Re: Animated • Avengers “The Ultron Imperative”

avengers23Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“The Ultron Imperative”

Ultron is defeated at a heavy cost to the Avengers, but is Ultron’s threat truly ended, and is the Avenger’s teammate Thor truly gone? Doesn’t look like it!

  • Dead and Gone: Speaking of which, notice the general use of the word “gone” rather than “dead” or the like until Ant-Man says “Something that would kill Thor.” It’s an interesting use of language for what is supposed to be a “kids” show, in that it makes Ant-Man’s commentary that much more forceful. He’s the only one to really acknowledge the existence of death in this scenario.
  • The heavy Iron Man armor sends Hulk, Wasp, and Panther flying with just one swing, but they’re immediately back up. It’s unclear whether or not this was much of an effect at all in game terms, maybe some minor “damage” or the like.
  • The many different Iron Man suits Ultron takes over beg the question: why doesn’t Iron Man have all of this tech incorporated into every one of his suits? In terms of some games, the different suits may be alternatives (like Alternate Effects in M&M or a HERO System Multipower) but it’s unclear what sort of trade offs they make, if any, in terms of their alternative capabilities.
  • SHIELD blasters don’t even make a dent on Ultron, not surprising, considering its capabilities later in the episode. Such casual invulnerability is a big part of Ultron’s character (and that of many villains).
  • Hawkeye is acrobatic enough to fire three arrows in rapid succession to take down his foe while falling. In fact, Hawkeye does this trick various times in the series (firing while jumping or falling through the air).
  • The stealth armor interrupts Hawkeye’s attack by getting the drop on him, but Wasp’s warning allows him to dodge out of the way at the cost of his action. There’s an interesting tempo to this interaction: held/surprise action (armor) interrupts action (Hawkeye) but then a warning (free action of some sort from Wasp) interrupts surprise attack. Essentially the two actions cancel each other out.
  • Thor breaks the Enchantress’ spell at an opportune time, to say the least.
  • The heavy armor really takes a pounding; Wasp’s stings don’t even affect it. Hulk hurls it up and comes down hard on it, hitting four times, but still doesn’t take it out entirely.
  • A volley of Panther’s energy knives only does some shoulder damage to one armor.
  • Iron Man’s arrival makes for a quick reversal, however. He takes down the main armor, then the others fall in quick succession. Shift in the scene of some sort? It seems like when Stark shows up, the Iron Man armors go from fully-fledged opponents to minions, at least temporarily.
  • Note that Hawkeye calls Ultron “he” whereas Iron Man says “it”.
  • So, yeah, SHIELD apparently has the means to control every nuclear arsenal in the world. It’s a comic book universe, what do you want?
  • “Yeah, I know, I’m dumb.” Either the Iron Man’s are self-repairing, or not that damaged in the first place. After the brief respite provided by Iron Man, the scene shifts once again to Hawkeye and Black Panther barely hanging on against the Ultron-controlled armors
  • “I smashed you before…” This time, Ultron is ready for Hulk with a gamma ray bombardment, triggering his transformation back to Banner. Team setback there!
  • Ultron-6 has a more effective force field (similar to Iron Man’s shields) and weapons system designed by Tony Stark. Iron Man’s repulsors, Wasp’s stings, and Maria Hill’s blaster can’t penetrate it.
  • “Ultron, we would have words with thee.” Best. Thor. Line. Ever. When originally watching this episode I knew (and hoped) Thor would say that when he showed up to take on Ultron at the Helicarrier. Thor’s GM must have given him some bonus points for this one!
  • A direct hit from Mjolnir knocks Ultron down, but he regenerates! He hardly even needs to be made of adamantium.
  • Thor’s lightning blocks Ultron’s mouth-blast. Stalemate, for the moment.
  • Hawkeye’s trick arrow takes out Ultron’s shield but Ultron’s retalitory blast takes out Hawkeye. Did Hawkeye’s player sacrifice him deliberately for some sort of extraordinary effort?
  • Thor’s next strike crushes Ultron’s head, but he repairs again and blasts Thor aside. Thor delays Ultron, but is fighting a losing battle. It’s clear he’s not going to win this way.
  • “You must know if this body is destroyed, I will simply upload into another.” “I know,” Ant-Man replies. Will Ultron lose the upload ability in future episodes? It might explain why it focuses on creating a truly invulnerable adamantium shell in that case.
  • With only two seconds left, Stark detonates the missiles… with essentially no consequences.
  • “You saved the world — with science even!” Of course with science, since it’s Ant-Man’s schtick. It’s important to allow characters to succeed by being true to themselves and using the capabilities they have, rather than trying to force them into a different mold. Dramatically, Pym had to be the one to stop Ultron, and had to do it in a non-violent way, by pointing out the flaw in Ultron’s logic. The trick is in avoiding making that ending preordained to the point that it robs the scenario of any drama. If everyone knows that’s how the Avengers will win, what’s the point of playing it all out?

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Dramatic Timing: Timing is often everything in a story; events that are incredibly dramatic at the right time become anti-climax when introduced at the wrong time. A big part of the Gamemaster’s job is stage-managing some of this dramatic timing, keeping events in the game from “jumping the gun” and building some tension that can be released at the proper moment. Game systems can assist in this to some degree by following paths of building tension or resistance—such as the accumulation of bonuses over time—but mechanics themselves have no real sense of “drama” and require outside oversight in order to really come together to create dramatic moments. Similarly, players have to contribute their own dramatic flairs, otherwise they’re just audience members watching the GM orchestrate the story, rather than participating fully in it.

Villain Invulnerability: This has come up often enough that it almost seems like harping on it, but many times the villain in a superhero story closes off certain avenues of victory for the heroes by virtue of being invulnerable to that approach (usually direct attacks). Ultron is the epitome of this type of character: in the comics, it is utterly invulnerable to physical harm. In the show, Ultron-6 has a nigh-invulnerable force shield and sufficient regenerative capabilities to be virtually unbeatable with physical force. While some might cry “game imbalance!” at the sight of such an “unbeatable” foe, really all it does is set parameters for victory and frame things in terms favoring a lateral win that focuses on the heroes other capabilities.

Cost and Consequences: Oftentimes, a measure of a superhero’s capabilities is not objective but subjective based on the hero’s willingness to go all-out and make sacrifices. Many RPGs model “heroic” qualities with various game-tweaking bonuses (hero points, etc.) but another approach is in “paying” for success with consequences, a mechanic where certain options/maneuvers are open based on the story, but have a “cost” from free (as most game options are) to the loss of your character! This approach associates consequences with success as well as (or instead of) failure.

Next Up: This Hostage Earth