When I was 11 or 12, at the variety store near my Grandma’s house, I made a life-changing purchase. It was probably Christmas and I was probably killing time until I had to go back to a room full of adults. When I did return to the festive nest, I went home with the New Mutants.
The New Mutants, my introduction to superhero comics, were the teenaged superteam taught by Professor X. The X-Men were more powerful and had more exciting missions, sure, but I identified more with the younger, more awkward characters and the lower key, more plausible storylines. Plus the title had just started — I was able to collect the dozen or so earlier issues of the New Mutants when the X-Men were already in the triple digits. But I wasn’t really hooked by either power fantasies or collector fever; it was the social dynamics. As I delivered papers, I imagined what it would be like if I were a new student at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Would my sudden appearance irk the hothead Brazilian, Sunspot? Would I be taken under Cannonball’s big-brother wing? Could I turn Magick from the dark side, or at least long enough to get a smooch?
Which goes a long way to explaining why I felt at home in City of Heroes (NCSoft, 2004).
This massively multiplayer online role-playing game is one of the most sociable I’ve seen. When you customize your avatar’s appearance, powers and name, it has the feel of dressing for a party — you can choose to dress appropriately and give people a sense of your real-world life (The Acerbic Accountant!) or dress daringly to bring out your inner self (Leering Lass!). Naturally, the clothing options are skewed towards the crimebusting — i.e. there’re no Buddy Holly glasses and there are several styles of medieval helmets — but the colour palette is infinite. (Well, nearly. Marvel launched a lawsuit against the game, since dismissed, saying that it’s set up to mimic their intellectual property. So if you give yourself a huge body, green skin, purple shorts and call yourself the Incredible Bulk, you will find your name mysteriously changes to something less libelous. Lame and intrusive behaviour on the parts of both plaintiff and defendant.)
When you do decide what kind of hero you want to be today, you make your debut in Paragon City, a retro-futurist-styled environment packed to the gills with your fellow heroes. It’s fun just people-watching in the public square. You can check out the outlandish costumes, the hero names and watch their antics. Unlike a party, if you get bored you can go get a mission from City Hall — your first one acts as a tutorial, gets you to kick some thug ass in the bad part of town. This starts you on your way levelling up and collecting medals and earning “inspirations,” “enhancements” and “influence.”
I was lucky enough to have a higher-level tour guide to show me some of the highlights of Paragon City, Cold Bob. Cold Bob has a number of chilly powers. He’s normally clad in blue but when he’s flying with his superteam, the Northern Rangers, he wears the team colours of red with a white snowflake on his chest — the Rangers are a Canadian superteam that’s “mostly social.” He recently was able to level up to the point where he can fly because the Winter King had been threatening the city, which offered a series of missions and scenarios throughout the winter. Cold Bob was excited about this kind of realtime gameplay, which allowed the designers to react to the players and innovate on the fly as a complement to conventional pre-programmed gameplay. He also told me the story of how when Christopher Reeve died, a group of heroes got together and saluted in memoriam.
Cold Bob also showed me some dance moves, as one of the things you can do is throw down a boom box and play music. Impromptu dance party! Someone else liked the rave music Cold Bob was playing and danced for a bit, and we chatted via word bubbles that appeared above our heads.
I was impressed with the range of body language and variety of social gestures Cold Bob showed me. Most games with a mission component have very little of the social component, and vice versa — online worlds like there.com focus on social interactions but it’s easy to lose interest if you’re used to goal-based games. To go back to the party analogy, there’s a reason people play games to break the ice: it’s more comfortable for a lot of people to have something to do other than stand around with a drink in their hand.
City of Heroes strikes a great balance between the social component and mission-based gameplay. Where I felt this most strongly was when I was recruited by Goddess Within to back her up against some Clockwork robots in a warehouse. Many of the challenges you face are very difficult to face alone, which encourages collaboration. We were running across town together and chatting occasionally, and I thought, “This is just like hanging out with the New Mutants.”