IF Comp 2015: Cape

capeCape (Bruno Dias) is a near-future superhero origin story. The protagonist is at the margins of society: a foreign national without much in the way of local family or friends, living in an impoverished inner city under encroaching police powers, and with pressing circumstances that drive them to theft; discovering a mysterious token that grants them animal powers, they embark on the usual vigilante career of beating up muggers in alleyways, before discovering that More Sinister Schemes Are Afoot.

While it obviously aligns pretty well with the political tone of Dias’ previous work – anti-authoritarian, bottom-up leftist – it’s not a radical departure from the normal modes of superhero stories in the Gritty Era, now some thirty years old. It has some contemporary elements to it – surveillance drones, the threat of climate change – but most of it felt as though it could come from any point in comics history from about 1969 on. The villain – a sinister billionaire developer with gang ties, bent on brutal gentrification – means that the central plot has basically the same premise as the first season of Arrow; the main difference is that the protagonist is an outsider who stumbles upon the plot, not someone with deep ties to the principals. So I felt that this was well-executed, but wasn’t saying anything very unexpected.

Dias is really good at keeping a story rolling efficiently, and at working in enough useful detail to make worlds and characters feel real without slowing things down.

What he’s not really invested in is deep interactivity; the story feels mostly like a friendly gauntlet, and although there are some genuinely important decisions along the way (which animal is your superpower themed after, do you kill a secondary bad guy or not, how much do you trust your room-mate) they don’t affect the story’s central thread very heavily until the conclusion. Equally important, it doesn’t put much effort into communicating how and to what extent your agency matters; it’s often unclear how much impact you can expect a given choice to have.

The big problem in superhero games, on the whole, is that superpowers break the rules of the normal world – they break it in radically different ways, which means that heroes take different approaches and tell different kinds of story, and this is a big part of what makes individual heroes interesting. You can’t take a Black Widow story and sub in the Hulk; and if you could, it’d be a sign that one of them didn’t have enough of a strongly-defined role. Most obviously, this can cause simulation challenges – if you have a hero who can smash through any wall and another who can shrink to a pinhead at any time, you’re looking at some really difficult level design – but it’s also a matter of narrative. Choosing which superhero you’re invested in is really more of a focus choice than anything, and that’s very hard to deliver in games. Cape feels as though it works when you’re a Raven character – but replaying it as a Shark felt to me as though I was still a weakly-reskinned Raven. So it’s not really a story about character – the character-creation aspects are broad enough to make it difficult to do much author-directed characterisation, and thus as an origin story it can’t really be about ‘this is Photon Tornado, and this is what her deal is!’

The story maintains a healthy degree of scepticism about the efficiacy of violence, about whether beating up small-time crooks or breaking up the occasional narco gang is really going to accomplish anything. It doesn’t delve much into the deeper problem of superhero fiction – its fundamental assumption that police would do a better job if they were much more powerful and much less accountable.

It also makes some concessions to the idea that violence is more messy than fiction – and especially superhero fiction – generally likes to admit: the protagonist remembers uneasily that knockout concussions generally entail some kind of brain damage, worries about assailants being unable to afford ER visits. I still felt that it pulled its punches somewhat in allowing the PC to avoid lethal force (you really can’t regularly employ knockout blows and choke-holds, in uncontrolled, high-adrenalin street fights, without killing some people. That goes triple if you don’t have backup and specialist training). In general, though, I felt as though it had done its homework on making fights feel grounded in reality despite the presence of super-strength and speed.

While I’m quibbling – you know how guns and horses are the two things that readers will always have accuracy quibbles with? There’s this section where you’ve taken a gun from someone, and have the option to ‘dismantle’ it:

You grasp the gun securely in one hand. You pull the magazine release and let sixteen bullets fall to the floor. You pull back the slide, ejecting the one in the chamber. All accounted for, you leave the handgun on Hank’s counter.

That’s not ‘dismantling’ the gun. That’s securing it, or unloading it. ‘Dismantling’ suggests that it’s going to take a good while, and some armourer skills, for anyone to put it back together again. (In other gun pedantry, I don’t buy that a snub-nosed revolver is ‘standard police issue’ if we’re in a near-future setting. A personal backup weapon, maybe.)

The story ends on a bit of an anticlimax: you’ve defeated a mid-tier villain, you’re alive, you have some inkling about a Big Plot but not much idea of what you’re going to do about it. I think, ultimately, that sums up my feelings about this: it had very competent execution, but by the end I was sort of wondering what the point was. I got the impression that its original intent was to explore a near-future dystopia, but that this got pushed to the edges a bit.

Score: 7. (My scoring explained.)

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One Response to IF Comp 2015: Cape

  1. sojournerstrange says:

    >its fundamental assumption that police would do a better job if they were much more powerful and much less accountable.

    I’m surprised by this characterization. It seemed to me that the heavy emphasis on corrupt cops, the relative ineffectiveness of the protagonist’s actions, and to a lesser extent the uneasiness about the drones, was indicating a world in which the police would do a better job if they were much more accountable. That is to say, rather than “police are prevented from being effective because there are too many restrictions and not enough firepower/manpower/etc.” or “individual vigilantes would be better than an organized police system”, it seems to be hinting more toward “the police system needs to be cleaned up” — *if* that. (I got more of a hopeless vibe from it overall, really; it didn’t feel like it was particularly pushing a concrete “solution” to the problem of crime at any level.)

    OR maybe I have misunderstood your sentences. This is not only possible but relatively probable.

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