There is a picture of me in one of my mum’s meticulously dated photo albums wearing a Spider-Man mask on December 25th, 1980, when I was a bright eyed cherub of five good years, full of excitement, wonder and dreams. Sort of.
Flicking through the next few pages of that same photo album, you would be forgiven for thinking they were also taken around that same Christmas, due to the regular recurrence of my alter ego, Spider-Span. In truth, however, these now mildly mortifying photos are months and years apart, and in fact, I type this article for you now with my head tilted back and sideways so I can see through the eyeholes of a child’s mask. In short, Spider-Man rules!
Throughout my youth, across my teens and into an unripe manhood, I have endeavored to read all the great literary classics of our age, and have benefited greatly through the intellectual evolution and philosophical understanding of humankind these works of erudite, cultural exploration have provided. Yep, The Hulk, Batman, Ghost Rider, The Punisher, The Fantastic Four, Usagi Yojimbo, The Silver Surfer, Akira, Spider-Man – I’ve read ’em all, and I continue to read them now, lest my knowledge of classic literature slip below the highest of academic requirements.
Creating a good super hero is no simple task. What is it that we want from, say, the Punisher? I’ve no problem admitting I find sex and violence to be highly entertaining, and what I want from the Punisher is an inch thick slice of the latter (though probably not so much of the former, if I’m being truthful). It won’t do, however, for Stan “The Man” Lee to simply bung a chrome-plated leviathan of a gun in Frank Castle’s hand and have him wandering the streets murdering the criminal class in imaginative and gruesome ways; no, no. That wouldn’t do at all.
Despite the fact this is essentially how the Punisher spends his violent and eccentric life, we have to believe that what he does, he does for the right reasons (at least, as far as he believes them to be). His appeal would be irretrievably diminished if Frank Castle simply wasted a bunch of wise guys, stopped off at SUBWAY for a chicken teriyaki on hearty Italian, went home to his suburban duplex and put his feet up to watch Scrubs before having an early night ’cause he’s taking out the Vitelli gang tomorrow. Nor must he simply engage in nonstop onslaught where his every waking hour is filled with the mayhem and bloodshed that make him such an interesting fellow to read about.
Although it may not be close to the fore of our minds when journeying with the Punisher, it is our subconscious interest in the life and tribulations of his mortal alias, Frank Castle, as he tries (and fails) to reconcile his past by proactively saving other people from criminals akin to those who destroyed his world, that actually captures our imagination. We must believe Frank is doing the unspeakable things he does because he is trying to help people. All super heroes have this central driving force at their core, even if it isn’t something we initially recognize as a major part of their appeal.
What is particularly enthralling about reading comic books is their abundance of character development. With a good 30 years of history for even a “young” super hero, comics easily lend themselves to that most important aspect for audience identification: depth of character. Although we may think we like Lord of the Rings because of the huge battle sequences, or Spider-Man because he can climb walls, none of that would make any difference to us if we weren’t emotionally involved with Frodo or Peter Parker.
It’s the colossal battles and wall crawling escapades that are the prime fodder in a videogame, however, so why do these conversions consistently fail to deliver? In principle, comic book super heroes, who have already had their own personal distinctiveness established by another medium are the ideal candidates for just this kind of application.
To be fair to the programmers, it’s an immensely difficult task. They are effectively re-writing the character’s history and present actions, while all the tools and devices used by other creative mediums are effectively removed from their arsenal. While a script writer (comic or movie) has complete control over the visual development of the character and their story, a programmer has to let the player make those decisions for themselves. They must communicate a complete story and also the impact the story’s events have on the life of an existing character, which is already replete with fanatic, detail-obsessed fans.
The movie and the comic can take us into the life of Peter Parker, Frank Castle or Norrin Radd, away from their costumes and powers, and bring the audience closer to them to feel their anguish and joys, fully appreciating them as rounded, believable people. Aside from the odd cut scene, however, a software developer would be committing commercial suicide by including a level in Spider-Man where we would play as Peter Parker battling his emotional turmoil over an inability to pay his rent:
“Use Parker’s special ability to act all awkward and feeble in order to help Aunt May open a bank account and buy some new pants before the shops close! Get the free toaster from the belligerent bank clerk for an extra bonus!”
It might bring you closer to Peter’s predicament during the movie, but in a videogame, it’s just a waste of your wireless controller’s batteries. Neither do we want to sit and be inactively entertained by watching the characters’ origins in extended FMV sequences, so a game’s developer must tell us the story, teach us about the history of the character’s world, make us empathize with our protagonist and provide an enjoyable playing experience from the second the start screen disappears. No small wonder it’s rarely achieved.
In order to love our super heroes, in all their guises, we’ve already decided they must allow us to feel as though we’re helping our fellow man or woman – that’s right, I’m a genuine “nineties man” (despite the fact it’s 2006) – by hurting other, less likeable fellow men or, indeed, women. Strap on a few super powers or special abilities to our deep, moral epitome of human excellence, and you’ve got yourself a workable character from which many a great story and game can be fashioned. There is a snag, of course: One character does not a story make.
Heroes need villains, villains need victims and victims need predicaments. All these components must be equally three dimensional in order for us to become fully immersed in the wants and needs of the main character. If Spidey simply took himself a safe distance from the Green Goblin’s hand propelled pumpkin bombs and webbed him to the wall until the police sauntered by, we wouldn’t perceive the Wall Crawler to have achieved anything of particular worth, and his status would be reduced to just “hero,” having done nothing especially “super.” And the Green Goblin would be neither threat nor sympathetic entity if he simply got bored of being a multi-millionaire and decided to go on a pointless, egomaniacal rampage. His history and the events that lead him to the desperate measures, which pushed him over the edge of humanity and into the realm of the desperate criminal, must be believable, and it is this aspect a wise game developer would use to make us empathize with the characters.
Since the programmer can only show us brief snippets of direct information regarding the objectives and circumstances of our involvement in the hero’s life (assuming, that is, that they don’t want to bore and irritate us), the most useful tool for drawing the player into the emotive back story is through the protagonist’s conflicts. Spider-Man 2 (the game of the movie of the comic) is an excellent example of how this is done, while the sequel (of sorts), Ultimate Spider-Man, fails for exactly the same reason.
In Spider-Man 2, the game begins by dropping Web Head onto the streets of New York directly under the control of the player. All about the map are members of the public shouting for help, crimes being readily perpetrated and somewhere, one of Spidey’s many fantastical enemies is causing havoc and endangering the lives of the strangers our hero feels obliged to protect. So, what do you do? The Lizard is tearing up a lab on the other side of town, two gangs are brawling in the streets, a little girl has just lost her balloon and there’s only one Spider-Man! You quickly come to realize the thorny choices a hero must react to at every instance; and when it comes down to it, stopping the Lizard’s rampage must take precedence over a balloonless child, regardless of how much it might pull at your heartstrings to hear her crying as you swing past.
So, even though the game has told us nothing about the inner turmoil faced by an overworked super hero whose only want is to save people the tragedies he once suffered, you are forced to appreciate his overwhelming situation on a very personal level, by suffering the choices Spider-Man must make every minute he is wearing his mask. The depth of character and inherent humanity of the Wall Crawler is shown to us through the actions of his antagonists and the difficult decisions he must make for the greater good.
In Ultimate Spider-Man, however, the same developer fell into a trap in which many a comic and movie script writer has become ensnared as a result of to the audience’s apparent approval of a particular antagonist: playing the part of the bad guy. In essence, I have no issue with this, although simply switching roles and attempting to score the same audience identification with an immoral criminal is inherently flawed. This is not to say a protagonist can’t have darker, less ethical sensibilities (we’ve already discussed the Punisher), but that central premise of wanting to help people cannot be at the core of Venom’s or the Green Goblin’s psyche, since their motivation – as counter-points to the hero – is about reckless personal gain without concern for others. You cannot engage with a character you subconsciously want to lose!
Venom is a terrific character – one of my all time favorites from the Marvel universe – and at first thought, it sounds like a great idea donning the symbiotic mantle of the anti-Spidey and wreaking up the city, but this also means retraining your emotions so you feel comfortable defeating Spider-Man; two story telling devices that are implicitly contrary and subsequently unable to coexist in the same story, leaving the player despondent and no longer caring about either character, and therefore, the game.
The gaming world has been in a vortex of controversy ever since the first Grand Theft Auto title was released, whereby the player’s objectives were to act as depraved and low a character as possible; scoring points for car jacking and running down pedestrians. As I’ve said, I’m all for violence and debauchery (in fact, that’s what I call “Friday night”), yet I also demand that the games I play to get that decadent fix have not simply had their duty to engage the player replaced by a continuous string of deliberately contentious gratuitousness. Anyone can come up with a sick, licentious idea for a controversial activity (off the top of my head: Hungry, Hungry Zombies – chase around a playground snatching children and throwing them into a pit of zombies, causing the undead creatures to overfeed until their livers rupture). Violence alone is not as entertaining as it may first appear; it must be backed up by the premise of acting for some munificent purpose.
A good counterpoint to Grand Theft Auto is God of War. Here, the protagonist is a genocidal warmonger who has sold his soul to the devil; a great start for anyone looking to spill some blood and guts. And they wouldn’t be displeased, since this is the basic engine for the ensuing hack ‘n’ slash gameplay. Yet Kratos, despite his intrinsic similarity of action to the characters of Grand Theft Auto, has been given an emotional standpoint that allows the player to understand the choice and purpose of his primarily sadistic nature.
Assailing a passing civilian with a flamethrower in GTA seems unjustified and ultimately harms the longevity of the game, while Kratos pushing a caged innocent into a furnace in order to save Athens is a dramatic, poignant, yet comprehensible decision that helps the player come to terms with the gravity of being a hero, further enhancing their enjoyment.
It’s all very well saying how monumentally stacked the odds are against the struggling videogame script writer to create a believable, engaging cast while telling a story and providing an entertaining outlet, but the fact remains that ever since the first RPG was made, computer and videogames have been sorely lacking in well developed characters. In all other forms of modern media, audience identification is the single most important facet, be it a book, sitcom, comic, movie, play, radio drama or puppet show.
If the increasingly voracious videogame industry wants to draw people into the endless worlds that constitute even the most basic of modern games and accept the events that happen there, they will have to begin pouring the same effort into creating credible, sympathetic characters who their audience – since today’s player is as much a viewer and a reader, as they are a gamer – can empathize with, and whose motives they can believe in; whether it’s murdering the Gods, swinging through skyscrapers, pistol whipping drug addicts or rescuing kittens from trees.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.