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Friday, July 05, 2013 

When building a comics-based game, the designers don't have to take easy routes

Several months ago, AusGamers.Com wrote about what they think makes the best video game based on comic books, how they need to change, and a few other points that can apply to other forms of licensed merchandise based on comics too. For example:
There are some characters who are popular, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily make great videogame characters. There’s also the idea that some characters who aren’t necessarily as well-known as your Wolverines, Spider-Men or Batmen could make incredible videogames. While the aforementioned have enjoyed a lot of success, a continual flow of bad games (well, more recent Batman aside) means that at some point, it might be time to put them on the backburner and try something new. Thankfully we might see a push in this direction given the recent greenlight from Marvel and Activision for High-Moon Studios (Transformers: War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron) to take on the Dead Pool license. Unfortunately I’m already worried the major “Stomping Ground” pitfall explored above might be the biggest let-down to what has major potential, especially in its exploration of Dead Pool’s breach of the fourth wall, as has been explored in more modern interpretations of the character. But I digress.

The other issue that stems from an overuse of the more popular videogame characters is this ideology that whatever it is that’s making them big (read: movies) is what needs to be explored. Making a game from a movie based on a comic, as I’ll explore more deeply in a moment, is counter-productive to any potential that book and its characters might have had. It also heavily restricts the richness of the comic book world from where it all stems. As mentioned above, a place like Marvel’s New York is home to myriad heroes and villains, and the likelihood of playing through a whole game that spans weeks in-game, or even months, without coming across any of them, even in a non-meaningful way, is ludicrous. What comics offer is character through characters, and choosing to ignore the greater volume of these is a massive disservice to what made them popular enough to be given any form of transmedia treatment in the first place.
The good point here is that it's not popularity that should matter but how well you can utilize the characters in question for a game based on them. For example, even "lesser" characters like the Atom, Ant-Man, Wasp, Aquaman, Power Man, Iron Fist, Elongated Man, Plastic Man, Firebird, Jade, Jesse Quick, and goodness knows how many Legion of Super-Heroes members could make for worthy material for a video game, and not based on popularity but on how well the game is built and how fun it is to play.

Unfortunately, they're not in tune with the current situation in the comics medium, where both Marvel and DC have thrown away all character drama for the sake of their directionless crossovers, and even marginalized much of the supporting/recurring casts, or obliterated them altogether. It's gotten to the point where playing the games can be more engrossing than reading the comics (unless that game happens to be Injustice: Gods Among Us).

This also brings to mind something particularly noticeable with licensed merchandise like toy action figures: supporting casts like Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Mary Jane Watson, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson, Robbie Robertson, Glory Grant, Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, Alfred Pennyworth, Edwin Jarvis, Foggy Nelson, Iris West Allen, Linda Park West, Sapphire Stagg-Mason and numerous others do not get action figures based on them, if at all. For all I know, they probably don't appear on lunchboxes either. I do own an old thermos with Superman, Lois and Perry on it built back in the late 1970s at the time the original movie was coming out. Yet there's quite a few other supporting characters who get zero space on a lunchbox, a T-shirt or any other kind of merchandise tied into comic books. Which is ridiculous, because it just compounds the superficiality of making licensed products, which involve virtually none of the character drama past comics writers could or would put into their works. What's the point of all these toys based on comics if the builders have no interest in the supporting casts?

Back on the subject of video games, the website makes a point that comics and games are not the same thing:
Linear storytelling with little exercise in allowing players to explore a character’s powers or strengths is a massive disservice to what a videogame initially offers: an opportunity to finally be that character and not just read about their exploits. Moreover, modern games are leaning more and more towards character and environmental “systems” for varied, player-driven results. Games like Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and both Batman Arkham games are excellent examples of open-world gameplay married to player-driven systems, each resulting in emergent gameplay that is authored by the player, and not necessarily a specific game script.

Other titles like BioShock, Dead Space or Dishonored are more linear games that also employ the “systems” direction of player-driven power, the results of which leave puzzles, enemies and progression up to player interpretation and exercise, which ultimately leads to empowerment and ownership of the game's direction.

Obviously as most comics feature superheroes and villains, each with unique powers, this makes perfect sense, and so any videogame should represent this aspect. But to expand upon a point made earlier, it’s not conducive to an exploration of these characters or their powers, by players, to have them essentially locked into tightly-scripted, handheld level design. The two Spider-Man games prior to the most recent open-world one come to mind: Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time, where all players were doing was essentially activating the next chapter in a story they had very little impact over.
There is a good point here too: a game should still be a game, and like movies based on comics, it shouldn't try to be the exact same thing. Even so, that doesn't mean they couldn't use supporting casts from various comic books, something that toymakers and lunchbox builders could consider. Coloring book publishers could definitely give that a try.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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