One of the biggest rotor blades of the video game rumor mill right now is that Rocksteady is working on a Superman game. The latest rumors suggest it’ll be set in the Arkham universe, which makes sense, and that it’ll be serving as a prelude of sorts for a subsequent Justice League game. Regardless of whether or not this is actually happening, the scuttlebutt floating around got my gears turning. Why hasn’t there been a Superman game we think of as “great,” or even “good?” What would a new Superman game need to make it good? Can we ever expect the AAA industry to handle the character well in the first place?
When most people think of Superman, they probably think of three things. The suit, with its bright and powerful blues and reds. Then, his powers: Flight, x-ray vision, indestructibility, and heat vision. Finally, the classic Christoper Reeve movies. With the video games featuring the character to date, this list has kinda been the bullet-point foundation on which they have been built. The games are all about Superman’s powers and the Hollywood boyscout tone, with perhaps a little Bruce Timm sprinkled in every now and then.
I think that’s led to some structural issues with games of the past. So many of them, in terms of gameplay, have been built around giving Superman space and reasons to fly, and specific contexts for his powers. Even the Injustice games fall on this a lot, and you see a lot of competitive matches being dominated by eye lasers. But Superman is more complex than flying and powers, and a new game that seeks to succeed in today’s world needs to be able to access that and make it digestible for the gaming audience.
A Superman game needs to be about who Superman is, not what Superman can do. We know what Superman can do, and if that’s the point then we may as well gear up to fly through a bunch of rings again. Instead, a game like Rocksteady would make could be a great avenue to explore Superman from the inside out, to dive into his motivations, what keeps him going. But that’s difficult, because Superman is, again, not as simple as he seems.
Superman is unique in the world of heroes because he doesn’t have a clear-cut motivation. He doesn’t have a tragic backstory that writers can use to lean on to push the character forward. He doesn’t have extensive martial arts training or a humanly impossible educational background. Superman is just a kid who grew up in Kansas and had decent, hardworking parents. Clark Kent doesn’t put pajamas on and fight bad guys because he needs to make up for something horrible, he does it because he wants to. He’s genuinely a good person.
There’s no immediate drama in that. That’s why Superman often has the reputation of being “boring” and a “Boy Scout.” That’s because there aren’t good shortcuts to make. You can’t just make an action book about Superman punching big robots and saving Lois Lan for the xth time and expect people to care. There needs to be some extra flavor to make it truly compelling. Just look at something like Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman for an example. It’s an extreme case, but a good one for point-making. Superman discovers he has a terminal illness, and so he sets off to make as many of his life goals come to fruition as possible, many of them being about making things better for everyone else. He does it because he’s a good gut, and he goes to extreme lengths to be selfless, for no other reason other than he knows it’s the right thing to do.
If Rocksteady is doing Superman, the biggest hurdle will be the tone, the atmosphere, the delivery of the story. Sure, there will probably be cool flying mechanics, and the combat from the Arkham games will probably suffice. But then what? The Arkham games struggled from taking too much from the Batman animated series and making it all extra dark and edgy. Otherwise all the connective tissue was pretty flimsy. People liked those games because the mechanics made them “feel like Batman,” because Batman has a laundry list of skills and gadgets. Superman’s abilities aren’t so special these days. So that extra context and motivation is necessary. Superman can’t be a dour, moody game with cool martial arts moves. An open-world flying and punching game won’t make the cut either. It needs to be more: Superman has earned it.