Hard Project: Superman
Superheroes owe their entire existence to Superman. There are worst places to start off. Sure, we’ve spent the last several years inundated with writers who feel that you can’t relate to Superman or that it’s too difficult to give Superman compelling challenges, but if you can’t think of a good setup to tell stories about an alien who was raised by humans and then decided that he liked people so much he wanted to protect all of them forever? That says more about your lack of imagination than the character.
What’s weird, though, is that we’ve never gotten a good video game based off of the Man of Steel. Not a one.
There have been some tolerable versions of Supes in fighting games here and there, yes, although Injustice loses loads of points right from the word go for buying into the “but what if we made Superman evil” school of thought. But every single game version has been some flavor of disappointment, with Superman 64 essentially being used as a synonym for Worst Game Ever. Why in the hell is that? Why is it so difficult to make a good game based around the Last Son of Krypton?
Invincibility’s a hell of a power
Superman is invulnerable. He’s super-strong. He’s super-fast. He is, in fact, really hard to actually hurt or inconvenience in any way. This doesn’t mean a good writer can’t place him in awkward situations, because Superman wants nothing more than to protect people, minimize collateral damage, keep everyone safe, and so forth. But it does mean that when you’re walking into a video game, your player character starts off as being unable to be harmed.
Usually, Superman’s invulnerability is just sort of casually ignored, but in a way that makes the metaphor of Superman fall down a little. One of the most important implications about the character which I’ve always liked is that Superman is, in some ways, almost archetypical in his goodness. You can’t take that away with fists or with guns. Ignoring it means that you’re removing part of the character for the sake of gameplay, which is usually going to happen anyway since, again, the guy is a flying super-fast hero with the strength to tear through anything. Games based upon him almost always give him physical challenges, but these are not challenging to him.
But part of the fun of that fantasy is that Superman breaks all of the rules. He should be in some kind of danger because there are dozens of people around him with guns, but nope! He’s Superman, he’s invulnerable and can’t be hurt. That central joy of being able to just break all of the rules and save everyone is consistently missing from these games. You don’t buy a Superman video game to not be invulnerable, you buy it because you want to play a guy made of pure goodness who can’t be harmed.
Hard to write
I hinted at this above, but the fact of the matter is that for a lot of people, Superman is hard to write in a compelling fashion.
Part of this is because the dude’s been around for so long that a lot has already been done with him. We’ve seen Superman stories that already run the gamut, covering pretty much everything you can conceive of, taking the character in all sorts of directions. That limits the amount of space you have.
Another part is the fact that, as people have noted over the years, Superman has a pretty thin folder of worthwhile villains. Lex Luthor is a great villain, no argument. But what other good ones are there? General Zod, who is basically Evil Superman. Bizarro, another kind of Evil Superman. Braniac, Evil Opposite Superman. The Parasite, maybe? Metallo? You either need to come up with someone completely new for Supes to fight or pit him against a pretty narrow band of individuals, all of whom have been written about endlessly simply because they’re part of the short list of plausible opponents.
But I think the core of this is simply that a Superman video game wants to be about something different than what attracts designers to the game. A good Superman run would be more like some sort of ersatz puzzler – how can you save all of these people from all of these chaotic happenings across an entire city? How can you be creative enough? Sure, you have super-speed, but it still takes you time, and you can’t do everything. Actual harm to yourself isn’t the challenge at all. And it’s hard to write a compelling game when the usual tools of game designers are taken away from you. Which is compounded, really, by the next point.
There are easier options available
It could be argued that the worst thing to ever happen for future Superman games was Batman: Arkham Asylum. Because while that game was great, it also made the point that it’s a lot easier to make a game based on nearly any of the other DC heroes.
Batman’s an easy character to make a game about. He’s already vulnerable, he’s just as iconic, and he has plenty of tricks thanks to all of his gadgets. The Arkham series has shown just how much can be done with that very basic premise. And the Dark Knight is hardly the only hero DC has that lends a bit more naturally to a game in which your character is supposed to be facing the risk of death on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure Green Lantern alone could carry a whole game franchise if someone would take the time to make the cast and story interesting in a macro sense.
And good old Kal-el has a pretty big boulder to shove up the hill, because the Superman games that stick out in people’s minds are the ones that are staggeringly awful. Betting that you can make a better one is almost more painful than not trying at all, because every flaw in your game is going to be mercilessly ripped apart. No one wants to make the next Superman 64. Why not just license someone easier to make a game about, like Wonder Woman?
I’m kidding, of course. No one ever asks about Wonder Woman on the corporate level.
So it’s rough making a game about Superman. But really, guys, if you’re listening? Destruction sim in which you’re constantly racing against time to save everyone. That’s the trick. Boss fights are a matter of minimizing damage while still beating your opponent. Get on it, that would rock.