By Mento 5 Comments
That's... probably a little egotistical a title, but catchy titles were never my thing. Horrible self-inclusive puns have always been my wheelhouse. With that in mind, let's discuss when video game protagonists become a little more overpowered than the already generously-attributed standard video game heroes that are able to survive conflicts with waves of enemies, perform gravity-defying acrobatic stunts and flick boogers at enemies in a way no mortal man could ever hope to equal. I'm talking about the Gods among Gods, here. The times when you're controlling a character that should simply be way too powerful to make their struggle to overcome their particular cause anything close to convincing.
With the exception of the God Sim genre (even in which there are usually some restrictions to your faceless deity's divine abilities), games are very careful not to let the players loose with too much power behind their punches. The obvious reason for this is balance; a game should (but not always) be challenging. The level of this challenge is, of course, down to the developers and how much they want to test their audience, but it's generally accepted that some challenge must exist for the game to retain the player's interest until the game's conclusion, if it even has one. A secondary reason is that a character that can do anything and survive anything is a hard character to relate to and is possibly therefore unsuitable as a playable main character, though this rule has been subverted successfully in the past. Below are a few examples of games where a major playable character is perhaps a little too overpowered for their own good, yet the game finds not only a way to make playing them a blast but manages in spite of their apparent invulnerability to create an engaging dramatic arc for that character. Well, I say an engaging dramatic arc, but this is video game narrative here people so let's cut these examples a little slack ...which is perhaps an excuse a burgeoning narrative medium shouldn't have to rely on, but that's a topical blog for another day. For now, let's bring on the God tiers.
Lego Batman's sequel sets itself apart from the original by drawing in more of the extended DC Universe and Batman's place within it. A typically oddball Lego story (and can I take a moment to say how I'm glad I am that the stories in LEGO games that aren't directly following the plot of a movie franchise is still able to stand on its own feet - it makes me hopeful for that Lego City Undercover extended GTA riff they're developing) features Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (main Superman baddy and Batman's alter ego respectively) competing for a "Man of the Year" award in the clearly not impartial Gotham City, with the eventual loser Lex deciding to employ the Joker's unique talents at creating anarchy to put together a Joker gas-enhanced run for the presidency. Though Lex's immediately clear involvement would seem to be the ideal entry point to introduce the Man of Steel, the guy shows up.. really just to rub in how awesome he is and make Batman's day worse. The interplay between the cartoonishly Zapp Brannigan-esque Superman and a dour, clearly jealous Batman is played for laughs here, but is a rather cute microcosm of their actual often combative relationship within the comics: Batman fears what Superman could be capable of should he decide to turn antagonistic (perhaps a little pessimistic, though not too improbable given the various weird effects of differently-colored Kryptonite on Supes that Batman's probably aware of). The game uses this perhaps justifiable paranoia to help Lex hatch a plan to rob Batman of his ludicrous supply of Kryptonite, which brings about Superman's mid-game depowerization.
However, the occasions before then when the player can directly control Superman really lays it on thick just how overpowered he is: He's completely immune to harm, even before you start playing around with the usual LEGO Red Brick cheat insanity that the game inevitably devolves into during its extended second half in pursuit of the vaunted "100% Completion" accolade. He has x-ray vision, supplanting what was a unique Batman suit upgrade's ability (and another instance of their one-sided rivalry). He has his freezing breath and heat vision, which are tellingly used most commonly to save random citizens in the open world Gotham that exists between missions that Batman could not otherwise assist on his own. And, oh yes, he can fly. Flying allows you to pretty much bypass most of the obstacles in the game and is a godsend when you're going through the missions on Free Play mode looking for collectibles you were unable to attain during the story. The game clearly has a lot of fun really rubbing in Superman's superness, giving him a lot of killer exchanges with the Dark Knight as well as how John Williams's famous theme for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies triumphantly swells whenever Superman takes to the skies. It finds a lot of uses, comedic and otherwise, for a character that many, many game developers have struggled to make palatable in the past (one shouldn't need to bring up a specific example for a certain Nintendo console, right? We all know which one that is?). And it totally works. LEGO Batman 2 may have a few problems of its own, such as TT's continuing adherence to the increasingly hoary formula of those games and a few gnarly bugs, but its handling of a character that many have deemed to be unplayable is one of its strengths. I've heard that Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe also found a way to make Kal-El a fun character too, though I have zero experience with that game (it wasn't really until the most recent Mortal Kombat game that I felt like revisiting that particular franchise).
Asura's Wrath is one of the few happy surprises of this year: A game that relies on Koei-type brawling and QTEs and is about five hours long at a conservative estimate, and yet despite this will almost certainly make my and many other peoples' GOTY lists when December finally rolls around. Most - if not all, if I'm being brutally honest - of this acclaim is down to its absolutely demented premise of a Buddhism-inspired demigod clawing his way back to the land of the living and the pantheon that wronged him, and taking out each of his peers in a battle of almighty powers that cinematically dwarfs anything you've seen from a character action game before or since. Even Kratos, with his inconsistent level of omnipotence and ability to take down mythical beasts several hundred times larger than his beefy but relatively Lilliputian self, has nothing on what Asura is able to pull off.
Asura's story seems very much your typical revenge tale; his wife murdered, his name besmirched, his trust betrayed and his life apparently taken, he is able to literally climb out of the pillar-based afterlife awaits those in that crazy universe and systematically visit his boundless vengeance on apparently everyone and everything. His single-minded obsession with revenge actually leads to a rather interesting and ironic shift in his character, as he becomes so blind with rage he transforms into the beast of pure chaos and violence that the falsified legends substantiating his frame job had purported; his role switching from that of a sympathetic underdog protagonist to a rabid unstoppable monster. It's only after some scenes where the player controls Asura's still honorable erstwhile friend and rival Yasha that things get back on track for the big finish. While Asura is indeed capable of a great many incredible feats, the game is grounded in two ways: A) that each of his opponents are equally powerful, if not more so, leading to some spectacular boss battles that just wouldn't be survivable without a God tier protagonist and B) that being a demigod means more than simply pile-driving spaceships and disintegrating a giant space Buddha by hitting this thumb really, really hard; it also means performing your duty as a higher being by protecting mortals and fighting back the endless forces of chaos within the planet, something Asura loses sight of in his quest for revenge but one that he, Yasha and the chief demigod antagonist Deus are all still dedicated to in their own separate ways. Though the main character is a God, everything else has been ramped up to meet his level - this neatly sidesteps the issue of a lack of challenge, as well as letting shit get really wild.
Though not a God in a conventional sense, Starkiller is a character that seems to have been created to answer the question of "Why are Jedi so underpowered in Star Wars games?" Any given Star Wars game that allows you to be a Jedi will still attempt to create a reasonable level of challenge for a player that seems to equal that for any other hero in any other universe. Take Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II for example: In that game you play as Dark Forces' Kyle Katarn, a Han Solo-esque rogue and Rebel sympathiser who takes on clandestine missions from Mon Mothma and other major Rebel figures. Like any FPS hero, he's adept at various weapons and is generally sneaky and resourceful enough to take down leagues of Stormtroopers and other Empire lackeys in much the same way the heroes from the movies could occasionally manage. Yet in Jedi Knight, he discovers his latent abilities as a Jedi and uses them to face down a cadre of Dark Jedi (apparently still different from a Sith because of ideological differences?) as well as the same bunch of evil bounty hunters and Stormtroopers he was taking down before. The main difference between his smuggler persona and that of his new role as a Jedi is that he has a laser sword and a few bonus powers where he can run really fast, jump real high or heal himself.
Jedis in the movies (or at least in the original trilogy) were treated as some sort of superpowered order of monks that were able to keep the entire galaxy's peace in check with their reality-bending powers. When you see the Emperor effortlessly countering Luke's vain attempts to strike him down, Vader waving off Han's blaster fire or Yoda pulling a several-ton spaceship out of a swamp, you got the impression that these powers meant serious business. Yet those same powers when seen in video games seemed severely limited, with the games often struggling to find ways to endorse the lightsabre as a superior choice to a Stormtrooper rifle or Wookiee bowcaster (not that A New Hope's Obi Wan's argument of them being more "sophisticated" was particularly convincing). The Force Unleashed games, despite having several failings in other important areas, really took the potential behind a Jedi's superpowers to its extremes, creating a character so gifted with the Force that he was performing acts of sheer incredulity. No longer was "Jedi Knight" a class that sat between "Bounty Hunter" and "Smuggler" as if the three were on equal footing, but rather the incredible galaxy-saving badasses that the movies had always inferred. Starkiller was rarely trifled by anything that wasn't also a Jedi Master, tossing around Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters alike with contemptuous ease. When it came time to face Jedis that were clearly not only more senior but also resilient enough to survive a galaxy-wide purging, Starkiller could dole out and receive the type of preternatural beatdowns that no other Star Wars protagonist could manage and no other Star Wars game had been able to conjure up. Especially not Jedi Knight, with its rather staid (but still entertaining, mostly) lightsabre duels.
The dawn of the new trilogy ruined what was previously an obsession for a great number of (perhaps capricious) fans of the franchise, but there were still efforts going on by people who clearly cared for and understood the universe - perhaps more than Lucas himself did - who were bringing fans exactly what they wanted. A game where you finally felt like a goddamn Jedi Knight was one of them.
- Kratos, of course, though his brief tenure as the God of War didn't really seem to increase or decrease the amount of hurt he was able to hand out; I guess it was more of an honorary title? It's worth pointing out he was already a demi-god on a tier with Perseus and Hercules before the upgrade.
- The Bhaalspawn, though the actual circumstances and limits of their divine powers is up for debate. In the first Baldur's Gate, there were very few (that I recall) special privileges given to the main character due to their heritage, other than the fact that everyone wanted to kill them and their death would mean an instant (though plot-justifiable) game over. In the sequel and its expansion, more would be done with the notion that each Bhaalspawn has some amount of their progenitor's divine power.
- Odio, in a fun bonus ending to Live-A-Live. In the final episode of the game, you are allowed to take control of any of the playable characters of the previous episodes. This includes the knight Oersted, who at the conclusion of his tale becomes the God of Darkness "Odio" that has been the chief antagonist in everyone else's episode in some form or another. Choosing to play as Oersted in the final chapter allows you to replay each end-of-episode boss battle as the boss itself against the now much weaker once-protagonists, destroying them all and claiming a rare win for the bad guys.
- Harman Smith of Killer7. Though apparently the "main" personality of that game's MPD-addled assassin, the true form of the Smith assassins is his handler personality Garcian. The rest of killer7 are rival assassins that Garcian has killed and somehow took on as alternate egos to an extent where he can actually transform into them - except for Harman. Harman is, in fact, some sort of God of Order that occasionally uses Garcian as a vessel (since that's apparently a popular thing to do to the guy) and is in an eternal ideological conflict with the game's antagonist and founder of the creepy Heaven Smiles, Kun Lan. Of course, this is all an interpretation and perhaps not the actual case. This is Suda 51 we're talking about here.
- Ray Stantz (included mostly for his sake).
As always, opinions and additional examples are more than welcome. The best examples I've found are those that are purported to be Gods in their own fiction, which makes playing as them problematic to make work for all but the most gifted game designers. In any case, thanks for checking this blog out. You're all Gods as far as I'm concerned! Unless your religion finds that sort of allusion offensive, in which case sorry!