May 28, 2004

City of Heroes

by peterb

In the mid-80's, Saturday's were for going over to Junot Diaz's apartment (yes, "that" Junot Diaz) where we'd go into the basement and play role-playing games. I'd say we played "all day and all night," but really they played all day and all night, and I'd play for just a couple of hours until my mother called and yelled at me to come home, because she thought it was unhealthy for a teenage boy to spend 14 hours in the basement playing D&D (personal to mom: OK, 20 years have passed and I can admit it. You were right.)



Saturdays were, in other words, geek days. We didn't actually play D&D; typically we played in various intricate universes that Junot had created, using Rolemaster or Spacemaster from a company called Iron Crown Enterprises to resolve the combats. These systems focused on lovingly gory descriptions of exactly what happened when you hit your opponent, so you'd roll a die and look up column "D" on the "slash critical" table to find out that your opponent had severed your achilles tendon, causing you to fall to the ground in agony, or you'd look in column "E" on the "pierce critical" to see that your arrow went straight through the enemy horseman's eye and into his brain, killing him instantly. There were critical tables for bludgeoning, burns, explosions -- it was fun. Characters didn't tend to live very long. Roleplaying games, pizza, coca-cola, and comics books -- lots of comic books.

I have always been an avid comic book reader. I learned to read at an extremely young age primarily so that I could read comic books. To this day, I'll read anything I can get my hands on. Danny Clowes, Robert Crumb, Superman, Archie and Veronica -- it doesn't matter. I am egregiously unselective about it. Something about the medium moves me.

One in-joke in our group used had to do with a comic book character Junot introduced me to called Nexus. Nexus was basically Space Ghost with angst. He had strange dreams of mass murderers, feeling the death throes of every one of their victims, which tortured him until he assassinated the killers. The first mass-murderer he killed was his own father (paging Dr. Jung, white courtesy telephone). He could fly, he shot energy beams that could travel around corners, he was practically invulnerable. So when someone was about to get stomped in our game in a particularly brutal way, the joke was to lift your arms, angle your hands together down at the target and say "Fwhoooooosh!", thus implying that a Nexus-level amount of death and carnage was about to happen.

Later, when I got to college, I could play all the games I wanted, whether they were role playing games or computer games, without my mom calling and yelling at me. One of the games I was involved in was called "Champions," which was basically a build-your-own-superhero sort of thing. I played with a bunch of other freshmen and sophomores on the verge of failing out of CMU. My character for that campaign was a thinly-disguised version of Nexus: I had adopted Junot's hero as my own.

Which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer onling role playing game whose conceit is: be a superhero.

Nexus (City of Heroes)

Nexus, in-game

I'm not much enamoured of playing games with people I don't know, so for my tastes the adjective "massive" when applied to an online game is generally a derogatory term. In the context of this game, however, it works. What makes comic books -- and here I'm generally speaking of American "hero" genre comic books -- work is the way that deep cultural archetypes are, quite literally, worn on the sleeves of the characters, often in bright colours with festive silk trim. And this is what I enjoy about City of Heroes: gawking at the characters other people come up with, as well as, truth to tell, coming up with my own. Here's my heroic shadow for the world to see: I can play Nexus in a videogame now.

Of course you see lots of people emulating their favorite heroes from comic books they've read. I've seen at least one Superman, a few Spider-men, and Santa Claus, and of course I've already talked about my version of Nexus. But it's the heroes people create themselves that are the most fun. There's the four foot tall gray haired old lady with the spider on her chest, named "Grandma Death". There's the angst-ridden teenage girl with a big letter "O" on her costume named "The Overanalyzer." Occasionally you see people who coordinate their costumes, which makes an already surreal world even stranger. My contribution to the oeuvre is Harriet Houdini -- great-granddaughter of the famous escape artist and medium debunker, she was debunking a presumed charlantan's seance when she discovered that this one was real; a few psychic transfusions from an evil ancient Egyptian god later and, ta-da! A brand-new superhero is born. As much fun as the costumes are, I admit I love the names people come up with, too. Fearleader. The Guy. Darth Mall.

The actual game portion of City of Heroes isn't very much fun: you run around kicking ass by pointing your mouse at villains and repeatedly pressing buttons to activate your Mysterious Powers, and then wait for them to recharge. Then, like a rat pressing a lever hoping for a food pellet, you press the button again. The strange thing is, although it's not much fun to play it's a heck of a lot of fun to watch. It's fun to just find a safe perch and watch the fireworks fly.

Grandma Death

Grandma Death

The developers have done a good job of coming up with interesting super powers. They've divided up superheroes into five rough archetypes. Blasters are frail but do a lot of damage by shooting ice, fire, electricity, or guns from a distance. Controllers can brainwash, use telekinesis, control gravity, and similar psychic-like powers. Tankers can take a lot of damage in melee, and scrappers can dish out a lot of damage in melee. Lastly, defenders provide support and healing for their team members. Many of the more interesting powers have the restriction that you can't use them on yourself, but may only use them on a team member, so there is some incentive built in to the game for taking on the (repetitive, boring) missions as a member of a team.

As you level up you will have the opportunity to gain more powers, but most archetypes are interesting right out of the box -- the game manages to avoid the trap of "The first few levels are boring" by giving every archetype some neat powers right away. While you can't be flying or leaping tall buildings right away, you can reach those heights in relatively short order. And while you're floating along, you will continually encounter heroes and personalities you never expected to meet such as Penny Arcade's Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood.

Street Scene

A super team

Is it worth it, either in time and money? I'm not sure. I love the configuration tool that lets you define what your hero looks like; you can literally spend hours and hours adjusting the finest details of your little dollie's clothing, trying on different shoes, belts, spandex, appliqués, and other accessories. But if you want to play, you have to pay: $50 for the game, and a $15 / month, with the first month's fee being include in the price of the software. If you don't have an account, you can't even get to the hero creation screen, so once you decide you've had enough of the game you won't even be able to enjoy any aspects of the game offline. I find that pretty off-putting. For now, I'm enjoying the exposure to other people's wish-fulfillment fantasies, but I don't know how long that will keep me paying $15 a month.

It's the first (for pay) online RPG I've been willing to play since A Tale in the Desert, though, and I think that says something positive about it.

And even though I hate to admit it, every time my avatar flies through the air, I start grinning.

Additional Resources

Look! Up in the sky!
  • Junot Diaz is the author of Drown, and would probably be mortified to know that I talked about him reading comics and playing D&D with a bunch of whiteboys.

  • Nexus was created by author Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude

  • You can learn more about City of Heroes at the web site

  • The new name of fear: Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood

Posted by peterb at May 28, 2004 06:30 PM | Bookmark This

Love the Grandma Death character.

If I was going to play a Mike Baron character, I'd play the Badger -- fun, unpredictable, and you get to speak in funny accents.

I miss the Badger.

Posted by Christina at May 28, 2004 08:30 PM

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