Injustice: Gods Among Us, the free to play superhero Pokemon (and digital zen garden)
Professional thinker Seth Godin was on Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment” podcast a few months back, and while he touched on everything from the changing media landscape to the individual’s place in society, it was the following quote that really stuck with me:
I think the way most of us grow up, we are responding to inputs; we are not just sitting there with a blank sheet of paper having a Sartre-like internal dialogue. That’s a big factor in everybody’s life.
Some people, then, decide to have a second discussion with themselves and that discussion is:
‘Alright, like Kal-El, I am on this planet and I’ve got a head start; I have powers far beyond those of many other people: I am very lucky I didn’t grow up in a slum, I am very lucky it’s not 1642, I am very lucky that I had all these advantages, there’s nothing physically much wrong with me.’
So when you realize all that, then, sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a conversation with yourself, which might last for decades, that says, “Well what game do I want to play, how am I going to keep score, and what’s important?”
As I’ve written before, when it comes to gaming, I usually get my dopamine release from more simple fare. It’s not that I’m not salivating at the thought of wasting a month of my life investigating every nook and cranny of Arkham Knight, it’s just that I know that as much fun as that is going to be, it’s going to be ‘a thing’, and most of the time, I just don’t have time for yet another thing.
That’s why I downloaded the mobile version of Injustice: Gods Among Us, the fighting game based on DC Comics characters done by NetherRealm (the guys behind the Mortal Kombat franchise).
Sure it’s a remedial version of the complex and intricate console game, but as someone who loves the lore of superheroes even more than the books themselves, I figured this was at least better procrastination than Temple Run. And with a nice take on the typical collectible card-based battle system style, it’s not just an enjoyable distraction when I’m stuck on the Metro, it can be an exercise in therapeutic mindfulness.
That is, as long as I remember to not trust it when it comes to keeping score.
The mobile version of Injustice: Gods Among Us is free to play, but like most collectible card-based games, there’s price-tagged temptations at every turn. Oh you want to graduate from Nightwing to Batman and you want to access Green Lantern’s ability to project a barrage of green rockets at your opponent? You could play the game at its own pace, painstakingly learning how to best use Lex Luthor’s power-draining ‘lance blast’ OR you could drop $4.99 and buy your way out of it. The choice, ultimately, is yours.
It all depends on what kind of game you want to play.
Injustice: Gods Among Us will tell you there are two main objectives: to beat the 50 ‘Battles’ in the story mode — different combinations of ever-stronger opponents mixed with fun quirks like ‘your team constantly loses life’ or ‘you have to win in 3 minutes or less’ — and to win Online Battles, which allow you to play similarly-ranked players# in hopes of rising the ranks of the online leaderboard. Simple enough.
Only eventually you realize that these objectives, like those math problems your 8th grade teacher used to assign, are really made up of lots of little objectives. You can’t beat Battle 17 without getting Deathstroke to Level 20 so that you can unlock his devastating ‘Eye for an Eye’ special attack, which means that temporarily, the game is really all about getting Deathstroke XP. You can’t start taking on the truly badass bosses until you can afford another Gold Level hero, which means temporarily, the game is all about earning as much coinage as possible.
Real gamers refer to this as “grinding”, which Mother Wikipedia defines as “the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games…in which it is often necessary for a character to repeatedly kill AI-controlled monsters, using basically the same strategy over and over again to advance their character level to be able to access newer content.” It can sounds like a pain in the ass, and if you’re playing the wrong kind of game it most certainly is, but thanks to a very cool guitar teacher I had in middle school, I like to think of it as raking sand. Stay with me…
These types of video games promise that if you just do X, then you can Y, and it will make Z so much better. But the hidden con is that Z really just leads to another X. You may have spent weeks refining your roster just so you could eek out a victory in the Final Battle in story mode, but you barely have time to celebrate it before the game points you in the direction of the Online Mode so that you can really put your skills to the test. And just when you think you’ve maxed out your Arkham Origin Batman and made him the ultimate 3D-fighter-in-a-2D-world, you realize there’s an entire section called Gear that will take another 3 or 4 weeks to conquer, all so that you can make your Batman just a bit more Batmanlier.#
The truth is there is no end game to this kind of game. You can never, as Pokemon falsely commands us, catch them all. That ultimate payoff will never really come because there is always something more to be done.
Which means you have to learn to enjoy the ride.
When I was in 7th grade, my professional jazz musician of a guitar teacher gave me a book called Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. It was a great music-related introduction to the basic concepts of Eastern philosophies, and it made me aware of what Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths, namely that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by wanting, and that to overcome that wanting one must practice mindfulness.
In other words, if you’re only half paying attention while pawing at your phone in an attempt to get Shazam’s Lightning Cloak, all so that you can have a 15% better chance of stunning your opponent with ‘Roaring Strike’, you’re focusing on the wrong parts of this game. I mean for Zeus’ sake, you’re getting to simultaneously wield the Wisdom of Solomon, the Strength of Hercules, and the Courage of Achilles! How could that ever be a time-suck? But when you’re not keeping score of the right things, you’re not able to understand what makes this game so great.
IGN called this franchise “a big old sloppy love letter to fans” because along with its gorgeous graphics and its deep digging into DC Comics lore when it comes to the power-ups and easter eggs, the sheer fact that you get to do things like control Bane as he breaks Batman’s back makes up for any weaknesses that come with the repetitive gameplay or lack of story#.
Besides, that’s not what this game is even about.
It’s not about leveling up, or gaining multiplayer experience with brilliant strategy, or unlocking DLC for the console version of the game either. It’s about getting the chance to play Rock Em’, Sock Em’ Robots with these gods that were never supposed to be among us. As Destructoid said in its review, “Keep tapping, swipe occasionally, ignite your super, repeat. As unfun as it sounds, watching DC’s heroes and villains beat the crap out of each other with a decent visual quality has a certain allure to it.”
The mainstream may have, as Charles once put it ‘stolen what we didn’t own’ when they made the Avengers as big as Jesus, but the upside is that instead of just being pretty pictures on a page, these superheroes are now inside our phone, right at our fingertips. Our action figures have come alive. And isn’t that all some of us have ever dreamed of?
Injustice: Gods Among Us isn’t meant for marathon sessions, nor is any game where you have to endlessly ‘grind’, but just like a great comic book, it’s a wonderful treat to have in your pocket when you want to escape for a while and watch some heroes save the world.
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