Black Panther and Captain Marvel represented a marked shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The pair’s solo flicks grossed over $1 billion each at the global box office, and showed there’s an appetite for ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity in superhero stories.
The duo, though, are the exception to the rule. They’re the only non-white or female Marvel superheroes to lead one of the MCU’s 23 movies to date—a meager 9 percent of the share. Black Widow’s solo flick, set for release in May 2020, coupled with Shang-Chi’s cinematic debut and sequels to Black Panther and Captain Marvel, will boost that percentage, but there’s still plenty of work to do regarding equality.
That lack of representation also extends to Marvel comics. Only 16 female and five non-white male superheroes were created before 1970 and, while those numbers have increased in decades since, problems surrounding diversity still persist. A 2017 interview with Marvel vice president of sales David Gabriel sparked a backlash after he claimed that comic readers “didn’t want more diversity” or “female characters out there”—comments he later backtracked on.
It’s apt, then, that another Marvel property wants to lead the company’s charge towards greater diversity. Marvel’s Avengers, Crystal Dynamics’ upcoming action-adventure RPG, wants to be representative of religions, colors, and creeds—an ethos typified by those working on the game.
“I’m always conscious of [representation],” creative director Shaun Escayg said. “I know the writers are too, and we all write from those spaces. There are a lot of young writers that feel very passionate about staying true to what’s real and current right now. It’s going to seep into our world. It’s who we are as people.”
Initially, Marvel’s Avengers didn’t appear to put diversity front and center. The game’s playable character roster, unveiled at E3 2019, comprised of a solitary female—Black Widow—and no non-white superheroes. Kamala Khan’s reveal as the game’s chief protagonist at New York Comic Con changed that. The first-generation Muslim-American superhero’s inclusion in Marvel’s Avengers is a step forward but, when asked if greater representation was the primary reason behind her addition, Escayg said it wasn’t “intentional from a diversity standpoint.”
“Kamala is just so iconic—she’s probably the female Spider-Man, if you will,” Escayg said. “I’m really in love with that character. She sees through that lens and she’s excited about life. She’s passionate about the Avengers—that’s her greatest superpower. Sure, she’s a polymorph and she can stretch and punch, but it’s hope and hope in the Avengers that make her a hero.”
Khan—otherwise known as Ms. Marvel—provided Crystal Dynamics with the perfect vessel through which players could reunite the Avengers. As a fan of the superhero team, Khan thematically acts as the lens for players to progress through its plot and uncover the mystery behind the fateful events of A-Day.
“When we get the disbanded Avengers and all hope is lost, that’s our set up,” Escayg explained. “They fall, lose their captain, and bicker about who is to blame. We wanted a character that could actually mend those wounds and get the Avengers communicating again, and figuring out what happened on A-Day. That led us to Kamala. We needed a fan who knew the Avengers more than they knew themselves. We needed someone resilient, and who was affected by that, but saw it very differently. That hope and youthful optimism that she brings is infectious, and brings them back together.”
Getting the band back together is at the heart of Marvel’s Avengers‘ gameplay too. In keeping with one of the group’s most iconic lines—“Avengers, Assemble!”—Crystal Dynamics want to connect every kind of fan. Comic lovers, MCU fanatics, and general gamers have been taken into account as the studio looks to cater to everyone. Single-player aficionados, multiplayer fans, offline play, level-scaling, and comic lore all form part of the experience.
“It was born out of a desire to truly assemble,” Escayg said. “That was the goal when we set out, so how do we not just assemble Avengers in a world that’s cinematic, but also on the stick? How do you and I and two more friends get in the world, as our own custom Avengers, and go fight some bad guys? You couldn’t only do those in single-player. You had to have co-op, but we needed the story and the weight of a single-player campaign to really put you in this world so you want to fight, and continue to fight. There needs to be purpose to defeat these enemies and continuous drive to destroy the bad guy. The different elements of those two types of separate games allowed us to merge them together and take advantage of the fact that we’re assembling everyone together.”
That “assembling” ethos extends further than bringing people together in-game. Accessibility support for gamers with disabilities has become an increasingly important aspect of game development, and studios are ensuring that every gamer has access to their titles. Gears 5, with its wealth of accessibility options, and The Outer Worlds, with its unique take on a colorblind mode, are two recent examples of how developers have catered for disabled gamers, and Marvel’s Avengers will be among their number when the game releases next May.
“We’ve spent a lot of time consulting and researching to make sure that everyone can enjoy the game,” Escayg said. “Everyone is represented in the Avengers, and it’s important to us as a studio. It’s part of our philosophy, so everyone absolutely will be able to play.”
With so many variables to take into account, Crystal Dynamics ironically needed to assemble its own Avengers-esque team to aid the title’s development. Eidos Montreal, Crystal Northwest, and Nixxes were enlisted as supporting studios and helped to comb through the 80 years of Marvel history that the game needed to draw from.
“I think it does take that heroic effort to build such a game and bring it to life,” Escayg said. “You don’t just have one hero that you have to define, work out the kinks for, and transfer that might into one character—you’re doing it for five. And then you’re playing with three of your friends in co-op, so it is a mammoth task. I think we were naively drawn into the process and then thought ‘Oh, wow, this is way bigger and more awesome than we thought it would be.’ I don’t think there will ever be a moment where we won’t feel the pressure and weight of living up to these characters.”
While the scope of Marvel’s Avengers was bigger than imagined, the expectations to produce a hit as popular as the MCU was well-known. The developers were prepared for those comparisons, but the burden of living up to the comics and the cinematic juggernaut is something that Escayg relishes.
“A lot of people forget that, when the first Avengers movie came out, there was the same backlash,” Escayg said. “People said, ‘That’s not how Iron Man sounds,’ or, ‘That’s not Bruce Banner.’ Generations have grown up on [these characters], myself included, and most of the team are fans. You have this weight internally and externally to live up to, and that’s why I know that the team worked so hard, and their labor of love is what you see on that screen from everyone’s combined efforts. We want to live up to it, and continue to live up to it.”
The Avengers are based in the U.S., but the heroes that make up this supergroup are household names worldwide. This global recognition is an aspect that Crystal Dynamics wanted to lean into with their “assemble” mantra, and players can expect to take in various locations across as they seek to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the game’s plot.
“The Avengers are global—it was part of a global initiative that caused A-Day,” Escayg said. “They were expanding to their West Coast headquarters, so it’s always going to be centered around world protection. You have agencies like SHIELD and the Avengers that are that overall protection against any threat to humanity. It would be unfair to just have it based in San Francisco.”
Prospectively bumping into lesser-known regional heroes then, such as Captain Britain, would go down a treat with gamers and Marvel fans. Crystal Dynamics is keeping its roster—and potential co-op “Heroic” moves, such as Iron Man bouncing his repulsor beams off Captain America’s shield—under wraps for now, but Escayg told me players would be surprised by who, or what, shows up.
“I can’t go into details, of course,” he said. “I will say that the characters and world are vast, so there will be lots of options. I think you’ll even be surprised in the actual campaign about which characters you’ll encounter.”
Regardless of who turns up, what locations players will visit, and other unannounced features, Marvel’s Avengers is doing right by its source material and potential fanbase. There’s a belief among the game’s four studios that the game will be truly special, and the hard work that the artists, designers, developers, and writers have put in will be worth it come launch day.
“We’re definitely trying to keep that experience as part of the ‘Assemble’ moment feeling,” Escayg said. “We have amazing teams, and they have laboured to try and stay true to each character. The interesting thing is you have Iron Man fans, big Hulk fans like myself, Black Widow fans, and more, so there’s no way that we can ever put out a game and people play it and say ‘This isn’t Thor.’
“It’s a mammoth task, but I’m incredibly proud of the team.”
Virgin Media hosted an exclusive Marvel’s Avengers event in London.
Header image: Square Enix, Marvel
Tom is a freelance journalist who enjoys playing, reading, and writing about games. Not all at the same time though. That would be silly and impressive in equal measure. Chat with him about all things gaming at @thomp1987.