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To be honest, I’m not all that great of a video game player. I grew up on Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac Man. By the time Mario Brothers entered the scene, I had just about left. Nowadays I find myself more intrigued by the idea of watching other people play video games than playing them myself. There are YouTube video “walkthroughs” where one can experience a game without having to figure out how to play it, provided you don’t mind the fact you’ll be shouting at the screen every time whoever IS playing does something you wouldn’t have done. That’s part of the fun for me though.

You may scoff, but I equate this to when other people watch baseball or football and shout at the referee or get upset at the coach. I’m not a fan of sports that involve actual brutality and possible broken bones, but I’ll watch someone tear through Far Cry 3 killing anything that moves and taking cars without permission. It’s like having a limo driver, and watching the scenery go by in the safety of the back seat.

There’s one exception to this though, at least currently, and for the past several years. I have one weakness in the multiple genres of online gaming that causes me to take the wheel and drive myself around. I’m a sucker for the superhero genre. Again, it stems from my childhood of DC and Marvel comics. The idea of creating my own super hero and flying around committing feats of daring do while saving the world a half dozen times before lunch.. it’s a passion.

I started with City of Heroes soon after it came out. Played several characters to maximum level with was fifty in that game. Then I moved on to Champions Online for awhile. Currently I’m playing DC Universe Online. I was thinking about playing Marvel’s latest effort whenever it becomes available to the public but the latest info about that makes it sound like Diablo Lite (and no personal character generation). So maybe I won’t make that jump. In general what these games offer was a chance to create your own super hero and follow his or her exploits from its origins to when it achieves its fullest potential as one of many saviors of humanity and perhaps even a few other worlds or universes or whatever. You face a wide range of enemies from simple purse snatchers and street gangs to mastermind criminals and arch villains. The idea is to experience virtually what the comic books of the mid twentieth century depicted, only in real time virtual animation with other real people across the country and around the world.

These games are NOT by any stretch of the imagination the ‘best’ by any standards others would place upon them. They are not difficult or challenging games to most people. They are to me but that’s cuz I suck at these games in general. My favorite games are not perhaps popular compared to the mainstream successes. I notice that while few critics of video games have anything particularly nasty to say about my favorite games, they also don’t dwell much on them either. The HALO franchise gets much love. Half-Life and Portal have a large fan base and many Youtube videos which dissect their every nuance and character development. The ones I actually play have had their share of attention, but let’s just say the boys at Rooster Teeth never use my favorite games for machinima. While there are YouTube videos about my games, they lack the polish and draw of those made for, well, pretty much any other game genres out there.

That’s not what bothers me about my favorite video games however. I mean I’ve often marched to the beat of my own drum. If others happen to march along with me it was more coincidence than me hopping on any band wagons. What I’m beginning to notice, after several years of playing in the super hero genre of massive online multiplayer role playing games, is that perhaps it’s never what was advertised on the tin. The games are not really about ordinary people with extraordinary powers saving the day. It’s a kind of paradox. The game grants you the illusion in the short term that what you’re doing is making a difference.

I’m speaking of the overall story arcs for City of Heroes, Champions Online, and DC Universe Online. Let’s explore each one in turn. While there are many similarities between them, each world created for the player had its own unique differences. The intention was to create a world the player would recognize as similar to the one we live in every day, but the difference is that costumed vigilantes are not only possible but commonplace. At least on the outset, the story starts on Earth in present day.

City of Heroes had some challenges with that though, because just over a decade ago the animation and other software capabilities weren’t quite where they needed to be to make fully immersive worlds. The city areas of this game had edges that were rather well laid out. They were surrounded by what was called War Walls. This did distract from the illusion that the game was similar to the real world.

The story of City of Heroes was roughly like this: About a century ago there were two guys looking for a fountain of youth. They found it, but it turned out to be more than they bargained for. One of these two men became Statesman, a cross between Captain America and Superman. The other person became his arch nemesis, Lord Recluse.

Statesman began fighting crime somewhere around the time of World War One, through the Great Depression, and Statesman founded the first super hero group called The Freedom Phalanx. The game had its own complicated history that mirrored real life but added legislation about how the governments of the world reacted to a growing number of super heroes over the decades. This culminated in the recent past to an invasion of aliens called The Rikti. The invasion centralized in an area called Paragon City and in order to prevent their teleportation technology to allow full invasion of Earth, super heroes of that time channeled their full resources on that city to thwart the Rikti, with a small group finding a way to traverse the transporter and infiltrate the Rikti on their homeworld. What actually happened that day became part of the ongoing storyline the player uncovered while playing the game, from learning about The Surviving Eight heroes that didn’t die during the Rikti War, to learning of the fates of those who disappeared into the transporter presumably never to be seen again.

It’s a fascinating story, and there’s several other equally intriguing back stories I won’t bore you with, but perhaps the problem with City of Heroes, with twenty twenty hindsight, is that the most exciting stuff seems to have already happened. The game takes place inside a Paragon City that is surrounded by War Walls and there’s high security and many villain groups have remained to take advantage of the chaos that the Rikti left behind. Essentially my player character’s job was to pick up the pieces of a war torn pillaged carcass of a city. The great battle had already happened, and we who played that came were late. We missed the really big fight. Now, there was plenty of fighting to be had, and every new opportunity promised to be just as exciting as what had come before, but for all the effort a player’s character made to make a difference, you didn’t really change anything.

At level 50 I could go back and visit areas I had fought in before and those same baddies were still there. The ones I had presumably sent to jail or taught them a lesson in doing the right thing or whatever, they were still there waiting to be taken out by the new heroes created by other players. There never really was a sense that one’s efforts really made a significant difference. The game designers were dancing as fast as they can, but the illusion was easy to see through. Though one seemed to have freedom of movement, if you went in the wrong direction or explored the wrong place, you were quickly dispatched by baddies far superior to you, so a player quickly learned to stay close to safe areas until you got your character stronger through more experience and better powers and (later) gear. The game was really kinda linear. You gain a level and okay now you can access this area that was previously closed off to you cuz you were too weak but now maybe you can handle it. Of course you’re gonna go explore that place next cuz you been chomping at the bit to get in there. And so on. There was an illusion of freedom, but your path had already been laid out for you.

Champions Online worked much the same way. Non player characters offer you missions and tell you go to places your character can handle. if you explored carelessly you’d wind up unconscious and the game would respawn you back in as safe zone. It didn’t take long for me to get the lay of the land. Champions Online also has its own complicated back story, but sadly it doesn’t take much dissection to see similarities. Before your character got his super powers, there were costumed vigilantes that banded together into groups and fought to save the world and thwart evil. You get to meet several of them. Very recently there was an invasion of a major alien threat and the game starts with you being called to help out as a new recruit hero just recently into your powers. Whereas in City of Heroes you miss the big battle, in Champions Online, the alien war turns out to be your character’s origin, but this kinda means every player’s origin is almost the same. You follow this character’s progress from that war through to a cityscape of street gangs, mutant cults, evil robots, and actual demons, while having access to government contacts that provide transportation to places like Canada, Arizona, an undersea kingdom and even Monster Island. It’s fun! Don’t get me wrong, but again the game designers are painting a magic trick, where you feel like you have free reign to do whatever you like, but really the path is rather linear and dependent on what experience your character has before it can venture further into new territory or try something new. And again as a maxed out character if i went back to familiar roots and explored areas I had previously allegedly rehabilitated and saved, they were just the way they had always been, awaiting the heroes of tomorrow to run the same gauntlet. Nothing I did really mattered. That’s just as well. It’s just a game.

Then there’s DC Universe Online. The back story here is easier for me cuz it included a lot of what I’d read when I was a child. I know many of these characters from the comics, but a lot of stuff has happened to them since I stopped reading comics so i had to ramp up a little there. Really though, one doesn’t have to have ever opened a comic to join in the action. The important stuff is explained along the way. So in a nutshell what’s the backstory?

Difficult to explain. Before you come along there were super heroes as far back as World War One and Two fighting for truth justice and whatever. This time the alien threat isn’t a race of beings exactly. Rather, it’s one guy: Brainiac. This dude seeks to bottle Earth and capture it for posterity. He goes around the universe collecting everything he can to preserve it for reasons that only seem to make sense to him. Your character arrives during his invasion, you help thwart Brainiac and then you run through several other adventures as your character gets stronger and tries to make sense of what Brainiac’s arrival means to the future of the human race and all of the universe in this space time plane of existence.

In many ways it’s just like City of Heroes and Champions Online. You create a character that’s like others that have come before it but also uniquely your own. You have free reign of the game world, but venture to far the wrong way and you’ll find yourself back to a safe zone. Once bitten twice shy. As your character gains experience and learns more about what’s happening you get access to new and more dangerous vistas and venues.

DCUO throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the works for their back story. This isn’t exactly THE DC universe of the comic books. Much of it is the same. All the major players are here including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Power Girl and Supergirl, The Flash, pretty much every Green Lantern ever, and all the other colors of the rainbow too.. However, there are some subtle differences. Batman got his back broken by Bane like in the comics, but Darkseid is nowhere to be found and there’s no discussion of Batman ever having actually died. Curioiusly, Superman HAS died and the statue commemorating that fact is still standing even though he’s alive and well. The character STEEL came into existence during Superman’s absence, but Connor Kent the modern day Superboy is hardly ever mentioned. Little things like that.

Then after you hit level 30, you get access to Central City which is home to The Flash and some curious things begin to be discovered. This DC Universe is actually a paradoxical universe, that starts to put together pieces of a puzzle that had been left fragmented since the game began.

DCUO game starts with a cut scene that shows a future in another DC universe where most of the heroes and villains have died in a great battle, and there’s only a few left who manage to mostly kill each other. Lex Luthor manages to kill Superman just as Brainiac returns to gather up Earth and bottle the remains. Lex Luthor explains he manages to survive like a rat in the maze of one of Brainiac’s ships, and he uncovers something called exobytes. These little nanomachines contain the DNA of every hero and villain of this alternate Earth. Lex steals these exobytes and goes back in time to fill the Earth’s atmosphere with the stolen powers of another Earth’s future.

So your character is essentially powered by stolen DNA. Lex indicates he’s doing this in order to rewrite history, but this creates a paradox, and in Central City at level 30 you begin to realize what paradox reapers are and how they’re affecting and infecting the whole Earth and presumably the universe. The upshot of all this is that DCUO starts at the beginning of a temporal paradox, that essentially instigates a pocket universe. The universe you fight to preserve is actually unstable and can’t survive. it will inevitably fall prey to paradox reapers and other forces.

The ‘real’ universe existed prior to Lex Luthor’s messing with the timeline. It’s entirely possible that the opening scene of the game depicting the end of all the ‘official’ super heroes and villains in DC’s roster might very well be where the game universe is inevitably going, regardless of what your character does or doesn’t do inside it.

I mean. Okay. “just think to yourself it’s just a show you should really just relax” are sage words of advice from Mystery Science Theater Three Thousand. it’s just a game. Doesn’t matter that you create a character and play the adventures only to find ultimately that everything it does is futile. It’s not possible to save a snake that has swallowed its own tail.

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end for the super hero genre in MMORPGs. City of Heroes has already fallen. Champions may not be far behind. DCUO has already resorted to giving each player their own lair, which compared to the previous incarnations is not a good sign of longevity. It may only have a few years left in it before it too loses its following and in turn any revenue it might be making. If this genre is going to revitalize itself, the game designers of its future will have to do more than reinvent the magic trick. I don’t know what the answer is but if the next one i try is just more of the same, i may have to find something else entirely to waste my life playing.