I think we’ve all thought about being a superhero at some point. I mean, who wouldn’t want to fly around like Superman, swing through New York like Spider-Man, or smash things like The Hulk … or shoot arrows like Hawkeye?
Well that’s what the latest Marvel video game promises us with Iron Man: VR – a Playstation VR exclusive game that sees you suiting up in the Iron Man suit to fly around and fire weapons.
“We’re not making a rail-shooter. We’re not making an amusement park game. We’re not making a short demo or an experimental Iron Man ‘experience’ … We’re making a full game with a deep sandbox, with a deep story with plenty of great missions and great cinematics.”
– Camoflaj Game developer, Ryan Payton.
At the time of writing, this game has yet to be released, and is instead still promoting itself at various Comic Con events around the world. That said, it has got a fantastic response so far, with high praise for the flying mechanics and 3D motion.
As for hardware, the game requires two Playstation move controllers and headset.
But there’s certainly enough material to analyse and see what the next stage is for this franchise.
Most importantly … this is Marvel. This is a company that transformed the way we envisage cinematic franchises. However, their video games have been more-or-less tie-ins to their MCU movies.
So for today’s post, I’m going to look at the upcoming VR potential, and see if this could be the best way to incorporate the superhero premise.
THE STATE OF VR
Between films and video games, I think pop-culture has certainly let our imagination run wild with the ultra-realistic world of virtual reality. Whilst that’s a nice idea, it still looks to be an aspiration more than anything – especially given production costs.
There are those looking more into it. Facebook announced this year that they’re working on “Ultra-Realistic User Avatars” but have equally been considered creepy or “Uncanny Valley”.
I prefer not to get too bogged down in graphical limitations when it comes to immersion. After all, arcades of the 80s and 90s were making tons of money not due to realism, but because of the addictive gameplay mechanics and group experience.
Not one person played Donkey Kong and demanded it to be “ultra-realistic.” I think the most successful VR breakthroughs are going to be more stylised and experimental.
Think about how Minecraft impacted the industry … not the most realistic, but a great experience nonetheless.
VR has yet to fully crack the mainstream audience. Although with headsets getting smaller and less nauseous, it’s certainly something that looks to be just a few years away.
Between my VR film binge-watching and video-game playing, there are certainly ways when you shouldn’t use VR. Of the films I’ve seen in VR, I would say that only a handful fully utilised the medium to create something new and immersive.
Instead, I think the real breakthrough will come more in the form of video game.
It puts the relationship between film and VR in a unique position, where IP can freely travel between mediums but we experience them in fundamentally different ways.
From a transmedia perspective, we are still a way away from cracking that Hero’s Journey. But we can absolutely use VR to create something beyond a 360-degree film, and create something more experiential.
Iron Man VR certainly caught my eye – less “Uncanny Valley” and more stylised superhero, and could be a real game-changer for making VR more mainstream.
SUPERHEROES AND VIDEO GAMES: FORTY YEARS OF IMMERSION
Perhaps not the greatest character-representation out there but Superman for the Atari 2600 was heralded as an “exciting new era for home arcades.”
But a lot has changed since the first superhero video game. Both franchises and technology have evolved.
Alongside the generation-defining theatrical releases of the MCU, we got tie-in games like Iron Man 2, Thor: God of Thunder, and arguably the best being Captain America: Super Soldier. They weren’t great – Super Soldier was rated the best by Metacritic at an average 60% across all consoles.
For the most part the Superhero genre hasn’t quite made it successfully to the video game format whilst remaining loyal to the characterisation.
The most successful superhero games that truly embraced the medium have been the Batman: Arkham games, and the recent Spider-Man for the PS4. These games have great gameplay, characters, and story … but they are certainly the more “human” of the superhero characters.
That’s not to diminish their roles as characters. But gameplay has more realistic stakes when your character can be poisoned, beaten up, or drown.
Superman is bullet-proof, can fly near the speed of light, is super strong, has heat vision, and ice breath … how do you programme that into a compelling video game?
It would be like if Mario could fly and never took any damage – it breaks the emotional investment we have in the mechanics.
This is where VR could be interesting, and the technology has reached the point where the player can have a more-immersive experience.
VR: THE SUPERHERO MEDIUM
Unlike other video games, VR naturally adopts a first-person immersive gameplay approach.
You aren’t playing as Iron Man in a fighting game, button-mashing to hopefully pull off a special move, You are Iron Man.
You have access to his AI, his repulsor blasts, and iconic red and gold suit. There is no better medium to bring forward that childlike superhero role-playing.
VR feels organic to the character; something that is important during this experimental phase of the medium.
Putting forward the guy who’s “superpower” is his genius and tech fits in so neatly with the promotion behind this VR concept.
If we were to have Thor: VR or Captain America: VR the synergy between the medium and character would be minimised. It’s one thing throwing a virtual hammer, it’s another thing interacting with your in-universe AI.
IRON MAN: VR – THOUGHTS SO FAR
We’ve been promised a compelling story and mission variety from the game developers, and I’ll be fascinated to see if they can pull it off. VR is one of those mediums that has yet to truly crack the Hero’s Journey in the same way film has.
But I imagine we’re not going to delve deep into Tony’s psyche. No, the appeal is the immersive gameplay first – which makes sense given the medium.
Thankfully, the graphics don’t look too distracting, and we have yet to fall into any uncanny valley. The Iron Man suit naturally lends itself to stylised CGI and it’s not designed to look “ultra-realistic.”
This is something that many seem to associate VR with – ultra-realism. But in reality, having something that’s more cel-shaded can be just as effective for immersive gameplay.
It looks like Iron Man: VR has got the philosophy right. It’s using the most of its medium to create an player experience separate to any other medium.
Of course, we’ll have to see how the game does when it’s eventually released.
In the past I’ve focused more on LBE (Location-Based Entertainment) when writing about VR. This is where you (or more often, a group) will go to an arcade and take down Zombies or play around in some kind of VR Sandbox. You can read about it more here …
Naturally, franchises have gotten on board. We’ve seen a Star Wars VR experience, and the Jurassic World VR tie-in have been used effectively for marketing. But as the technology improves, franchises should certainly consider ways their IP can be effectively used in VR.
As for the impact it could have on VR, recognisable IP can be a great way to get sceptical fans invested. Of course, the technology could be the same, and you could “play” as another character besides Iron Man, but it wouldn’t be the same.
The general public is familiar with the MCU and naturally this sort of tie-in could really benefit the VR industry in terms of publicity and building up a VR-gaming audience.
Again, we’re still in the experimental phase with VR. We’re at that point when video games were more about getting the high-score and hadn’t really focused on lore or narrative models.
The superhero genre looks like it could fit right at home in VR. It may not be the holodeck, but we’re not far from flying like Superman.