Because it’s made by Firaxis Games, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, launching Dec. 2, already gets the rep that it’s XCOM meets X-Men. It’s actually not, says Jake Solomon, the game’s creative director. Both might be turn-based strategy games, but only one of them was made in partnership with the best storytellers in video gaming: the fans themselves.
“It is hard to beat a story that is created in the player’s head,” Solomon acknowledged to Polygon. The unique appeal inside 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown and 2016’s XCOM 2 comes from the emergent narratives that fans invented for their squads.
“There’s some soldiers that I love in XCOM because they suck, even,” Solomon said. “You have some folks like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Ol’ Shifty over there. You can’t hit a goddamn shot!’ It’s tough to beat those stories.”
Marvel’s Midnight Suns doesn’t really have that. The dozen characters in its lineup, like Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, The Scarlet Witch, or Deadpool, arrive to the game if not as already known quantities, then at least with personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and other traits established by 40, 50, or 60 years in comic books. XCOM and its sequel, somewhat paradoxically, formed deeply personal attachments between players and characters because the latter were such a blank slate, which allowed Firaxis’ designers to focus almost entirely on gameplay and balance.
Garth DeAngelis, the game’s senior producer, knew that kind of purist approach would not serve such a lore-heavy game as Midnight Suns.
“We couldn’t just have these open-ended systems that didn’t have these preconceived personalities with these characters.” DeAngelis said. “So what the team said was, we have to create [a role-playing game]; it’s going to be more narrative-heavy, and we need to lean into what we love about these characters.”
To do that, Midnight Suns will implement a “friendship system” through which the player character — an all-new, user-generated superhero called The Hunter — forms bonds with Marvel characters as they lead them into battle and interact with them back at their secret base. Some heroes may start the game as a favorite simply because of the fandom the player brought to Midnight Suns; others might end up as show-stealing surprises because they offer a tactical advantage, either in their base abilities or with the amplified powers that a fully developed friendship delivers. In either instance, Midnight Suns will be engaging an almost parasocial relationship between the player and the heroes; in XCOM, if the player didn’t make up a story for a unit who otherwise had only a name and a flag on their back collar, the player was still responsible for their lives, which added enormous dramatic tension to otherwise ordinary tactical choices.
As to that, no, there is no permadeath in Marvel’s Midnight Suns. “I couldn’t see a good way to make that work,” Solomon said. “We have a big roster, like 12 heroes, but it’s just not big enough for permadeath.” If Wolverine, Iron Man, and Captain America get wiped out on an operation, they’ll be injured and need time to recover, forcing the player to lean on others in the lineup.
Back at the heroes’ hideout, called The Abbey, players will find a strategic layer similar to the base-building in the XCOM franchise. In Midnight Suns, though, upgrades will come in the form of modifier cards that are brought into a mission and randomly drawn. The unlocking of the cards and assigning them to one hero instead of another will resemble some choices in XCOM, where a favored soldier would get the best gear or the most advanced plasma weapon once the in-game researchers developed it.
“You’ll eventually be able to really modify the cards, but you will have resource constraints, so, who do you really want to give these very, very powerful modifications to?” DeAngelis said. “Who do you want to upgrade first? There really are gameplay mechanics under that, where you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m giving this to my boy Blade first, before Cap, even though they both have the option here, because Blade’s on my A-squad.’”
Friendship will also confer similar benefits, but players will be limited in how many relationships they can max out. Solomon said players will be able to do that with “three, maybe four” heroes in a playthrough. Regardless, that takes a lot of work. Not only must players take a favored teammate on mission after mission, they’ll be presented with hang-out opportunities and other social, role-playing decisions back in The Abbey to strengthen the friendship.
“Your first one [comes] at least halfway through the game,” Solomon said, meaning the first fully developed relationship, with all of the combat benefits that involves.
“Jake makes fun of me because I spread the love with my friendships,” DeAngelis said.
“Oh my God, that annoys the shit out of me,” Solomon said, “Because that’s not how the system’s supposed to be used! And I’m so terrified people will do that!”
“He gets in my face, like, ‘what are you doing? Are you actually playing?’” DeAngelis laughed. “I’m like, ‘Listen man, I don’t know when I’m gonna need whoever.’ So I want to make sure I’m leveling up with everybody.”
None of this is to minimize the importance or role of The Hunter, an all-new character (of any gender) that Firaxis developed in cooperation with Marvel. “The Hunter is the star of the show, alongside Peter Parker, alongside Steve Rogers, alongside Tony Stark,” DeAngelis said. “Jake was a big advocate for giving the player a player character.”
“I’m a very, very hardcore Marvel Comics guy,” Solomon said — which partly explains the origins of Midnight Suns’ narrative, which reaches back to a crossover story arc almost 30 years old. “But there was a little trepidation on our side, because we’ve never worked with the IP, and we’ve always been creatively independent. So, I remember that first call with Marvel, and it was almost like, testing [them]. ‘We want to do this, what do you think about that?’ We were almost looking for them to say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that,’ and then we’d say, ‘OK, cool, well, this isn’t for us then.’”
But Marvel Games bought in on that first conversation more than five years ago.
“Their reaction was, ‘That sounds awesome. We’ve never done that before,’” Solomon said. “But they said, ‘It’s going to be hard.’ If you’re saying you’re going to make […] — not just a superhero — a Marvel Superhero, and you’re going to stand them next to Iron Man and Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man, characters that have existed for decades, and all of these heroes are going to end up looking to this character, then they have to have a meaningful back story.”
Moreover, they have two potential back stories, informed by their choices; one path is the virtuous, lawful-good path that Captain America always chooses, DeAngelis said. The other is a more results-driven, antiheroic methodology fans associated with characters like Wolverine or Johnny Blaze.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns launches Dec. 2 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was delayed from an original launch window of March this year (and then October), and Solomon and DeAngelis are aware that early December is somewhat of a shoulder season for major gaming releases. But Solomon isn’t worried the game will be overlooked, or that it will be fighting against the white-hot Marvel Snap collectible card game for the same audience’s attention.
“I’m genuinely naïve, but I just don’t think there’s anyway way Marvel Snap hurts us,” Solomon said. “If anything that’s got to help ups. I just think generally that’s going to help us even though we’re so different.”