On the last night of the world, things are surprisingly quiet. There's the occasional alien invasion, just for old time's sake. In hidden laboratories, mad scientists who haven't heard the news that City of Heroes is to be shut down at midnight continue their plans to conquer a doomed world. Civilians find themselves alone in empty streets. "Where's a hero when you need them?" they sigh.
Tonight, they're mostly in Atlas Park, Paragon City's central hub. They've fought demons and psychic clockwork monsters and evil cultists and gods and ghosts and vampires, but they can't fight destiny. As I log in to join the final hours of the best superhero MMO ever made, they stand united with flaming torches and the occasional generic protest sign from the emote bank, collectively staring into the eye of destruction and daring it to blink.
Well, that's the idea. Unfortunately, due to the positioning of a giant statue of modern hero Atlas bent over in front of City Hall by the weight of the world on his shoulders, in practice everyone here is spending their last few hours staring deep into a giant stone anus.
This is not lost on the crowd. Even so, nowhere else would be appropriate.
It's just after midnight GMT, with the shut-off due to take place at 8am. There's a long night ahead. I'm on the Virtue server, which is the game's roleplaying hub, and by far the busiest at the moment. Reminded by a message in chat, I tune into The Cape Radio, mid-way through its last broadcast to Paragon City before shifting across the dimensions to serve Champions Online and The Secret World.
"There are so many people here..." broadcasts DJ Angelica - in game at least, a redheaded woman with Harley Quinn style pigtails but rather saner attire, holding court over in Pocket D. This is a club where heroes and villains from over in the Rogue Isles come together to boogie because... well, just because, really. That's as good a reason as City of Heroes usually needed to add something to the world.
At the moment, she leads a packed house in their final dances - a crowd of demons and insect people and armoured warriors and gangsters along with the spandex crowd, many of whom will be here until the bitter end. The tone of the next few hours is set by the first track - the GooGoo Dolls's Iris, straight from this year's Now That's What I Called Music collection of nostalgic music. Like the rest of the playlist, it's sentimental, not angry - tunes of very differing styles, but lots of lyrics like this:
Not all the songs are tearjerkers though. There's a strong undercurrent of finality to most of the choices, but no shortage of energy or more uplifting tunes about the good times too. Queen sing Friends Will Be Friends, joined by more eclectic choices like One Day More from Les Miserables, obvious but appropriate oldies like It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and the inevitable Holding Out For A Hero. That one plays at least a couple of times during the night.
"There's no final battle, and no narrative contextualising the upcoming shutdown."
"We're Virtue's finest player run radio station," Angelica continues, lining up the next track, "And we will be Virtue's finest player run radio station until they shut off the lights."
Disappointingly, this is the only real event going on tonight. There's no final battle, and no narrative contextualising the upcoming shutdown. Everyone on the creative side of the game has already had their admin access revoked, to the point that even when former Lead Designer Melissa "War Witch" Bianco appears to join the farewell party in Atlas Park, it's as just another prole shouting into the frenzied main chat window. Of course, this doesn't matter. She's immediately hailed and inundated with thanks, cheers, last minute burning questions about Paragon City lore, and many, many virtual hugs.
"I have to say, you don't realise, working in your cube doing your thing, that something you worked on would touch this many people," she says, hovering above the appreciative crowd in what's now just one of many instances of Atlas Park. "It's a bit stupefying, and of course humbling."
You can tell a lot about a community from how it faces its end, and on Virtue at least, City of Heroes players are conducting themselves like the paragons they're dressed as. Torches held proud, nobody is trolling or ranting. It takes a couple of hours before War Witch realises her chat filter is switched on - even the most viciously disappointed players here tonight are keeping their tongues civil.
There's resentment, of course. It's only to be expected. It's aimed firmly at NCSoft for pulling the plug, with Paragon Studios and the admins fighting to keep the server up until the bitter end all being given a literal hero's welcome. The anger tops out at grumbling though, not blazing hate; at least not here and now. This being City of Heroes, it's probably best summed up by one "Kickass Kringle" - yes, really - declaring "I've stopped with the tradition of putting coal in stockings, but this year I've loaded up the sleigh with a couple tons of reindeer poo for the guys at NCSoft."
"Whatever tomorrow brings, the anecdotes almost never have anything to do with, say, beating Hamidon or hitting Level 50. They're much more about the community that made Paragon City the place to be, and is soon to be lost forever."
About the only thing the admins seem able to do with the world is spawn a couple of high-level bosses, who show up like celebrity guests on some tacky Christmas sitcom special. You know the kind. A family sits down for lunch. The doorbell rings. "Oh, look everyone," says Mum, "It's Rularuu the Ravager, master of the Shadow Shard!" The studio audience applauds for five minutes as the colossal conqueror god of evil smiles and shifts a bit awkwardly.
Initially, nobody can be bothered to go fight him, even taunted by cries of "Last day of playing and I see chumps instead of heroes!" from one Mr. Donatello. Warped One has more success by shoving a finger into the evening's sore spot with a cry of "We have to pretend he's NCSoft!"
That sound you can hear is a hundred powers igniting.
It's at moments like these that you really start to feel sorry for dimension-conquering essences of evil. "My name is Inigo Montoya," yells the slightly mistaken Ineffable Muncie. "You killed my MMO. Prepare to die!" As the air fills with a rainbow of hellfire, another, their name sadly just a scribble in my notes screams: "Bleed this corporate scum like a vampire poked with a drill!"
It's not a good night for Rularuu, to put it mildly.
As the night passes, with the sad revelation that there won't be a big send-off, everyone returns to their vigil and holds out their torches. "Final Fantasy 14 got a (bleeping) end event," grumbles Arachnos X, actually typing out that 'bleeping' part. Mostly though, it's let go in favour of more positive conversations - the past, the future. There are a few... ahem... familiar faces in the crowd - at least one Iron Man, a couple of Power Girls, Spawn, Doctor Mrs. The Monarch, Batwoman...
Most however are original characters, presumably chosen because they're the ones who meant the most to City of Heroes' players for up to eight years of their lives. Some will be moving to another MMORPG, with Champions Online unsurprisingly looking like the main beneficiary.
For many though, this is it. There's nothing else out there to jump to. Whatever tomorrow brings, the anecdotes almost never have anything to do with, say, beating Hamidon or hitting Level 50. They're much more about the community that made Paragon City the place to be, and is soon to be lost forever.
"In the end, it looks like City of Heroes won't even have the chance to go out on its own terms, but knifed in the back by a particularly spiteful gremlin."
"We know a lady who fell in love and moved from Utah to Australia because of a supergroup mate," offers Oscar Breiner-Shawe. "If it weren't for City of Heroes, I most likely would not have met and married Vortex here, both in game and in real life," announces the hero Monsoon.
"Now I'm 46, [it's] part of why I love this game. It was always no problem that I'm a middle aged lesbian," adds Boudicia Dark. At the other end of the spectrum, a character by the name of Subzero Kid pipes up with something for someone else. "I promised my son that I'd log on the toon he made when he was 8 and say goodbye to everyone," he says. "He's 16 now."
Even without an event, Virtue is trembling - the first harbingers of the universe's destruction, or simply the number of players online, however each person wanted to think of it. Several times, everyone is booted from the server outright, facing queues to log back in that never seem to move.
"Engineers say the server problems should be resolved soon. ETA 4 hours," announces one of the last admins, HitStrike, with two hours left on the doom clock. Ha. Ha. That he is not immediately flayed to his bones by a psychic blast from around the world either hints at the community's cheer right now, or psychic powers not existing. Possibly both. Still, every reconnection is a victory - a few minutes stolen back. "Virtue cannot be silenced!" cheers Lady Warsprite, returning to her spot.
Those minutes can't last forever though, and soon enough the hourglass of fate is down to its last few sands; admin messages finally putting a time on the apocalypse. An hour. Half an hour. Less.
"Tell us a story, Zwillinger..." says Union Blue, to former community manager Andy Belford. "We want to hear how we finally stop Hamidon once and for all and lock Rularuu up for eternity and save the multiverse and everyone and their cat lives happily ever after until the end of our days."
But of course, that doesn't happen. Instead, with just eight minutes to go, the server goes down - seemingly for good. Login is impossible. In the end, it looks like City of Heroes won't even have the chance to go out on its own terms, but knifed in the back by a particularly spiteful gremlin.
"All the villains remain unbeaten, and the city unsaved. No story arc saw resolution. The War Walls shimmered to the last. There was no closure in this closure, just a sheer, calculator-driven contempt for the players who loved and paid for this world."
At the last minute though, almost literally, Virtue gets its own heroic second wind - firing up just long enough to face the firing squad with some measure of dignity. As flaming torches raise for the last time, the world ends, officially this time. Not with a bang. Not even a whimper. Just a grey dialog box saying "You have been forcibly disconnected from the server. Servers are shutting down."
City of Heroes deserved better. If you go to the website, it claims "After hosting the final heroic battle between good and evil, the City of Heroes servers shut down permanently on November 30th, 2012." Bulls**t. They hosted no battle. All the villains remain unbeaten, and the city unsaved. No story arc saw resolution. The War Walls shimmered to the last. There was no closure in this closure, just a sheer, calculator-driven contempt for the players who loved and paid for this world.
But, on the other hand...
Ultimately, what could any of that have really meant? One final scheme? A happy ever after? That's not how the world works. It's not how comics work. There will always be villains. Evil never dies, not completely. In the end, all any hero can hope for is the chance to go out on a high - to write their own final page. This one may not have been the most dramatic. It may not have been a great victory. It may, though, be the perfect image to close things on. A City of Heroes, gone but remembered, united in vigil with their torches held high, until such a time as the world realises it needs them once again.