Life in the video game "City of Heroes" is good. This 1-year-old game and the recently released "The Matrix Online" are helping give the medieval world of role-playing video games a makeover. They were preceded by the space fantasies "Earth & Beyond," by Electronic Arts, in 2002 and "Star Wars Galaxies," by LucasArts, in 2003.
MMOs claim hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but it was the swords-and-sorcery world of "Ultima Online" that brought MMOs to the masses in 1997. In 1999, the medieval-tinged fantasies "Asheron's Call" and "EverQuest" spread awareness of the genre, especially with reports of "EverQuest" players becoming addicted to the game and shutting out human contact in favor of online interaction.
Those games not only popularized the online genre, they introduced many newcomers to the allure of starting out as a 98-pound weakling and, by learning skills and gathering tips from strangers, developing into a self-confident, dragon-slaying warrior. Or a healing spell-caster. Or a quiet shopkeeper. Or a dwarf or an elf.
Adding to the complexity -- and the attraction -- massively multiplayer games have huge back stories supporting them, creating worlds with a history for each region and a story for how each group of characters came to be. Through updates, the games evolve as design teams modify characters to rein in the too-powerful, or add new maps to explore, characters to meet and story lines to unravel.
Released in 2004 and soon to get its fourth update, "City of Heroes" helped drag massively multiplayer online role-playing games out of the medieval forests and into a contemporary setting.
"Paragon City is where modern-day Providence, R.I., is," says Jack Emmert, lead designer and creative director of "City of Heroes."
As the game's visionary, Emmert does his best work with his eyes closed.
"I visualize how it's going to be and how I would play if I were a player," to anticipate and prevent players from cheating or taking other shortcuts to win battles and experience points, he says. "After years of doing it, you have an idea of the regular way people approach things."
One thing he didn't foresee is the way "City of Heroes" embodies the rivalry between DC Comics and Marvel Comics. DC Comics arrived on the scene in the 1940s with Superman, Batman and other adult crimefighters.
In the 1960s, Marvel Comics showed up with Spider-Man and other teenage heroes with acne, relationship problems and lives that kids could relate to. Similarly, the upcoming update of "City of Heroes" will allow for teenage-looking heroes who aren't all ripped abs and buxom babes.
"I wasn't aware of that," says Emmert, a University of Chicago grad who has degrees in Greek and Latin studies. "It was not a conscious parallel."
Coincidentally, Marvel sued NCSoft and Cryptic Studios -- makers of "City of Heroes" -- alleging the game allowed players to create superheroes who looked too much like Marvel characters. Parts of that suit were dismissed last month. Marvel characters are the center of an Electronic Arts superheroes game scheduled for this fall.
"It's the ultimate in wish-fulfillment: Who doesn't want to be a superhero? Who doesn't want to fly? Who doesn't want to battle evil?" says Emmert.
One thing you can't wear, though, is a cool cape. At least not right away.
"When we first shipped the game," Emmert recalls, "there was no way we could do the physics of a realistic cape, so we built that into the story: The Statesman and other heroes decided to not wear capes in honor of Hero, who was sacrificed in the Rikti War." Eventually, Cryptic Studios figured out how to make capes flow in the breeze. "People are now allowed to wear capes after they've proven themselves. It's a rite of passage earned at Level 20."
My character, Armor-Dillo, is on Level 8. As a brawling Tanker, he can take punishment and dish it out. He's not as flashy as Blasters, who do their damage from long range. He's not as passive-aggressive as Controllers, whose powers let them turn enemies against themselves. He isn't as helpful as Defenders, who stay on the edges of battle and heal the wounded. But Tankers and Scrappers are tough. They are the Marines of "City of Heroes."
The fun comes when you're invited to a team of a Blaster and a Defender and together you go hunting. Stumbling upon a group of menacing baddies who are two levels tougher than you and taking them down because each of your group members knows his or her role is a thrill. The electronic zaps of the Blaster and the computer-shaking booms of the Tanker meld with the spirit-lifting warbles of the Defender into a symphony of violence and destruction and rebirth, all in the name of fighting evil.
There is no blood in this Teen-rated game (for players age 13 and older). There is the sound of flesh ripping when you're stabbed by a baddie (you don't die right away; you just lose endurance and health points), and there are no screams of agony. Baddies simply gurgle and collapse after you've defeated them.
Next week, we look at "The Matrix Online." As in the movies that starred Keanu Reeves, the idea is that reality is a Machine-generated fiction. Now there's an online game that lets you -- and thousands of others -- use your computers to unravel that fiction.
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard would have loved it.