Why Superman Fails As a Video Game Character

It’s not easy to be me.

— Five for Fighting, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” (EMI, 2001)

In response to some of the criticism of the events of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, Bill Gibron recently asked in an article, “Why are so many picking on Superman for destroying a few hundred thousand people when his actions clearly save billions?” (Man of Steel and the Wanton Detruction of Human Life”, PopMatters, 17 June 2013). There is, I think, an answer to this question that is directly linked to the kind of character that Superman is and what he represents.

Unlike most fictional heroes, Superman, of course, has no real weaknesses (yes, yes, I know there is the whole kryponite thing, but you can’t continually write that into every adventure, and Man of Steel doesn’t). The challenges faced by Superman in the stories written about him are generally not to survive and save the day because his survival is essentially a given. He just needs to save the day. After all, he is Superman. We can forgive Batman or even the Green Lantern their mistakes and the possible collateral damage that might result from those failures. After all, they are only men. But the tension created in a story about a man who cannot die rests solely on his ability to perfectly perform his duties. After all, he really is less a man than he is a god.

The test of a character like Superman will not answer the question, “Will he be able to do it?” It is “How will he do it?,” and especially, “How well will he do it?”

If one asked, “Why are so many picking on God for destroying a few hundred thousand people when his actions clearly save billions?,” the unreasonable nature of the question should become immediately obvious. Dude, he is God. We should expect a bit more from him than that.

This, of course, has always been the problem of Superman in comic books and film, and it is also the problem of Superman in video games.

Since the fail-state of action gaming has so often been measured in “lives,” there isn’t really a conventional way to represent a superman. Superman has no “health bar.” And he really has unlimited “lives.”

Superman video games have commonly led to some of the most unsatisfying gaming experiences ever. Like the infamous E.T. cartridge for the Atari 2600, Superman 64 is often held up as one of the worst games of all time. Admittedly, the game just featured bad gameplay and bad controls, but its handling of the problem of Superman’s vulnerability was also just awful and hackneyed and related to that bad gameplay. A “kryponite fog” surrounding Metropolis explains Superman’s vulnerability. His near omnipotent powers are also limited, as he has to collect tokens, which enable their use only temporarily, making sense, perhaps, from the perspective of creating a challenge in a game but not a game about a super hero whose powers are nearly unlimited and should essentially be “always on.”

2002’s Superman: Shadow of Apokolips seems to have found the most graceful solution to the problem of an invincible main character and one which addresses Gibron’s question. Superman has no traditional health bar in that game. His “health bar” really represents the health of the city of Metropolis and its inhabitants. This seems a tremendously clever and seemingly perfect mechanism to measure the relative successfulness of a man whose only responsibility is to concern himself with the well being of others and not with his own. The unfortunate outcome, though, of this creation of a reasonable fail-state for a superman is that it led to a series of challenges that simply were not fun to play and that also represent the kinds of challenges that are generally considered to be the least fun kind of experiences in action video games generally.

Much of what Superman has to accomplish in Shadow of Apokolips boils down to timed missions in which Superman has to save something or some group of individuals from destruction or death. Essentially, challenges in Shadow of Apokolips come down to something like the much maligned escort missions of the action game genre (challenges in video games in which you have to protect a highly vulnerable character that is controlled by the AI as they move from point A to point B). Most players find these missions highly stressful and, thus, less than entertaining to accomplish. The escort mission is, again, infamously held up as the worst moment in just about any game that features them. So, one can imagine how “anti-fun” a game might be that is essentially wholly constructed around a series of them.

A test of Superman is a test of selflessness and our expectations of a being that is completely selfless, despite his omnipotence. And, perhaps, selfless behaviors are just not that much fun to enact. In games, we like to level up, to become more powerful, and to experience that growth in our own potential. Sure, we may be motivated to save a princess, but there is some potential positive outcome for ourselves in doing so. We get a princess. Testing our character in the context of omnipotence, instead, most often leads to the more fiendish lab rat experimentation of the kinds of torture chambers that can be constructed in a godgame like The Sims (perhaps by building a pool with no ladder for a swimming sim to use to climb out of that pool or by constructing a room with no doors that contains a sim, an espresso machine, and no toilet), not a test of omnibenevolence and perfectibility.

It’s not easy being Superman, and it may simply not be fun to simulate our actual expectations of him.