Post Script

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

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