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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Grim and gritty vs. light and funny

Eliot Lefebvre

A few weeks back, I saw a comment from a reader mentioning that the biggest problem with Champions Online was that it felt goofy. And that's true to a point. Certainly it never gets to the extremes of the Silver Age, but there's a definite feel of larger-than-life heroes battling it out without too much concern for plausibility. I'd peg it at late '70s to early '80s in terms of corresponding comic book eras.

For some people, this is a problem. And it's one that's worth discussing because each of the major titles has approached its overall theme slightly differently. But all of them have hit what I feel is a very important note insofar as all of them are unabashedly games about superheroes.

Superheroes are weirdly inconsistent partly because many of these same heroes have been in stories for nearly a century. It's really hard to reconcile a version of Batman who shoots and kills his foes with the modern incarnation or the modern brooding character with the light-hearted antics of the Silver Age. This is problematic when you have fans of different kinds of Batman all playing DC Universe Online.

Steel cannot be light and funny unless he's played by Shaq.  At which point it's an accident.Marvel Heroes and Super Hero Squad Online provide an interesting contrast here since both games are focused around the same core universe of characters. Marvel Heroes is clearly taking tonal elements from the recent films, with a more modern aesthetic and characters that really mark the game as being of a later era. (You can do funny stories with Deadpool and the Punisher, but they're not light stories.) Super Hero Squad Online, meanwhile, is children's entertainment, with larger-than-life heroes gleefully battling villains whose evil schemes are more focused upon inconveniencing others than actual malice.

Both of these takes are entirely valid.

Adult fans have a tendency to kind of shove the idea that superheroes can be silly to one side, but the alternative is worse. It's an endless stream of horrible comics that see adult media with violence and sex and shoehorn those elements in because they assume that's what makes something adult. The fact of the matter is that even if Christopher Nolan is directing it, a superhero story is always going to involve "dressing up and punching dudes" as a logical course of action.

This is part of why I like Champions Online. For all the game's faults, it never loses sight of the idea that you're playing a superhero and that inherently has shades of goofiness to it. So the game runs with it.

In some places this is kind of strange. You see a lot of police or military forces working directly with superheroes, leading to the question of what in the world any of these forces do when they aren't backed up by guys who can fly and bench-press cars. But there's no other way to make it work. It accepts the inherent ridiculousness of the genre and runs with it.

DC Universe Online, by contrast, is definitely more influenced by the modern era. It doesn't veer into the dangerous territory of almost being ashamed of having superheroes be, you know, superheroes, but it's still aiming to be a bit grimmer and grittier. Villainous quests have you outright harming people maliciously. Gotham City is the endless rows of brick and pavement that swallow you into dark places, Metropolis is the cold and indifferent palace of business and disconnection. This is not a world that could handle a Legion of Doom headquarters shaped like a skull, which makes the presence of goofy stuff like Lex Luthor's battle suit a bit jarring.

He's only about a 6.5 on the Serpentor Scale.That's when the goofy and the gritty get problematic -- when they try to coexist. When you have a quest line about dealing with low-level drug dealers and crippling addiction mixed up with super-science and alien invasions. Or when your street-smart gunslinger is fighting the devourer of worlds. It's the shades of disconnect that are more harmful.

City of Heroes did a remarkably good job of establishing a consistent tone despite the sheer range of concepts it could fit. There was a general sense that superheroes were a good thing, an accepted part of the world, and without breaking the pseudo-modern setting, the game tried to really incorporate all of the shifts that would come from having an active superhero population around. There was some darkness, but it never veered fully into angst or misery, and it managed to make "gunslinger against all-consuming darkness" at least moderately viable through the whole Incarnate lore.

Infinite Crisis looks as if it's going to be mirroring DCUO's tone, which is both kind of necessary for a MOBA and a little disappointing. There's not a whole lot of space to be silly in the format, but it would be nice to see something that didn't feel a push to be super grim and dark the whole way down.

With the exception of Super Hero Squad Online, though, we don't really have anything that's terribly light-hearted. Yes, CO has a strong sense that superheroes are somewhat fun and silly, but you don't get the sheer joy that you see in the Adam West incarnation of Batman. Serpent Lantern sees you fighting against thugs in snake-themed costumes, not actual weaponized snakes assaulting you on behalf of the Serpent Lord or similar nonsense.

There's not really a firm conclusion to be had here; there's just a lot of range available to players in terms of tone. No tone is going to be right for everyone, but it's worth being cognizant of that before you start playing a game. Looking for lighthearted fun in Marvel Heroes is a fool's errand.

Share your own thoughts on tone and the like in the comments below or via mail to I harbor no illusions that this discussion will be as volatile as last week's. Next week, I want to talk about DCUO's upcoming DLC pack and the weirdness of time travel.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.

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