Super Growing Pains: Are Video Games Bad for Comics?
By Albert T. Ferrer [09.19.08]
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!)."
Dr. Geoff Klock, author of the academic read How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, says the lack of one concrete and consistent character or IP is actually part of what makes it appealing. And the change in character doesn't just happen from comic book to film to game, he says. "With long-running comics ... the characters have changed so much over the decades. I mean, where is the core of Superman? Batman used to fight aliens in space in the 50s, but the creators of Dark Knight are not going to make that part of their story," says Klock, who is also an assistant professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
"The lack of integrity can be exciting. And that is what thoughtfully created superhero video games could be -- dramatic interpretations of the characters that could compete with various versions of the character in comics to be someone's favorite."
Klock adds, "Imagine someone saying, ‘Well, I like the original Bob Kane's Batman: The first is always the most pure'; ‘Well, I think Adam West was the best Batman, because I think Batman should be funny. I mean the guy dresses like a bat to fight crime. Hilarious'; ‘Well, I like Frank Miller's Batman because he is tough and awe-inspiring'; ‘Well I like the video game version best because it is the most imaginative version of the character to date, and created a host of new villains that are better than the ones in the comics.' "
If we lived in a world where promotion were not the main objective behind every comic-based game, perhaps we would see more that have as much passion behind their creation as other notably crafted games on the market, or at least as much as the films or comics they're being adapted from.
Some of the biggest superhero characters have been made into games that (upon a quick search on a review compiling site such as Metacritic reveals) have fallen victim to fairly average ratings. Lack of polish, lack of depth, lack of care, and "heavily scripted" seems to be the general consensus from reviewers of comic licensed games from Marvel to DC Comics, handheld to home console. Retaining integrity is not so much the problem; it's the overall intent, design, and execution.
What's to blame, according to Midway's Ed Boon, is the pressure of release dates.
Boon, producer on the upcoming Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, says, "With comic-movie video games (most of the time) the movie's release date trumps everything. It trumps bug fixes, gameplay balancing, and presentation problems. This is because more people buy the game when the movie is on their minds, and that's usually the opening week. There have been many comic-movie games that were considered poor quality but sold many times more than great quality comic-movie games that were released after the movie came and went. History has proven that for these types of games, being late is worse than making a good game. Because many of these (lower quality) games still do well, it encourages publishers to continue the trend. This opening weekend-driven schedule is what I believe is doing the real harm."
For an artistic vision to be translated successfully -- especially those of well-known licensed properties -- the involvement of the creative minds behind the material during the adaptation process, is crucial.
Boon is someone who has successfully taken a property through the spectrum of entertainment: movies, television programming, games, comics, merchandise, and even music with Mortal Kombat. His take on how to adapt a product is based on experience.
"There are good and bad adaptations ... and some horrible, unfortunately. This is the case with many big licenses, unfortunately, including Mortal Kombat. When the licensing for MK started out, we were involved quite a bit, but after a while there was so much that we could not possibly keep tabs on all of them and work on games at the same time." The Mortal Kombat series, as many game players know, suffered a huge swing in its reputation in the 1990s.
"I feel it's very important for the creative minds of the IP to be involved," Boon says. "Unfortunately, many of the companies licensing your property really don't care about the quality of their product; they just want to put something out there with your IP name (for as cheap as possible) and then collect their check. If it's of poor quality, they've already gotten their money and don't care about the long-term damages they might have done."
Boon's experience with losing control over an IP is not an isolated case, as this happens quite often within the industry.
At this year's San Diego Comic-Con, Zack Snyder director of comic adapted films such as 300 and Watchmen was asked about his thoughts on comic book-based video games on a panel that featured other notable filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, and Frank Miller.
He acknowledged at first some failures, citing the 300 video game as a quick tie-in that he had little to no involvement with. "The 300 video game was a PSP video game. It wasn't really a giant video game that you know -- people didn't go crazy for it. No online play, no communities were formed, I don't think. "
He also spoke about the upcoming Watchmen video game, it's development, and the developers willingness to make changes with his suggestions.
"We had quite a lot of back and forth. They sent me a script for it, and you know, it's one of those things where you get a script for it, and you're like, ‘Okay, not to be mean, but this is the dorkiest thing that I've ever seen in my life.' It had nothing to do with Watchmen, and it wasn't cool at all. So we tried to rewrite it and tried to do something good, and those guys were really open to make it more ‘Watchmeny,' whatever that even means. We tried to come up with an idea that is a little more like a video game where, you know, ‘Kill Woodward and Bernstein,' is a cooler game. We tried to do something more subversive, and more like the Watchmen world."
Snyder continued, "I play video games and I think video games are the other hand. And I think right now, video games that are made for movies are not talking to each other. There is a dialogue that needs to be established between filmmakers and video games so that it's not an afterthought. It's not marketing. A video game should not be marketing. To me it's not."
Frank Miller, who was also on the same panel, spoke on adaptations and the importance of using a medium the way it's suppose to be used. The artist, writer, and now film director of the upcoming The Spirit, knows exactly what it's like to be doing the adapting and coming from drawings and panels, to the world of live-action filmmaking.
"First you pay attention to the real truths about what a story is, what a character is, and how a story is told. There's no reason for a movie based on a comic book to use panels. You use every medium for its own advantages. At first I went crazy with sound and movement. I had been doing boxes with words over [the characters'] heads. And my idea of an explosion was writing ‘boom.'"
Though Snyder's and Miller's comments received applause from those in attendance, it's easier said than done.
Development and Output, East and West
The lack of care for these games is made obvious by the condensed development cycles. Making a game in tandem with shooting and producing a movie hinders the end product. The best practices of game development require a very different schedule. Ed Boon echoes this reality: "One of the problems is that both the movie and the game are being produced at the same time. Each side is busy working on their own project. Sometimes this causes conflict, as the movie people might make a change to their film, perhaps removing a scene or character. This change could result in months of lost time for the video game team that might have to rework their game to match the movie."
Why isn't Hollywood talent flocking to games? Though actors have actively been taking part in video games for years through voice-over work and appearances, the talent behind the camera still does not seem very common. Do video games still lack respect from those within Hollywood? Certainly, the medium itself has been known for telling some of the most engaging stories and heroic tales that rival any movie, or novel. An array of titles from Kojima, Miyamoto, Square-Enix, Capcom, Konami, and Epic are all widely acclaimed to be moving story-driven experiences. Games from these major industry developers have demonstrated incredible knowledge when creating narratives within the interactive media, time and time again.
So why doesn't this happen with the comic book world?
Dr. Klock thinks it's a matter of reputation. "As for getting talent on video games, I just think that they don't have the storytelling prestige they eventually will. ... I don't really know why [comic book writers] do not write for the games yet. I bet eventually they will. It would be interesting to see comparative prices for writing for games versus comics."
While adaptations are nothing new to the world of interactive entertainment, the Japanese game industry has had more success with bringing its comics (Manga) to games, with many popular franchises -- Bleach, Naruto, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z, Full Metal Alchemist, Gundam, Inu Yasha -- benefitting from international success.
Except for but a few, these IPs appear in more than one medium. The comic-to-screen-to-game lifecycle is a large part of Japan's entertainment industry. And each incarnation is treated with more or less the same level of quality and consistency.
An example of a Japanese developer's ability to really bring a consistent vision to comic adaptations is in the case of Marvel licensing to Capcom, with a cross-over series of "versus" games between the two companies' IPs, the first being X-Men vs. Street Fighter. Released in the mid 1990s, they were not created to appease some movie release, but were designed with the intent of pitting superheroes against super-martial artists, something comic fans and gamers never thought they'd ever see. The series remains one of the most successful fighting game series and superhero-licensed games.
For the Marvel characters to fit in artistically (and being somewhat based on the Fox Kids animated series of the time) were voiced by the same actors as on the show. The 2D fighting game stayed true to the characters' design, attitudes, and superpowers taking a few liberties with Japanese animation flare, otherwise integrating them seamlessly with the iconic Capcom fighters. Though Capcom created a unique game where these different characters could both exist, it stayed true to the core of the superheroes, especially the fact that they were Western creations.
Joe Madureira considers this game one of the most memorable Comic-licensed games he's played.
"My favorite superhero game is still probably Marvel vs. Capcom, because the characters really maintained the spirit of their comic book counterparts. And, it was a great game. "
Japanese developers can make adaptations with ease, it seems, whereas developers outside Asia are less interested in creating a consistent feel for fans throughout all mediums, and are more interested in the immediate profitability of the products.
Rehashing, Reviving, Retro-branding
Once a major player in the 90s, the Mortal Kombat brand has since dropped off the radar for many gamers. (Perhaps they grew up and the novelty wore off.) Having lost the popularity it once had, Mortal Kombat looks to be making a return to form, in a big way. Midway is doing something similar to what Capcom did with Marvel vs. Capcom: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which takes DC characters and places them in the Mortal Kombat fighting game context.
In this attempt to reignite the game series, comic fans are being drawn in with characters from the DC Comics line up, such as Batman and Superman, going head-to-head with Liu Kang, and Scorpion.
But recreating the same level of success as when Mortal Kombat first debuted is an unrealistic goal, as Ed Boon put it.
"I don't think it's realistic to expect to repeat the fever of the first two MK games. Things don't work that way. Those were brand new games that enjoyed the novelty of many factors. Arcades were huge back then, the digitized graphics were state of the art, nobody had seen violence portrayed in a video game like that, and the controversy drew more attention to the game. You can't stage those situations. At the same time, our MK games still sell in the millions, which is something that not many (multi-multi-sequel) games do. If you take any IP and bombard the public with it, eventually they will lose interest in it. We are not afraid of making dramatic changes with Mortal Kombat, which I believe is one of the reasons we continue to sell well."
To maintain the consistency of the DC characters in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Midway teamed up with two well-established comic writers who have experience writing for numerous publishers from DC Comics and Marvel, to Wildstorm.
"We have an interesting challenge with this game in that we need to satisfy fans of two different audiences from two different forms of media. To stay consistent and authentic to the DC Universe, we hired two great writers, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. Both have very successfully written for DC characters and know that universe inside and out. Jimmy and Justin helped us stay consistent with how the DC characters would talk and react in all the situations we are putting them in. It's also very important to us that this game ‘feels' like an MK game. The fighting has to be brutal and intense like MK fans are expecting it to be."
Not since Marvel vs. Capcom has there been such a dynamic battle of iconic superheroes. Though this is an interesting combination of characters that promises to have a fully realized story to explain the reasoning behind this odd pairing, it doesn't do much to push the comic-gaming relationship into new territory. In the end, it's another fighting game among fighting games.
Despite this, Boon feels there is room for a deeper storytelling angle for comic book games.
"Comic books are all about storytelling, so that seems like a natural direction for comic-games to follow. "
Whether games can carry the same storytelling potential as the pages of a comic, or the structure of a screenplay, has already been proven with the wealth of story-based video games. Yet comic material doesn't seem to go in the same direction when video games are involved. Instead comic games tend to be on the mindless entertainment side, destroying buildings, throwing cars, and beating up goons.
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?
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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