Superhero Games

The eighties and nineties were the glory days of superhero games. Indeed, at that time it seemed superheroes and games were destined to be together forever. Both took rather basic story premises and coated them all over in the best action possible, and for years they merged, kicking ass hand in hand. Yet sooner or later they were destined to drift apart.

In the eighties and nineties, games were primitive. They could not tell particularly elaborate stories or provide much artistic subtlety, and so they worked perfectly with comic books that, in truth, were less Dostoevsky, more nerd-playboy. The larger than life characters, the bright colours and the constant action of comic books were perfect subject matter for earlier game systems. But of course, the technology of games developed.

From the early 2000s onwards, games began to tell stories with genuine artistry, with morals and character development, with subtlety and poise. Games like Grim Fandango and Deus Ex spoke genuinely of the human spirit, taking games to a new level, a level at which gamers no longer wanted basic “hack n slash with a splash of story.” And sadly, this was a realm into which superheroes could not follow.

In truth—and in blatant disregard of the criticism this next section shall bring—comic books are a very primitive form of storytelling. They lack all subtlety and finesse. We love them not for the depth of their story but for the simplicity of their handling of good VS evil. So it was that, whilst games of the eighties and nineties fed off of that most basic handling of human conflict, the games of the 2000s began to drift away from comic books, heading more towards a level of storytelling one might expect from Hollywood (which for this author would be considered as rather primitive still but with an air at least of realism).

Essentially, what occurred during the 2000s (though with some very fine exceptions) was a washing away of superheroes. A single superhero, with all the superpowers in the world, could not provide the narrative for a matured form of interactive fiction. And not surprisingly, this washing away began with the most powerful if them all: Superman.

It should have come as little surprise that Superman would not hack it with the maturing storytelling in games of the 2000s. At a time when games were beginning to discuss the human condition, the last thing gamers wanted was a game entirely about a character too powerful as to have to concern himself with the human condition! And this is where the crux of the matter lies, for the more powerful a character is, the more godly he is, the further apart he is from humanity and the less suitable he is as the basis for a mature form of storytelling. And whilst fans might note that Superman Returned in 2006, said game was far from a stellar return!

Despite some promising fight backs from Hulk and X men Legends II, the sands of time slowly slipping from the hourglass for one superhero after another up to the present day, in which, unsurprisingly, we are left with two survivors of the superhero decline.

The first survival of superhero video games comes in the form of games that feature multiple superheroes, for instance, Marvel VS Capcom 3. This should come as little surprise. If one superhero is not enough to provide a depth of character suitable for modern day games then why not put multiple superheroes together to cover the same purpose? It is a logical answer and one that has been used in games such as Champions Online and DC Universe Online.

The second survivor of the superhero decline is in characters that feature a superhero with a greater depth of character. Where most superheroes have died off because they are unsuitable for modern day storytelling in games, a precious few have always had the depth of character necessary for success in 2011, and of them all, it is little surprise to find that Batman is top of the pile.


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Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.

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