Heroes + Villains: Alter Egos
Batman: Arkham Asylum alights on retail shelves this week. By my unscientific count, this makes Arkham Asylum the Dark Knight's 19th game, and that's not counting the ones in which he hasn't had top billing. His fellow Justice League member Superman boasts a count of around 12. Over in the Marvel Universe, Aunt May's favorite nephew has swung his way through an estimated 28 videogame adventures, with the latest being Spider-Man: Web of Shadows.
There already may be lots of superhero games in the world, but the genre could still broaden its horizons in terms of what is on offer. Keep reading for a list of things I think are missing from the superhero genre, and the characters who could fill those voids.
Racial and gender diversity
The majority of superheroes who show up in videogames conform to a central casting stereotype of the square-jawed WASP male. Even a lesser-known character like the Darkness who gets his own game is still just another white guy. But comics have more diversity amongst do-gooders than videogames show.
This looks like a job for: The Black Panther and Wonder Woman
Why they would make great games: Longtime fans know that Wonder Woman was a mortal battling the gods way before Kratos debuted in God of War. A game featuring her could counteract the dozens of empty, sexed-up heroines that usually show up in games.
The Black Panther rules a technologically advanced nation, the fictional African country Wakanda, whose resources have always been coveted by others. Done well, a game featuring the Panther could deliver a new shade of black to the genre and to games in general -- one where smarts win out over slang, brilliance beats thuggishness, and the jungle could be the most civilized place on Earth.
A counterculture ethos
Superhero games feature protagonists who never doubt they are doing the right thing, and whose actions wind up reinforcing the existing power structure. But sometimes the way things have always been isn't morally just or humane. In those cases, a hero's job is to disrupt the status quo.
This looks like a job for: Reuben Flagg
Why he would make a great game: "American Flagg!" was mature in all the right ways. Reuben Flagg is an out-of-work actor who joined up with a private police force called the Plexus Rangers -- only because he needed a job. When most heroes save the day, corporations and the ultra-rich get to continue throwing their weight around. Whether it's stopping a Big Pharma conspiracy or uncovering illegal real estate deals, Reuben Flagg's actions engineer change that really matters. You can't read into the politics of most game characters, but Flagg's would be an open book.
Aerial and outer-space action
Even in games like Superman Returns, where the lead character can fly, most of the derring-do performed in superhero games feels disappointingly earthbound. After all, threats to humanity don't just roll down the street. Sometimes the bad guys dive at us from above, and we need heroes who rise up to meet those challenges.
This looks like a job for: Silver Surfer and Hawkman
Why they would make great games: The Surfer and Hawkman aren't the kind of heroes who occasionally swing up between buildings to patrol a city. Games built around both characters could make the sky and outer space into living, breathing game worlds in the same way that Grand Theft Auto accomplished that for cities.
The kinds of metahuman battles we're currently playing through must be wreaking havoc on Mother Earth. Crushed buildings, overtaxed power grids and the resources used to rebuild them take a heavy toll on an increasingly fragile ecosystem. We need a hero who can save the planet while saving the planet.
This looks like a job for: Swamp Thing
Why he would make a great game: "Swamp Thing" is a horror story that begins when scientist Alec Holland becomes the embodiment of the latent consciousness of all of Earth's flora. Creepiness is nothing new in videogames -- but an ecological spin on scary gameplay might deliver a fresh and timely take on what gamers think of as frightening. A Swamp Thing game could show that humans behave as monstrously as any demon or maniacal supervillain when viewed from a plant's perspective.
Smiles tend to be scarce in high-stakes superhero skirmishes like Arkham Asylum. (We're not counting Joker's ghastly grin.) Even an inveterate wisecracker like Spider-Man had to suffer through a gritty onslaught in his last outing, Web of Shadows. How you win the day needn't be so grim. Surely a costumed crusader can brighten the day of the folks he's saving, right?
This looks like a job for: Ambush Bug and Plastic Man
Why they would make great games: The fourth wall has been way too secure in the superhero genre; it's high time players had some fun breaking it down. During an earth-shattering galactic crisis, Plastic Man is the kind of hero who's getting a kitten out of a tree. And Ambush Bug knows that he's a character in a comic book. With those powers of his, he's a one-man Portal -- and he's been known to break out into song, too.
Girlfriends, boyfriends and significant others show up mostly as side elements during a super-person's quest for justice. Mary Jane often plays the helpless hostage in Spider-Man games, and you get the feeling that Superman would get a lot more done if he weren't always saving Lois Lane. What's missing from the romantic relationships we see in superhero games is a sense of courtship -- more specifically, courtship among equals.
This looks like a job for: Hawkeye and Mockingbird
Why they would make a great game: The banter between the cocky bowman and the coolly unimpressed martial artist, who eventually got married, crackles with attraction. Still, it wasn't exactly love at first sight, and Hawkeye and Mockingbird's romance would be a great challenge in character development. In their love story, she?s not the person in distress; he is. Turnabout can be fair pay and fun to play, too.
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