Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.
This ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.
It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.
When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.
A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.
The game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.
Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.
The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.
Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.
Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.