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  • Super Growing Pains: Are Video Games Bad for Comics?

    [09.19.08]
    - Albert T. Ferrer

  •  In 2005, Electronic Arts released a title called Marvel Nemesis, a prime example of a formulaic comic-licensed, multiplatform, button-mashing, brawler game. This was around the time of big comic book movies, Spider-Man 2 had come out in theaters, X2 the year before, X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006. Though the game wasn't based on the films, it was designed with a six-issue miniseries in mind.

    The games received negative reviews across the board on all platforms and suffered from a slew of bugs that surprisingly made it past the vast quality assurance department housed at EA Canada [editor's note: the author was employed at the QA department of EA Canada at the time of the games' testing], where much of the console version of the game was produced, and tested which included a version for the Sony PSP. With all those testers, and designers that the developer could afford, the game in the end was inherently flawed, and not very enjoyable. It was a failure, and a reckless use of the Marvel license and in 2008 their partnership was over.

    Comic book-based films are quite often created to
    satisfy the popcorn holiday blockbuster crowd, straightforward and mindlessly entertaining. But the taste in comic book movies changes as audiences look for a more believable superhero.

    Using The Dark Knight as an example, Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman is one that abandons the cartoony
     one-dimensional interpretation of the 1966-68 television show, and the gothic stylized image of Tim Burton's Batman (1989), for one that is contemporary, and to a certain degree, more realistic. The film was centered on story and character development, taking the route of a crime drama, with the conflicts of the caped hero, villains, and repercussions of their actions. Another example of realism in the superhero universe would be Alan Moore's Watchmen comic, and Zack Snyder's film adaptation, and the related video game. Watchmen stands as one of the most important and influential graphic novels ever produced, due to Moore's writing, themes, symbolism, and visuals. Perhaps if this kind of maturity were to be adapted to video games, where beating up a bunch of thugs wasn't the sole focus we'd potentially see a different kind of comic book game.

    Surprisingly, gamers never saw a video game based on The Dark Knight at the time of the movie's release. Through a posting by IGN in April, which was quickly taken down, it was revealed that a game was being produced by the Electronic Arts acquired Pandemic Studios, and later in an interview with the actor that plays Det. Lt. James Gordon in the film, Gary Oldman, confirmed with G4 the existence of a game. Though it is believed that the  developers have missed the boat with releasing the game along with the theatrical version of the film, some rumors circulating believe that there might be a release once the film hits the home market in DVD/Blu-ray. Other rumors imply that the game has been cancelled altogether.

    In EA's attempt at producing quality versus quantity ("In-Depth: EA's Gibeau On Reinvigorating EA Games," Gamasutra, Sept. 5, 2008), does publishing lackluster comic-book games still gel with the publishers need to reinvigorate themselves, and gamers? Could The Dark Knight have been a casualty of EA's new mindset in their attempts at improving the company's image?

    Developers' Responsibilities
    Whatever the case, games based on comic books and films are still in the process of finding themselves, stuck in the mode of a marketing tool, where fans hang on for a respectable game, but are more often than not, are left disappointed.

    While all the graphics technology of today can bring these visions to life in the context of a video game, it's up to the developers to really make sense of the adaptation.

    "I think that a lot of what makes great comics makes great games," says Joe Madureira. "Big, colorful characters look great on screen. Exaggerated forms and strong silhouettes read great at a distance, even with a lot going on. And the stories need to be punchy. Short on words, but impactful. ... A lot of developers approach game stories as if they are movies, but that's a mistake in my opinion. Most gamers don't have the same attention span when playing a game as they do when they plop down to watch a movie. Long or frequent cut scenes end up getting skipped."

    The unique nature of the interactive medium allows for an amalgamation of a variety disciplines and techniques in service of the game. The aesthetics of comic books, movies, and fantasy adventure novels all come together in different video game genres. Developers have the difficult challenge of a balancing act, using techniques of storytelling from other mediums as influences, and inspirations in their games. For comic book games, this is especially important.

    "I think great comics are structured to deliver strong, addictive stories with a very limited page count. Memorable, larger-than-life characters are also the staple of every great comic, and they make great game characters. So you can see, there's a lot of synergy between the two. I do feel like some of this get's diluted when it goes to film first, because a lot of 'reality' creeps in. Whereas comics and games are really about Fantasy, at least my favorites are."

    Albert T. Ferrer is an artist, animator, and freelance game writer (1UP.com, GameCareerGuide.com, Gamasutra.com) based in Vancouver. He is currently working in the game industry on an unannounced title; he also invites readers to view his personal blog and online art and animation portfolio.

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