A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The story of City of Heroes that wasn't

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|11.07.12

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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: The story of City of Heroes that wasn't
The stories that could have been, as well.
I started playing City of Heroes for one reason and one reason alone: I love superheroes. Yes, the game entranced me afterward, and there were a lot of things to like aside from the superhero aspect, but I came first and foremost expecting a game of superheroes. And while I've occasionally taken issue with the way the game tries to model superheroes, that doesn't extend to the game's lore in the slightest.

Lore is an important part of what makes superheroes work, after all. That sense of a bigger world, that sequence of big events that rewrite the world as a whole every so often, the cadence of enemies rising and falling. There's a certain feel to superhero universes, one that City of Heroes had to replicate without shamelessly copying another world -- and the team at Paragon Studios succeeded in doing just that.

Unfortunately, we're never going to see all of the revelations in the game that could have stretched on for many more years, but the recent lore AMA answered a lot of lingering questions about the game's universe and backstory. So as we enter our final month, yeah, I'd like to look at that.

Not an alternate Doctor Manhattan.  Sadly.Deaths stick

Show of hands, people -- who assumed that when two members of the Freedom Phalanx died, there were already plans to bring them back?

The fact that those characters weren't being brought back just underscores one of the rules that make CoH a distinct universe from the other major comic environments. Dead is dead there, and the people behind the stories were not afraid to hit people with some major death. While the idea of most of the Kheldians winding up as food for the Battalion may have just been tongue-in-cheek, it's something plausible, and it would have long-term ramifications... and that would have been really cool.

Writing serious deaths is something that could work only with a game at this age. You have to get a feel for the characters and environment and have a stable base that you then start changing forever. Unless you're doing something really out there like early Alpha Flight, stability needs to take root for a while. I've lamented before that CoH was finally hitting the point at which it could really do some insane and ambitious stories just as was canned, and these reveals just reminded me of how far the lore team could take everything.

More lore movement

Between the advent of Praetoria and the introduction of signature arcs, Paragon Studios found it had an avenue for something that had never been as easy before. The designers didn't have to just keep the lore characters as set dressing; they could make the lore characters dynamic people to understand and work alongside, the supporting cast to your own superhero saga. The "amazing friends" part alongside Spider-man. You get the idea.

Throwing Scirocco to the side of the heroes makes perfect sense fo the character, but it's also something that is easy to look at as impossible in any other game. Someone else has to fill the same role as Scirocco because of his game significance, right? But with CoH's flashbacks, the game had an environment where these things could change, and the new sort of content being pushed by the studio meant that things would change.

All of this holds true for some of the other crazy ideas in the document -- Rikti allies, Prometheus as a boss, Rularuu as a weapon, and so forth. The tools were there, and I think that the next year could have been absolutely unbelievable for the game's lore if it had the chance.

We will never find out what this person's deal is.The feel of plotting

One element that a lot of superhero books have is a lot of open-ended hooks that can be tied to almost anything. Most writers know that they're not going to be with their books forever, so you get hints about secrets that could be one of two things until someone finally wraps it up. (Or until the entire thing gets dropped without further discussion. I'm still bitter that we don't know who was behind Facade in Spider-man, for instance, and most of those stories were boring.)

Some elements from the AMA were obviously puzzles that had concrete answers. Yes, Mender Silos is Nemesis; that much is a given. But the people in charge freely admit that the end of his lore arc wasn't written out, that he could easily have gone either way. Maybe he's reformed from his previous ways and seeks to make amends, albeit in the most long-reaching way possible. Or maybe he's just as twisted as ever and is just playing a different sort of long game now due to diminished resources and changed stakes.

Both are possible. Both fit perfectly well within the established lore. But neither one had to happen, and it could easily go either way depending on what the designers finally decided to hook in with the story. That ambiguity is something I appreciate.

Older games are hard to work on

I think we all have a misconception of how easy something is to do compared to how much the efforts show to the players. The AMA was mostly about lore, yes, but there were questions about revamping zones, bringing things up to speed... stuff that gives a small hint at what a mess the game's code must have been.

Seriously. A stew of art assets and code that had been layered over time and again, leaving the design team desperately struggling to get the whole thing into some semblance of cohesiveness. The only difference between that and the continuity of the Marvel universe is that continuity is slightly easier to retcon.

As always, feedback is welcome down below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. I've got three more columns before the shutdown, and while I have hard plans for two of them, if you've got a request, I'd love to hear it. (I can't promise I'll acquiesce.) Next week, I'm going to do my best to explain why so many people are so passionate about the game, both for those who don't understand and those who do.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.
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