These aren't the Avengers you know and love. In Crystal Dynamics' upcoming Marvel's Avengers, the superheroes we think we know so well – the Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America – aren't played by A-list movie stars (though they are voiced by them), and they certainly aren't the confident heroes we've seen in movies. Instead, these Avengers are flawed and wracked with guilt after Captain America's death, having a surprising amount in common with the issues dealt with in Captain America: Civil War. Like that uncomfortable scene in Avengers: Endgame when Tony Stark lashes out at Captain America and we realised he had reached his limit at last, the creative director and writer of Marvel's Avengers, Shaun Escayg, told me that these are the blemished "human" versions of the superheroes we're used to, and why making them so messed up is making a better game for all of us.
Meet the Avengers
Escayg is clear about one thing: these Avengers do not bounce back easily. If you've ever been in a place in your life where you haven't lived up to expectations or have disappointed someone, it sounds like you're going to have more in common with Tony Stark, Natasha Romanova, Thor, and Bruce Banner than you ever thought possible. This game is all about "what it’s like to not be the ideal Avenger," Escayg tells me. "They’re human. They make mistakes. What happens to them when they do make terrible mistakes? And how do they deal with that?" We saw that Captain America died in Marvel's Avengers demo, as shown at E3 2019, which apparently happens "really early" according to Vince Napoli, Crystal Dynamics' lead combat designer. That's the first indication that this isn't the game we might have thought it would be. While Cap could always have a comeback in the game – heroes are notorious for not staying dead in Marvel comics – but it's all about what his death kicks off that makes these Avengers more relatable than before.
Usually, when superheroes make mistakes, "we forgive them because they’re the Avengers", says Escayg. "But the perspective of this particular story… was to create our own version of what [an Avengers story] would look like, and feel like, and even play like," he says, "so with our story, the Avengers’ hubris gets the better of them. They put out some technology out there that they didn’t really fully understand." Because they were too confident – perhaps even too cocky – Crystal Dynamics' Avengers didn't think through the risks properly. Simply put, they were careless. And after the proverbial hits the fan, the blame game really begins.
Anyone who's been caught in the middle of an argument among friends might get that sick feeling in their stomach when the Avengers start to fight amongst themselves, especially when Escayg tells me how each one of them thinks all this *gestures to the dead Cap, the sunken ship, and ruined Golden Gate Bridge* is their fault. "Who made the mistake?" Escayg asks, but the answer isn't simple. "Was it Bruce? He had the information. He had the science. Was it Tony? He knew the technology was unstable. Was it Widow? She did not protect that bridge. We should have gone back and helped Cap. All of these characters are now dealing with this guilt, essentially, and they deal with it differently. And that’s part of the journey that they’re trying to build on."
Stark has grown out his hair as we saw briefly in the Marvel's Avengers gameplay demo, hinting that his way of dealing with the disaster might have been to let himself go. Bruce Banner seems to be evading the emotional side of the disaster, as Stark's line "that was the question, Bruce" hints that the strongest Avenger is avoiding the reality of the situation. So if you're like me and had that horrible 'mummy and daddy are fighting' feeling coursing through your veins when Steve Rogers and Tony Stark fought in Civil War, looks like those emotions are going to make a return during the Crystal Dynamics directed Marvel's Avengers. Yay?
If you're still in two minds about whether these flawed Avengers are for you, know that Escayg's talent speaks for itself: he's has previously has had an illustrious career at Naughty Dog, having directed Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and has worked on movies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and Transformers. Safe to say, he knows what he's doing when it comes to larger-than-life-characters. I asked him about what he learned from his time at Naughty Dog, and Escayg told me that he's learned that "the story is key to keeping the experience real, and to grounding the experience. One of the things I really liked about the games, or where I personally feel games are going in the future … is keeping the sense of: never removing a player from the experience. So if I could keep you narratively engaged, and if I could keep you gameplay-engaged, and you’re unaware of when we’re going in and out of both – so if you can feel it, and you can feel the emotion [in the gameplay] as well as feeling the emotion in the story, then I’ve done my job. And the experience itself is one experience."
But don't expect to always know exactly where you stand when it comes to your experience playing as an Avenger. Doubt has crept into the public consciousness in Marvel's Avengers game – there are questions about whether the group are heroes at all – and for Escayg that lingering doubt is crucial. "The conflict for me, personally, is the: “Are we heroes? And if so, in whose eyes? Are we just a danger to society and we don’t know it?” And those are some of the big themes. And then there’s: “Will they get it together?” It’s a dysfunctional family. Can they pull it together without their leader?", Escayg asks me. I sure as hell don't know, but we always expect superheroes to bounce back. By the sounds of it, that's what the whole game is going to be about. "It is about testing the Avengers at their lowest, and seeing whether they can rise to the occasion and embrace their power and embrace themselves, and not reject who they are," continues Escayg.
I get the feeling that redemption is at the heart of Marvel's Avengers. We've seen the Avengers pull themselves together on the big screen, but now it's our turn to experience that for ourselves. "Both in single-player and co-op, you will live out your superhero fantasies," Escayg tells me. He leaves me with one thought, and despite the fact that almost my entire interview has been about how flawed these characters are, it's the words that any fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wants to hear: "Be that hero."