They currently dominate TV and film. So where are all the superhero games?
Videogame execs must be looking at the Marvel Connected Universe, or MCU, with tremendous envy. This is one of the greatest tricks the entertainment industry has ever pulled, an elegant combination of multiple franchises that means fans no longer wait two or three years for a story to be continued, but a mere matter of months. It is the cinematic equivalent of mobile-game cross-promotion – serving ads about a new game to users of the popular old one – but on a far grander, far better received and far more lucrative stage.
If you’re prepared to reach a bit, there’s certainly a case for this sort of thing to be more common in games. Ubisoft could quite easily tie its forthcoming PVP pirate game Skull & Bones to the Assassin’s Creed universe, for instance. Perhaps it could position Starlink as being an Animus projection of some kind. Yet the whole thing falls apart when you realise that long-running videogame series struggle for continuity even within their own universes. Yes, the Animus ties the Assassin’s Creed universe together, but this is a series that changes its protagonist every autumn. Who are you going to put in Starlink? Desmond? ACIII’s Connor? Let’s not.
The connected universe doesn’t work for games because publishers, commendably, seek a certain breadth in their portfolios. Yes, you can put the Hulk in a Thor movie. But you can’t put a Destiny Guardian in a Call Of Duty game, or a Battlefield grunt in a new Titanfall, without the fiction of both games falling apart. No one wants to see Spyro in Sekiro, Marcus Fenix cropping up in Halo, or a Nathan Drake cameo in The Last Of Us. No doubt the boardroom would love it, but the notion of a videogame publisher’s connected universe is never going to get off the ground.
Yet it’s nonetheless a surprise that Marvel’s own achievement has yet to really make it to videogames. It is a tremendous cash cow, in theory: for all the obvious financial potential of the ten-year Star Wars deal that EA struck in 2013, it is likely nothing compared to what bringing the MCU to games would do to a publisher’s coffers. There would be problems to solve first, yes. Chiefly, that this is an industry that, at the top end of the budgetary scale, continues to put narrative a few rungs lower on the ladder of priorities than it should. But there’s a broader, more fundamental problem to solve than that. Superhero movies are great. Superhero games, though, are boring.
The Hollywood director Kevin Smith makes a point in grossout stoner comedy Mallrats that explains, in a roundabout way, the problem that superhero games face. A character rants about how Superman and Lois Lane could never be an item in real life because, at the point of climax, he would kill her instantly. This is the sort of awkward space that games occupy: not literally, of course – we suspect a superhero sex scene would be in violation of the terms of the licence – but in the way they examine the realities of a person, or a hero, going about their business.
There’s a reason Batman has been the only superhero to enjoy success in games over the past couple of generations. Bruce Wayne has no superpowers; his abilities come from his finances, and his commitment to his chosen cause. He remains beatable, and beatuppable, and that gives his games the necessary tension. Similarly, Peter Parker may be able to walk up walls and shoot webs from his wrists, but punch him in the face and he falls over just like the rest of us.
Yes, every superhero has their Achilles heel, but how would they manifest themselves in a videogame? No one wants to play an Incredible Hulk game in which the protagonist randomly turns back into a weedy scientist. An Iron Man game falls apart the second the baddies start rocking up with EMPs. And what happens when Lex Luthor decides to send the boys out with guns loaded with Kryptonite bullets? Films require tension; the sense that nothing is quite guaranteed. But games need to express that feeling for much longer, while also making the player feel more powerful the longer they play. Typically, that means introducing tougher bad guys. In Activision’s 2011 game Prototype – an open-world game of superpowers that is one of several similar games to which Marvel’s SpiderMan owes a debt – the answer was helicopters. What’s more powerful than a man who is stronger than all the other men? A machine, one with whirring rotor blades to plausibly decimate a superhero’s health bar, with passenger seats for men with rocket launchers.
Helicopters are no match for Spider-Man, as one story mission makes perfectly clear; a few QTEpowered volleys of web fire can bring down anything, it turns out. It’s to Insomniac’s great credit that it manages to make you feel vulnerable even as you’re twirling through the night sky with effortless, superhuman grace, but it wouldn’t be possible if the source material didn’t make it so. The vast majority of Parker’s MCU stablemates simply wouldn’t be capable of it.
Perhaps it’s for the best. Over the past few years our Netflix recommendations, like the local cinema listings, have become rather one-note. And whatever the lens we view them through, we like to feel like we, rather than some costumed twonk who’s knocking on for 100 years old, are the hero. We do think there’s mileage in that connected universe idea, though, if only because we’d love to see Cristiano Ronaldo preening his way through a new Mirror’s Edge.
There’s a reason Batman has been the only superhero to enjoy success in games