The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Batmen vs Supermen: Expanded Universes and the Ultimate Warrior

Superman. Batman. Titans of their fictional universe. Who would win in a fight? To truly master this question we can't just smash the two together like dumb action figures. We need to dive deep into the qualities of the Expanded Universe genre.


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One age old question looms large in the minds of nerds: would Superman or Batman win in a fight?

Or would Yoda or Palpatine win, or an ascended narrator-tier Jake English or Dirk Strider win, or whatever. People love to take two characters in an expanded universe and smack them together. It's a big appeal of these kinds of narratives, and probably influences EUs toward more action oriented genre fare.

This article is primarily a comprehensive look at Batman vs Superman though. It's the most primal of these questions, so obvious that it got a whole movie named after it. Batman has his technology and his planning; Superman has raw power and a laundry list of wild powers. They're both icons of the DC brand, aesthetic polar opposites, yet inextricably mirrored, square jawed heroes who both had mothers named Martha.

Who would win?

We've actually got a variety of possible answers in story form over the years. Some authors set up the fight only to demur in the end, calling off the fight just early enough to keep some ambiguity, while providing enough fodder to let people mutter, "my guy WAS gonna win, before the refs stopped the match." Sometimes one might win, only for a post-fight reversal (Batman faked the heart attack, he got one over on Supes!). Sometimes the fight is called off in the face of the REAL villain who has manipulated things behind the scenes.

But this is kind of odd. We have so many examples, yet the debate goes on. Why is that?

Superman and Batman are part of a shared universe created by numerous authors, as part of an ongoing rather than self contained storyline. They also might appear in spin off materials that step outside of the primary continuity. So, they can fight countless times without the score ever really being settled. Any new author might depict the fight its outcome in a different way.

Anyone can just mash Batman and Superman together and write one winning according to their own biases, of course. You don't need any great understanding of the Shared Universe to do that. To truly master the art of Batman vs Superman Combat Scenarios, though, we'll need to master the different levels on which a Shared Universe can define itself.

Perhaps the most basic version of that is to turn to the beloved arbiter of nerd disagreements:

Numbers.

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Mechanical Basis

Let's stat out Batman and Superman and see who wins by the numbers! Or, if we can't determine it outright, let's at least use those numbers as the basis for imagining the scenario. Numbers seem like a useful way of keeping track of what is and isn't possible in your shared world setting. Shared docs can be helpful but it's tough to reference a whole wiki worth of information (and laborious to write it in the first place). It might help to abstract the information into chunks that are easier to process: what Batman and Superman's powers are, and how those powers compete on some relative scales, things like "intelligence" "durability" "speed", that sort of thing. Give them numerical values, and then compare.

This is a mechanical basis for a shared world: the creation of statistics or even game elements that support and unify your fiction.

These can be quite complex. Magic the Gathering's storyline is supported by a whole mechanical system that provides everything from summonable creatures to interactions between different spells. It's so essential to the storyline, in fact, that Wizards of the Coast spends tons of money each year printing playing cards that introduce new mechanics! Wow! That's a lot of effort to support a shared world fiction!

A less pinned down version of the mechanical basis is a statistical basis, where you've got a whole list of abstracted stats for characters. These stats let you compare characters to each other and to the world around them. This is the path that superhero publishers have typically taken in guidebooks about their universes, creating a list of attributes with numerical scores rather than the kind of complex mechanical abilities you might find in a tabletop role playing game.

A statistical basis might tend to simplify encounters more than a mechanical one, reducing battles to a simple matter of who can overpower whom. Superman simply using his unrivaled strength to fly Batman into the sun, for example. While simplistic scenarios can emerge in something like Magic--creatures in Magic do have a simple "power" and "toughness" in combat--a more complex mechanical system might allow for more specificity and conditionality. A creature might be able to beat up another creature, but the other creature might have an ability that lets it hit first, or an ability that extracts some cost from the attacker. Batman might use his secret Kryptonite store to steal Superman's powers at the critical moment, sending them BOTH hurtling into the sun.
You might think of this in terms of the difference between shonen manga and anime Dragon Ball Z, where characters are divided up into raw "power levels", vs competing shonen Jojo's Bizarre Adventure or Hunter x Hunter, which have a more mechanical focus on unique powers. In Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, combat encounters often hinge on who can exploit their mechanics effectively: the ability to punch and break something only to have it immediately spring together whole again might be used to break a sidewalk only to have it fly back together in midair to form a shield. If we apply the mechanical vs statistical models to Batman and Superman, we can see the difference between superheroes written on raw power (Superman trumps Batman with his seemingly limitless strength and incredible powers), superheroes written so that their unique skill sets might be utilized in creative ways (Batman trumps Superman by creative use of his training and preparation), and superheroes written more conditionally (what are the circumstances of Batman and Superman fighting?).

A mechanical system might address all these possibilities, even expanding to terrain, allies, and so on: the circumstances of a fight. A mechanical focus so detailed can become an all-consuming entity within a project, though, as complex in its rules and interactions as any series bible or wiki. Even as it abstracts information, it requires understanding the method of abstraction: you can learn to read stats and abilities at a glance rather than having to parse large blocks of text, but you have to do the work up front of memorizing what those stats and abilities mean. This can be a barrier to entry, and the development of the mechanical basis might become a bit of an albatross for a project, tying the storyline's success to the maintenance of a game that might not even be an intended focus. For this reason a mechanical basis should be used cautiously and it probably makes some sense to tend towards the simplicity of the statistical system rather than hyper complexity. You can represent many things in Magic, for example, just by power and toughness, or by the mechanic of "tapping" which indicates which creatures are temporarily exhausted and incapable of acting. How much could you strip away from your mechanical system while still representing a wide range of scenarios? Could you boil Batman vs Superman down to a compact number of abilities and then play out the scenario like a fighting game?

The ability to pose questions like this is the great strength of a mechanical basis. It allows the creatives to design narratives and mechanics recursively. Each narrative adds a series of abstractable components that may suggest certain mechanics, and those mechanics might inspire use elsewhere in other stories in unique combinations. Again, this will all tend I think to push the shared fiction in the direction of mechanical storytelling that, as in Shonen manga and anime, hinges heavily on people using various powers and abilities on one another. Books set in the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance settings of Dungeons and Dragons tend to come across as The Tale of 5000 Experience Points, because they're basically D&D campaigns as novels. That's not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a thing worth noting.

You might have noticed, though, that the more complex our imaginary mechanical basis got, the further away we drifted from Batman and Superman themselves.

That makes sense, because a shared world isn't just two beefcakes punching it out, but the whole world around them.

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The Networked Setting

Batman and Superman probably don't fight in a hyperbolic time chamber, some empty arena with no outside factors interfering but their own weapons and wits. Instead, they fight in a particular location, with particular allies and enemies that might intervene, and with their own history which influences their powers and strategies. What's more, they bring these things from separate stories, bringing two disparate casts, histories, and settings into collision.

The Mechanical Basis is something an expanded universe MIGHT have, if it's convenient. A Networked Setting like this is something an expanded universe MUST have in order to be an expanded universe. This contains the core of why you'd bother to write in this manner, with or without collaborators. You can take the separate characters of Superman and Batman, establish separately their settings (Metropolis; Gotham), their cast of extended allies (Lois Lane, Superman's pal Jimmy Olson; Commissioner Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, Robin(s)), their antagonists (Brainiac, Lex Luthor; The Joker, The Scarecrow, the poor), and concepts that exist within their imagined setting (superpowers; super science). Then, you can bring these things together, expanding both settings and playing them off of each other.

I'm not particularly interested in drawing statistical lines on how many crossovers you need before your linked stories truly become an "expanded universe" but typically the settings we refer to with this term are quite expansive. These stories contain and are made up of countless Batman vs Superman stories, with countless characters, variously feuding or allying. Each crossover has the possibility of contributing new elements to the world, in terms of settings, characters, and lore. That's part of what makes these projects so exciting: any new addition might interact in exciting ways with any established piece. When you just have Batman vs Superman we just have two relationships: Batman to Superman's world, and Superman to Batman's. If we have Batman vs Superman vs Wonder Woman, though, we suddenly have SIX relationships:

Batman        ► Superman's world
Superman      ► Batman's World
Wonder Woman  ► Batman's World
Batman        ► Wonder Woman's world
Wonder Woman  ► Superman's World
Superman        ► Wonder Woman's World

That's a pretty abstract way of looking at it, and in practice there's many more and at the same time many less connections we could draw: individual characters all are potential variables that affect the story of a crossed-over character's world, but at the same time not every character is worth crossing over, and some worldbuilding concepts ("Superheroes exist") will be shared between them. Batman and Superman sharing the page is less dramatic than some alternatives, because they share many assumptions about their world. Batman and Vriska Serket from Homestuck sharing a page raises many, MANY worldbuilding questions.

So we've got the motive to bring these characters together, but no transportation. This demands a solution! We'll give Superman the power to fly; we'll give Batman a variety of bat-themed vehicles. This way, they can visit each other! Often, expanded universes will give their major characters such transportation, and the wider the scope of the world, the more dramatic their power to move tends to get (and sometimes, the more restricted). An old statistic about Magic the Gathering's Planeswalkers claimed that those beings with the unique spark that let them travel between worlds were one in six billion... and only one in six billion of THOSE people ever actually accessed their powers. This was, it turns out, a pretty silly piece of worldbuilding, as it took the dramatic crossover potential of an infinite multiverse of large and varied worlds, and narrowed it down to almost nothing, with just a few characters able to travel from place to place and interact. In the modern era, there are far more Planeswalkers. Furthermore, they all speak English. This can seem a little silly at times, but is often the most convenient way of enabling crossovers. Batman and Superman share a language, after all, but it would be frustrating if they couldn't communicate enough to team up with Wonder Woman simply because she comes from a remote island and speaks, uh, ancient Greek I guess? These things are often components of the expanded universe, though it's worth considering their use with caution, as their shorthanding of space and difference can make the geography and cultures of the place start to feel contentless and flat.

But, we don't have to worry about that too much with our Superheroes. We have a mechanical basis that stats them out and gives them a series of abilities, and they each come to a fight in a particular setting, with a group of allies at their side. Lois Lane researches the secrets of the Bat Man's mysteries! The Joker sews chaos in the city, complicating the battle! Superman's pal Jimmy Olson does... whatever it is that he does! The two worlds come together and interact, making real a whole constellation within all the potential connection points of the setting. It's all coming down to this-

But wait, don't throw a punch yet, either of you!

We have characters to fight, and we have a shared world in which their contest takes place, but we haven't asked why we're having them fight! This networked setting with all its possibilities, and the mechanical or statistical basis that grounds the fight, can become bait for nerd wank and promote writing from a highly mechanistic and combat-focused standpoint that obscures questions of narrative and thematic purpose. This goes beyond the plot reasons for the fight. Anyone, Lex Luthor, say, might come up with some clever trick to get a punch thrown. Setting up Batman vs Superman is easy. No, this is a question of meaning. Is there some point to Batman and Superman fighting beyond the sheer fun of it?

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The Hyperflexible Mythology

Elsewhere, I've described a hyperflexible mythology as a balance between a defined framework, and an open ended and loose field of possibilities. The term comes from infamous webcomic Homestuck, which features a series of heroic roles (prince, witch, lord, knight, Bard...) and mystical domains (light rage hope breath void...). The teenage protagonists use these classes and aspects to complete quests on their unique planets, each with their own civilization of consorts, a final boss called a denizen, and other such nonsense. So, the story has a mechanical structure that defines various possibilities, but the mythological structure the protagonists find themselves in is also vast and "hyperflexible": there are 14 known classes, 12 known aspects, and countless possible worlds and denizens and so on.

This hyperflexible mythology provides a structure for the expansive story of Homestuck, but it also, as the term suggests, provides a deeper thematic element, a mythic and epic resonance that defines the conflict between the kids and their enemies... and each other. We can see this in other examples of hyperflexible mythology. Avatar: The Last Airbender introduces a system of fire, water, air, and earth, elaborates philosophies and cultures for the "benders" that use those elements, and then, in hyperflexible fashion, begins to adapt and elaboration upon that basic framework. An expanded universe project can take a hyperflexible myth framework introduced in one story and then respond to it in the future. This is how the first and second Avatar series relate to each other: initially the Fire Kingdom acts as a tyrannical empire, but in the second series we see a whole series of villains with philosophies derived from Earth, Wind, and Air as well. The relationship between benders and non-benders is also analyzed and deconstructed.

Is this starting to sound a bit like the mechanical basis? There's certainly crossover: a hyperflexible myth allows you to compress information and associate it into categories, much like mechanics do. An aesthetic, a power set, and a philosophical set of ideals can be grouped together. Everyone passingly familiar with Harry Potter probably knows that Slytherin House at the magic school of Hogwarts is associated with the color green, serpents, acquiring power often at any cost, and perhaps even deeper associations to dungeons, potion-making, politics and aristocracy, and so on. The philosophical component is key here, though, as it allows you to actually say something meaningful when bringing ideals together. The mechanical basis of Magic the Gathering--the five Colors of Mana--wouldn't be as powerful if they didn't suggest clashes of personality between Red's fiery emotionality, White's love of order and hierarchy, Black's strident individuality, Green's insistence on natural processes, and Blue's fascination with the possibilities of invention. Magic is often most successful when exploring how any of these colors can in the right contexts be heroic, or villainous.

That's true of Batman and Superman, too. We can easily imagine a mythology for them, based on a duality between Light and Dark. Superman works in the day, the bright champion of the people, while Batman works in the shadows to defeat evil. Superman has been associated with Truth, Justice, and the American Way, whereas Batman is, infamously, not the hero we need but the... wait, not the hero we deserve, but the hero we've... got? Shit, I forget how that one goes. That's sort of the point though: Batman often finds himself with one foot dipping into the murky pool of ambiguous antiheroics, whereas Superman tends to represent clear legitimacy, the authority of the international Justice League, and so on.

Unless we find that American Way stuff suspicious, of course. Then things get a bit more complex. One weakness of this model, like that of mechanics, is a tendency toward oversimplifaction and the locking of things into simple good and evil binaries. The main thing everyone knows about Slytherin is that they're The Bad Guys, after all. This can, when applied to whole cultures, become essentializing and even racist, orientalist, and so on. It is all too easy to imagine the bright daylight city of Metropolis exporting its poverty to the shadowy Gotham, where people just... don't seem to know how to live right, after all! There's nothing to do for them but to be tough on crime, lock the mentally ill away in Arkham, and scare the crap out of petty thieves.

Conversely, it's precisely this symbolic approach that lets us codify Metropolis and Gotham, Superman and Batman as carrying meaning and weight beyond themselves. We can take all that negative stereotyping of Gotham and turn it on its head, make it a core part of the ideology. That has some resonances with how Batman and Superman have functioned in the past: as the Normal Human With Technology vying against the Superpowered Alien; as the libertarian hardman from the mean streets fighting the symbol of authority; as unhinged vigilantism being brought to heel by an icon of justice.

To these past stories of Batman vs Superman, we can add our own fight, drawing upon all our existing frameworks. Metropolis, sun-lit, is a clean city of tech innovation, super science, and economic prosperity, watched over by its protector, Superman. Nearby, the shadowy city of Gotham, where the gothic towers of the rich rise so high that the streets are a midnight canyon of shadow, the Batman lurks. But as Metropolis rises in glory, Gotham slides into despair. The criminals and supervillains of Metropolis are exported to Gotham's private prisons, and, when they escape, they prey upon the shadowy city. Batman, the hero at midnight, goes to confront Superman, the hero of high noon. Superman has overwhelming, perhaps infinite, strength, and a series of powerful game-breaking abilities. Batman has his high Deduction and Deception stats, allowing him to design an advantage for himself if necessary.

We can even, now that we've established some symbolism for the two, expand it further. We've got Midnight and High Noon already, so why not have some clock imagery, counting down to our confrontation? Sure, we're blatantly ripping off Alan Moore, but so has literally every other comic writer since the 1980s, and we can't do worse to him than his former publisher DC has, so for this thought experiment, we'll roll with it. The Flash comes racing in as The Dawn, the red sky at morning signalling a storm, the lightning and thunder. Central City supplies so much of the power to Metropolis and Gotham; The Flash has a stake, but is caught in between two sides. From the benthic depths of the early morning rises Aquaman, the vengeance of the sea, real mad about all the plastic waste that Metropolis's tech industry produces. Wonder Woman rises like the light of the morning to... avenge... Greece? 

I have no idea what to do with Wonder Woman in this scenario.

And actually this is getting a bit away from us. This isn't just a fight between Batman and Superman now. It's so much more than that. It's...

The Event.

And that's real exciting... but events aren't all they're cracked up to be, and next time we'll ask ourselves the question: do we really want Batman and Superman to fight at all?

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This article is part of To Make An Apple Pie From Scratch, a guide to writing expanded universe fiction. You can read future articles early on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon for $1, and when the book is finally finished, edited, and compiled into ebook form, for $5 you'll have your name in the credits as a supporter, and you'll receive the book at least a month before its public release.

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Follow the project here on Storming the Ivory Tower, updating Mondays or sometimes Tuesdays.

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1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, another great article! Looking forward to seeing what this is all building to.

    ReplyDelete

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