So I signed up for the City of Heroes Beta (with all of about 48 hours left to go in it) and ran through the tutorial missions this morning.
Avatar creation, as I’d heard, is the killer part. I had a lot of fun with this and have already thought of a few new avatars. The creation process, though, really illuminated the expectations I now bring to superheroes after years of reading Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan and Alan Moore. I really, emotionally missed “meta-awareness of fictionality and form” powers, either coupled to comics (why can’t my weapon be a big rubber eraser?) or games (where are my “lag death” and “afk stasis” attacks?). Superheroes are about shooting energy bolts out of your hands, yes, but they’ve also been about riffing on their own genre conventions for years (since the late ’50’s, I argue in the diss). In the light of that, the character options felt depressingly straightforward. I made my customizations as offbeat as possible, but worried that this game would feel like the Golden Age, and not in a good way.
I needn’t have worried… as soon as I got in-game, I saw “Metrosexual Guy” and a pastiche of Duke Nukem and a wide range of characters far wierder and more tongue-in-cheek than mine. And it cemented this in my mind: persistent world gaming is always about meta-awareness. The essence of gameplay is understanding, working within, and manipulating rule systems, and, in a superhero persistent world, the awareness of one set of rules (game dynamics) can be supplemented by an awareness of a second (genre conventions).
There’s a nice affinity between the meta-generic play of superhero comics and the ever-present oscillation between gameplay, fiction, and real-life human presence within persistent world games… both forms are completely imbued with a self-awareness of their own artificiality yet exist because of a social contract to engage gameplay and/or fiction within the system.
My new avatars are: Picture, C.H.O.D.O.K. and Hulk Sad.