Video games have a Superman problem. I'm not talking about the panned releases like Superman 64, or the cancellation of ambitious projects like the Factor 5-headed 'Blue Steel'. I'm talking about the basic difficulty of designing a game for the Man of Steel.
Can you make the player a nigh-invulnerable hero—complete with a nearly endless power source—without eliminating mechanical challenge? Can you allow players to use the dozens of abilities Superman has accrued over the years (including flight) while still keeping the controls accessible? And if you manage to make an expansive, fully-destructible Metropolis playable on modern hardware, what would the strongest man in comics actually have to do there?
Developers have tried to answer these questions for years, with varying degrees of success. However, I believe the simple answer to solving this conundrum is: You don't.
When I used to think about a "perfect" Superman game, I thought about flying fast and punching big things really, really hard. I relished the fun his abilities might provide, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was missing the entire point of his character. We're drawn to the prospect of becoming Superman because of the power fantasy we think he represents, when his identity as a hero actually hinges on restraint, and the denial of power.
While fans continue to bemoan the lack of a good Superman game, they're forgetting to ask a single, fundamental question that may keep a 'proper' Superman title from ever being made:
Who is Superman?
We associate certain traits with the Man of Steel—he's faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, etc. The subtle nuances that make Superman super depend on each person's interpretation of the character. Whether "your" Superman is the mullet-haired badass of the 90's, the smiling hero portrayed by Christopher Reeves, or an alternate universe dictator, one thing has stayed constant in his characterization: Superman carries a lot of mythological weight.
In most interpretations, he's the definition of Lawful Good—a man granted with powers beyond imagination that would sacrifice every one of them to save a single person. In other interpretations, he's a warning. A red-eyed engine of destruction who, for some reason, really likes saying ominous things while posing above the Earth.
Whatever he stands for, above all else, Superman is a symbol. Of strength. Of humanity— corrupted or incorruptible.
The prospect of becoming this symbol, in whatever form he may take, is obviously attractive. However, this same monolithic quality that has allowed the character to endure in so many incarnations, for so many years, may be the greatest obstacle to players inhabiting him.
Above: watch us play Superman 64 as part of Waypoint's 72-hour launch livestream.
A few months ago, a post about Superman went viral on Imgur. In it, Superman encounters a woman on the verge of leaping from a skyscraper and committing suicide. She forces him to promise he won't take her down against her will, and after listening to her issues, he waits with her through the day and night to speak to her on her terms. Superman ends up saving her life—not with bravado or muscles, but with simple empathy.
Telling these kinds of stories is not impossible in an interactive medium. Game development isn't a question of being unable to solve an issue—it's a question of how, and the tradeoffs you're willing to make in service of the core experience.
A typical AAA open world action-adventure game could capture the grand strokes of Superman's fight against various forces of evil, for example, but might struggle with quiet, human moments like the one described above. On the other hand, while Telltale's mold seems perfectly adapted to telling a uniquely empathetic Clark Kent story, the necessary limitations on the choices offered to a by-the-books Superman could ironically rob the player of a sense of agency.
Player agency is a tricky thing, and game design is inherently audience-focused. If the universe needs saving, we may spend a couple dozen hours to search for collectibles and hunt Achievements first. We revel in testing the boundaries of simulations, ignoring button prompts, quick time events, and tutorials, then blaming the developers for our confusion. We enter stunningly-detailed fantasy worlds filled with quests and adventure—only to attempt to kill the ruler of said realm to see if we can get away with it (some of us even succeed).
Superman—and his lofty, all-powerful image—just isn't conducive to this kind of design.
Providing this specific fantasy requires thinking outside of traditional genres. Perhaps more than any other hero, Superman requires players to fill a very strictly-defined role—and any error within this role makes Superman, well, not Superman.
In the world of the Arkham games, running over criminals, shooting them with a high-velocity cannon, electrocuting them, or sending them flying down a flight of metal stairs simply leaves them 'unconscious.' There's a ridiculous amount of hand-waving, but Batman's vigilante roots make him a natural avatar. Whether you're smashing through the side of a building with the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, picking a fight with a random thug in Arkham City, or taking a couple hours to investigate the dark halls of Arkham Asylum, there's a precedent for it across the character's many appearances over the years.
Superman, on the other hand, follows rules to the letter. We make fun of the copious collateral damage he can cause, but that's exactly what it is—collateral. Unless he's busy being a vengeful god in the interpretation you're watching, Superman is the boy scout of the DC Universe. Clark Kent isn't just an alter ego—he's the man himself—and Superman's every action is a reflection of the All-American values he was raised with. He is the type of person who would wait an entire day to save one life. But as a player, I am not.
Superman works as a symbol because he isn't us. Granted powers we could only dream of, he chooses moderation when excess would be so gloriously easy. Capturing the empathy that makes the character compelling, while attempting to offer a traditional power fantasy, is a paradox. Because he shows us what we can be, that spirit of self-sacrifice is next to impossible to emulate. After all, most games are built to give us an escape.
Superman has none.
Superman is a poignant, enduring figure, because you only need to look in a mirror to realize how impossible, how far out of reach, he truly is.