Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who Wants to be a Superhero?

I'm very interested in reality TV contests. I don't really like watching them so much as studying them: there really is nothing like a full-immersion situation to really get the game pumping.

Not only do the rules get a brutal work-out, but you can see the players shifting as they play - growing to like or hate each other, growing more clever or conniving, even sometimes undergoing a personality shift.

I've never really seen one like Who Wants to be a Superhero - and I wouldn't have seen it at all if it hadn't happened to be playing on the one week I really watch any TV.

For those of you who don't know, the show is about people in superhero costumes who compete in classic elimination style to be the "next big superhero". It's a first-time game, so the rules and environment are rather rough, but it has some really interesting features.

The basic rules are pretty much the same as you might see on, say, American Idol. A judge (Stan Lee) presents challenges and then kicks someone off the team. Often, the challenge is a "sneaky" (IE, wholly transparent) attempt to get the superheroes to show off some characteristic, and the importance of actually completing the task is very secondary.

The huge difference between it and other reality shows is a new kind of insanity. The system is seeded so that the least heroic people are offed early. While not entirely perfect, it does do a pretty fine job of kicking the less-than-heroic people off. Moreover, heroic traits are rewarded and forced to the forefront - quite the reverse of most other games.

Which means that what you are left with is four or five people who really do have heroic traits, bound tightly together into a supportive team. Which you then knock off one by one.

In other reality shows, you might see tears. But it's pretty much unique to this show that there are waterworks from every eye in every late episode. Let alone the nearly universal attempts to prop up the other heroes and even sabotage yourself.

It's a bizarre show. I'm not sure why they decided to go with a single superhero rather than a team: a team has more sales value and would last longer without running dry. Also, some of the people who demonstrated the most heroic nature simply had idiotic character ideas, and I'm pretty sure that sabotaged them: Monkey Girl had an absurd level of determination, but she could never really merge with the pack because her character was just too irritating and stupid.

Another bizzarity was that, instead of going with a storyline, they chose to use challenges. Often very strange challenges, like hugging an inmate. (Dude, even if that inmate was a plant, Feedback deserves major props.) I would think it would be more natural to do it with more comic-booky conflicts.

I have to admit, when it got down to four, I expected them to stage a take-over: the "Dark Whosis" takes over the show from Stan Lee and the heroes are expected to work together to get it back. They didn't, and I'm not sure why.

So, the whole thing got me thinking. It should be possible to polish this basic idea...

Imagine that you have several teams of superheroes - from four to seven heroes. At the end of each season, you transfer the fourth superhero and drop five and up, if they exist. Every season starts with four superheroes per team, and you add one newbie. You can also add a team (or two, in the first season) of newbies if you're low on teams.

Over the course of a season (which, this not being specifically a TV show, could be a full year or half a year or a month, depending on how intense the experience is), teams are expected to complete challenges. But the challenges are mostly team-specific, created to showcase the capabilities and personalities of the team. Sometimes, challenges have a person limit - two or three people only, for that personal touch. Sometimes, challenges have to be met by specific people. Sometimes, you might choose to go to another team for help with a challenge.

Teams are allowed to trade heroes to one another. "I'll trade you Jimmy Fast for Rex Delux and Delicia..." But they are never allowed to be below four heroes.

At no point do the heroes get to "vote" as to who they want to be ranked fourth and fifth-plus on their team. That is decided by a panel of expert judges. Say, fifteen-year-olds with coke-bottle glasses and acne. They can, of course, attempt to trade heroes.

In later seasons, a whole terrible team could be disbanded and replaced with newbies who would need to "redeem the name".

The challenge would be to keep it fresh for more than three seasons. Some of that would be in twists, of course - things like a hero turning bad or dying. No doubt the actors would get sick of the whole thing and beg to get killed off after a few seasons.

But twists alone cannot keep an audience, and I'm not sure there's enough real meat - it might get old and trite too quickly. One big way to help prevent that is to let the audience vote on rankings - both in-team and intra-team. But that won't help the actors from getting jaded and the newbies from being twinks...

Anyhow, if you read this far, you are a winner! Give me your ideas, counter-examples, and super-hero power. Comment!


Patrick Dugan said...

I think the reality TV show, like the post-modern novel, is a gesture towards something genuienly interactive, but which is unreachable given the medium. This sort of thing would work best as a mildly multiplayer game (think 3-8 person collaborative games). You could have an embedded social orgazinition, like a league of heroes of something, mediate people being in or out from episode (play session) to episode, maybe support it with in-game ads or something.

Actually a collaboratively narrative multiplayer game could work for a lot of pulpy settings.

Craig Perko said...

Reality TV is a wholly immersive situation. The contestant's LIFE is lived inside the game.

That's one thing that no other game type allows. It's nice to talk about "collaboratively narrative multiplayer" stuff, but wholly irrelevant.

Reality shows also allow iconification - contestants who become the focus for hundreds or thousands of avid viewers. Instead of each being fragmented by having their own characters, they all have a shared narrative that allows them to discuss and show enthusiasm WITHOUT spending five hours in the game world each day - or even each week.

Reality TV is more powerful and accessable than any other game type... it's just that there is a second, larger audience which is not playing a game, but simply watching it.

Don't underestimate the power of having a passive audience. It's a much smaller time investment and much easier for people to get excited about.

In short, I totally disagree with you on this one.