Into the Super-verse: Why the resurrection of 20-year-old City of Heroes is worth celebrating, even if you don’t play

Forever and ever.

There’s a certain poetry to the fact that this year, on the 20th anniversary of City of Heroes, we can all play the game again on a licensed server. Oh, sure, the rogue servers did not pop into existence this year and in fact had been running for some time before now; that’s not the point. It’s been two decades, but now after an unceremonious and frankly unfair shutdown that led to the game being “legally” gone longer than it was live, the game is legally and officially back and free for everyone.

But what do you actually say about it?

I think there’s an obvious angle here, but it’s not going to just be about mechanics. I’m going to talk about what happened on the day many moons ago when Massively-that-was started to do game-specific columns. I’m also going to talk about superhero comics because there’s an obvious parallel to something that is simultaneously loved and feared when it comes to comics: character resurrections.

The idea that death is a revolving door when it comes to comics is a complaint basically as old as treating superhero comics as worlds that can theoretically grow and change. It’s just natural. You can’t introduce the idea that these people are living without simultaneously introducing the idea that they might no longer live, but when you can’t ever let the story actually end, you don’t really want to get rid of the characters, and so in a few months they come back.

All of this is true. But there’s a good reason that the scene of Avengers: Endgame that literally blew the roof off in both of the showings I attended in theaters was this one.

I’m not exaggerating. People watching that scene were screaming on opening night, and then weeks later. It still hits hard years later, and despite knowing exactly what will happen in that scene and after the moment, it feels inspiring. Which isn’t surprising when, as mentioned, it was blowing the roof off a theater wherein everyone absolutely knew it was coming. Everyone knew it was coming before the movie was shown because you knew half of the “dead people” were going to be in future movies. But it got over, and it still hits hard.

Why is that? Why would people cheer for a scene in which characters come back from the dead, thereby undoing stakes?

It was just a few months after I had started working at Massively-that-was when I got an email from our then-editor outlining the plan. See, it was clear that columns based around specific games drew traffic to the site, and so he wanted to get more columns based around specific games. He knew two very specific games that were in my wheelhouse, and one of those was City of Heroes. The other was Final Fantasy XI, and when we learned about Final Fantasy XIV not very long after that, it seemed like I clearly had stuff I could write about. So, was I on board?

Of course, this was in the early days of the site being what it was (before it showed what it could become), and I didn’t have years of writing backlog to draw upon. Naturally, I was down for this. It meant more exposure and a little more money every month, why not? And as it turned out, this meant covering the games that would define a huge chunk of what could be generously referred to as my career.

In 2012, when we learned about the sunset, things were very different. FFXIV was still That Game Nobody Liked and hadn’t yet hit the ball out of the park with a relaunch, and one of my main games was going away forever. It felt like something significant. Like Superman dying when I was still young. Oh, sure, I knew somewhere in the back of my head that he probably wouldn’t stay dead… but there was always the chance. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. There was just enough doubt in my mind.

This felt far more certain. CoH was going away, and I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it. What in the world could I do? I could cover the shutdown as best I was able, with grace and compassion, and then I could move on. Because sometimes, that’s just how things are. In the real world there are no superheroes. There is no eleventh-hour savior. Things just die and you move on, broken.

Until there is one.

Always the level.

My father died when I was in my freshman year of college, and I have thus had more of my life without him than with him. I have long since understood that he is gone and is never coming back. But there is a part of me – a small, stupid, and unrealistic part – which still holds out some strange sliver of hope that suddenly he’s going to show up again, hale and whole, explaining how he had to fake his death but now he’s back and he’s Going To Make The World Make Sense Again.

Unrealistic? Yes. Part of my actual decision-making process? Absolutely not. But more than just an underdog story, we love to find out that when we thought all hope was lost, it’s actually unlocked something even better. We love the idea that after we’ve had to hurt and sink and accept a major loss with the grace of adulthood, we can turn around and find that we actually get even more than we had expected.

And it’s silly. And it’s dumb. And we know it’s dumb. But that’s why you can have a movie theater full of people screaming ecstatically to see a short scene in a movie where you already knew these characters weren’t going to stay dead and you know the heroes get to win in the end.

CoH, as a game, doesn’t exist in a movie. There wasn’t ever a certainty that it would get official licensing back and be able to operate out in the open once more. It seemed like that was never going to happen again. But… that’s why it’s inspiring. That’s why it matters that this year, for the 20th anniversary, this game is back and it’s official and it’s even hosting a Q&A with old developers who get to see how happy their work is still making people even now.

That’s meaningful. It’s inspiring. It’s why even during a challenging year for me, seeing CoH back and embraced means something. We don’t get many opportunities like this in the real world. Usually, we have to accept what we’ve lost and move on, and a lot of us have gotten very good at doing that, year after year.

But just this once? Everybody lives. A superhero game didn’t just get a rogue server; it got to come back from the dead. And I think that’s worth celebrating even if it isn’t your favorite game. Even as other games have overtaken it to become my main titles, this game is back for real. Just this once, we get to see things come back around.

And here I am, 20 years on, still finding things to say about a game that takes place in Rhode Island of all the states in the world. (I promise you, if you live in New England, that fact is very funny.)

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.
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