How to make a Superman game that might not suck
I spent most of my day yesterday examining why Superman games have failed (and they all have, to varying degrees). And it occurred to me that if I was going to drop snark bombs on everybody’s else’s attempt, I could at least cook up one of my own.
Please keep in mind that I am (1) not a video game designer and (2) have no idea about (and am not that interested in) the politics of making a licensed Superman game while DC has so much riding on its dark, cinematic take. This is not me telling an imaginary designer of a Superman game what I, an amateur, think they should do. This is what I, an amateur, would do if I had all the freedom and cash I needed to make the Superman game of my dreams. So, here’s the pitch.
Back to the beginning
The problem with so many Superman games is that they haven’t been adaptations of the character, but rather adaptations of existing properties like films and animated series. Save for Superman: Man of Steel on Xbox, it’s been two decades since comics were the source material. Making a Superman game work is gonna be tough, and (much like the Arkham series) is gonna need to have its own internal logic and not be tied to an existing property.
My dream game wouldn’t just return to the comics for inspiration, it would return to the very beginning of Superman himself.
It’s easy to forget that the demigod we see in movies, TV and comics these days had much more humble roots. At the beginning of Superman continuity, he could jump 1/8th of a mile (no flight yet), a “bursting shell” could pierce his skin and he was faster than a train. He could also lift heavy stuff. Now that’s a character you could design a game around.
There have been really effective takes on Superman that play in this arena of continuity. My personal favorite is Tom De Haven’s 2005 novel It’s Superman! which boiled the Last Son of Krypton right down to his essence. He doesn’t fly, he doesn’t know if he’s invulnerable or not, he doesn’t know the limits of his powers.
Most of his progress towards becoming capital-S “Superman” is accidental. His costume, for example, comes from the set of a sci-fi movie that was going to film on the set where he works as a stuntman.
De Haven’s Superman gets beat up. He gets tired. Most importantly: He’s a human being that we can relate to and empathize with. His central conflict isn’t stopping an alien invasion, it’s where he fits in among people he seems to have nothing in common with.
The Kal El of early Superman comics and De Haven’s book is the ideal Superman to bring to games. From a design perspective, he’s at the beginning of his time as a superhero, so you could actually threaten him and introduce new abilities as he comes to grips with them. From a narrative perspective, he’s infinitely easier to write an engaging story about.
The other secret benefit of this incarnation of Superman is that the time period allows you to do something fresh aesthetically. And by “fresh,” in this case, I mean:
Steal from Max Fleischer
Listen, Rocksteady, I love you. You know I do. But maybe I don’t have 100 percent confidence in your aesthetic vision after, well, the entirety of the Arkham franchise. We all, as a community, decided to eventually turn a blind eye to it, but still we knew deep down Clarence Beeftank as the Caped Crusader was not a good fit.
But hey, don’t get downhearted! Just watch this:
Wouldn’t you love to play a videogame that looks like that? I know I would. So just steal that.
(Man, who knew game design would be this easy?)
My secret identity
The other facet I’d love to see this dream Superman game capture is a mainstay of basically every piece of superhero media except for games, which ignore it completely.
The most exciting bit in a lot of superhero stories is when the situation turns dire and the hero has to ditch their mundane duds and take to the skies. Listen to the way the music swells in this clip as Clark rushes into the alley. Composer John Williams knows that this is the defining moment and treats it with appropriately bombastic brass.
And yet, video games have ignored this essential moment almost entirely and when they have been implemented, it’s been pretty rough (I’m looking at you, Bruce Banner stealth sequences in The Hulk.)
Playing as Clark Kent may not be the most thrilling, but he’s a reporter hiding a gigantic secret — if you can’t think of some ways to make that narratively interesting, you’re just not working hard enough. Clark Kent and other secret identities aren’t roadblocks, they’re the part of superheroes that we mortals can connect to. That connection is essential to make the “superhero bits” appropriately thrilling. Otherwise, you’re just a lonely demigod patrolling a city, and what fun is that?
Please understand, this is not my pitch to get hired by Rocksteady, who have plenty of talented people who have put infinitely more thought into this than my afternoon of writing fan fiction, I’m sure.
What I’m trying to demonstrate here is what I believe to be a very rough sketch of an approach to a Superman game that could work, in my opinion. The important thing is not that Rocksteady (or any other developer that might pick up the license) use this specific idea, but rather to to show that there are plenty of approaches to Superman that could work as games with a little ingenuity.
Superman is one of the most popular and enduring characters in the history of American literature. His story has been told a million different ways and transplanted everywhere from England to the USSR and in a bajillion different time periods.
Maybe Superman hasn’t fared too well when he’s been adapted to video games in the past. But for a character with that amount of flexibility, legacy and pure symbolic power, maybe it’s time games started adapting to him.