Super Growing Pains: Are Video Games Bad for Comics?
[09.19.08] - Albert T. Ferrer
Superhero comics, rife with larger-than-life characters, mythology, and good versus evil, seem like an ideal source for adaptation to film and interactive entertainment. The stories can be complex, even thought provoking, and through the skilled artistry of illustrators and colorists, these elements are realized in the intricately composed panels of a comic book.
The licensing of superhero stories has spawned a slew of comic-based movies and games, but in doing so, has created a limited take on itself, one defined by rigid comic-to-movie-to-game adaptations, button-mashing brawlers, mindless "sandbox" destruction, and two-player fighting games -- or perhaps a combination of them all.
In the process of licensing the IP down this chain, the essence of what initially made these comic books and characters so engrossing to readers, unfortunately, takes a back seat. And it's often completely subsumed by the restrictions and limitations of the entertainment business. So is the nature of the beast.
But more than the problems of big business, it's easier for a developer to create a game with a relatively straightforward design than it is to tell a well-crafted interactive narrative that requires players to become emotionally invested in the experience. Translating the vision from the pages of a comic book to another medium has been proven to be a difficult task for those adapting the material, and a hit-or-miss experience for those anticipating the adaptation. The potential for great games is there, but it has almost never been executed well.
Fans who have grown up with these characters naturally become very particular about the way their favorite comic book heroes are interpreted through various media, and video games are no exception. From the perspective of disgruntled comics fans and game players who have seen more than their fair share of comic-gaming gone awry, there is a clear distinction between the few successful games that have reached the market and the obvious duds.
Will comic book-based games remain in an alienated genre all their own, or will developers seize the opportunity to pull them out of the shadow of mediocre?
A Matter of Integrity
When thinking of comic-book based gaming as a whole, it's easy to categorize the titles as games that are a) designed and thoughtfully produced with an aim to deliver a unique experience, b) simply created as an addition to the release of a movie, or c) capitalizing on the comic licensing trend of the time but with an original story that is not based on a film.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you've probably noticed a revival of comic book-to-film adaptations appearing in theaters, alongside video games that oftentimes accompany the movie's simultaneous release.
Mainly produced as tie-ins in a promotional campaign, these games are marketing tools, with little to no individuality or uniqueness, either mirroring the structure of the film, or an expansion of the storyline in a prequel or epilogue form. If not for the fact that the games are built on licensed content -- which sways parents to purchase the games for their children, and advertises to loyal fans who buy nearly everything branded with their favorite character -- they would not stand on their own as strong game experiences, let alone move off store shelves.
On the one hand, the games are promotional of those IPs, and thus expand the market by attracting non-gamers to the brand. On the other hand, the games may be sapping the integrity of the original.
Joe Madureira comic book writer, artist, and creative director at Vigil Games for THQ's Darksiders, can speak from the perspective of not only a gamer, but someone who has worked in the comic industry as well, having previously worked with Marvel on notable comics such as Uncanny X-Men. "As a gamer," he says, "I tend not to play a lot of licensed games, movie, comic or otherwise, not that there aren't some decent ones, but the ratio of bad to good does often skew towards bad."
Madureira's opinion is shared by many, viewing the adaptation process as a filtering of the source material, a necessary but tricky step. "Being a fan of stylized artwork and graphics, it makes me personally sad when a game is based on the film version of a comic property, rather than the comics. It's already sort of been through a filter, and now it's going through a second time, because let's face it -- there are few comics that can translate immediately to a good game without some adaptation. I want to play as Batman! Not Christian Bale! If I'm playing Wolverine, please dear god don't let it be Hugh Jackman (even though both are great actors!)."