The Multiverse’s Tiniest Violin

23 December, 2018 at 7:31 pm (gameplay)

A few weeks ago I was at work, killing time, and I pulled out the defunct, previous model phone that I keep for two reasons: as a decoy, in case I get robbed, and for mobile gaming. I’m crap at games, generally, but find that games on the Free-to-Play model are simple enough that they match my natural level of ability. And since I strive mightily not to spend any money on F2P gameplay and see how well I can do if I am patient, I tend to spend about ten to fifteen minutes a day gaming, which suits my lifestyle.

I get a reasonable amount of crap around the office for having the two phones, and was unsurprised when they garnered a little attention from a colleague, who asked what I was doing. When I said I was playing a video game, she reacted strongly, telling me to delete it immediately. When I protested, telling her that it was a cheerful distraction and that I only played for the tiniest amount of time each day, she was steadfast: “Any amount of time is too much,” she said, “because those games make you want to play more and more. Delete it!” she warned me again.

Considering that she and I were going to be co-hosting a field trip in a few months, I spent a little time weighing her words. Two weeks in France was a perfectly normal amount of time to stop playing a video game to which I claim to have only the barest of attachment. But at the same time, such games are wonderful in airports terminals and other periods of interminable delay. However, if that was going to be her reaction, then it would probably be the better part of valor to just free up the hard drive space before the trip rolled around, and then see how I felt about restarting or not once we returned.

Turns out, the decision was made for me. TinyCo. has announced that they are shuttering Marvel: Avengers Academy on February 4th.

I should be getting used to this. I spent from 2006 to 2012 playing City of Heroes on a regular basis until the game was shut down on my birthday in a particularly arbitrary twist of the knife. I spent a little time trying to find a replacement with both Lord of the Rings: Online and Star Trek: Online. Both of which had some of the essential qualities I look for in an MMO: nerdy character customization. City of Heroes had allowed me, as a subscriber, a horrendous number of character slots with which to create a seemingly endless variety of low-level characters to abandon after the first blush of advancement. The new games, as F2P models, allowed me a more modest reach, but still provided me with the ability to create a small handful of different races and classes and play them alternately to see how much their origin affected progress, gameplay, and world-building. However, neither emerged as a nexus for community. While I don’t rely on playing MMOs with other people, it’s nice to have some people to reliably team with when necessary, and since all MMOs depend on grinding as a foundation, it’s nice to have comfortable allies when doing something relentlessly repetitious.

That community was usually centered around The VHive, with whom I had stumbled around the streets of Malton in the browser-based MMO Urban Dead and similarly wandered between heaven and hell in Nexus War. We all named ourselves as members of the Vengabean clan, and I have always tried to start any new character in a given game with that surname and with the role-playing characteristics as described in our wiki entry: that my character should present as a member of a “louche clan of alcoholic trust-fund layabouts who [has] fallen upon hard times through profligate excess of diet, drink, and sexual carelessness…” Whether creating a character in Hero’s Quest or Jedi Knight, LOTR:O or Mass Effect, I’ve tried to design her as close to Cindy-Lou‘s initial conception as possible — although I discover upon re-reading that link that she has very much gone from brunette to blonde over the years, and I’m not at all sure when that happened.

The lack of community lead me to switch from desktop MMOs to handheld RPGs, and I had great success with the launch of Star Wars: Uprising, which provided me with the mild amusement of the name “Cindy-Lou” being used in LucasArts dialogue, along with the fact that my sister character was therefore also named Vengabean. I plugged away at that for the better part of a year until its cancelation was announced. In the final weeks, I put all my effort into unlocking the final part of the story and the only GameCenter Achievement I hadn’t reached: assembling a lightsaber. And with two days before sunset, I had mortgaged all of my belongings and spare weapons and costume parts to finish a mission… that got me the hilt and unlocked a new set of missions to make it functional. Seeing Kieron Gillen’s Doctor Aphra character on a giant TV screen while standing in the lobby after seeing Rogue One made me play that for a while, but I wasn’t able to reconcile the fact that my favorite character combinations weren’t particularly the most powerful options in P2P gameplay. Did I want to win, or did I want to enjoy the process? I ended up deleting the game.

Which led me to downloading Marvel: Avengers Academy at some point in the tail end of the “Monsters Unleashed” event, perhaps the worst time to begin a game. The characters were idiotic, tied into a Marvel Comics event that was stillborn from the start, if born out of a laudable nostalgia for the Mole Man and Fin Fang Foom. And the game mechanics were almost opaque, as they were tied to the special event and dependent on having achieved a certain level with the base characters. Mostly, I accomplished nothing. It should have been disillusioning. According to the F2P model, it should have been sufficiently disenheartening that I would have purchased a briefcase-load of shiny blue crystals with which to level up my characters and tap to victory. But it was neither of those things. I didn’t delete the game outright, and I didn’t spring for a paid advantage.* But something made me stick around.

At first it was the essential character and gameplay design. I’ve been straddling the cosplay line at comic conventions for several years, but my preferred mode of presentation is casual cosplay, using adapted civilian outfits that echo or pay homage to a costume. Since I use public transportation, and since I like pockets, this has always felt like the most “adult” way to perform my fandom while still fitting in with society. The way in which the Avengers Academy characters went from being ranked as a basic-level student to a fully-fledged superhero included some fabulous casual cosplay design, and I found myself initially playing to unlock as many characters as possible so that I could see what Taskmaster looked like in a hoodie instead of a cape, and whether that a look I might want to adapt for my own ends. SPOILER: it absolutely was.

PEPPER POTTS: You guys need to relax. Your stress is making me stressed, and I'm already always stressed about how stressed I get.But what got me to really stay, to want to update each month and get through as much of each new chapter as possible wasn’t just the look of each new unlocked character. It was the writing. This is what I didn’t feel I could succinctly explain to my colleague back at the beginning of this post. I didn’t know how to express how much I enjoy the sheer unadulterated nerdiness and humor of the dialogue boxes and the dating-sim back-and-forth between the characters. Some of it is incredibly self-aware, and way too meta for own good. Some of it is astonishingly progressive. The late, lamented ComicsAlliance covered a number of updates to the game (before they also shuttered, just to continue to provide a running theme to this post), including a telling screencap where a spiffily-dressed Union Jack outs himself. And out of the 101 “human” characters I unlocked in my twenty-one months of gameplay, 25 of them were people of color. While that’s still quite not in line with the actual world, compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which, despite some steps toward diversification, still largely seems to feature White Guys Named Chris — it feels to this white guy as incredibly warm and inclusive and the kind of Marvel I want to read and immerse myself in.

But most of it’s charm comes from just being plain funny. There’s no earthly reason why the writers decided that everyone in this dimension would have a bizarre fixation on cheese, or would competitively dance to solve any problems that couldn’t be solved by punching people. It’s hard to rationalize why the designers thought having penguins show up in both the animations and the trophies would appeal, except for the simple fact that they were correct. It’s wacky, and it’s random, and there’s a running gag about how the minions of all the different super-villains just hide out in the bushes surrounding the campus and have set-up their own scavenger society. It displays a native intelligence about the absurdities of super-heroics, and both embraces those absurdities and mocks them.

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It’s a shame that something this fun and silly, this reverential and irreverent, and this knowledgable about the Marvel Universe and willing to dive deep into that shared pool of nostalgia in a clever and particular way couldn’t survive in the current marketplace. Still. It had a good run. I don’t want to wallow in the nerd tendency of thinking that The Thing I Love is Too Good For This World, which neither appreciates nor understands it. I enjoyed reading X-Men comics, featuring characters that “protect a world that hates and fears them”, but I need to make sure I don’t internalize that sense of elitism about the things I enjoy. I see nerds do that with many things, be they Firefly or The Cape, things that perhaps deserved better stewardship or perhaps died in a wholly justified fashion. I don’t know where Avengers Academy falls in that battlefield. But I do know I’m going to unlock as many dialogue balloons as I can between now and the beginning of February, and I’m going to chortle at cheese and penguins and Loki’s dumb nicknames and Janet Van Dyne’s unbridled energy, and I’m going to be grateful for the time (and the free crystals) I have left.

*Full disclosure: I did eventually buy ten dollars “worth” of crystals when I went on summer vacation four months after starting the the game as I was actually spending much, much more than fifteen minutes a day with my TinyCo pals. I then spent two additional $10 micropayments on gems before becoming aware of the creeping trend, and stopped. Which required me telling myself that I didn’t need to “win” at the events, that I didn’t actually need to unlock the characters, even if they were particular fictional favorites. This became much easier to rationalize once I saw that some of them would eventually come back around in future storylines. However, I and my willpower are both part of the reason why TinyCo saw a decrease in growth and canceled the game. I apologize.

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