A Little Bit of History

Okay, so I have a touch of writer’s block. I think it’s Christmas or something. Whatever, it’ll pass and I’ll get the scene done. It’s big and complex, and it’s all mapped out, but exactly how to write it is eluding me just now. Being blocked on that (and annoyed about it) has been stopping writing anything else to keep in practice, so I started reading some old stuff I wrote a few years ago. It’s been interesting, and I want to share some of the thoughts on it because they very much relate to Aneka and her story.

So, once upon a time there was an online game called City of Heroes. Some of you may have heard of it, I know at least one person reading this played it. I can’t say I was there at the beginning, because it spent a year only available in the US, but I got onto the EU beta and was there when it started over here, and I was in there when it closed down. It was my first ever MMO, and the only one I’ve ever gone back to, several times. However, it wasn’t the game play which kept me coming back, it was the people.

Soon after the servers opened someone decided to set up a role-playing event. A spot at the foot of the (very huge) statue of Galaxy Girl was picked, announcements were made on the forums, and people gathered there to pretend to be superheros. It was a success, and the following night people went there again even though it was meant to be a one-off event. And it carried on going. There was a ‘Galaxy Girl Meet’ on the night the servers closed, even though the actual statue had been destroyed by then. Through the years, all sorts of drama unfolded around the characters who turned up to sit around the statue and chat. Friendships were made, both in game and out of it. It was a very long running, very successful, open world role-play environment, and I miss it.

So, what’s this got to do with Aneka? Well, the forums for the game were run by some utterly brilliant people who allowed us to bend the rules a little if it seemed good for the community. A thread I started detailing the events (in character) of the first night was added to by more and more people as the nights went on. There was really supposed to be a limit to thread length, but they made an exception and just let us run with it. It was supplemented by other threads with stories people had written. They were character pieces, designed to put more life into the characters. What did they do when they weren’t dressed in tights? What was their home life like? Who was the man behind the mask? The game had no (official) secret identity mechanism, so we made it up. I won’t say this was the first ‘published’ writing I did, because I’d posted stories before, but this was more regular and it started to set my ‘voice.’ I focused as much on character development, as did many of these stories, as action. I tended toward a light style, storytelling rather than technical brilliance.

Whenever I’d go back to the game, I’d look around at whatever new powers were available and start a character with something I’d never tried before. In 2009, Annette Barrington turned up at the statue. She was a shy late teenager, a big hero fan who was there looking for autographs. Her brother had been crippled in a war against aliens and she wanted payback, so she had created a persona for herself which had the confidence to fight bad guys. Annette’s story was all about humanity and identity. She worried that she was losing the former as her power grew, and the struggle between her two (later three) personas was played out over three years as she went from shy teenager to confident, near god-like, young woman.

In 2011, a new update was issued giving us access to a new would, Pretoria. Pretoria was a dark mirror world where the big heroes were villains and vice versa. Or that was the basic idea. In reality things were a lot more grey (which was good, because that would have sucked). It gave us the ability to have our characters turn up with new colours as their ‘dimensional twins’ could cross over. It also gave us the ability to switch sides; heroes could go vigilante and then villain, and back again. Annette went bad as a new, sadistic, persona developed. The original plan was to have her stay villain for a while her twin got to run around in the sun, but my (and her) friends wouldn’t have it. Worlds were moved to get her back. It came as something of a surprise, but that’s by-the-way. The story of her fall into evil, the New Divide trilogy and its prequels, is where you can really start seeing my writing starting to come together.

Meanwhile, Annette Louise Barrington, who ended up calling herself by her middle name, was escaping Pretoria and coming to Paragon City. Louise had cybernetic eyes and a pair of custom-designed pistols. The new power set, Dual Pistols, was heavy on the Gun Fu style and it seemed appropriate that if Annette’s alter ego, Nitoichi, used twin katana, Louise should also wield two weapons. Louise’s story was about humanity, again, as her cybenetics and the nano-bots in her body slowly made her more and more cybernetic. There was also a strong thread of ‘doing what needed to be done, because you were the one who could do it’ about Louise’s story. She was a political refugee of sorts, wanted for murder, and she was granted asylum so long as she would do a few jobs for the government. Not always nice jobs. (It was, however, awesome writing them because the genre allows you to go more or less anywhere. Louise did a murder mystery in 1927, two sealed environment thrillers on a submarine and a space station… Basically you could do any kind of story you wanted and the genre could cope; gotta love the super hero world for that.)

And so we end up back with Aneka. Aneka was another attempt to get some of these characters out of CoH so I could write more about them. Of course, Aneka and Louise are different people, but you can see the similarities. It’s even more obvious when I go look at the old stories. I’d sort of forgotten about Alison, Louise’s enigmatic handler (her role was actually based, loosely, on CURE from the Destroyer books), but I figure you can see the analogue in Aneka’s life. Aneka obviously has to deal with her own humanity pretty much immediately rather than the creeping increase in inorganic components Louise had to handle. Aneka has Al; Louise had the rather more insidious issue of her vast complex of nanites becoming self-aware. (Annette had an inner voice too as her personalities would talk to each other.) There is the obvious continuing theme of doing ‘what has to be done,’ and whether it does or not.

So, yes, Aneka owes a great deal to Louise (and Annette to a lesser extent), and reading those old stories has reminded me of her roots in the best MMO I’ve ever been involved with. (I think I’ve finally got a handle on a new Annette, though she’s now two different people, body and mind split across two different women which seems rather appropriate for her. More on that some other time.) I miss CoH. City of Titans is in the works and I hope some of the magic will come back when that’s available, but somehow I doubt it will ever be quite the same.

We live in hope. And meanwhile, we write and remember.

Defiance! (And all that.)

Defiance! (And All That.)

Defiance is something of a phenomenon, a computer game and a linked TV series, or maybe a TV series and a linked game. It depends on how you look at it, but the concept is that events in the TV series will be reflected in the game world, and game events and characters will reflect in the TV series. Some player characters from the game may even get a mention (or appear as guest characters) in the show, though I doubt those will include XMASTERBLASTERX or his like. So, the game kicked off on April 2nd and the show on the 15th or 16th (depending on your region), what’s it like?

The World

The basic premise behind Defiance is the arrival in 2013 (April 4th) of a huge fleet of alien ships. These “Ark Ships” are carrying billions of Votans, most of them in suspended animation after a journey of about 5000 years. Obviously this causes a bit of a problem and, eventually, war breaks out despite the best efforts of many to integrate votans and humans.

It is during these “Pale Wars” that two events occur which are to shape the future of the world. The first happens on January 5th 2029 when the ships still in orbit mysteriously blow up. This results in a belt of wreckage in orbit and the fall of a considerable amount of Votan technology to earth. That technology included terraforming equipment which had been intended to make an uninhabitable world habitable; now it transforms the Earth into an alien version of itself.

The following December, in San Francisco, the Battle of Defiance takes place. Human and votan soldiers, sickened by the years of conflict, join together to defend helpless civilians against the warring human and votan armies. Thousands die, but the battle is seen as a sign that humans can get along with their new neighbours, and working together is the only way to get by in the new, shattered world.

The Votans

There are seven votan races, but you’re going to see only a few of them, and I’m going concentrate on two. The Irathients and the Castithans are the big two, though there are also the Indogenes (technologists, cyborgs), the Sensoth (long live, apelike, tall, slow), the Liberata (small, had working, mostly important because one gives you missions in game), the Volge (bad guys), and the Gulanee (energy beings, total unknown).

The TV series has some seriously major characters who are castithans (the Tarr family) and that’s the main reason I mention them here. Pale skinned, but basically human, castithan society is caste-based, highly stratified, and highly ritualised. Tony Curran’s Datak Tarr is suitably evil and malign, but you just know that his wife, the sensuous Stahma Tarr (aka “Hot Mamma Stahma,” apparently, and played by Jaime Murray) that you have to watch out for. In game you’ll find Ara Shondu who gets a mention in passing in the series pilot, who seems far too nice to be a castithan.

Irathients are the wild children of the votans. They are important because one of the main characters in the series, Irisa, is an Irathient, but also because (at launch) Irathients are the only votan race you can play in game. This makes sense since they are the most common votans on Earth. Irathients, like castithans, look mostly human; they have a more pronounced brow structure and redder skin with naturally occurring paler markings. They like nature and tend to be a bit more elemental than the other votans. The buxom Cass Ducar, who you will meet right out of the escape pod, is an Irathient.

The Series

The TV Series Defiance airs on Syfy on a Monday night in the US and a Tuesday night in the UK. As I write this the second episode has screened in the UK with far less action than the pilot, but far more of a view into the world and people. So far it’s keeping my interest and next week we get hellbugs!

The show is based around what was St Louis and is now the frontier town of Defiance. Defiance has a gullanite mine, a population largely consisting of humans and Castithans, and is built on top of the buried city of St Louis. I mean, the old city is still down there, with buildings, bridges, and a nuclear plant! Julie Benz (Buffy’s Darla) is the mayor and (after the pilot episode) the scheming sucker who stole our gem in the first week of the game is the Lawkeeper. Clearly Mayor Amanda needs to get some of Darla’s smarts for employing that… Ahem.

Thus far, the first episode (a double length show) was pretty action-packed with a Volge army turning up to trash the city and kill everyone. Unsurprisingly, Nolan’s self-sacrifice saves the town, and Irisa saves Nolan (and the town) by having an Irathient bike gang turn up to help after we think she’s run off and left him. Episode two demonstrated that the Castithans have a non-human society and that Irisa has spent time in chains. It also continued the on-going plot ark which has the town’s old major hunting for some Votan gadget which will save the world, or something. To be fair, next episode we’ve got Hellbugs, which is likely to be more fun than any of that stuff.

I’ve no idea yet whether the series is going to be worth watching long-term; it’s far too early to tell, but it has a strong cast and a world background which is a little different from many other sci-fi series. It should be interesting to see where they go with the world they’ve created.

The Game

The Defiance game is a multi-player, online, third-person shooter, and there-in lies my major disappointment with it. However, that is kind of my problem so while I’ll discuss it later, I won’t be “marking it down” for that. The servers opened on April 2nd, 2013, two days before the Ark Ships were to appear in orbit according to the timeline. Sadly, no aliens in the real world, and the game-world begins in 2046 with the arrival in what was California of the Stratocarrier New Freedom, with your character aboard it. Unfortunately, this arrival is a little more sudden than expected; the ship crash-lands and you bail out in an escape pod.

You are playing an “ark hunter,” one who earns a living scavenging votan technology (vo-tech) from arkfalls. The backstory has you recruited by Karl Von Bach, genius arms-dealer, to help him track down the parts of a “terraspire,” a device which facilitates terraforming. To help you’ve been given some Pale Wars technology which Von Bach has managed to repurpose commercially, an EGO implant. Basically, your EGO is a synthetic intelligence which turns you into Super-Ark Hunter! You can turn invisible, or supercharge your weapons, or out run the Flash… Basically, it’s a cool toy that explains giving you various extra talents. It and the weapons you’re going to pick up are your main tools of interaction with the world. Let’s face it, why would you want to talk to it when you can shot it in the face? Ah, well, actually I would like to talk to people, but I said I wouldn’t go into that…

So, off you go into the world, and this is pretty much where your problems start. After a very brief tutorial in which you meet Cass, have a headache, grab some weapons, and get shown the four EGO powers (I didn’t mention Decoy above), you are thrown into a random little fight not knowing what the Hell is going on. After climbing over a wall having blown something up, you are out on your own, following the main mission as it winds its way through the crash site of the New Freedom. The game needs way more instruction and help than it has. After several weeks I still have no clue what various things on the UI mean and the help screens are so terse as to be useless.

Missions fall into a few categories. First there is the main mission thread following a plot related to finding the ark-tech Von Bach needs to try his experiment and “save the world.” The main missions gate side missions; until you have completed certain main missions, some side missions are unavailable. This becomes a problem when the main mission was designed by a sadist. Next up are the challenges which are time trials (racing on a quad bike), hotshots (shooting a lot of things with normal weapons), and rampages (shooting a lot of things with big weapons). Emergencies are random encounters which you can find on the road, generally requiring you to shoot a lot of things. Finally there are arkfalls, which involve running from place to place and, you guessed it, shooting things. Arkfalls can be fun, except when the one social aspect of the game comes into play and people behave like total arseholes to get on top of the leader board. It’s usually better late in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. You can also shoot things in cooperative instances, and shoot other player characters in competitive instances and Shadow Wars. You may have noticed a theme? Well, it is a shooter.

And that’s the problem. Trion decided that they would make an MMO shooter out of something which would have made an excellent RPG. The game does quite well at exposing the world to you, but there is no real player interaction which doesn’t involve shooting stuff. There is nowhere to meet others. The only indoor settings are ruins and small rooms. You can’t even holster your weapons. None of that means role-play won’t happen, but the game almost goes out of its way to make it hard. “This game is not an RPG” has become a mantra and that is just a shame considering the possibilities. Games companies tend to ignore roleplayers, which is stupid considering that a setting rich in RP will keep such players happy without the company adding content.

The game mechanics are… confusing. If my skill in aiming my sniper rifle is what determines a hit, why does my rifle have an aim score? The enemies you face have little tactical ability, so to compensate they never miss and tend to have numbers; a favourite tactic of the designers is to throw as many bad guys at you as they can rather than create clever enemies. RPGs have levels, so Defiance doesn’t. I like this factor personally, but a lot of complaint has been made about it; you lack a feeling of progression, apparently. I feel like I’m progressing because I don’t die as much, but I recognise that that is partially because I pick my fights better. Using cover is essential, so I avoid fights where the available cover works against me, or there simply is none (because that would give me a chance, right?).

We’ll see how the game progresses, but right now I could never recommend it to anyone. It’s buggy, maybe the worst MMO I’ve ever seen for bugs. There is not too much lag, but frequent server disconnects, and plenty of times when things just vanish in front of you when you were shooting at them. The one big advantage this game has over some MMOs is no subscription fee; buy the game and you can just keep on playing. That means that they are relying on downloadable content (DLCs) to make it pay. Currently, I see no reason to buy them, but we haven’t seen what’s coming.