Those razor-beaked flying squid that terrorized divers off San Diego last weekend were not — repeat, not — mutant escapees from DC Comics' S.T.A.R. Labs. But plenty of equally unlikely creatures, from 30-foot gorillas to alternate-dimension space amoebas, will likely emerge from the disaster-prone research center once Sony throws open the doors of DC Universe Online, the massively multiplayer online game that will let players fight alongside famous DC characters.
"S.T.A.R. Labs is an adventure zone," said DC's Jim Lee, offering an exclusive preview of a panel coming to Comic-Con International on Saturday morning. "The Stories of DC Universe Online" promises to give gamers an idea what to expect from the highly anticipated MMO, which should be released some time next year for PC and PlayStation 3.
Revered by fanboys as the illustrator of such hit titles as Batman: Hush, Lee is executive creative director of DC Universe Online, responsible both for its overall look and its faithfulness to the DC ethos. Also braving the calamari-infested city for the panel will be DC's Marv Wolfman, one of the game's chief writers, and creative director Jens Andersen and senior producer Wes Unagi, two key figures from Sony Online Entertainment's studio in Austin, Texas.
DC Universe Online is designed to be as action-packed as a DC comic, with players choosing their own superpowers and tangling with the publisher's mighty roster of heroes and villains. But story is critical as well. S.T.A.R. Labs serves both goals.
"It's the site of every crazy experiment gone awry," Lee says. "So it allows people to have adventures that are very superheroish."
Short for Scientific and Technical Advanced Research Laboratories, the facility was introduced into the DC Universe in the 1970s and moved into the spotlight with Wolfman's New Teen Titan series in the '80s. Among other things, it's where Victor Stone was transformed into Cyborg by his father after a scientific screw-up left the rebellious teenager mutilated by a gelatinous monster. Victor's mother was killed in the attack, and Victor himself was none too happy about his new prostheses.
"For the last 25 or 30 years, S.T.A.R. Labs has been the major science center of the DC Universe," Wolfman explains. "It's where mistakes always happen."
It's also one of the few places where superheroes and supervillains can encounter each other on more-or-less neutral turf. Most other locales — the Justice League of America's Watchtower, for instance — are the domain of one side or the other. As a result, S.T.A.R. Labs was identified early on as an ideal spot for launching new storylines within DC Universe Online.
The organization's Metropolis headquarters, a sleek glass building with a dramatically sloped façade, was first highlighted last month at E3 Expo. Andersen showed off some gameplay that took place inside the facility, but the Comic-Con panel will be the first time the labs' function as a launch pad for stories has been discussed.
Wolfman himself got his first chance to venture inside the virtual laboratory a few weeks ago, when he flew to Austin from his home in Los Angeles for a four-day huddle with Andersen and Dana Kurtin, a DC veteran who is working as the game's story editor. "It has lots more rooms than I thought you would need to build," he reports. "It seems endlessly large — which is great."
Lee concurs. "It's a very large space, with a lot of different levels," he says, among them an underground room with an enormous glass wall that looks directly out into waters of the harbor. When he was designing the place, he sought inspiration in the work of Syd Mead, the man responsible for the look of such movies as Blade Runner, Tron and Aliens. "People are going to be really wowed," Lee says.
But what they'll find when they get there is hard to say. "There's a specific storyline that's presented to you, depending on what kind of character you create," says Lee. "If you're a metahero" — graced with innate powers, like Superman — "you'll have a completely different adventure than if you're a mystical villain."
Unlike Marvel Universe Online, the rival MMO that was jettisoned by Microsoft Game Studios more than a year ago and recently revived by a San Francisco Bay Area startup called Gazillion Entertainment, DC Universe Online was never envisioned as a game in which players would assume the identities of superheroes. "You wouldn't want to have 200 Batmans flying around," Lee says. "Here, you'll be creating your own legend."
Given that the DC Universe is a place where justice ultimately triumphs, however, would-be villains could get discouraged. "We want to make it fun to be either a hero or a villain. But it's a challenge to make them equal in terms of excitement and reward. If you choose the villain route and you have a mission that involves killing scores of innocent people — how much do we want to encourage evil behavior? Do you ever succeed in your villainy? That's stuff we're still deciding."
Stories will also unfold differently depending on which of the 100-plus DC characters in the game you're interacting with, Wolfman points out. "If you go up against a villain with Superman, it will play out one way," he says. "And if you do it with Batman it will be completely different, because Batman approaches things differently."
Wolfman's job is to come up with major storylines — cases for heroes to solve, crimes for villains to commit. Under his direction, Sony developers in Austin are teasing those out into a seemingly endless array of mini-narratives in which players are sent out on missions: short bursts of action, often only a minute or two long, with even briefer bits of dialogue to advance the story.
"We want to let the action tell the story, but that only gets us so far," says Andersen. "We also have to fill in on context and motivation, so each mission has some very specific dialogue. But we don't want you to have to sit there watching movies with people flapping their lips — 'blah blah blah.'"
Cases and crimes alike take place within an overall story arc devised by Geoff Johns, the DC writer who's been primarily responsible for the Green Lantern series in recent years. Among other things, Johns had to come up with a back story that explains why the DC Universe is suddenly flooded with new heroes and villains — the avatars created by players.
Details of this über-story are still under wraps. All anyone will say is that narratives from the comics will not be reprised in the game. "We're not taking specific stories," Wolfman says. "But there will be echoes of those stories in the game. If Superman goes up against Doomsday, you know what he has done in the past."
Things could work the other way around, however, with stories from the game — and even user-generated characters — appearing in DC comics. "That's my hope," says Lee. "That's the payoff. To have your character in print forever is a very cool achievement."
In the meantime, players will find themselves in an idealized version of the DC Universe — one in which Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman, even though in recent comics Wayne has apparently been killed and Batman's cowl has been assumed by Dick Grayson, better known as Robin.
As for Clark Kent, he's still a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, though with the crisis engulfing newspapers he could find himself out of a job soon. Will he take a buyout if it's offered? "Who knows?" Lee quips. "He was in broadcasting for awhile. Maybe now he'll become a blogger."
Cross-posted from Wired Game⎢Life