30 October 2013

Is Batman the best videogame superhero ?

Having spent a large portion of the weekend playing Batman: Arkham Origin's campaign through to completion I wondered why the superhero genre is so poorly represented in my "good games" column in the gaming medium. I guess there are several aspects to the reasons behind this so I thought I'd jot down my thoughts on the issue:
  • Emotional and social connection/understanding (relatability)
  • Variation of powers/abilities (or lack thereof)
  • World building
Many, not all, popular heroes are nothing like normal human beings. Superman, Wonder Woman, a lot of the X-Men, Iron Man and Captain America are all beings that are very powerful and, in many ways invulnerable. In comparison, they also lack much of the humanity and day-to-day personalities that we might tend to associate with ourselves and our peers.

Emotionally stronger, more "grounded" heroes like Iron Man and Batman essentially rely on a hyper intelligence and deductive reasoning (as if a mating of Einstein and Sherlock Holmes had broached them into reality) along with huge amounts of wealth. Heroes in general are overly intelligent and these guys lie at different points on that intelligence/reasoning spectrum, especially Iron Man who is a bit skewed toward omnipotence, but the two of them basically tend to lean heavily on their vast amounts of wealth in order to succeed.

None of these aspects are very relatable for the general human populace - they're great for show piece scenes in a movie but leave little to nothing backing up those scenes during the character development. It's one of the reasons why Spiderman, despite some middling cinematic appearances, continues to be popular - he's smart, young and struggles with life: as much as we all do... and yet making a good game using that character has also proven difficult to pull off with quite a few flops to the franchises' name.

Despite that popularity, Spiderman isn't that great a hero to play because he's so young (or at least is usually portrayed in that high school life). His great motivation was is his Uncle's morality system - "With great power comes great responsibility." - and that's fine, except that it doesn't really cause much of an interesting decision because he always tries to do the right thing (which usually isn't all that hard to fathom) and, as far as I've ever seen, doesn't question this stance once that initial lesson is learned. That may be why Spiderman always has a good/great origin story - because that lesson can be learned and understood by the audience... everything after that is as pulpy as a 1930s action show like Flash Gordon. Now, I enjoy Spiderman a lot so that's not to say that the content there isn't good, I just don't think it makes a good game to play through.

Ask any fan of Spiderman which game is the best and why. While the favourite game might be different (Usually Spiderman 2 or one of the more recent releases such as Web of Shadows) the reason is always "web-slinging'. Just that simple act of movement around a cityscape is very rewarding - the freedom of movement, speed and agility (despite the unreality of always having something above you! ;) ) is the primary motivator for the gameplay feel.

Spiderman isn't primarily a combatant - he's superstrong (very much so!) but he's an agile opponent who uses sneakier, less obvious tactics than a brawler. He's not out there, getting bad guys for a reason - he just gets them when he sees them because he must - with the exception of his nemeses.

Batman, in contrast, appears to be almost perfect as a hero for players to identify with: Physically powerful enough to stand his ground. Agile enough to escape. Smart enough to figure out clues and ways of escaping situations. An emotional motivation that people can relate to that characterises his response to criminals and events in the world and provides an interesting dilemma by which to hinge decent stories on.

Batman ignores the travails of his personal life (for the most part) eschewing the normality that he wishes to protect from encroachment of the criminal element. It's never questioned why he's out there doing his thing... Spiderman isn't so easily universally justified in his work/life/hero ratio. Certainly he is sometimes portrayed as more egotistical - which fits in with his fame-seeking hero antics - but this isn't always so clear cut. Is "doing the right thing" stopping crime? Or should it be using his intelligence to solve the world's problems or his neogenics/whatever origin story to improve the lot of disfigured and disabled people around the world? Spiderman is complicated in a messy way - one that ultimately, in my opinion, proves less interesting.

The character also has many strings to his bow - many of which are underutilised. His title as the Sherlock Holmes-esque "The World's Greatest Detective" is rarely justified in any game he appears in (though it's getting better since the Arkham series was born) as are his strategic and interpersonal skills that help him spawn such a network of supporters, followers and super hero entities and partnerships. His physicality and the gadgets are the defining features that most people are familiar with and, even there, we have quite a lot of variation for players to latch onto.

Spiderman has one ability - or piece of equipment, depending on his origin story - the web shooter. Batman has whatever the storyteller needs. Spiderman typically has only one costume per continuum. Batman has whatever costumes the creator wants to include (though some are not canon) because it's expected that Batman's equipment evolves over time as he improves it and he gains experience. Spiderman doesn't need this because of his lack of physical vulnerability though there are cool alternate reality versions of Spiderman.

Now, a lot of these positives (from a gameplay perspective) for Batman, also apply to heroes like Iron Man and Blue Beetle (though not as popular) but I think that the depth of these characters is shallower than Batman and they also lack the most important aspect of the Batman's arsenal: his antagonists.

The strongest Batman stories are framed against these antagonists - they tend to be reflections of some aspect of humanity that Batman himself should be tempted to partake in and yet does not. The whole Batman/Joker dichotomy revolves around this and even some antagonists are born from it (e.g. Harvey Dent). Iron Man just fights things that need fighting - they come to him (one way or another) because he is powerful. The world that spawned Batman also spawned these other personalities and the themes are parallel to our own world and that makes them, at least from my perspective, intrinsically more interesting to play in and with.

Also, coming back to that strategic network I mentioned earlier, because Batman doesn't originate from any [insert poorly understood science] accident or off-world genesis he can procreate: he can seed new characters. As a result of this Batman as a defined character arc that spans angst/anger-ridden childhood that spawns psychological issues, tearaway teenage years and early twenties to caped crusader early years through to adoptive protector and trainer later years... and, finally, to passing on the torch to the next generation (Batman Beyond).

Other heroes can't do this. Spiderman can't pass on his genetic abilities to a new Spiderman (well, maybe a baby?) any more than Superman can. In order for them to team up with other people or heroes those people have to be their own super beings - with all the baggage and expectation that entails. Since Batman isn't super-powered, he is able to generate other characters from which to interface and work with - each of which being able to have their own character and flaws independent of being a hero because they're only human and don't have to adhere to being something more than the rest of us.

If you look at something like the X-Men, it's not really about one particular mutant (yes, I know, "Wolverine"! though he's really the Superman of that universe) but about the group of them together - individually they are not that strong as characters or in powers and I tend to see them as a collective 'hero' rather than a collection of heroes. Sort of like seeing the Armed Forces in a movie as being the hero instead of the super-powered monstrosities that are generally used to manifest human superiority in the movies.

I'd like to see a next gen Arkham game that takes place in between the dereliction of City but after Origins' lone soldier where Batman takes the other Batman family of characters under his wing (so to speak) and learning to deal with that. Origins already had a very, very brief stint with another character fighting alongside you and City had you dealing with your allies. You could even call the "wards" in or send them off on missions like in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. They could level up in skill and experience based on how much you use them in combat or by sending them off on side missions. If they're not up to the task they could fail or be captured - with Batman having to rescue them. This could even lead to co-op play in the open world with a friend or two! Bagsy Batman!

There's plenty more material to explore in a Batman game that hasn't been covered yet and I hope they manage to really delve deep into this character and world.

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