane as the title becomes far easier to disregard due to the lack of effort required to complete. Superman has the worst of these problems, being a man with no weaknesses, and it is a problem no developer has identified the answer to so far. Technically the character should be ripe for a game incarnation but for a the fact he is invincible to everything bar a green rock means that identifying a compelling situation that does not allow the Man of Steel to trample over everyone is near impossible. It has been tried in the past, and everyone knows how the Nintendo 64 Superman: The New Adventures turned out.

For most heroes the question of identity is where problems begin to arise. By reducing the impact of being the character as envisioned by the creators, and indeed the player, there is a disconnection between what happens on screen and how that translates into an endorphin rush of enjoyment, and it is normally for the worse. With a lack of challenge or a misunderstanding of what makes the protagonist alluring, what normally transpires is an underwhelming copycat undertaking of other games in a brand new skin and a frustration that the core aspects of the franchise have been miss-understood by the developers. Captain America’s design team decided the best thing to do was to copy Batman’s combat system but failed to understand how to implement a structure that provided space to realize what it meant to play the character. What followed was a functional and mildly enjoyable title but one that never felt uniquely tailored to the protagonist.

Arkham Asylum also respected the lore. A good game knows how much to give to the fans and how much to give to the casual observer. The amount of pure fan service throughout the title is outstanding but it is the way it is presented that makes the difference. By providing it in the form of collectibles and incidental trinkets, it never gets in the way of the main story or distracts by placing too much attention away from the central themes. The facets of the franchise’s past history that are presented range from the well-known to the slightly more obscure providing a range of information that informs and intrigues in equal measure, provoking a desire to learn more. It attempts to not just provide an experience of the hero but actively tries to make the universe as a whole appealing.

All of the above would mean nothing without a structure and environment that supported both the collectibles and the gameplay. The decision to place the whole game on Arkham Asylum Island provided the developers with a narrow remit but with plenty of opportunities to ferret many of the treasures into different areas while still maintaining a strong link to an iconic location. This was combined with a Metroid-like progression system that slowly opened up new areas of previous sections by providing different gadgetry at various points. The asylum also allowed for select villains to be introduced as fodder to the Joker’s main ploy, using them to skillfully weave in clever changes of pace.

Few displayed this better than the hallucinogenic Scarecrow sections, which allowed a change in pace and style under the guise of mental instability. The point where the game appears to restart was a genius move, creating a real surprise and a feeling of helplessness both for Batman and the player. The design decisions taken were all done to contribute to a well- paced game and to show not just what Batman could do, but how important the supporting cast both visible and invisible are to the whole make-up of the adventure and the universe as a whole. Everything revolves around enveloping the player in a world created by DC Comics and brought to life by the developers.

This care and attention is something that many other franchises fail to truly understand fully. The recently released Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine may well stick closely to the lore of the source material and be a stickler for detail, but with no context to the environment presented or the words spoken, it becomes confusing and dis-engaging. Far from piquing interest, it manages to almost go out of its way to discourage players by presenting no background information to the artifacts seen on screen. Batman contained profiles for every character presented, and in some cases a series of audio interviews to give a richer tapestry for all involved. Space Marine contains nothing that covers its world — no major character information, no standout details of the lore to provide context, and no real inclination what type of larger world exists and how interesting that world is. New players enter not knowing what an it truly means to be an Ultramarine, and will finish the game just as unaware (bar the fact you slaughter a lot of enemies).  Because of that, Space Marine feels like just about any other third-person action title to anyone that knows nothing about Space Marines.

The most heinous crime is left to those who get the ingredients correct but struggle during the cooking process. At times, developers manage to correctly identify what makes the franchise appealing and develop a solid series of mechanics around those but without finding the final bit of magic. For the LucasArts Force Unleashed series, the idea of taking Jedi powers with basic Lightsaber fighting was an obvious choice, combining the two main and well recognized aspects of the films into what should have been an enjoyable God of War-style brawler. Instead, it became dull. The Force powers failed to convince and the combat never managed to get past the mildly diverting. As a piece of fan service, it worked in a canonical sense, but as an entertaining product it became underwhelming. Nothing displayed this more than the now-infamous destruction of the Imperial Star Destroyer. It could have been the ultimate show of being a Jedi, giving the player a true sense of the power of the Force, but instead managed to create swearing and emptiness as the balance and design failed to empower the person holding the joypad.

The constrictions placed on any developer when attempting to create a product where expectations already exist is always going to be tougher than having the freedom to derive their own mechanics and environments. As much as the excitement may exist to work on a name that is recognized the world over, the biggest challenge has always been how to provide a unique stamp of identity while not losing the quintessential essence of the franchise. Taken at face value, Batman did little that had not already been done in previous games (stealth, gadgets and villains) but wrapped it all up in a way that exuded care for the brand and a deep knowledge of its source. It never attempted to follow a pre-existing storyline or piggyback on a current release. It let Rocksteady dictate its own tale at its own pace with spectacular results.

When the game is forced to tell a pre-ordained tale, problems can occur in both pacing and storytelling as compromises have to be made to follow a story into which the designers have to fit gameplay. GoldenEye may be the exception to the rule, but normally the biggest challenge has always been the struggle to find what mechanic works in the constraints provided. Mostly this provides the very definition of shoehorn. Thor predictably became a brawler, and Transformers was some bizarre driving and fighting hybrid, due to each needing to recreate a story previously told on celluloid. What producers fail to understand is that in these instances the game serves to be as much of an advert for the brand being pushed as any other type of media created. A poor game is in effect a poor advert and a blemish on the attempt by everybody to create a captivating experience.

Anything that breaks the connection between a player expectation and the gameplay reality almost entirely destroys whatever illusion is being attempted. A truly outstanding franchise game is one where the structure and the brand are treated with equal reverence throughout the process; where an original idea is used with the characters to deliver an experience that is the developers’ own, removing the need to pander to committee-based design or an enforced structure derived from a companion product, the results have a far better chance to become a success.

The recent Batman titles work because they stand apart from Christopher Nolan’s current film trilogy by creating their own identity and paying a stronger homage to the comic book heritage. No developer aims to create a bad game, much less a licensed game, and every gamer realizes that. But to break the trend of poor incarnations of known characters, a more robust understanding of who that character is and how to create an engaging adventure around that is where the focus needs to be moved. After all, when Nathan Drake is a better Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones in the gaming space, surely that cannot be seen as right?

3 Responses to “From Hero to Zero?”

  1. Onyersix says:

    Very well constructed piece there. You had my full attention with your views, and I was impressed to see the thought that you had put in with your comparisons and references to other big name franchises.

  2. KingOfArcadia says:

    Bravo sir, bravo. One of the most well-written articles I’ve come across in a game site in a long time, if not ever.

  3. Mr Nice says:

    I must say absolutely great piece of writing. Well constructed & delivered. Also very true of the current problems occurring in this genre. Let us hope more people take note of these words during the production of games.

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