Comics Relief

Chuck Osborn griped in his June 2002 Killing Box column that game publishers weren't making enough comic book-themed games because the bean counters didn't think comic books had enough appeal for mainstream audiences to justify their investment. That, of course, was before a little movie called Spider-Man was released, jump-starting the great comic-book-movie surge of the early 21st century and infusing spandex-wearing fictional heroes into pop culture consciousness. So why is it that now, billions of dollars in box office receipts later, I have yet to find a comic book-based action game that can be compared favorably to the likes of a Valve or Id Software blockbuster? Unfortunately, most sub-par games in this genre succumb to some crippling mistakes, and until these problems are rectified, we might never reach the holy grail of comic-book-gaming geekdom.

Movie licensing
The vast majority of comic book games piggyback their releases on high-profile comic book movies, like Spider-Man or The Hulk, in order to cash in on the shared marketing hype. More often than not, this forces developers to rush production of a game to meet a deadline set by the movie studios, without any opportunity to delay the game's release date to accommodate comprehensive testing and bug fixes. And since a movie's production cycle is typically shorter than that needed for a videogame (most movies are filmed and produced in two years), gamers end up with unpolished products that never meet the expectations of fans. Even with longer lead times for game development, I believe the best way to overcome the movie-game curse is to abandon the movie tie-in model completely. A great stand-alone game would have more success with organic buzz than a hastily made one with tons of marketing hype.

Above: Ultimate Spider-Man had nothing to do with the three Sony films and was scripted by the writer of the comic series

Action first, story second
Existing comic book games put too much emphasis on action instead of story. The huge successes of BioShock and Portal prove that gamers respond to a compelling narrative, even if it takes attention away from the running and gunning. I'm not denying the appeal of exercising Iron Man's awesome powers with a touch of a gamepad button, but any comic book aficionado will attest that the most interesting aspects of modern graphic novels are the surprisingly deep characterizations and involving plots. Game developers should pony up the dough to get credible comic scribes like Grant Morrison (Batman) or Garth Ennis (Punisher) to try their hands at writing game scripts. In fact, one of my favorite comic book games, Ultimate Spider-Man, was penned by Brian Michael Bendis, the creator of that comic book.

Heroes don't kill
Comic book themes just don't jive with the mechanics of action games. Fans of ultra-visceral shooters like Gears of War won't be impressed by a Batman game where you can only knock goons out instead of pumping them full of lead. The notion that superheroes must be suitable for younger audiences limits a comic book game's potential to explore darker themes that are the creative anchor for many comic series. I'm all for tongue-in-cheek adaptations like LEGO Batman, but Marvel and DC Comics should be less protective of their reputations and let game designers take risks with their characters. There are plenty of great comic book titles starring lesser-known anti-heroes that are geared toward more mature audiences.

We don't have the technology
The technical limitations of PC hardware prevent developers from giving us the immersive interactive experiences that match our imaginations. It never feels right when you're playing an all-powerful superhero in an indestructible and constrictive game environment. Incredible strength and super speed may work well on the printed page, but they aren't yet practical (or believable) in a game world.

Will we ever see a perfect comic book game? The only way game publishers will change their ways is if you convince them with purchasing decisions. Don't settle for a crappy game just because it stars your favorite superhero. There's no point in wasting your money when mediocre comic book games are wasting their potential.

June 4, 2008