Friday, August 31, 2012

Eulogy for a "Game"

     Nothing seemed amiss as I booted up and logged into my City of Heroes account this afternoon. I wasn’t planning on spending too much time in Paragon City, just enough to create a new costume for one of my characters. With neither warning nor reason, everything changed when I read the chatter on my favorite chat channel: City of Heroes is being shut down.
     For those of you who know me well it should come as no shock that this news is devastating for me. It hit me like the announcement that a family has been given two months to live. For me, this game has been more than what those four letters typically represent. I can still remember installing it on my 18th birthday and the feeling of overwhelming awe infused as the “Atlas Park Fanfare” played in the background. My first steps into Paragon City introduced me to a new world, and not simply the virtual world crafted within the game. These steps were taken at one of the lowest points in my life; a point when I rarely got out of bed in the mornings and skipped school more often than not. I’m not going to make the obvious parallel. I’m not going to say that this game allowed me to be a super hero when I was weak, because that isn’t what was important. What was important were the people I met, the community I became a part of, and the sense of power I felt when helping others learn how to play.
     It’s been 8 years since that first step, and while I may not have all the answers for a new player, and I’m certainly not one of the most well known personalities on my server, over the last 8 years, NONE of those feelings have faded from the first step to the millionth. To be able to create feelings like those is truly something exceptional; something no other game has been able to recreate. But this game has done even more for me. After playing for about a year, I finally took a step behind the scenes of the game and onto the game’s forums. I was amazed to find yet another world, wholly unique and separate from City of Heroes itself. I was able to bear witness to what is surely the most impressive and dynamic developer/player relationship in all of gaming. I saw how closely the player’s ideas, complaints, and concerns were listened to and addressed. This relationship illustrated everything I desired in a fulfilling job and pushed me to work towards a job in the video game field.
     So to learn that this game and its developers are being let go with no forewarning… it breaks my heart. Because City of Heroes has been more than any simple “game” could hope to be. No, I can honestly say that when it closes its doors, I will not be losing a game, but rather a friend and a mentor. My heartfelt thanks go out to all the developers and players that have made these last eight years so memorable. I hope you all are taking away at least a fraction of what City of Heroes has given to me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Death of an Icon

Cityof Heroes. These three words have been at the source of more of my time spent gaming than all the Mario, Elder Scroll, and Modern Warfare games. Combined. Like any committed relationship, City and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, and I’ve had to take my share of breaks, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I always came back. After my latest recess from Paragon City, the world in which City of Heroes takes place, I was pleasantly surprised that the developers would soon be adding episodic content delivered on a monthly basis, much like a comic book series. But what really sent shivers of awe and anticipation down my spine was the title for the first arc, “Who will die?” with a picture of some of the signature character’s gear shattered.

A month ago, Paragon Studios, the developers behind City of Heroes answered that question, and to many people’s shock, it was the game’s most iconic hero, Statesman. For those unfamiliar with the game, Statesman is a kind of Superman analogue: invulnerable, immortal, and immeasurably powerful. AKA, the lamest kind of super hero. (For those that don’t know my opinions on Superman, allow me to enlighten you: once you have the power to have all powers, you are no longer relatable, and therefore uninteresting to me.) But I digress. Statesman was also the in-game personality of the original lead developer, Jack Emmert, who instigated a lot of bad blood with the player base (some have gone as far as claiming that he was intentionally trying to cause City of Heroes to fail) and then left City of Heroes to work on other projects. To top all of that off, Statesman is also the major marketing icon for the City of franchise, appearing on box art, load screens, and the website’s banner. And for those out there who are saying, “Yeah, but he’s still going to be in game,” or “Super heroes never really die, so it doesn’t mean anything in the long wrong,” Paragon Studios has already stated that he is going to be completely removed from Paragon City. No longer will he appear in missions, or the in game world.

Needless to say, killing him off was going to require delicate hands.

A month later, the arc in which Statesman actually died was released, and after playing through it, I was left stunned. Pulling resources from the City of Heroes comic books and novels, Paragon Studios delivered what, in my opinion, is one of the most brutal, heartfelt, and emotional deaths I have ever experienced in gaming. As your character approaches the final conflict between Statesman and his soon to be killer, a cut-scene interrupts your progress, and after the typical super powered banter, the perspective is shifted to Statesman’s internal monologue as he dies. A scene is taken straight from one of the novels, when Statesman's granddaughter asks, "Grandpa, can you fly to Heaven," and he responds that only the dead can go to Heaven. His granddaughter then asks, "Then how will you be able to see grandma, and mommy, and me when we go to Heaven if you can't die." Statesman imagines his best friend turned arch nemesis, and hopes that he can still be saved, saying, "I want to hate you, but even now at the end, I can't." Lastly, Statesman's long dead wife tells him that it's time to let go; that everyone is waiting for him and that the world never rested on the shoulders of one man. With this, Statesman is able to unburden himself and finally achieve peace.

What could have simply been a cut and dry death scene, turns into the characterization of an icon, and a tribute to the work he has done both in the game’s universe and our own. Just as the inhabitants of Paragon City no longer need to rely solely upon Statesman’s protection, as the player’s are finally capable of taking up that mantel, neither does Paragon Studios need to rely upon him for guidance or inspiration (even if they haven’t in years).

But perhaps most profoundly of all, at least for me, was that I cared. Even though I’d known for weeks what was coming, never liked him to begin with, and logged on specifically to play through this arc, it was still emotional and powerful. And that is evidence of video games as an art form on par with cinema and literature.

Well done Paragon Studios, and here’s to what comes next.

Stefan Oshinski, The Game Shrink