Superheroes are cool. I only read the occasional comic book and usually only if it’s a self-contained story because that’s a deep (and expensive) rabbit hole to fall into but I still love movies based on superhero comics and I especially enjoy reading about the history and mythos from more knowledgeable writers. There are several cultural parallels between games and comic books, specifically—for my purposes today—that the prototypical text for either deals in fanciful heroism: comic books are about superheroes and games are about scoring violence points. I should also specify that I’m talking about comics and games from English-speaking Europe and North America. It isn’t true that these comics are exclusively interested in what the general population assumes they are, even each medium’s megaliths (DC and Marvel on one side, let’s say Nintendo and EA on the other, for example) have not dealt exclusively in content that’s most associated with their forms. But the Ur for both is brightly coloured images telling unsubtle and pulpy stories written to gain profit from juvenile boys. This view isn’t entirely unwarranted either.
There are, of course, games that aren’t at all interested in traditional videogame subject matter at all. Dear Esther, Depression Quest, Always Sometimes Monsters, Actual Sunlight, Papers Please and so many others avoid the traditional “hero against the world” setup of videogames and they only make games better, deeper, more varied and more accessible (Bosnasio, Alice. “Better Than Film.” The Escapist. May 4 2010.). Obviously, I don’t have any more problem with their depictions of the world than I do with The Pink Panther, Batman and Prisoners all following a detective doing detective things just from remarkably different perspectives. I do, however, find that a lot of games based in fantasy do so nearly always from the perspective of the superhero, the one controlling the fantasy, not as an ordinary person living in it.
The popular understanding of comics and games is that they deal in the heroic violence between exaggerated caricatures of masculine fantasy. Most games are interested in the abstract, hyperreality and speculation (Bee, Aevee. “Arrangement of Omission.” Medium. May 31 2014.). Again, in isolation, there’s no issue: speculative fiction and epic-inspired fantasy can be used to highlight certain particles of human experience, to safely explore taboo, to push a cultural narrative to an extreme or just to show something really cool. That’s all fine; westerns, noir, sci-fi, and the other subgenres of “not-literature” are perfectly valid modes of expression. The superhero figure sets up a funhouse mirror to reality, warping the world it supposedly comments on, but often it does so uncritically (Cross, Katherine. “I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality.” The Border House. Sep 2 2011.). The issue is that if one’s only lens to look at the world is warped than one accepts the warp as true: the more these stories dominate the landscape the more twisted their reflection of the world.
If there’s a problem with the superhero figure it’s that his (yeah, his) heroism is too super to relate to, too distant from reality to mean anything. We romance his authority and his ability to act and influence because those are taken for granted. (Again, I’m not familiar enough with comics to comment on them, so consider my stance toward them to be a big “Iunno” from here out). About three-quarters of the way through Mass Effect 3, the Asari counsellor—who earlier refused Earth military aid because she’s a politician and politicians just don’t get it, man—asks the player’s Shepard for help, calling him “The sole ray of hope in a very dark night.” Which is true, because in the galaxy of trillions, only Shepard has the strength, charisma and moral integrity to sidequest an infinity of Wellsian space-monsters out of existence.
The problem with superheroes, at least in games, is that they are always of a certain degree of superness and they celebrate a certain kind of heroism. To illustrate my point I’ll be talking a bit about two Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 directed by Marc Webb ten years later.
Tobey Macguire’s Peter Parker in Raimi’s film is a completely different animal than Andrew Garfield’s in Webb’s interpretation. When Raimi’s Parker is introduced, he loses his job, gets chewed out by his favourite professor, misses Mary Jane’s acting debut, shows up late to late to his birthday party (attended by his only two friends) and loses his last twenty dollars to the landlord of his cramped and dirty apartment. The events of the first Spider-Man—graduating top of his class, charming the pretty girl, becoming a superhero and saving the city—have done nothing to make his life any better. Nobody cares that he’s intellectually gifted, that he works hard or that he really is a nice guy. We see we see J. Jonah Jameson cheat Peter out of his money, we see him confess his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May only for her to walk out on him, we see his aunt evicted from her house, we see his rich asshole of a best friend turn against him. His being Spider-Man, at best, is a crutch he uses to gloss over his insecurities and inadequacies. When we see him at his most self-centred and negligent he’s rewarded and when we see him at his most virtuous he is not loved, he is not thanked and he isn’t able to save everybody.
Halfway through the film, Peter rushes into a burning building to save a little girl, after struggling to break out of collapsing wreckage, he succeeds only for a firefighter to remark over his head that “some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” Raimi’s Spider-Man can’t save everybody, he can’t even fix his own life. And that haunts him. When he dresses up in ostentatious red and blue spandex he’s doing it because he wants to be seen, because seeming like a hero covers up the mess of his real life. Parker knows how much of a disappointment he is to people: he wants to relate to them, he wants to help them, he just doesn’t know how.
Andrew Garfield as Parker is a far cry from MacGuire’s portrayal. Raimi’s films are more interested in Peter Parker as a flawed human being than Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man: hero of New York City. Villains pour into his life in torrents for him to try to talk down, fail, and punch to death. When Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy shows up for the final action scene, she screams out “This is my choice, Peter. My Choice!” signifying to Peter and the audience that when she croaks at the end (oh come on, that’s not a spoiler, that’s a Wikipedia summary) everybody is clear that it isn’t Peter’s fault.
Webb’s Peter Parker is a good-looking but humble overachiever who is as intelligent as he is practical as he is athletic as he is popular. This Parker is the son of a brilliant scientist, his DNA holds the key to unlocking the Spider-Man’s powers, biologically predetermining him to accomplish great deeds. Even though the relationship between Gwen and Peter is haunted by Gwen’s father—whose dying words to Peter were to leave his daughter alone, lest he bring her harm (which is exactly what happens)—the film makes pains to absolve Peter of any wrongdoing. Somebody close to Peter was killed, but really it’s her fault for being there in the first place because she interfered in Peter’s duties as a superhero.
Where Raimi’s Spider-Man is just some dorky, insecure kid who happens to have super spider powers, Webb’s is an idealized, predestined crime fighter who happens to also be a high schooler. Webb’s Aunt May has to get a second job to pay the mortgage, but she gets that second job and she pays the mortgage. Fuck the recession, this is about Spider-Man punching Electro in his stupid nerdy face, not a single retiree in mourning trying to survive the 21st century class crisis. Peter might be moody and misunderstood, but he’s a superhero and therefore cannot be understood by the mere mortals in his everyday life. It’s a matter of emphasis, one Spider-Man is a hero in spite of who he is, the other Spider-Man is a hero because of who he is; one is a multi-dimensional and flawed person reacting to his circumstance, one is ordained to be a hero by his father’s work.
One form of heroism is not necessarily better than the other. I think that Raimi’s film is much better than Webb’s but not because his is any more or less faithful to the original material (Chipman, Bob. “The Accuracy Trap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The Escapist. May 2 2014.)—it comes from a comic book, there is no one true source material—the artistic choice to focus on one translation of heroism is nothing new in pulp media, and on its own there isn’t any harm in it. After all, to take one relatable aspect of life on earth and make a person out of it is the foundational step creating these kinds of characters. Exaggerated caricatures of people are fun to watch in an adventure and they’re particularly effective when escapism is the objective apparent.
There’s a lot of that in videogames. Everybody in the galaxy waits around for Shepard, the awesomest, most baddassest person, to find and shoot existential terror with a space gun. Shepard is the personality neutral cipher for the player and not just because she’s a character created avatar; Master Chief, Link, the various Grand Theft Auto protagonists, Aiden Pierce etc. all reflect an idealized form of heroism. They’re hollowed out to fit the player’s personality and then treated as the epitome of the species, granted absolute liberty and authority over the entire world. This character has become such a standard that it’s unusual to question why they’re heroes, what makes them heroic and whether or not their characteristics should be idealized. They’re videogames and that’s that.
That’s where I take issue, when only a narrow selection of traits are deemed “heroic” and others are disallowed. Two Spider-Man films only ten years apart are able to take very different approaches to a single character; The Avengers and the films leading up to and out of it have shown a rich, snarky know-it-all suffer an emotional breakdown and panic attacks and a personification of American idealism lifted out-of-place and uphold the very authoritarianism of the greatest enemy in his country’s history. I don’t mean to suggest that the silver screen is the model of superhero range and depth (I’ll need to see Black Panther, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk movies before I even consider that) but they’ve certainly had a better track record than games.
I like when games show ordinariness in fantasy. Games like A Mother in Festerwood, Recettear, Limbo and Brothers put the player in familiar, fantastical settings but rather than centralize the world on their experiences, they become just a piece of the world, or rather the world expands from the grounded view of evidently average people in it. Even Dragon Age II attempted to ground the player after the classical adventuring of Origins, albeit with a number of unrelated problems to distract from the shift in tone (Coberly, Bill. “Dragon Age: Apologies.” The Ontological Geek. Jun 13 2014.). Alternately, games like Papa & Yo, Ni no Kuni, Braid and The Cat and the Coup are all fanciful abstractions of the world by ordinary people (or in the last case, a cat). The highly stylized surrealism serves as an abstraction for a fictional but average character. These games communicate a sense of wonder but they do so from the grounded, often unseen reality of an ordinary person. By focusing on ordinariness, they add depth to the hyperreality and phantasmagoria of typical pulp-based videogames.
One of the strengths of FTL is that it puts the player in the role of a single spaceship in a complicated intergalactic war. The setting leans on space opera tropes but unlike Star Wars, the player is not put in the role of galactic saviour: they’re put in the role of a ship crew who just don’t want to get blown up. The player’s ship might hold the key to winning the war, but they aren’t given any context for their role in the war, who they represent or even if the galaxy would best benefit from the player’s victory. Context gradually seeps into a playthrough and each decision ultimately becomes a moral one. However, the morality of each decision boils down to the player’s survival: the player might sympathize with the enemy rebels or they might regret dealing with shady merchants but survival is far more tangible than morality.
If Shepard’s Normandy is blasted to bits, Cerberus will just build a bigger, better one; when the player loses their ship in FTL, their crew flash freezes and gets sucked into space while remains of their ship expand forever into the void. The player is just a part of the world, not its saviour and not its last line of defence. Granted a lot of this is lost in repeated playthroughs (Kersting, Erik. “FTL and the Failure of Text Narratives in Roguelikes.” PopMatters. May 5 2014.), but FTL effectively creates a fantastic universe while making the player just an ordinary part of it. Those decisions to win the war, then, become so much more horrible when understood from the perspective of a single ship just trying to get from one end of the galaxy to the next: not as a figure with the power and morality to resolve the central conflict.
Similarly, The Walking Dead is far better as a videogame than it is as a television series or comic book because it’s more committed to the perspective of ordinary people. The graphic novel series focuses on Rick Grimes’s leadership in territorial conflicts and while the show presents a softer version of him, it still gives us a band of brothers with specific combat stats in a clearly defined hierarchy. The game, however, is not interested in whether the team captain can keep his troops in line long enough to secure his borders. The game could just as easily take place in a war-torn country or post-disaster cityscape, the zombies—that omnipresent stable of pulp fiction—are only their to force regular people into extreme circumstances. Lee and Clementine are just people: they save lives and lead their fellow survivors though their dangerous world, but The Walking Dead is not interested in their heroic deeds half as much as it is in their personhood.
The Walking Dead follows a disgraced university professor with anger issues and an orphaned little girl. For all the drama and darkness of The Walking Dead, it’s hard to remember that it’s based on a zombie horror story. Across all versions of The Walking Dead (and the George A. Romero films it’s based on) there probably isn’t a hero questing across the spoiled land seeking a cure for the world’s ills. If there is, the player is never going to find them. The Walking Dead may be set in a fantastic, comic book setting, but the heroic deeds of the ordinary people living in it mean so much more because they are so much closer to Earth.
It’s not that the Mass Effect series are bad games because Shepard is a superhero—I don’t think that the Mass Effect series is bad at all—it’s that there’s room for both in the world. If anything, games like FTL and The Walking Dead enrich the medium because they explore different dimensions of typical videogame content. Comic books are still closely associated with their origins in pulp, particularly with super heroes, but it’s important that they’ve grown and explored different dimensions of their content. Not always for the right reasons and not without significant hurdles along the way (Ahmed, Salidin. “How Censors Killed The Weird, Experimental, Progressive Golden Age of Comics.” Buzzfeed. May 2 2014; Buhlert, Cora. “The true motives behind the ‘War on Comics’.” Cora Buhlert. May 10 2014.), but comics have managed to keep their roots in pulp fantasy while also exploring different avenues of the form. Likewise, games only grow when they shift focus away from empowerment fantasies. There is a different kind of heroism in ordinariness: a kind that a lot of players would benefit from seeing more of.
Further reading: Hernandez, Patricia. “Assuming Control: Mass Effect‘s Krogan are Analogous to White Man’s Burden.” Gameranx. Apr 4 2012.
Fussel, Sidney. “Being Black and Nerdy.” Medium. Apr 17 2014.
Saitta, Luca.”Kill and Conquer: Traditionally ‘Male’ Values and Video Game Violence.” The Mary Sue. Jun 3 2014.
Cauller, M. Joshua. “Beautiful Power Fantasies.” Game Church.