Tony Stark is cooking me dinner. Up until very recently, the idea of suffering through a meal with this particular egotistical, over-monied tech bro would have seemed like a threat, but I find I’m actually looking forward to it. We’re sat together at a bar in the bizarre, foreboding abbey where Midnight Suns’ heroes are based. In the shadow of the gothic arches of this place, the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist seems rather small.
As we talk, he boasts about what he’s cooking – his grandmother’s famous curry, with some Tony Stark alterations, of course. I ask what these are. He says he’s cut out the vodka. With surprising nonchalance, he talks about the supplies he’s brought in for the “dry bar”. He doesn’t speak further about his struggles with alcoholism, but the nugget of detail does more to humanize this iconic figure than almost every Marvel movie.
It hits me that I’m dealing with an entirely different take on Tony Stark. By plucking Iron Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Firaxis has bought a level of granular authenticity into the character. After years of Marvel fatigue, I would have been happy never to see Stark’s smug face again – or so I thought. Firaxis’ superhero strategy game and friendship simulator has changed my mind in a way that I did not see coming.
The Hunter, whom you customize at the game’s start, is your lens into Firaxis’ reframing of the well-established Marvel fiction. Reminiscent of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I Was a Teenage Exocolonist, and – most notably – Persona 5, Marvel’s Midnight Suns places as much emphasis on the protagonist’s social life as it does their time battling the forces of evil as a spandex-clad do-gooder. After every mission, you select a fellow hero to spend your evening with, building your figurative and literal friendship level through dialogue and shared experiences.
As you spend more time with this homicidally brave band of idiosyncratic heroes, you come to care for your new messy, adopted family. By interacting with the other heroes through meaningful (though rarely reality-altering) dialogue choices, you can peel back the layers of these characters like a melodramatic onion. It seems 2022 was the year developers finally realised they should take a leaf from Persona’s book, and I am here for it.
By giving you a chance to see your heroes as fully fleshed-out human beings, Midnight Suns has already done the work. It’s the oldest trick in the book: the more you come to care for these characters, the less you want to see them get hurt.
Though initially grating, I soon warmed to Nico, an independent young witch and wielder of terrifying eldrich powers. Before long, I came to see her as something of a surrogate sister to my character. This is why I wince whenever she gets knocked out by Hydra goon. I know she’ll be back and ready to fight in a couple of days, but my brain has already been tricked into caring about the person-shaped mass of pixels on my screen.
Strategy games can often seem to be about cold calculation, but Firaxis has injected Marvel’s Midnight Suns with warm feelings and friendships. The effective execution of the conversation-based friendship-simulator aspect of Midnight Suns ensures that emotional investment twists what might otherwise be cold, strategic judgment. Consider the hero selection process before a mission: Wolverine may be great in a fight, but I’d rather take Doctor Strange because I trust him and enjoy his slightly more genteel banter in combat.
Earth's mightiest heroes
Firaxis doubles down on both the mythological and personal aspects of Midnight Suns’ characters. By departing from the canon of the Marvel films and choosing its own direction, Firaxis takes full advantage of its agency as a storyteller. It is surprisingly liberating to see the likes of Spider-Man and Captain Marvel unencumbered by the narrative baggage of Disney’s bloated cinematic universe.
It’s no coincidence that we saw similar success with Eidos-Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy game. I expected a milquetoast third-person shooter, but I got a compelling and soulful action game where mechanics and narrative meshed wonderfully to deliver a fulfilling tale of found family. Plus, the title offered a version of Star-Lord far removed from Chris Pratt’s snarky manchild, which was a definite plus.
It’s clear that, in the right hands, great games can be crafted with the Marvel ensemble. And, after all these years, it’s not that I’d grown tired of superheroes; I was looking for courageous storytelling.
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.