Monday, November 03, 2008

Storytelling Engines: City of Heroes

(or "Echo Chambers Need To Be Empty")

Occasionally, I feel the need to open these columns up by reminding people of what a storytelling engine is, and the reasoning behind it. Not because I think that my readers have poor memories or don't know how to go through my archived columns, but just because there are times when I want to look at a very specific angle regarding storytelling engines, and it's useful to have the definition fresh. So I'll say it again, really quick: A "storytelling engine" is the set of those elements in an open-ended series (including but not limited to protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, setting, and central concept) that help the writer(s) generate stories.

That last part is very important to a massively-multiplayer online video game like "City of Heroes", because there's a pretty strong demand for stories. Players of MMOs put years of their time into playing the game, and they're always looking for "content", storylines for their characters to follow that makes progression through the game more than simply "defeat the next bad guy and move on." (In City of Heroes, you don't "kill" bad guys, you "defeat" them. With your battle-axe, flame sword, katana, venomous spines...)

As a result, the developers of the game have designed a world that is filled with storytelling engine elements. There's an open-ended history to the game with loads of heroes and villains, from the mad scientists of the Vahzilok to the tyrants of Praetorian Earth, tons of evil schemes and mayhem always in progress for you to stop, and generally loads of things to see and do at any given moment. Why, there's a virtually endless amount of storytelling elements for writers!

So why have the tie-ins been such miserable failures commercially, despite the presence of talented writers like Mark Waid and Robin D Laws? (I should not have to explain to anyone why I idolize Robin D Laws. The man is a genius.)

The answer comes from the difference between video games and conventional narratives, and also serves to explain why video game movies, as a rule, suck rocks. The storytelling engine of a video game series always has one crucial and key difference from the storytelling engine of a book, movie, TV show, ballet, et cetera ad nauseum, and that comes from the protagonist. The protagonist of a conventional story drives that story with their decisions, their personality, their virtues and flaws and singular character. A good protagonist in a conventional narrative is always unique, doing things nobody else would do in that situation whether for good or ill.

Whereas in a video game, the protagonist is you. No other medium has this advantage, and no other medium can use it to make a story so totally immersive. In City of Heroes, you are the main character. You make those decisions, and you create the narrative around you. Simple things like getting into a fight with a couple of thugs with guns become thrilling, because you identify completely with your character to the point of feeling real fear when your health bar is in the red. A protagonist that's too defined and rigid actually works against the video game's strengths (who doesn't get tired of too many cut scenes in a video game? Those are the scenes that ostensibly tell the story, but we'd rather be the character than watch them.)

So when City of Heroes tries to translate itself into a conventional narrative, it runs headlong into this problem. The novels and the second series of comics tries to turn the Freedom Phalanx (the CoH equivalent of the Avengers or the Justice League) into a well-defined team of super-heroes, complete with personality conflicts and interpersonal struggles, but the audience that comes from the video game wants those people to be ciphers that they can project their own ideas and personalities into. Not to mention, in City of Heroes, those characters are supporting characters, not protagonists. They're mentors to the real heroes--the players. This is the ultimate difficulty for a City of Heroes comic/novel/TV show/ballet...for it to be really true to the video game, it'd need to be about you. And that's kind of tricky to pull off. (The first City of Heroes comic tried, by showing the adventures of a trio of street-level heroes. While it wasn't without its charms, it still couldn't manage to be "about you", by definition.)

Interestingly enough, it looks like we're soon to see the reverse problem: DC Comics will be launching an online game soon, where you can create your own hero and have them team up with Batman, Superman, et al, to fight the Joker, Lex Luthor, and the endless hordes of DC villains. Which sounds good as far as it goes, but it might find a translation problem the other direction: Who would want to just hang out with Batman, when they could immerse themselves in the world even more fully by being Batman?


Matt said...

It's interesting you'd take that tack - I've always thought the most (only) worthwhile writing anyone can do using videogame canon is by studiously avoiding the player-character protagonists, since it's either impossible to write, or comes out mortifyingly trite and superficial. (Believe me, I've witnessed these car crashes, in both official and fan creations.)

I couldn't say how this applies to MMOs, though, which don't even have the luxury of a player-independent world, and where many people might simultaneously, or repeatedly, experience the same story tokens. I still suspect, though, that the same would apply - the closer you get to trying to replicate the player's experience, the dumber the story gets. It's just not what stories are for, as you say, they're doing something different. (I'll put forward the cringe-worthy moments when videogame movie adaptations try to directly crib videogame perspectives, up to and including the legendarily horrible FPS-cam in Doom.)

Jason said...

I seem to recall an article in an issue of Dragon magazine from more than a decade ago. Steven Brust was talking about how his Taltos and other Dragaeran novels were inspired by a Dungeons and Dragons campaign he was in, and he specifically discussed how you couldn't simply lift the events of the campaign to write a story, because of the difference in focus between the medium of "interactive fiction" (if you will) and a traditional novel. Very similar tack.

I think, when it comes to these sorts of spin-offs and adaptations, you have to approach things very differently. You can't just replicate the events of a game with player-protagonists - their story isn't designed for it, it's an entirely different experience.

What you might do, though, is take characters from the background of the game, and tell a story around game events. It's easiest with very linear games (where there is a straight path to the "win", and the player has fewer real options), but I would think it's possible to build a story that complements game events, such that non-players get a complete piece of fiction, and players can feel they were a driving force in the events onscreen.

By avoiding explicit coverage of game events, you can, for example, arrange an onscreen scene where Dr. Malevolos curses his well-laid plans being foiled by the ragtag band of do-gooders at the warehouse - and players subconsciously insert their own triumph over Dr. Malevolos in the game scenario as a connecting scene off-screen.

Servo said...

The City of Heroes world is interesting and appealing, but I think another reason for that success that is overlooked is the nature of it's construction. You mentioned the "individual-centric" nature of the format, and how that affects the ability to tell a story about someone else.

But I think it also comes down that the open and broad nature of the City of Heroes mythos allows for multiple interpretations for storytelling. This makes the one "true" story such a problem when written or drawn as an offical manuscript.

Just saying that people want it to be about their characters isn't the only reason. It's about how they see this game world.

For example, Waid's interpretation of Statesman - COH's essential heroic "leader" - was to paint him as something of noble but pompous, narrow-minded leader. But I think many a reader and player will tell that doesn't ring true with how they would see him in their experience. Otherwise, one some level, how would you motivate yourself for a quest to "help" Statesmen if he was such a jerk?

If there's a somewhat viable parallel story to the City of Heroes storytelling, I would probably say it's Kurt Busiek's Astro City.

To commonatlity is the fact that both are as much about a place as the heroes who live in it. Busiek has imbued Astro City with a history and personality that I think many readers find just as appealing as the people. Why does this or that exist is very much a part of the stories. Similarly, exploring and learning about Paragon City - it's people and places - that makes it appealing to go back again. Players often make mutiple characters just to explore parts of the world or stories they may have overlooked the first time around.

The difference, of course, is that Busiek is telling the story of his "creation" - no matter how much it appeals to us, we are just the reader. But because Paragon City, as you mentioned, is designed for personal experience, it's story becomes more directly related to how each person wants to look at it.

I realize I'm probably just slightly restating the same side of the viewpoint. In any case, I do hope that they eventually find some success outside just their game. There's some creative stuff that's been done with it.

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Ununnilium said...

Reading through archives, and I gotta note, Robin D. Laws' version of the Freedom Phalanx really worked for me.