Veteran comics scribe and DC Universe Online writer Marv Wolfman teamed up with his Sony Online Entertainment compatriots to deliver ruminations on the nature of writing for heroes and, more especially, villains in a fascinating talk on the craft of writing for games at GDC Austin.
Wolfman has been writing for comics since the 1960s. Writing for upcoming PC and PlayStation 3 MMO DC Universe Online presented him with a challenge he's rarely faced before, he says.
"When I had to write sections for the villain parts, [the team] didn't see half of what I wrote, because I realized -- they're a player, they have to win. I stopped thinking about whether the character is a hero or villain -- I started to think about the player."
The important distinction, Wolfman says, isn't whether the character is good or evil. "It's not hero versus villain, it's protagonist versus antagonist -- the protagonist might not be the good guy; he's just the star."
While many game writers concentrate on using The Hero's Journey as a template for their games writing, Wolfman says, "I find that a waste of energy in many ways, because it formulates things too strongly."
Instead, he feels, character-driven storytelling is the way to go: "The stronger your characters, you want to follow the characters as much as you want to follow the storyline. You can never get tired of interesting characters -- we never have, in 5,000 years of writing fiction." The medium has begun to support storytelling that allows that freedom, he says -- "We're getting into games now that have nuance."
It's not just about seeing good triumph. Heroes can't become heroes without struggle, says Wolfman. "A lot of defeats along the way strengthen the hero, so you're not thinking of it as a defeat per se; in an MMO where it's a lot of missions, you can defeat a character easily, but they become a hero because they're going to fight back the next time you see them. The good guys don't always win! And that makes it a lot more interesting. You have to defeat the [player] heroes in our game -- you have to make them want to fight back."
Different characters also require a different touch, he says. "Superman is not as good a hero as Robin because he's not putting his life on the line -- he's proving he's a hero by facing defeat and fighting again. So you humanize Superman by putting him situations, such as where he can rescue a person or defeat Luthor's plan, and you define situations for the player where someone may have to die so they can face the villain."
This is Wolfman's first MMO project, although clearly not the first exposure he has to the genre. He says, "Very often in MMOs, the characters are very generic. You have the power, but the NPCs are... whatever. In this case, Superman is going to act the way Superman does; Lex Luthor is going to act the way he does, and that creates a problem for the opposite character, and that's a little fun."
And that's compounded by the huge challenge of encompassing DC's history in one game. "It is so big, and it's taking 75 years of DC, in many ways: hundreds of characters, thousands of comics, and using what we know -- not specific storylines, but certainly things we would recognize from the comics, without being absolutely specific -- yet all of the characters have to be in character. And that we don't always see in an MMO. I don't think anyone's ever done that before."
Having strong heroes and villains very much affects game design, says Jens Andersen, the game's creative director. "By having heroes and villains in the games and being able to play either one, you get a different experience. You get a different perspective on Lex Luthor when you think about what motivates Lex."
Andersen also thinks that it's not as simple as just having heroes and villains. "It depends on the story you're trying to tell. With our IP it's important for us to tell a lot of different stories. I'm going to fight with Superman, and against Superman. I'm going to fight against Batman, and with Batman. All four of those are going to be very different stories."
However, creating meaningful conflict between two opposing sides is a new challenge for MMO design, he thinks. "It's hard trying to make something where I'm going to get involved with this content and be evil; and I'm going to get involved with this content and be good. Does anybody really think [World of Warcraft's] The Horde is evil? They're just different."
The important distinction, says Wolfman, is the particularly player-driven nature of MMOs. "It's not about the heroes -- we have to have the heroes' story, but it's really about the player." The audience can create issues, as all developers recognize, but particularly in MMOs: "You'll ignore everything we've set up and find something to concentrate on and make it the main part."
Not everything translates to games, despite the medium's increased ability to show nuance in Wolfman's view. "I love stories about the gray zone -- that's the most fun stuff to write. Characters who are in flux have been my favorites -- characters who you're not sure where they stand. But that's very internal, and games are very external. Stuff where you can get into their heads, in games, you can't do, or have to find other ways of doing it."
A big issue the game faces is that players will feel they're just puppets of the established DC characters -- sidekicks. Christopher Cao, the game's director, says, "The funny answer is that we have to start with is -- the player is irrelevant [to the story]. We put the challenge on you -- on how you make yourself relevant. It's about you and your progression, and how you become relevant. So you can, at the end of the day, stand alongside the Justice League and feel worthy enough. If you do that at the beginning, it won't be relevant."
Andersen explains more: "They aren't just telling you, 'Go do this, thanks for the help!' You might be on a mission for Superman and Batman comes along, and he wants the mission for himself, and you might fight him. Or when Lex Luthor takes notice of you, you'll feel relevant."
The art of writing for games is much different than linear media, Wolfman recognizes. "In a game, you can't tell something directly but you have to impart information -- and take that a thousand further steps. In an MMO you have no idea where you're starting and the whole world is around you, and you don't have an actual destination immediately; that builds as the story builds around you. What I had to put aside when I started to write console games, was that I was telling a linear story. The player, in time, will get so much information that they will start to link things together that you may not have linked together yourself."
Of course, comic stories feature more than heroes and villains battling -- there are turncoats, characters who redeem themselves, and those who become evil. Cao says there's room for that in the future, not not in the initial design. "What we had to do was give you a strong entry into the universe to give you a baseline. If you had somehow not understood who The Joker was, we gave you a place to work from. We have a lot of stories we want to tell, so we need the starting point to be clear. We want heroes and villains at first, and we can mix it up later."