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City of Heroes

Entry updated 4 April 2022. Tagged: Game.

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Videogame (2004). Cryptic Studios (CS). Platforms: Win (2004); Mac (2009).

City of Heroes was a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, set in a "four colour" Superhero world similar to that of classic Comic books from DC Comics and Marvel Comics, where virtuous Heroes were forever rescuing helpless citizens from the machinations of evil masterminds. The game design concentrated on the superpowered battles and archetypal paragons of its source materials rather than on their melodramatic depictions of personal relationships; City of Heroes characters did not use "secret identities" to hide their superhuman natures. Instead, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the player's ability to create the Superhero of their dreams, selecting from a wide range of possible Superpowers and visual designs. The setting was the eponymous Paragon City, where computer-controlled supervillains and street thugs lurked around almost every corner. The gameplay was more action-oriented than that of most MMORPGs; characters typically joined a temporary or permanent superteam and either patrolled the streets to fight crime or went on predesigned missions against groups of supervillains.

The game was also unusual amongst MMORPGs for the extent to which the participants' experience depended on content provided by the game designers rather than on their interactions with each other. Paragon City was well crafted, featuring a complex backstory and a wide range of original supervillains, from telekinetically controlled clockwork Robots to a group of female carnival performers who used mind control on their unsuspecting audiences. Players could gradually uncover the true natures of their enemies and the connections between them as they proceeded through the game's missions, growing progressively stronger as their powers improved. Eventually characters would reach a level of expertise where only the most challenging enemies were worth confronting; at this point they might find themselves fighting off Alien invasions, or travelling to alternate versions of Paragon City, where friends and enemies were strangely changed. All of these tasks were completed separately by different groups; while individual players might triumph over all enemies in their own experience of the world, Paragon City itself existed in the eternal present characteristic of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, where nothing could ever really change. Notably, the consequences of players' actions were primarily social rather than physical; computer-controlled citizens might be overheard discussing a character's failure to prevent the destruction of an important landmark, but the building itself would still be present, since the game's physical reality would be shared by both players who failed to save the building and those who succeeded. Ultimately, the game offered an entertaining and richly realized portrayal of the four colour Comics' universe of eternal struggle, though players who had seen the whole of its world might not wish to remain.

City of Villains (2005 CS, Win; 2009 Mac) was a companion game, playable either separately or in combination with City of Heroes. It inverted the premise of the original work by making characters into supervillains; players began by breaking out of the Paragon City prison and escaping to the Rogue Isles, a legally independent Archipelago owned by a prominent evil mastermind. The Rogue Isles implemented an extreme form of Social Darwinism; their rulers encouraged a never ending war between the inhabitants in the expectation that the most powerful would eventually become their allies. As in the underlying comics, the assumption was that supervillains are proactive, plotting their own paths to ultimate power, while the heroes of the preceding game were essentially reactive, acting only to suppress threats to the status quo. The game's visual design was suitably menacing, full of titanic, brooding architecture and decayed slums, in stark contrast to Paragon City's general atmosphere of futuristic perfection. City of Villains added several new gameplay features, notably the ability to construct permanent bases for a group and the option for players to fight other players in special arenas, an activity banned altogether in the first game. As in such earlier games as the Star Wars license TIE Fighter (1994) (see Star Wars: X-Wing), however, players were not encouraged to be genuinely evil; most of their time was spent fighting other criminals.

Both of these games were generally light-hearted, informed by a joyful enthusiasm for the simple stories which inspired them. City of Heroes in particular was notable for its combination of environmental narrative elements (see Interactive Narrative) with stories structured around individual characters, guiding players through their own personal versions of the hero's journey. Ultimately, however, this could not save it from obsolescence, perhaps because the natural destination for those who had completed their journeys was a different game. In late 2012, after the number of players had dropped below the level at which the games were profitable to run, the servers for both City of Heroes and City of Villains were shut down, bringing Paragon City's eternal present to an abrupt conclusion.

Related works: City of Heroes: Going Rogue (2010 Paragon Studios, Mac, Win) was an expansion for both City of Heroes and City of Villains which made available a new Alternate History setting for the games. More intriguingly, perhaps, it also allowed players to create characters of uncertain morality, who could ultimately become either truly good or utterly evil. City of Heroes Collectible Card Game (2005 Alderac Entertainment Group) designed by David Williams is a Collectible Card Game based on combat between Superheroes in a duelling arena, featuring a web-based system which enables players to create new cards for their own hero designs. City of Heroes (2004-2007) is a Comic book series set in the Paragon City continuity; writers include Mark Waid, Dan Jurgens and Rick Dakan, one of the designers of the original game. The Web of Arachnos (2005) by Robert Weinberg and The Freedom Phalanx (2006) by Robin D Laws are novels, focusing on the histories of major characters in the setting. [NT]


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