Superheroes and RPGs: An Obvious Match?

Some things in this world go together so well that they've become cliché: bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, death and taxes... OK, maybe that one's not such a good example, but the point's clear. When I was asked to write this month's editorial, the topic that ended up coming to mind was whether we should add superheroes and RPGs to that list. I've been a fan of both comic books and RPGs for as long as I've been able to get them. I have about 2000 comics at home, including an old issue of What If? that's missing its cover and probably at least one page inside, which I bought from the barber my mom always took me to. It's not worth a dime, but I love it anyway.

Although I have consoles in my home (hooked up to TVs, even) ranging from an Atari 2600 to an Xbox 360 and a Wii, my RPG collection is much less complete. This is because it was only after college that I was able to afford consoles and games of my own (rather than playing at a friend's house as I did when I was younger) and because my taste in games started out much less focused than it is today. In fact, it was my realization of just how many of the games I was playing in recent years were RPGs that brought me to write for RPGFan.

As I thought about the match of superheroes and RPGs, I began to wonder what it is that attracts us to superheroes. I'm not a psychologist, but since this is an editorial, I get to give you my opinion anyway. First (and perhaps most obvious): everyone has felt at times in their life that they wanted to right some wrong, but didn't have the power to do so. Maybe something small, maybe something big, but I think there's been something like that for everyone.

As silly as it may sound to say so, the other item that's obvious to me is this: everyone likes to feel special. Who's more special than a superhero? They can do things other people can't. The characters in mainstream comics are generally famous (or at least infamous) for their exploits. People need them. Sure, when you're looking for information about whether a video game is decent, you need someone like me who has played it and can fill you in, but when there's an alien horde bent on enslaving the human race, your sources for help are a lot more limited. Clearly, a comic book character being powerful and special doesn't make the reader any more powerful or special, but in great comics as in great books, TV, or movies, part of the thrill is that transference of energy (for lack of a better term) where we feel like we're somehow a part of what we're reading or watching.

I don't think that's all, though. To me, the core concept behind any hero, superpowered or not, is hope. Someone like that gives people hope that even though there are bad things in the world, it'll be all right in the end. Certainly that concept has been explored many times in comics, frequently in storylines that follow a hero who is questioning whether they truly make a difference, given all of the problems the world faces. Generally, the conclusion they arrive at is that yes, no matter the number of people they help (and the number they can't), doing so is still worthwhile. Of course, the clear message to readers is that even though we don't have the ability to make a difference on the scale that someone with super powers does, our small efforts are not wasted. It's a message of hope for both us and for the character.

What about RPGs? Are these the same factors that bring us back to the genre, game after game? I can't speak for all of you (actually, I'd be really interested to know your thoughts on the subject), but there are some common items for me, as well as some itches that an RPG scratches that a comic book just can't. To take them in the same order that I did above, I imagine that we'd all agree that the majority of RPGs set your character up to right wrongs–frequently saving the world, although that is not always your initial goal (the example that springs to mind immediately is in Fallout, where your initial goal is simply to find parts to repair the underground vault that you live in). Usually, over the course of doing so, your character becomes much more powerful than you will ever be, whether that entails swinging a sword, casting spells, or even just the ability to get shot hundreds of times over the course of a game and survive unharmed (hooray for potions and armor!).

There are a lot of approaches in RPGs regarding the topic of being special, but off the top of my head, the method chosen most often is to demonstrate that your character as special, but not necessarily famous. You tend to "know the right people" instead. Still, this is generally paired with a strong message that you are the only one who can solve the problem you're trying to solve. You are the chosen one; the prophesied savior; or perhaps the end product of a secret bloodline kept pure for the sole purpose of doing The Thing You're Doing. In short, you're someone special. Because of the non-episodic nature of most RPGs, the specific "am I doing enough" storyline does not surface as frequently as it does in comics, where it can pop up one month and be finished, but I think that the concept of hope is still just as important in an RPG as it is in comics.

Having said all of that, RPGs do one thing that comics really can't do: allow you control. Certainly there are many RPGs where the story is purely linear, but the fact that I determine how (and whether) the character beats the tar out of someone still immerses me in the game to an extent that reading cannot do. There's logic and puzzle-solving intrinsic to a good RPG that the player can learn, and by doing so, increase their chance of survival in the game world. How many threads are there on the RPGFan forums alone where we discuss these elements of the games we're currently loving and/or being frustrated by?

Even if I'm leaving things out, it is evident that there is a big intersection between things we love about comics and things we love about RPGs. The obvious followup question to me is this: the theory's great, but what about in practice? I will admit that my experience with non-US RPGs is limited, but as I've thought about the topic, the number of superhero RPGs that come to mind is very small: Freedom Force, City of Heroes, X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and Justice League Heroes are almost all of them that I was able to remember off the top of my head. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic falls into gray area for me, as the Jedis' status as superheroes could be argued either way. I am also aware of at least one graphic adventure, The Superhero League of Hoboken, and a text-based game, Earth and Sky (written well after the heyday of interactive fiction) that feature some semblance of RPG elements.

I do not know about reviews of The Superhero League of Hoboken, but I do know that the rest of the games I was able to come up with all got at least average, if not better than average, reviews. Have there been any really bad superhero RPGs? I can't think of any. Assuming that I don't have a faulty memory, that's odd, isn't it? There have been plenty of non-RPG superhero games that have been failures, and precious few successes. In terms of failures, need I say more than "Superman for the Nintendo 64?" In terms of successful games, those that come to mind tend to be arcade games like the outstanding six player X-Men game and Marvel vs. Capcom, which (assuming the buzz is correct) is about to be karmically balanced by an upcoming console fighter pitting DC heroes against Mortal Kombat characters. While it's possible that I'm just not looking in the right places, I have yet to see more than a handful of positive comments about the prospects of that game from the World Wide Peanut Gallery.

So given that the success to failure ratio appears to be very respectable for superhero RPGs, why don't we see more of them? A few possibilities spring to mind. You may have noticed that most of the superhero RPGs that I was able to think of were very recent. I think that in large part, this is because the technology has only progressed in the last few years to the point where it is able to present a superhero game where the characters feel sufficiently powerful. In Freedom Force, characters can lift and throw vehicles, break down buildings and throw the leftover pieces. Strong characters may do so using their fists, while mentally-powered characters may use telekinesis for the same effect.

All of this is very complex to program, and even the success Freedom Force's developers had is nothing compared to upcoming games like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which features three different physics engines working in harmony to show the effects of the character's powers on his surroundings. Even in its current, unfinished state, the level of devastation the character can cause in that game is far beyond the capabilities of the hardware we were using just a couple of years ago.

The question of team-based play also comes into the equation. Anyone who played games like the original Rainbow Six can attest to the fact that teammate AI has come a very long way since the first squad-based games. Your compatriots in Marvel Ultimate Alliance are much more fun to fight alongside than they would have been in those days, and a game that includes a whole team of characters players can use is always likely to appeal to a broader base than one that only includes one character. (Except a Deadpool game–everyone would want that, because Deadpool is awesome. Got that, video game execs reading this article?)

I would say that licensing is a factor as well. The success of movies based on comic books over the past several years has really opened the eyes of entertainment industry leaders to the huge amount of potential profit to be had in purchasing the licenses to develop movies and games based on established characters. Obviously, we've seen efforts in the past to capitalize on these licenses (just think of the X-Men cartoon series), but I think the next few years are only going to see more and more, until the inevitable point where the market reaches saturation and product quality declines to the point of affecting sales.

The final element that comes to mind for me is that of genre. I believe that for many executives and even developers, the logical choice for a superhero game has always been something in the action genre. Even most of the superhero RPG examples I cited above are action RPGs. I see this as a result of the fact that the fun part of playing a game as a superhero is fighting as them, and the obvious choice for a game where you fight is (for many) an action game. In contrast, I believe that those same people think of the RPG genre as one where you make fantasy games–the kind with barbarians and wizards. (The hypocrisy of my stereotyping them is not lost on me.)

As there always has been, there is a big sector of the entertainment industry that makes its money not by trying new things, but by watching others try new things and trying to imitate that success. Accordingly, I really hope that the success of recent superhero RPGs will lead to more games in this subgenre. Assuming we do, I can only imagine what amazing things will be done with the technology that is becoming available to developers these days. There will inevitably be some bad games along with the good, but don't worry–I'll be here to protect you all from them with my super ability to stay up all night playing video games and my invulnerability to their attempts to make me throw my controller at my TV (I'm special like that).

- John Tucker


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