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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: City of Heroes

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

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?


Interesting take. I would disagree with the idea that, “No other medium has this advantage, and no other medium can use it to make a story so totally immersive.” I think that true RPGs give an even more immersive experience than video game / online RPGs.

In a table top RPG the player expresses his character in every way, not just the limited decisions of a video game. And, very few RPGs have experimented with cut scenes (and, none of them have done so successfully in my observation.)

I’m the plot director of a national RPG campaign. And, it is really difficult to keep the story going. It is hard to introduce recurring enemies when the PCs often kill the opponents by the end of the event. This is something that I really liked about your Punisher article.

I also have to keep the story flowing from team to team as there is no guarantee that the same group of people are going to play together every time. So, I can’t focus too much on the PC’s own drama.

But, I still have an engine. The players are all a member of a large group, similar to the Avengers or the Justice League. They have enemies at different levels of power and influence. This way, since I can’t ensure that Lex Luthor escapes, I have him send a trusted minion instead.

In a video game the players are used to being railroaded. The plot goes this way, and they go along with it. In an RPG, however, railroading is one of the major sins. The writer and editor simply can’t assume that a character will respond this way or that and has to write the event to provide the story, but also to provide options for the judge (or DM) to use to account for the unique things that the players might do.


Sorry for the double post, hit Publish too soon.

To address your final question, I’ve found that the least successful RPGs have dealt with using other people’s characters. The Star Wars RPG very quickly dismissed the idea that the players were Luke, Han, Chewie, and Leia. The Xena/Herculeas RPG that I briefly wrote for found that the event that used the show’s characters were the least popular.

The reason for this is twofold. No one wants to be the guy (or gal) who got Han or Xena killed in the game. And, everyone has a different interpretation as to how that character would “really act” in any given situation. Everyone won’t want to play Batman because everyone’s Batman is a little different, and so the game quickly turns into an arguement as to what Batman “really acts like.”


I am the one person who actually liked the first series of CoH comics (produced by Blue King Studios), which featured heroes relatively comparable to the ones that players can create and play in the game. I couldn’t get much into the later stuff (Top Cow and such).


November 4, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Everyone won’t want to play Batman because everyone’s Batman is a little different, and so the game quickly turns into an arguement as to what Batman “really acts like.”

That may be the case in a pen and paper RPG, but in the computer game, everyone will want to be Batman.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to play a pre-established character (e.g. Batman). It’s much more personal and intimate to create your own character and define how that character acts.
I can easily see a player wanting to take Superman and turn him into a killing machine just for kicks.
And that’s just not right by any means…

I liked the first series of ‘City of Heroes’ as well, so there’s at least two. :) It couldn’t precisely replicate the feeling of “you are the hero” that CoH the game does, but it was a nice rendition of a trio of blue-collar super-heroes, people who were not comically inept, but not spectacular at what they did, either. It had its charms, but I think it kind of fell between two stools in terms of its mission statement.

And while I’m certainly not about to diss the pen-and-paper RPG, I feel that in terms of “immersion”, video games do beat them, simply because of the immediacy. Pen-and-paper RPGs have several filters between you and the experience, mostly related to the mechanics of the rules of pen-and-paper RPGs. When you have to negotiate every action with a Game Master and other players, and relate the whole thing through speech and dice-rolling, you’re somewhat detached from the experience in a way that you’re not from a video game. A good video game almost hypnotizes you into becoming your character for that period of time while you’re watching the screen, and I just don’t think that pen-and-paper can match that (even if I do agree with you that they provide a variety of choices and options that video games are still years away from matching.)

Mad Monkey makes a valid point- In my younger days, the Transformers and GI Joes I collected quickly lost their actual names and backstories and became heroes and villains of my choosing- eventually, I felt constrained playing with the characters as told to me by the manufacturers and had much more fun reinventing them (ironically most of the Cobra guys made great superheroes given the flamboyance of their costumes versus the common fatigues of the Joes, except for of course, Snake Eyes).

Point is, when there’s too much “mythology” to deal with in free play, imagination and choice is limited- its also why most video game movies are poor- in the video games, we are Max Payne or the Soldier in Doom- why would we want to passively sit and watch other people being them for two hours when we can simply step into their shoes and make our own choices? I’ve not yet played COH, but the idea sounded fantastic- and I had hoped they would keep their mythology light, so that the players would create the mythology rather than be slave to it- you have more choice that way than having to play alongside the Justice League or Avengers, where obviously you will always be second banana- and even if you do play Superman (a disastrously mishandled game, Superman Returns) or Spider-Man (the second of which, was frankly more fun when you simply swung around the city or dove off the Chrysler building than its tedious tasks), well, you are hindered by the fact that you have to play things their way, not yours- with a blank slate, its all up to you and your imagination, and that’s a story that can go anywhere.

I think that we have to remember that the main reason why most game movies suck is because they’re terribly executed. I think that it is possible to make a good game movie, but only if that game has good characters. Take a game like WoW, where the player really isn’t the protagonist. For most players most of the time the players are really nobodies and this is part of what gives the world its immense scale. WoW has some good characters which could ground a good movie, if it was executed properly. I think that the problem with CoH is that the characters were created to be as generic as possible, so that the players can make there own riffs on the standard tropes, which is good for a game but terrible for a comic.

“I think that we have to remember that the main reason why most game movies suck is because they’re terribly executed. I think that it is possible to make a good game movie, but only if that game has good characters. ”

Absolutely Ted, there is a great deal to that statement- in fact, can anyone give some examples of a “good” video game turned movie? I’ve heard tell that “Resident Evil” isn’t so bad, but haven’t seen it myself. can anyone point out a video game turned movie that has been embraced by the majority?

On the other hand, execution is half the problem- the other half is the fact that video game protagonists are by design, cyphers- so that you, the player, can imprint on them and be drawn into the game-

I always chuckle when I read complaints that Master Chief isn’t that great a video game character- certainly not someone who should be included in any list of such- but the point of Master Chief is that it could be anyone under the helmet- he speaks little and does a lot- that’s a deliberate choice to draw the player into the world- and its the same with Half Life- Gordon Freeman has no real backstory or personality in the game- we learn about him (and the Chief) through other characters’ reactions to their presence (Half Life is a bit more clever about it, removing 98% of the cut scenes and making you a part of the exposition rather than a bystander).

But the characters are not supposed to be fully fleshed out- that’s up to you. Conversely, its quite a challenge to create a story around these blank slates, and for me, not a very compelling reason to see a film based on them, when I can turn on my console or computer and actually be them. But like Ted said, if you have a director or writer with enough imagination, you can certainly create a compelling story with even the most light of material.

The last problem, is that many video games are mash ups of story concepts that have been done over and over and over again in film- the difference being that now the viewer is the participant, and the games give you a chance to live in the reality- what is Half-Life but a person’s chance to run around the world of Stephen King’s “The Mist” with a shotgun and crowbar? “Halo” lets you go to town a la “Starship Troopers” and “Aliens”. Even “Donkey Kong” gives you a chance to rescue Fay Wray (and need I mention the spectacularly horrible Mario Brothers film?)

“I think that we have to remember that the main reason why most game movies suck is because they’re terribly executed.

I think that all video game movies need in order to be good is the same thing that comic book movies needed. Just treat them seriously, get a good writer and director, a good cast, and put it in the theatre. Don’t treat it like cheesy campy kid-stuff and it will sell.

The first Resident Evil did this, as did Silent Hill. The Resident Evil sequals departed from the video game series to become action flicks with the same name, but the first shows its roots and doesn’t apologize for them.


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