Screw Comic Book Movies, Where Are Our Comic Book Games?

Illustration for article titled Screw Comic Book Movies, Where Are Our Comic Book Games?

So last week, I was taking a crap. Bear with me! And often as I do while taking said crap, I was reading, in this instance a comic. It was the latest trade paperback of DMZ, a series by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, which tells the story of a near-future US Civil War, where the red states rise up against the blue ones, and the war's frontline sees New York City split in two. It's a great series, made great not only by the characters and storylines, but the world itself. The bullet-point summary I just gave doesn't do it justice. It's a believable world filled with real, fallible people, who are caught in the middle of a war that nobody really understands and nobody really wants to be a part of. Anyway, the whole time I've been reading this series, and thinking of the world that Wood and Burchielli have crafted, all I can think of is: there would be a great videogame in this.Not a direct adaptation of the comic, mind you. The protagonist – photojournalist Matty – sees his fair share of action, but you couldn't really make a game of it. But there's a game somewhere in it. Amidst the rubble of Manhattan, amidst an America torn apart by its political identity crisis. A game that's able to explore not only the literal world of DMZ, but its themes as well. It's not just DMZ that gets me thinking like this. There are dozens, if not hundreds of top-shelf, well-written, good-looking comic book properties, many of which would make outstanding (foundations for) video games. Fables, Bone, Blame!, Planetary, Global Frequency, Deus Ex Machina, The Goon, The Walking Dead, Hellboy, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the Alan Moore variety, not the Sean Connery one), Tom Strong...the list could go on (and in your mind, comic book reader, probably is). Point being, there are plenty of great comic books out there that could be turned into great video games. (Note that, from here on, when I'm talking comic book properties, I'm not talking Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. They're not "comic book" heroes anymore. They've moved well beyond that. They're more "pop culture" heroes. I'm mostly going to be talking about series and characters that don't have Happy Meal toys and Nickelodeon cartoon series named after them.) Consider this: If taking some of the strengths of a comic book - the characters, the fantasy, the world, the look - and dropping them in another medium has worked for Hollywood, there's no reason it can't work for games. Indeed, no reason it can't work better in games, as some genres and styles of games (RPGs, adventure, episodic titles) would allow players to explore the depth and diversity of a comics universe to a degree movies could only dream of. Let's look at Hollywood. They have to crunch years, sometimes decades worth of a comic's character and story development into a two hour movie. And yet they're often (at least lately) able to not only make a good movie out of a comic, but also a ton of money. Four of the top-ten opening weekends of all time are for comic book movies (Dark Knight, Spider-Man 3, Spider-Man & X-Men Last Stand), while a string of other series – Superman, Hellboy, Wanted, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta, Constantine, Daredevil, Catwoman, Iron Man, Hulk and Watchmen, to name just a few – have either or are about to be turned into major motion pictures in recent years.

Illustration for article titled Screw Comic Book Movies, Where Are Our Comic Book Games?

Sure, this is partly due to the popularity of the franchises. Batman and Superman movies sell themselves. But how, then, do you account for films like Frank Miller's Sin City & 300? Both critically-acclaimed graphic novels, yes, but you can't tell me every single one of the millions of people who saw both movies also already knew about, and owned, the comics. Yet the films were a hit. Because the comics were awesome. So would it hurt a publisher or two to start doing the same thing with games? Swallow their pride, realise that an adaptation of an existing work can bring not only great results, but great amounts of cash money as well? I know, there's a fascination with creating in-house IP at the moment, particularly from guys like EA and Ubisoft, but surely some of the smaller guys – who don't have plans to turn their games into lines of action figures or cartoon shows – could take an interest in basing a game on a comic series? Especially one that, as I said before, isn't as well-known as an Iron Man or Hulk, and is thus a lot cheaper to license. Indeed, only a handful of comic-to-adaptations spring to mind. Ubisoft's XIII was a brave attempt at adapting Jean Van Hamme's series, which had a unique look but failed because it was...well, a rubbish game. There have been a few Hellboy games – most recently Hellboy: The Science of Evil – but all have sucked, and none have bothered retaining either the comic's trademark visual style or mood. And Telltale took a crack at crafting an episodic series based on Jeff Smith's classic Bone series, before leaving it in the lurch to go make more money from Sam & Max. Which is a shame. I mean, look at the pros involved. The vast majority of "original" IP in gaming is derivative garbage, both visually and in terms of structure. If you're a studio with a great game idea but a generic setting to drop it in, why bother spending all that time creating the year's 117th brown/grey world when you can just license a truly unique one from a good comic series? It'll come pre-packaged with not just a world and a storyline, but a visual style and overall tone as well. That's a big pro for a developer. It can not only help a game stand out from the crowd, but can bring an instant fanbase along with it (the notion that a gamer can also be a comic fan, and vice versa, being more common sense than radical relevation). But the pros can be just as great for a comics publisher. Games are a high profile industry, much more so than comics. A game tie-in can, from a business standpoint, help get your property some exposure. And the creative team? I bet it's great seeing your comic brought to life on the big screen, or even in a cartoon, but comics don't create linear storylines. They create worlds. Depending on the genre, a game could allow the player to roll up their sleeves and really get the most of the universe that the comic creators have laboured over. Let them have deep discussions with minor characters, let them explore areas only mentioned in the comic storyline, etc. Anyway, enough of the question-asking. Let's look at some examples of what I'm talking about. Or possibilities. Or wild fantasies, as I sometimes refer to them. Developers, next time you think an RTS set in a sci-fi world full of men, guns and tanks, why not think of something a little different. Like Jeff Smith's Bone universe. Scoff if you want, but the comic has factions, it has locations, it has battles - both in the main storyline and in the backstory - heck, it even has an art style to help you stand out from the crowd, its green trees and blue skies being more Sonic the Hedgehog than Supreme Commander. Hellboy's another good example. Yeah, he's got a shitty movie out, and is about to get a second (OK, second is already out, just not out down here, my bad), but a game - any kind of game - that could capture Mike Mignola's art style from the comic in three dimensions would surely be able to sell itself. Plus, few games can match its setting. Fighting aliens in a metallic corridor is boring when you compare it to fighting a world-devouring worm in an Austrian castle. While you punch cyborg monkeys. In the face.

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There are plenty of Naruto's and Bleach's and other Japanese "comic book" games, you're just not counting them :) If those don't count, and traditional American comic books don't count, then... well, I can't help you, because you're then limiting your definition to "Why aren't there more games about these lesser known comics?" which is pretty much a tautological question. There aren't more, because they're lesser known - the money goes where the fame is.