Last year saw the release of the most recent iteration of a Spidey game, “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” developed by Insomniac Games. “Marvel’s Spider-Man” smashed all kinds of records. It dethroned “God of War” as the fastest-selling Sony-exclusive of all time and it achieved launch month sales 37% higher than the launch month sales of every previous Spider-Man game combined (since the NPD group started tracking these sales in 1995, that is).
But success outside of comics for Marvel’s creations doesn’t need to rely on its biggest heroes. Netflix shows set in the fictional Hell’s Kitchen over the last four years have highlighted the fact that there is a lot of potential imbued in some of the lesser known comic book heroes too. And that success could easily be capitalized on by giving one of these heroes a starring role in a new video game of their own. Perhaps the most intriguing candidate for this is Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher.
The Punisher is a hero with no superpowers, not a lot of friends, and no steady supply of cash. As a result, it’s much easier to relate to Frank Castle than it is to some of the more extravagant heroes we’re used to seeing in the MCU. This is accentuated further by the fact that the only thing that drives Castle is an intense personal motivation, as opposed to some kind of desire to protect people. He chases his own idea of justice as an anti-hero vigilante, driven by a mixture of love for his deceased family and resentment for their killers. This status as an anti-hero makes him far more intriguing than standard heroes because he’s not ostentatiously good. He’s flawed, and that makes him more real. A Punisher game could also encompass a number of different genres, having the potential to feature everything from brutal brawls to poignant narrative sections.
Season two of “The Punisher” launched last week on Netflix. After the first season saw Frank Castle, the eponymous Punisher, embark on a headlong hubbub to take out all of those tied to the murder of his wife and kids, it’s safe to say that the second season of the hit Netflix show has been eagerly anticipated since the Season one finale. That anticipation is a reminder of just how effective a character Castle is as The Punisher.
That’s due in part to the fact that, like DC’s Batman, Castle has no powers. But Bruce Wayne is a billionaire with access to an arsenal of weapons and vehicles and Batman games reflect that fact. Castle is an ex-marine thought to be dead with limited access to money. He lives in a small, rundown apartment on his own and only associates with a handful of people he trusts since his death was reported. This lifestyle helps to shape who Castle is as an anti-hero.
While Spider-Man uses his powers to protect the people of New York City and Batman acts as a vigilante to prevent the kind of injustice that led to the death of his parents, The Punisher is a hero fueled by vengeance. He kills ostensibly bad people — drug dealers, murderers, and crime lords — but does so outside of the law. Spidey webs enemies up for the police to arrest later. Batman typically settles for knocking his foes unconscious. The Punisher always subjects his enemies to brutally violent ends.
This is exactly what makes The Punisher a fascinating character for a potential future video game: He’s an anti-hero. Generally speaking, anti-heroes are a lot more intriguing than their perfect superhero counterparts, because anti-heroes grapple with their demons in moral dilemmas that bear a heavy resonance to real-life situations. That’s not to say bashing someone’s head in is something that happens on the daily, but The Punisher’s notable trauma and stress when it comes to dealing with morality can be accurately depicted in video games.
Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt touches on the need for the typical superhero story to step out of the trajectory of the fairy tale protagonist in an article she wrote for The Guardian.
“I am not sure how much good is done by moralizing about fairy tales. This can be unsubtle – telling children that virtue will be rewarded, when in fact it is mostly simply the fact of being the central character that ensures a favorable outcome. Fairy tales are not, on the whole, parables.” There is a certain degree of safety afforded to heroes more often than not that implies they will win despite the obstacles that stand in their way. There’s always a few bumpy waves before it can be smooth sailing. As detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler writes, the tale of the contemporary anti-hero “is still fluid, still too various for easy classification, still putting out shoots in all directions.” And The Punisher’s radically different approach to vigilantism than that of other heroes is a testament to this.
A Punisher video game could also seamlessly stitch myriad genres together. From “Forza” to “Spec Ops: The Line,” a Punisher game could draw influence from games that aren’t typically compatible. As a former member of the US Army’s Special Forces, Castle is trained in a wide range of military disciplines. “The Punisher” on Netflix shows a diverse roster of unique settings that could be brilliantly implemented into campaign missions in a video game. From stealth missions in Gunner Henderson’s forest to an infiltration mission to save an anti-gun politician, this game could make use of multiple mechanics that entire genres have been based on before, making its gameplay incredibly dense and dynamic.
On top of all of that, the character and story of The Punisher brings with it a heavy dose of morality that would make for some gripping narrative-driven sections. The thing about Netflix’s “The Punisher” is that moral dilemma is intrinsically linked to Castle’s story.
Around every corner, the anti-hero is faced with yet another muddy situation. Taunted by his demons, Castle is a man who will be chased by his past forever. The only thing he can do is keep moving forward, no matter how much that tests his own sense of ethics. A video game Castle would be under your control; as a result, his decisions would be based on your inputs. The relationship between you and the character you play as is a lot more intimate than the relationship between you and a pre-written character in a show because the burden of morality is placed on you instead of an intangible character for whom the ink is dry.
There have been five Punisher games before, all of which chose to focus on mindless violence above all else. These games were all met with generally poor reception. While violence is an aspect that has been inherent to The Punisher’s overarching narrative since the character was introduced in early 1974, the success of the Netflix series’ experimentation with Castle’s psyche and ethics serves as sufficient proof that The Punisher’s story could yield a much more ambitious video game today.
Frank Castle is an incredibly violent man, so it’s important that any future game does retain this to at least a degree. Castle’s violence is much more complex than sporadic outbursts of brutality though. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defines the term ressentiment as “the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing.” Castle’s ressentiment comes from the fact that he has lost his family and, by extension, his character, or identity. As ressentiment continues to flourish, The Punisher’s capacity for violence grows exponentially, but because you can understand where this comes from, your sympathy for him problematically grows alongside it. This never happened in the existing Punisher games.
The Punisher, when considered as a story as opposed to a character, is all about ambiguity, all about the moral grey area that separates justice from morality. Castle is constantly faced with decisions that no one would ever want to make. Given the tendency for modern games to give you agency over how you want your character to act, putting you in Frank’s shoes could make for a deeply unsettling but engaging experience. As literary critic Raymond Williams writes in his book, “Keywords,” “a pseudo-objective version of reality … is passed off as reality, although in this instance at least (and perhaps more generally) what is there has been made by the specific practices of writing, painting, and film-making.” As the“pseudo-objective version of reality” of The Punisher is being developed, its moral complexities pervasively influence what exists outside the text — you. That’s why Castle’s story is morally right, wrong and impossible to define – all at once. You’ll have to interpret what it means on your own. This nuance, perfectly executed by Netflix’s “The Punisher” showrunners, could be applied to a Punisher game in order to get it right the sixth time around. The one thing the previous five games have in common is that they never really superseded the violence; it’s the person The Punisher is when he’s not acting in that capacity that makes him such a powerful character in the Netflix show.
And that’s the beauty of it. Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann once said that “The Last of Us” isn’t supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be engaging. The vital difference between these two terms is what separates the five Punisher games that came prior to the Netflix series from the idea of a new Punisher game that could outperform all of them. By ditching run-and-gun gameplay elements for a more nuanced look at the complexities of Frank Castle’s character, a Punisher video game could be engaging in a way that’s deeply meaningful. Also, by paying attention to Castle’s diverse skill-set and complicated relationships, this could be much more mature than the previous games in a truly affecting way. If a developer was to focus on engagement over fun, the story of Castle could make for an incredible video game.