Maybe this is obvious since this blog is already nerd central, but: I like comic books. Not just the super hip Pantheon allegory of the week either. I like comics that have people in costumes mindlessly punching other people in costumes. I like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, no matter how ridiculous they may be.
I like superheroes because they are familiar, reliable and occasionally surprising. There has been a new story about Batman published every month for the entire time I have been alive. And, barring some kind of cataclysm that destroys the entire planet, people will continue to write stories about Batman long after I am dead. He is iconic, and his core character is widespread enough to make him immortal, if only in the abstract.
This massive cultural penetration also makes it easy to serialize the adventures of such a character, independent of the medium. People know that Superman is from Krypton, that he’s invulnerable, and that he’s a boring Boy Scout. People know that Batman’s parents were murdered, that’s he has no super powers, and that he’s as goth as my eighth grade girlfriend. A writer doesn’t need to reiterate this constantly; he can assume the reader is familiar with the character. There are reasonably permanent motivational traits for these heroes and villains that were established long ago. This allows an uncanny freedom from a storytelling standpoint; it allows the writer to shape the character uniquely and tell the story that they want to tell.
Which is more or less the opposite of how writing for a video game works. As an uneducated casual gamer twelve steps removed from the actual creative process of developing a video game, I feel qualified to make such a statement. I have gained a magnitude of insider knowledge about the average development process after that one time I drove through Boston and kinda sorta saw the Harmonix headquarters from Interstate 93. Let’s look at this list of MURDERFACTS™ I’ve compiled on the subject.
- Mass market video games are developed by teams of trillions and cost infinity dollars to make.
- Games have to be engaging on a ludic level above all, otherwise the narrative element will not be experienced by the player.
- The lead designer of Far Cry 2 once got into a bar fight and totally ate the other dude whole.
- Franchises become franchises due to strong sales, and tampering with the formula doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Especially when a company has infinity trillion dollars on the line1.
So we are left with this cycle: a game is made, the game sells well, and then the game is remade again and again with partial tweaks to the formula.
In 1986 I got the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, packaged with Super Mario Bros. I had to rescue the princess. 23 years later I’m still doing the same goddamn thing in every Mario platformer to hit the market. Legend of Zelda titles try to innovate a bit (Majora’s Mask was an excellent experiment in the defamiliarization of routine2), but they always boil down to collecting equipment in order to overthrow some incredible evil.
I’m all for tradition, but I like these characters. I grew up with them and I want to see them in interesting situations. I want to react to what they’re doing (or rather what my input as a player is allowing them to do) and be completely engrossed, on the edge of my seat. Like I am with comic books. When I heard that Batman died, I freaked the hell out, got sweaty palms and started thinking about what that means for Batman3. Because I like Batman and writers aren’t afraid to tell interesting stories with him as the vehicle.
But there is an issue with adapting such an approach for gaming (aside from the square root of negative monies). That issue is you and I, reader pal. When a creative type tries to abstract the narrative from tradition in an established gaming franchise, the internet explodes. It can be gruesome.
“WHY IS SONIC A KNIGHT WITH A SWORD AND STUFF? WHY IS HE A WEREWOLF IN THAT OTHER GAME? THIS IS LITERALLY WORSE THAN THE HOLOCAUST.”
Well… why shouldn’t he have a sword or be a werewolf? Do people care enough about this character to be insulted by a variance in style and tone that was conceived to make the game a worthwhile experience? Sonic is a blue hedgehog that runs fast. That’s about it. I think he might have a pair of red shoes and an interspecies life partner. I’d like to encourage the developers to explore areas such as lycanthropy and Arthurian lore if it means the game might end up interesting. It’s not as if Sonic games are flawless examples of gameplay and such narrative freedom would lessen the entire work. There are only so many ways you can say “move to the right side of the screen to win.”
The evolution of a superhero story is almost like a fugue: interpretations drift around the central theme, borrowing various elements, but each iteration is distinct. The Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 is very different than the Superman you or I have known through our lifetimes. Every writer and artist has their own interpretation of a character; they can choose which aspects of the mythology to include or ignore and just focus on telling the story they want to tell. And then we, as readers, can experience stories about animal rights and free will. Or cigar smoking imps from the fifth dimension. Whatever, you can pick and choose.
So how’s this: the Electronic Entertainment Expo last May hosted a few surprises. Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid 2 (and I guess the other games in the series), is overseeing a new Castlevania title. Team Ninja, responsible for games involving ninjas, are developing a new Metroid game.
Without knowing any details about either game, I will say that this is good news.
I’m a huge Metroid guy (the header on this blog might give that away), so my natural fanboy reaction was to flip out and troll message boards naked. This Team Ninja interpretation could be terrible! But it could also be great. While I’d obviously be very upset if they turned the main character into a telepathic pole dancer, I appreciate that the owners of the property are reaching out to fresh talent and letting them try something new. I think we’re at the point where developers can start exploring Samus Aran’s other adventures. You know, things that don’t involve hunting metroids… a species that has gone extinct roughly eight times. She’s a bounty hunter, after all. Her character has been defined well throughout the series: she is focused, efficient and deadly. So let’s run with that and throw down some awesome stories. Before the characters I grew up with bore me to tears.
COUNTERPOINT! Games based on established intellectual properties have the notoriety of being terrible. Why is this? Is it because the motivations of a character are seen as limitations when trying to develop mechanics? Does working backwards, from aesthetics to core gameplay, hinder the creative process? Do designers just break down when trying to make a video game that features a protagonist who does not kill?
Tune in for the answers to these questions and more after I’ve had a chance to play through Batman: Arkham Asylum. Same Murder time, same Murder channel!
Or, you know, just work that one out in your head, since I’ll probably forget about this blog post tomorrow morning.
- Wonderful Thought: You know that board game Risk? Every time I’ve played it, who would win was obvious within the first thirty minutes of the game, but we kept playing for three more hours doing the same crap over and over again until no one had any assets left. That game is just like real life! [↩]
- Does that even make any sense? There’s a lot to say about Majora’s Mask, but I think the way it makes you aware of the repetitive nature of games by presenting a literal routine that you can slow down, speed up, or rewind is jaw-droppingly awesome. [↩]
- Oh, um, SPOILER ALERT: Batman died. Or, more accurately, he was displaced in reality by an Omega Sanction. That’s geek speak for “dead until sweeps week.” See Final Crisis for more information. [↩]