Why Superman and Open World Gaming Don’t Mix

How to make players act like Superman without resenting restriction?

Superman is more than mechanics.  A game must prevent players from resenting restriction and the people of Metropolis. Can a players be instilled with the feelings, attitudes, and values of the noble Superman?

I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which many approached the issue of an open-world Superman game. However, I respectfully dissent that such a game would be well-received by general audiences. I’ve reflected since the 2005, anticipating Superman Returns, and believe that Superman and open-world gaming do not mix… yet.

The appeal of open-world gaming comes from balancing:

  • The Environment and its Traversal (World)
  • Providing As Much Freedom As Possible (Open)
  • Immersing Player into the Character (Game)

Superman presents unique challenges:


A large part of the appeal of an open-world game is the exploration and traversal of the environment. The best examples impart upon the player a sense of scale, authenticity, and character… it genuinely feels like a world too large for their senses, it feels lived in with history, living and breathing, and is practically another character in the game. In lesser examples, developers may manage to provide technical scale (as in actually large compared to the character), but the “world” is nothing but a map that feels procedurally generated and lacking in those traits which give it the veracity of those artfully (and expensively) crafted worlds. The player’s limited ability to traverse the environment- whether by foot, horse, or car- gives the world its scale, provides for discovery and exploration, and imparts meaning to the map because of the journeys required to get places and the stories created along the way. Such limited traversal also means that the player rarely falls off the edge of the map and so they can be fully immersed in the world presented.

Superman is bloody fast and has total freedom of flight within three dimensions against our mostly two-dimensional cities (with the vast majority of “action” occurring at the street level). In the sphere of space Superman can traverse in a game world, 80-90% of it is empty, boring, open-air… with a thin “slice of interesting” at the city level… assuming we build a sci-fi city with a little more vertical interest (monorails, platforms, etc), that’s mildly improved, but at considerable design effort (compared to a realistic city). The speed and ease with which Superman traverses this city makes it difficult for the developers and the players not to trivialize the ground level which gives the city its life. Why spend hours rendering a clever flower shop if Superman is going to be blowing past it at Mach 3 ten stories up most times? The landmarks that would take a journey and a story to reach in other games, Superman can alight upon at will without effort or thoughtfulness. Those journeys tend to make you stop and appreciate the landmark not knowing when you may embark on another costly journey to visit it again… whereas Superman can just zoom away without consideration. That means that the city will have a procedurally generated feel (like the one in the Returns game)… artificial and detached… and that will become an issue in a later point.


Movement is the most fundamental aspect of such games and the single thing you do the most and at practically all times. Pulling the trigger happens only across an instant, but you are perpetually propelling your character through the world and rewarded by its openness in open-world games. The keyword is often summarized as “freedom”… that means the ability to go anywhere you can see and then often implores developers to allow you to do “anything” (in reality: as much as possible, affordable to develop, and fun). Part of making the player feel they are free is avoiding invisible walls. Making the game world large enough and their traversal limited enough, that they don’t bounce off the force-fields of their cage and break the illusion of freedom. Superman’s speed and flight (and the proposed sun-dipping) would cause players to collide against the sides of their cage so often and feel trapped within their bottled city of Kandor. The player wonders why he can’t visit Gotham, navigate the Grand Canyon, dive bomb a herd of antelope in Africa, or break through these invisible walls when Superman can smash reality with his fists and close black holes in his hands. Rather than feeling “free” or “open”, the man who can fly feels like he’s on a leash, in a cage, and more bound and limited than even his un-powered bat-brethren.

Assuming you overcome or that audiences don’t care about freedom of movement, then there is freedom of action. The most common means of acting is violence. That’s because your interaction is basically binary… tied to a button… you press it or you don’t… and that translates well to gameplay violence… a trigger is pulled, a punch is thrown or it isn’t. Not a lot of games have nuanced dialogue, negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, encouragement, etc. as core mechanics. A basic tenant of the open-world game is that in addition to providing few limitations on your travel, the player is basically free to engage in most / all of his gameplay mechanics (typically violent) in any place or time. That is, shooting isn’t constrained to prescribed levels, preordained corridors, or set shooting galleries (except in scripted set-piece events, of course), but whenever and where ever the player so chooses (even if there are consequences), giving the illusion of freewill, choice, and freedom.

Consider for a second what that means for a being of Superman’s power. Now put that power into the hands of the most virulent foul-mouthed selfish despicable middle-schooler you’ve ever known and tell them to have fun in their world of cardboard. That freedom, right? Well, there’s a problem with that….


Feeling like Superman is more than just his powers.

Without going totally off the rails and debating ludology and narratology, let’s just say games are rules and stories… and a good game has smart rules which enhance the story to be engaging (typically people say “fun”, but there are engaging games that aren’t necessarily fun). Fair enough? I think you intuit that in your proposal, because you know the “Story of Superman” means that he has invincibility, unlimited power, and an impetus to protect. For this game to be a Superman game and not just “Super Jerk Power Simulator 2000”, you intuited a need to constrain the player’s actions to mirror Superman’s morality… that a player would experience a loss condition if they failed to protect the city and its citizens.

So on one hand you have the unlimited power fantasy of Superman in the promise of an open-world game and the unlimited freedom it is supposed to represent… and on the other, you have the character and the icon of Superman. To be Superman, requires the powers, in part, but it’s also the personhood, which is supremely difficult to translate to an open-world game as they are today. Consider, just for a second, that two major motion picture Superman films were released, together grossing $920M (adjusted for inflation) in theaters worldwide, where Superman didn’t throw a single punch across the 5 hours of joint run-time… one film being Superman’s silver screen debut. Then try to imagine a Superman game without violence and whether that would be palatable to general audiences (aside: arguably it isn’t given the failure to follow-up Returns; the cover of Action #1 is an act of violence, so violence-free Superman isn’t true to the character either). Conversely, most other open-world games allow you to play walking tabula rasa or amoral psychopaths capable of hair-trigger murder, in order to accommodate the freedom of the player to flip-out at any point without contradicting the character or story, lending to consistency and quality. Additionally, the world’s are rendered cynically making the violence a joke. The cops are corrupt, the civilians are jerks, etc. It is very common for players to have a greater attachment to their environment or acquisitions (weapons, vehicles, safe houses, etc) than the well-being of the citizens around them.

By contrast, Superman views the police as good, the civilians as innocents, etc. (note the Batman games largely sidestep this entire issue by filling the environments with nothing but enemy targets) constraining his unlimited cosmic power in a world of cardboard.

The problem is the above is intrinsic to Superman. It’s in his nature, character, and his internal belief which is not necessarily going to be reflected or respected by the snot-nosed kid we hypothesized about above. Unfortunately using game mechanics to enforce Superman’s ethics against the player doesn’t really do the trick either, because Superman does it as a freewill choice as a product of his morals and experiences, which the player does not necessarily share. Superman saves people because he thinks their lives are precious, when a villain is tearing up Metropolis, it hits home because it’s his home… those are his streets, his favorite pretzel cart, his friendly crosswalk guard, etc… ties and investments the player doesn’t have.

If you enforce ethics against the player without emotional interest in protection, those gameplay rules and mechanics become merely a duty or nanny which artificially constrain the player’s sense of power. They don’t feel like Superman because they don’t get to use the powers unfettered and don’t want to obey the rules, but just have to… out of obligation / requirement. This causes the players to RESENT the people of Metropolis.

To bear a grudge against those puny mortals getting in the way of your fun puts the player in the wrong headspace to BE Superman (more like Samaritan by Busiek & Ross).

You can deliver the power fantasy with Superman’s body, but a great game puts player in the character’s mind too. The problem is that without Superman’s optimistic, moral, compassionate outlook, players won’t enjoy holding back and saving soulless civilian AI.

So what’s the pitch?

I agree and accept the essential premise proposed that it is important to preserve the power fantasy of Superman (rather than depower him as many designs may propose) but also the character of Superman (that he must protect). The additional third requirement that my long dissent boils down to is that Superman must care.

He won’t care about the environment in an open world because of how quickly and effortlessly he flies above, past, and to it. He won’t care about the world because it is unlikely to be rendered with expensive and painstaking care because of how thoughtlessly he can traverse it. He won’t care about the citizens because they’ll be soulless AI drones… and more likely, he will be annoyed, resent, or even hate the citizenship because they act as a constraint against his ability to use his powers unfettered. He won’t care that he’s Superman because he’ll feel bottled by invisible walls and constrained by an artificially imposed code that isn’t his own. And in that headspace, it is difficult for a player to be Superman beyond a superficial power fantasy.

Assuming you don’t limit players and allow them to give into their impulses, it means uncharacteristic Superman behavior which hurts the license, the icon, and arguably the experience for the player. If you include a “Bizarro Mode” that allows players to indulge in their impulses, all that does is leave them feeling like Superman is lame compared to the unfettered Bizarro.

How do you make the player care then? I think you have to embrace storytelling whole-heartedly, walk the player through the shoes of Clark Kent and the boots of Superman, and leverage the advantages of much more constrained gameplay… I think the best format for such a game is basically Adventure Gaming / Interactive Drama… crossed with quick-time event action set-pieces. Something like The Walking Dead combined with God of War / Asura’s Wrath / Shadow of the Colossus.

Both game types are heavily scripted and constrained, but nonetheless compelling, because the player understands and expects from the game primarily a compelling storytelling experience rather than unlimited interactive freedom. The constraints allow you to showcase Superman’s powers in a way you would never be able to with free form combat / interface… cinematically, impressively, and the entire varied gamut without regard for “game balance”, interface, or other such restrictions. That frees Superman up to use all his vision modes, stop tsunamis with freeze breath, perform speed feats, perform rescues, lift mountains, and battle giant gorillas, without having to worry about a single unifying interface which accommodates all those possibilities at once. You can still show invulnerability and invincibility while constraining gameplay by Superman’s true losing condition… failure; which meshes perfectly with QTE gameplay. Life bars, damage counters, etc. are all just trying to consolidate and simply failure into a binary death-state… death = failure… but QTE lets you script for failure more salient to Superman… the failure to save or protect, more than just succumbing to unlikely death.

But how do you make him care about the rescues and the fights? The same way they do it in the comic… through story. By bridging the action sequences with adventure gameplay, you give players time to immerse themselves in the story, environment, and characters. You have conversations with the characters you’re meant to protect. You get to see why Superman loves Lois, why Jimmy’s his pal, why Perry is his chief… why Superman is friends with that particular pretzel vendor or protective of Centennial Park. Superman doesn’t necessarily lend himself to adventure gaming… but Investigative Journalist Clark Kent does. Gathering clues, solving puzzles, conversing with the people is what Clark does in his 9-to-5 and the core of adventure gaming. You build the story, characters, and suspense with Clark Kent… make players invested, think like Superman, care about this world… then reward them with a shirt-rip and Superman doing superheroics without compromise of scope or the integrity of the character.

It’s old-fashioned gameplay, but nonetheless effective when trying to preserve a sense of character… think of how many adventure game heroes are still memorable today because of how much their games allowed them to be characterized… compared to how forgettable most heroes are in more generic action titles. I get that it’s not necessarily the game gamers want to play… but I think it has the best chance of both being truthful to the character and making converts… and no one can question the success of The Walking Dead: The Game. As an added bonus, this game type can be easily made non-gamer accessible, compared to more reflex driven endeavors.

Consider how to immerse players in the mindset of Superman.

Look how accessible, dramatic, and engaging quick-time-events can be even for non-gamers.

March 19, 2016 update – One step closer.

February 26, 2017 update – Game map comparisons illustrating the world issue.

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