Why Superhero Video Games Need to Ditch “Realism”

Video game developer David Cage has stated that he thinks video games cannot tell emotional, meaningful stories and cannot otherwise be praiseworthy unless the characters have the highest number of polygons and look as close to reality as possible. Unfortunately, his views on realism are not unique, with other developers and major studios opting for realism based on the misconception that more “realistic” equals better graphics, and having the best graphics means having the best game — a trend that has been steadily rising for a decade.

Of all genres to get hit by the realism trend, superhero/comic book games, adapted from colorful and stylized source material, feel the weirdest — especially when games like Overwatch and Fortnite have proved that stylization in a hero-centric game can do incredibly well. So why have superhero games fully embraced realistic art direction? 

Superhero Games

Definitely Not Kids’ Stuff

There’s a long conversation here about video games’ nosedive into the uncanny valley — attempting to look realistic but not having the resources, technology or time/money to make the jump from stylized to perfect realism — and an even bigger conversation on the trend of realism/gritty-realism that plagues all mediums: WB has been attempting to recreate the success of The Dark Knight for years by layering a thick coat of gritty realism onto every one of their superhero movies and a number of live-action adaptations of beloved animated movies and TV shows have been made, announced or are in production — many of which have attempted to de-stylize and “ground” the original concept in “reality.” 

The long and short of it, however, all connects back to the misconception/stigma of stylization equaling cartoony, and (as I’ve covered before) anything cartoony being seen as juvenile kids’ stuff. Add to this the trend of gritty realism in adapted media, the success of previous realistic superhero games (Injustice, the Arkham series, Spider-Man) and the general popularity explosion of live-action superhero films, and we have the perfect formula for perpetuating realism in superhero games. 

This isn’t to say that realism is inherently bad — there is value in exploring hardware capabilities to their fullest. However, when realism becomes seen as the only way to make a great game, the only way to tell an emotional story and/or a shortcut to instant AAA status, then there’s a problem. Different styles have the potential to make a best-seller out of any genre — and at the same time, attempts at realism can and have failed to deliver. 

Superhero Games

Potato-Face Is Not a Superhero

The three main issues that befall superhero games aiming for realism are, first, the general issues that plague all games aiming for realism — residing in the uncanny valley, poor optimization issues and over-detailed “potato-faces”; second, the iconography of superhero designs losing said iconography to overdetailed “realistic” designs consisting of dull colors and over-textured suits, and third, unfavorable comparisons to both the oft-stylized source material and/or better executed realism in superhero films like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Take a look at Marvel’s Spider-Man for example, a fantastic game that copied the Arkham formula in both gameplay mechanics and art direction. The game’s main costume gets out of the realism filter relatively unscathed (I have issues with it, but it’s stylized and iconic enough), but the face models, not so much. Peter Parker is a weird mashup of all three Spidey actors, MJ looks more like a middle schooler than a twenty-something reporter, and most of the main villains look like background henchmen in their own gang rather than big bads themselves. The realism doesn’t ruin the game, but it’s an odd choice given Spider-Man’s penchant for stylized art in comics, cartoons and even previous video games throughout the character’s history.

The art direction of Avengers and Gotham Knights both suffer from similar issues. Additionally, iconic and unmistakable costumes across here become over-designed messes stripped of their instant recognizability: Cap looks like an alt-right militia member, Red Hood looks like he bought one of those leather jackets meant to look like a superhero costume and Robin looks like he’s showing off the latest windbreaker activewear fashion. I haven’t even gotten into Injustice or the upcoming Rocksteady Suicide Squad game, but the pattern is clear. Outside of LEGO superhero games and similar tie-ins, there’s a persistent push for realism, resulting in less-than-iconic representations of iconic characters.

Say you didn’t know much about comics or video games and were asked to determine whether Overwatch’s Tracer or Avengers’ Captain America was based on a comic book or even reminded you of a comic book — you’d probably pick Tracer. It’s not just the crisp design (detailed in the right places, simple everywhere else) it’s also the Pixar-ish rendering style, the bright colors and the lively animation. Overwatch has its fair share of design issues, but the approach is much more in line with what you might expect of a superhero video game than what we’ve gotten out of superhero video games in the past decade. Fortnite is similar, its player avatars being rendered in a fun, inviting comic book style that has been used to render popular superheroes and villains in ways that look better than recent or upcoming releases.  

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Superhero Games

Style and/or Substance

I don’t want to discredit the hard work of designers, modelers, animators and everyone else who contributes to the graphics of a game — getting a game to look as realistic as Avengers or the upcoming Suicide Squad is impressive as hell. Additionally, I don’t want to make the faux paux of “stylized equals simpler-looking and simpler-looking equals less work put into the graphics,” because I don’t know the full process and oftentimes making stylized graphics requires a lot of “cheating out” of modeling and rendering. The point I’m trying to make is that superhero games have weirdly and unnecessarily adhered to realism — a trend that isn’t stopping any time soon judging by recent and upcoming releases — despite the source material being a colorful, stylized and fantastical art medium. 

The reason for this adherence is a combination of the stigma of stylization/cartoony styles being seen as juvenile, the assumption that realistic graphics equals a great and guaranteed successful game and the success of past realistically-inclined superhero media. But two of the biggest games on the planet, as well as dozens of other best-sellers have experimented and managed to succeed with styles that look like comic books come to life —  Dragon Ball FighterZ, Borderlands, nearly every Telltale game, Breath of the Wild, Apex Legends and My Hero Academia: One Justice, just to name a few. As usual, it all comes down to the current age of the precious treatment of IPs, making what are seen as “risk free” choices means the IP will make money, not be tarnished and more of it can be made. 

I don’t think realism specifically has no place in superhero games, but it’s odd that the trend of realism took over superhero games when the realistic art direction both disappoints visually very often (additionally often causing other aspects of game development to suffer in hogging resources) and just as often fails to evoke the iconography of the unmistakable pop culture symbols that superheroes are. Simply put, if the whole point of developing a popular superhero video game is to make something out of a recognizable and popular IP that will “sell itself,” then it completely defeats the purpose when the “default” art direction of superhero video games is one that inherently erases that recognizability.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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