Today we lost one of the most prolific and influential creators of pop-culture entertainment, Stan Lee. During an incredibly fertile creative period from 1961 to 1972, he was instrumental in giving birth to Spider-Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil and Ant-Man, among countless other characters. Creating comic books, like video games, is a team effort, so Stan did not do this alone, but with collaborators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists and writers. But he was the visionary and face of Marvel Comics, and through his impressive work and enthusiastic promotion of that work, by appearing at comic book conventions and in movie cameos, his vision lives on today and is as popular as ever.
Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t a Marvel fan when I grew up during the Silver Age of comic books. Although I did enjoy the Spider-Man animated series, I preferred reading DC Comics, where the superheroes were more paragons of virtue and impervious, both inside and out. It wasn’t until I grew older (and presumably wiser) that I grew to appreciate what Stan Lee brought to the world of comic books. After all, many of the great talents I admired were fans of Stan’s work, and I took notice that the great writer Harlan Ellison, with whom I had collaborated on a video game adaptation of his short story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, kept a large Spider-Man toy figure suspended from his kitchen cabinets.
Stan earned the respect of talents in other fields — even receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008 — when he revolutionized comic books by putting the “human” into “superhuman.” As fantastic as his characters were, they were relatable because they had real-world problems like the ones you and I experience. His superhumans had very human frailties. Despite his extraordinary powers, Stan’s most popular creation, Spider-Man, had problems at work, at home and with his girlfriends,enduring many defeats and setbacks, sometimes ones of his own making. He suffered from the awkwardness, self-esteem issues, and dating difficulties that plague every real-life teenager. The other characters that Stan created together with his team of talented artists and writers all battled their inner demons while fighting off supervillains. Because we can relate to these inner struggles, we true believers can learn from them.
Stan made these larger than life characters accessible by having them relate to contemporary society. The X-Men, for example, have served as a metaphor for many groups of people who have been demonized and mistreated for their differences, but have to live in peace with those who hate and fear them. Through Stan’s stories, they became a symbol of hope for the readers who felt demonized and mistreated themselves.
By creating three-dimensional characters who had meaningful things to say about the human condition, perhaps Stan’s greatest achievement was in demonstrating that comics were not merely pacifiers for children, but could be legitimate works of literature. Stan was slow to realize this himself, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2014:
“I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research, and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed.”
That is an important message for game developers, who for many decades had their works dismissed by mainstream society as being toys for children. Both comic books and video games have millions of fans, and the influence that brings cannot be denied. Stan wrote one of the most famous lines in comics, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and in doing so, he set a very high bar of responsibility for all us other content creators to live up to by inspiring our imagination and challenging us to all use it to make the world a better place. As Stan told Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in his cameo in the 2003 Spider-Man film, “You know, I guess one person can make a difference … ’nuff said.”
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. As a child I loved dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating. It wasn’t so much the collecting candy that I enjoyed but going out at night and visiting unfamiliar houses, which were made even more foreboding with cobwebs, skeletons, and graveyards on the lawn. It felt like I was doing something dangerous, and trick-or-treating was about as dangerous a think that this straight-and-narrow kid during his middle-class, suburban childhood.
Since I couldn’t walk amongst vampires, werewolves, and mummies every day, I developed an interest in the Universal Monster horror film franchise and watched the ghoulish adventures of Frankenstein, Dracula, and my favorite, the Wolf Man. I begged my mom to let me stay up past midnight on Saturday nights to watch a late night horror film show on a local television program, and that introduced me to zombies, demons and other supernatural creatures. Later on, as a teenager, I’d go to the movie theater with friends to watch films coming out of the new slasher horror film genre: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elmstreet.
Of course, it wasn’t enough to be a member of the audience, I had to be an active participant in the horror genre. No, I didn’t become a serial killer, but I did buy myself a Ouija board for contacting the Other Side and tried to hold seances. When no one from the Other Side showed up, I built haunted house attractions in my garage and charged them a quarter to pull them on a wagon through scenes of bubbling cauldrons and simulated horror.
Eventually I moved on to college and discovered how a computer could be used for a storytelling medium. What a perfect way to tell a horror story, I thought! A computer was able to create an environment that was both immersive and surprising, yet do it in a way that was completely safe. What better way to lure in my unsuspecting victims?!
Unfortunately, fantasy and science fiction were the favored genres for video games, not horror. When I joined The Walt Disney Company as a game producer, I wanted to produce a video game based on my favorite Disneyland ride, The Haunted Mansion. However, it was a tough sell. Instead of recreating the “frightfully funny” experience of the ride, I wanted to explore ways to make a computer game actually frightening, just as I had experimented with my earlier game The Prisoner in making players feel trapped and manipulated. But Disney wasn’t willing to take such risks at that time — especially not with one of their more cherished attractions, and I was never able to get the project beyond the talking stage with developers.
I found a more receptive employer for my more macabre ideas when I joined Cyberdreams, a small game publisher specializing in game developed in collaboration with famous names from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. One of my first projects was to produce a sequel to the award-winning horror game Dark Seed, based on the artwork of H.R. Giger. I put together a Dream Team of horror writers: Raymond Benson, who had designed Stephen King’s The Mist for MicroProse; Keith Herber, who had written scenarios for the H.P. Lovecraft horror RPG Call of Cthulhu (which I played quite extensively while I was at Disney) to write dialog; and horror novelist John Shirley to critique the story, which chronicled protagonist Mike Dawson’s descent into madness as he crosses from our normal world to the Giger-inspired Dark World. Alas, the game turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, and it received mediocre reviews.
Much more successful was another game that I produced at the same time, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison’s classic short story about the last five people on Earth, kept alive and psychologically tortured by a malevolent, all-power computer. We embellish the short story by telling the backstory of each of the characters, each about such horrific topics as cannibalism, physical abuse, rape, and the Holocaust. This game was a mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but it all came together somehow and went on to win many awards.
I thought I would have similar luck when we signed a deal with Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other horror films. He provided us with a scenario about a house that came alive, but being a very busy person, allowed us to take the concept from there. I got as far as producing a prototype of the game to show at the 1997 Game Developers Conference, but even though it won About Games magazine’s Bronze Medal for Interactive Fiction, Craven’s agent was not impressed and she cancelled the project.
My greatest success in the horror genre came when I joined Activision, and I was assigned to produce the in-progress development of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The developer, Troika Games, was behind schedule since they were using Valve’s Source Engine, which was still in development. I managed to get the game on track, but it was so overdue that we run out of funding when it still needed a couple more weeks of polishing. Fortunately, the fans took over with mods to fix some of the problems after it was launched, and the horror game has since been recognized as one of the best computer RPG’s of all time.
Still, I haven’t felt I had a chance to fully experiment with how to best design a game to create a frightening experience, as all of the games I produced relied more on a horrifying premise for telling their story. Perhaps some day I’ll be given a chance to develop game mechanics that create the sensation of fear. After all, the night is still young.