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City of Heroes

(NC Soft; US: Jul 2007)

Review [16.Jun.2004]

City of Heroes: Playing Out an American Mythology and the Dream of Wearing Tights

I grew up reading mythology, folklore, and legends from the very best sources. From Thomas Bulfinch to Edith Hamilton, from Chris Claremont to Stan Lee, from Heracles to Thor, from the Incredible Hulk to the Mighty, well, ummm… Thor, I know my mythology and my heroes.

Let’s face it. Americans, like myself, lack any real connection to mythology in the classical sense. All our stories of heroes and monsters—religious and mythological—are imports. Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but it was written by a Brit and based on the myths and legends of Western Europe. Our other Western heroes belong to the Romans and the Greeks and the American legends, stories of Davy Crockett and Francis Marion, died out when Disney cancelled those television series.

As Neil Gaiman’s American Gods suggests, Americans are too much a mix of cultures to properly have a unified mythological system of our own. The old gods of that novel come from Scandinavia, Africa, the Caribbean, etc., but we’ve forgotten them as we’ve moved farther in time and space from those cultural roots. Ironically, it is the genre that Gaiman launched his career through—comic books—that reveals the only home grown heroes that represent this nation’s dreams, goals, ethics, and aspirations in any kind of universalizing way. The mythology that belongs to Americans is our men in tights.

Thus far, though, most of our attempts to play out our mythologies, to role-play heroes has been via those older European traditions. Fantasy role-playing is defined by its medieval settings, characters, and mythic traditions. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) have similarly followed this tradition with initial forays into generating persistent worlds of dragons, elves, and monsters through games like the very “British” Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron’s Call. Since then we’ve had a few forays into science fiction settings as persistent worlds, but nothing that approached the mythological character and heroic American fantasy of strapping on some tights to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. But that has all changed with Cryptic’s re-envisioning of the MMORPG genre in City of Heroes.

Indeed, it is Cryptic’s rethinking of this style of game and their effort to be true to the superhero genre that makes CoH fascinating and a joy to play. Many of the conventions of fantasy and MMORPGs in general do not work in the superhero genre at all. While a knight or wizard may think nothing of slaying a group of monsters hanging out in the forests or plains of the kingdom, heroes can’t just rough up any passerby. Likewise, looting the body of a fallen foe is just not that heroic for Spider-Man as it might be for Aragorn. Enter Paragon City: gone are the sweeping vistas, plains, hills, and woods of the medieval world with sparsely populated towns and villages where a warrior can trade his booty for gold. Instead, our heroes emerge in a vibrant, thriving, modern, and living city where muggings, break ins, and hold ups abound and villains must be defeated for a just reason, not the whim of a bloodthirsty barbarian.

There are no “items” in this game and, hence, no reason or way to loot bodies. But, what good is a rabbit pelt, a purse of gold, or even a rusty dagger to a superhero? Instead, items have been replaced with inspirations (temporary one-shot items that enhance defense, attack, or accuracy abilities) and training enhancements that allow you to tweak your powers, rather than your sword and armor modifiers. These less tangible items “drop” randomly as you best foes and heroically “feel” inspired by your victories or learn from the combat that just took place.

Heroic is how you will feel, though, from the moment you log in and easily leap over a fence into the midst of a pack of thugs ready to teach them a lesson with your superhuman abilities. From your early exploits as a hero as you test your abilities to throw flames, telekinetically juggle your foes, or have bullets bounce from your invulnerable body to later levels when you may learn to fly (and believe me flying is beyond fun and an experience not to be had in any other game of this sort that I am aware of), the game makes you feel like a superhero in a way that no video game has been capable of in my experience.

And isn’t that largely the point of role-playing? Really taking on the role of a hero? I recall asking a Turbine developer (makers of Asheron’s Call) a number of years ago how the online world could capture the sense of importance and significance of your actions and deeds as a hero given that these games were not as focused on the exploits of a single hero or group of heroes as most single player video games are. His response—despite the fact that at the time Asheron’s Call was one of the few MMORPGs with a developing story that allowed players to interact with the world and effect that stories outcome to some degree, suggesting an ability to shape the world—was disheartening. He explained that by dint of sheer numbers and the necessity to keep the storyline on track and to avoid showing favoritism to individual players, little could be done to show the “greatness” of an individual hero’s actions in an MMORPG.

At the time, I believed him, but City of Heroes has given me new hope for a world where players can feel and really role-play heroes worthy of myth and legends. From the pure feeling of power you get by adopting the powers and uniform of a hero (and the character creation by the way is amazingly eclectic and flexible, allowing for literally millions of variations in costuming your individual superheroic identity—I have yet to see two identical looking heroes in the game in the month of beta testing that I’ve done) to walking past a strolling citizen who mentions in a dialogue bubble (yes, just like a comic book) how he heard on the news about my exploits in stopping the villainous Dr. Vahzilok’s plot to poison the water supply of Paragon City, I have never felt more central to the plot of any online game. Cryptic has outdone itself with both its adherence to the genre conventions of the comic book hero, but more so in making my story a potential legend in a city of heroes.

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at

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