The Battletoads Postulate: The Joy of a Comic Book Universe

You ever played Battletoads for original NES?  I've played it many times, but I've never beaten it, and by "beaten it," I mean "gotten past level 3."  The game starts out smooth and easy, and then VERY SUDDENLY becomes difficult enough to quality as player abuse in violation of several United Nations statutes.  And yet, I keep going back to the game, over and over, to repeatedly ram my flying motorcycle into an oncoming wall.  Is it some sick gamer form of Stockholm Syndrome?  Yes.  There may, however, be something else involved - something potentially useful for modern game developers to note.  After all, I know I'm not the only one who played those first three levels of Battletoads over and over...

One of the things I remember most fondly about games from the 80's and 90's is how just about any game, even tiny little games, tried to build their own comic book universe around it.  When you started Battletoads, you were shown a "radical" logo and character introductions as though you were witnessing the next incarnation of the Ninja Turtles (or, at least, that's what the developers were clearly hoping you'd think).  Before even the first level, you were introduced to the Battletoads' anthropomorphic bird boss, the evil queen villain, and the Battletoads' spaceship in  short order, letting you know that not only was there a context and a story and a world for this game, but easily for an entire possible Saturday morning cartoon and/or breakfast cereal.  In a quick, efficient manner, the developers made it very clear that you weren't just playing a game, you were entering a franchise - I mean, another world.  That appeals to me.  Even the unfulfilled promise of that appeals to me.  

It wasn't just Battletoads, either, or games that relied on existing intellectual property.  Consider Mega Man X, Sonic the Hedgehog, F-Zero, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Banjo Kazooie, and on and on.  It wasn't just RPGs and adventure games that gave us comic book worlds to explore, but racing games, strategy games (Starcraft!), and every rip-off fighting game to plague the front nook of a Pizza Hut.  Even, to some extent, Mario.  They all came with an attached comic book universe.  (Why is this "Scorpion" guy fighting, and why won't his character description stay on the screen for more than 2 seconds?!)  It was as though the developers knew that it wasn't enough to simply give players an isolated game experience - they had to touch something else in the player, something a little deeper, so that they could go above and beyond, and with, a little luck, sell them toys.  

I consider this a tremendous positive.  For a kid to buy a toy based on a game, or whine at their parents until they bought the toy for them, that kid had to love the game.  A comic book universe was a longstanding strategy for accomplishing this - give the kids an alternative world to imagine themselves in, or to play with, or to argue about.  The keyword here, by the way, is "alternative."  The idea is for this other world to be somehow more awesome than the daily grind.  There has to be something about the alternative world to love.

A lot of modern games, in my admittedly limited experience, don't have comic book universes.  They have "lore."  I really hate lore.  I shouldn't, given how much I love exploring rich worlds created by other people, but every time I've played a game that had "lore," I wound up finding a bunch of literal tomes of information scattered around that I couldn't care less about.  Why are so many buildings in Dragon Age: Origins littered with books that read like script treatments from George Lucas - this and that empire fought this and that kingdom for such-and-such years, until such-and-such hero did blah-blah-blah?  (Even worse, there are games like Final Fantasy XIII that can not be understood unless you read them!)  This isn't creating an awesome alternative reality.  This is creating a boring pile of data.  Lore seems to have become synonymous with "details" or "information."  If you want to develop a history textbook for your world, fine.  I'd rather have a Saturday morning cartoon.  Or an action figure.  Or, to be more honest, the sort of world that lends itself to that kind of cynical toy manufacturing - because that world would need to be rich in strong character design, heightened reality, colorful places, and the promise of many more adventures to come.  

It can certainly be fun as a game designer to come up with a detailed geopolitical history of a place - it might even seem justifiable because it creates a pool of material to draw from later, especially if your name is Chris Metzen and World of Warcraft releases an expansion that goes back in time to actually give all those confusing old names and places you came up with some significance at long last.  I find, however, that the television writer's strategy for creating lore ("make it up on an episode-by-episode basis to serve the needs of the immediate story") tends to paradoxically work better in practice, as it focuses on the audience's emotional needs rather than the needs of the world itself (or of logic, which isn't as important as some claim).

A lot of indie platformers these days don't even try to create a comic book universe to live in - they focus on puzzle solving, or interesting physics models, or on ascending the challenge curve.  These games can be quite fun, certainly, but it's hard (for me at least) to fall in love with them, or even in moderate interest with them.  Some games do try, fortunately, but miss the mark a bit - I intend to review one I played recently in more detail later.

With my own platformer, The Adventures of Chris, I often worried that I hadn't really given full justice to the comic book universe I wanted to create for it.  I relied a lot on fourth-wall breaking humor, which I enjoy, but which also can up the "silliness" quotient too far, and break the illusion that a comic book world needs to sustain itself (yeah, I know, a comic book world can actually be TOO silly).  So, for this reason, I'm playing around with revamping the script a bit as I revamp the graphics and music - ramping the silliness down somewhat (but not all the way), adding more emotional heft to Chris's journey, and fleshing out the world of villains and magic he finds himself swept up in just a little bit more.  After all, I want to invest you a little more in an alternative world.  I want you to have something to latch on to, something to help you believe that there's more to this world than just the glimpse the game provides.  I want to give you something as awesome, if possible, as the first two-and-a-half levels of Battletoads.

I want to sell you toys.