Hard Project: Hellboy
I have given up on explaining certain franchises to people without them sounding really weird. This doesn’t bother me, exactly, but it’s in the back of my mind, so these days I think I wind up actively looking for stuff that sounds either impossible to parse, bizarre, or just plain stupid when described in the abstract. Like Hellboy, which is about a friendly demon who punches secret Nazis and folklore horror figures in the face with the key to ending the world.
Okay, all right, the 90s were a different time for all of us, especially when it comes to comics. And despite his decade of origin and those scant details, the eponymous Hellboy is not a snarling antihero, having a demeanor closer to Detective Lenny Briscoe of Law & Order – wearied, a bit gruff, but mostly concerned with doing the right thing and helping people. Yet for all the fun of the very concept, for some reason the dude’s only got two games, both of which were horrible. Why’d that happen?
That strange, wonderful premise
Let me expand from that quick gloss from above and see if Hellboy sounds any less strange. See, during World War II, a bunch of Nazis tried to summon a demon with the help of Rasputin, as you do. The summoning was disrupted, and a professor attached to the army unit found the infant demon, named him Hellboy, and raised him as normally as he possibly could. Hellboy’s job as a remarkably long-lived adult is to travel the world, researching paranormal activity and keeping ordinary human beings safe from the dangers of the occult as a field agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (usually just written as BPRD). Also there are several other metahumans, supernatural creatures, and similar folks in the agency.
There. Now it… no, it’s still weird.
Again, I like the franchise a lot, because it has a very weird fusion of police procedural, globe-hopping adventure, and supernatural beasties. That’s neat in my book. But at the same time, the sheer unusual nature of the setup is kind of a barrier to entry. The fact that Hellboy himself is fundamentally a regular guy doing what he sees as a regular job doesn’t change that it’s a series heavy on mythological knowledge, with a solid dose of Christianity as the anti-weird thrown in on the side. (It’s not really focused on the sanctity of the church so much as it is creating a narrative way for characters to deal with some issues that might crop up otherwise – remember, again, the protagonist is an actual demon.)
Evidence is a mess
Notice how I mentioned elements of police procedurals above? Yeah, that’s going to be a problem when making a video game, because for a title to truly capture to source material you have to get the feel of that investigation going. The series is not just a matter of propping up some supernatural beastie or another and then punching it over and over; in fact, the stories often borrow an element that I’m fond of seeing in Spider-man and points related. (Namely, while Spider-man is super-strong, he’s never quite super-strong enough to go toe-to-toe with his other super-strong opponents. He’s always punching just above his weight class.)
Trying to run a proper detective game is kind of messy. LA Noire tried it, and the net result was a game that played out like the world’s dumbest quiz show, wherein you had to keep questioning a suspect with the right piece of information or you didn’t technically count as accusing them of anything. You’d need multiple bits of evidence, several ways to arrive at the correct conclusions, and players who understood what all of the evidence meant… or were patient enough to keep clicking at everything.
Point is, it’s a weird jump. It’s awkward to make a game that feels quite right and gets the proper balance of weird stuff swirling around the main character compared to actual threats that need to be punched in the face. Easier to make it a straight brawler, but that alone makes the game feel just a tad diminished from the word go.
A great way to lose money
It’s pretty obvious that Guillermo del Toro likes Hellboy a lot. More or less on the back of his insistence, we’ve had two live-action films starring Ron Perlman in a role that he was, apparently, born to play. They’re fun movies. And they have both lost kind of shameful amounts of money before the home movie sales hit.
There have been two Hellboy games, and both of them have launched to mediocre reviews and poor sales, partly because of this. The reason that this influences making another game is that any developer who could take on the project and do it justice will quickly see that the return on investment is low. There is not an eager audience ready to pick this game up on launch day based on the name of the IP. Yes, we are living in an environment in which slow sales over time backed by word-of-mouth can make up the difference in sales, but the problem is that no big studio would pick up the license, make a proper game for it, and then be able to absorb the hit as sales slowly trickled in.
No, it’s a license that’s going to go to a studio that’s looking to use the license as something to work with now. Sure, those first-month sales no longer rule the world, but when you’re a small studio you may very well not be around by the time that the game starts to sell enough to make it a worthwhile project.
It’s a weird little slice of wonder with wonky concepts for a game, an off-putting premise, and one with a track record of losing money. So do we lose so many games that could be a lot of fun to play; the closest we get here is Devil May Cry, and that just lists Dante as an investigator as a mechanism to get the plot moving.