Expecting More: Age of Ultron

If you haven’t seen Age of Ultron yet, I am fairly sure that there will be mild spoilers used as examples in this post. If you are like me and prefer to avoid such things, consider yourself forewarned.

The more Joss Whedon does, the more I find him to be a valuable rubric for self-evaluation as a gamer. Either as a player or as a GM, I feel that Whedon’s work embodies the sort of techniques which translate well to the tabletop RPG experience. When Avengers was released, it inspired me to write a blog post about groups of mixed capabilities. Now, a few years later, I find myself inspired to write again in the wake of seeing Avengers 2. Perhaps I am becoming predictable in my dotage, or perhaps Whedon has something to offer us.

To be clear for those of you out there who see movie + gaming references as calls to action for the further blending of literary and cinematic techniques with roleplaying techniques, I urge caution. This post will not be about how to ‘craft a story’ or how to ‘recreate a movie experience’ at the table. That sort of discussion is not on the menu here. This post is about characters and expectations, specifically – expecting more.

What do I mean by the title, ‘Expecting More’? Well, several things actually, but foremost among them is to expect more of yourself. While there are a lot of interactions going on in an RPG group between characters and system, between player and characters, between players and their fellow players, and between perceptions of the events of play and the framework of story built in their enactment, the one we have the most control over is between character concept and character portrayal. Who we believe the character to be before play can often bear little relation to the person they seem to be once play starts. It may not happen all the time, but many find that there is a point in early play where the character suddenly falls into place, where we discover their voice and outlook, and everything makes sense. Once that has occurred, we are presented with the three-fold challenge of maintaining that understanding, portraying it consistently, and giving it room to grow.

Give me a note in the key of Green, then add harmony

For many reasons, in Age of Ultron Tony Stark/Iron Man retains much of the focus he had in Avengers. In a sense, his continuing journey is the narrative thread which ties the ensemble together. The actions taken by Stark could be considered the reason the events in the film occur. The interactions between the characters make those events interesting on a level other than visual stimulation. Unsurprisingly, Bruce Banner/Hulk continues his growth in focus and providing context and a voice to the internal conflicts and concerns this unusual team carry with them. Unlike the usual program many GMs follow to provide spotlight time, emphasize differences, and remember to give every character a chance to shine, Whedon goes further – he expects more. Sure we see moments of the characters on their own or in greater focus than others, and sure we see their signature traits in play, but unless we are planning events and interactions toward building those memorable aspects of story, these are not the techniques we are looking for. These techniques lend the feel of a film or a comic through virtue of leap-frogging from one character to the next, from one action shot to the next, and they remind us or show us who these characters are on a fundamental level. This is maintenance. That is not to denigrate maintenance. We are lost without it. There can be no change, no growth, no struggle for direction without a firm grounding in who, what, and where a character is. The key point there, however, is that in a group that chooses to focus on exploring character and discovering the story in play as a part of that focus, it is not the planning which provides the experience, it is the decisions in the face of uncertainty and adversity which bring out who the characters are.

A major part of what makes an Avengers movie the draw it is, is the nature of its ensemble cast. Whedon is not working with the traditional cast of lead and support, but with a full palette of leads – just like a GM. The savvy movie-goer knows what the characters represent, and how they are being portrayed in this tale. They know what to expect of the genre and go in hoping to see something which pushes the medium a little further along. How immersive an experience can it be? How far have we come since the last time we gathered? None of these elements are the draw, they are the base line of expectation. We go in expecting more, and hoping that the cast and crew have been doing that too. Routine is necessary, but to succeed, giving the audience what they want has to include their desire to see more and know that the unfolding story is set to embrace the future. No one wants love to end~

Just as routine can be a strength and a weakness in a franchise, our games have a similar relationship with expectation. We return to the table to experience those worlds, to speak in familiar tones, and to portray our beloved characters again and again. At the same time, development is baked into the experience through and through… we even call it experience. As gamers, from the first doling out of XP, we are in a sense being programmed to expect more, but sadly for many that more can just be more of the same. Age of Ultron has a way to give us more of the same, but does so down roads untraveled.

In the film, the expectations are for showing us these larger than life characters in action, but Whedon expects more from them, and from the audience. I am not sure he will get it, but the attempt was made. In spite of the spectacle, in spite of the devastation and the losses, in spite of the thrilling heroics and aimings to misbehave, Whedon shows us even more of these characters than we have managed to see before in ways that sometimes arise from intra-party banter, and sometimes from glimpses behind the eyes. We see buried hopes, deep scars, hidden loves, and the death of words unsaid. We see men we know from the comics as friends separated by lines drawn in pain and loss – not yet who we hope to see them to be. We see heroes young and old facing odds which make them doubt, and in that moment of doubt help us see their heroism more clearly – even if it appeared a moment before as mere adventurism. Whedon’s expectation of more is one of greater focus on little details which often get lost in the flurry of monthly pages or the flicker of frames in a dark theater. Whedon’s expectation of more is that of the GM who sees the chance for a group of pages to grow through dice and camaraderie into nearly tangible people, while their players – once strangers – grow into friends. The group may have assembled to satisfy their own urges to game, but with the right expectations met, that group will deliver so much more.

Age of Ultron is an action movie, but it is also a film about a group of people tasked with doing extraordinary, perhaps impossible things. In the rush toward the extraordinary too many directors, and too many game groups can forget it is not the set dressing that brings the extraordinary to life, but the characters. More specifically, it is the secret parts of the people glimpsed inside the characters which grabs the audience, which grabs the players, and never lets them go.

It’s easy to play a character as a caricature. It’s easy to forego character for class, and development for levels. It’s easy to play the skills and not the person, but in my experience, there is a person waiting to meet you inside every set of numbers on every character sheet… If you expect more. Looking between the lines and figures of the sheet is like looking through a window and seeing the world of potential just outside, waiting.

If that window of expectation is open, there is no world of wonder that your character cannot take you to, again and again.

5 Responses to “Expecting More: Age of Ultron”
  1. I finally saw the film a couple of days ago. I was entertained and your blog came to mind when they were in Korea. I think they have created a problem for themselves in that the stakes are always so incredibly high. The world’s destruction! It’s hard to tell an intimate story about any of the characters at this level of action and scope. I think a great hero story is internal first and external second. In the Avenger films, a little bit of that is lost.

  2. anarkeith says:

    Beautifully said. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. One of the things I noted was that certain characters got heavy develpment — Hawkeye, Stark, Banner, even Widow (although in a rather trite, traditional manner — I can see why feminists got their bras off for a bonfire, but it didin’t bother me…I thought the romance was a lazy ‘development’) — but while they got some of the better action and qups, Cap and Thor were given short shrift in the film. (Save the party scene, where we see character development as a background piece…did you note most of the partygoers were old WWII vets? These are Cap’s friends, what’s left from his past…he’s obviously gone ahead and reached out to his past after he visited Peggy in Cap2 and keeps in touch with them.)

    This is all, however, instructive, as well: you character doesn’t have to grow every single adventure, but instead the foundation can be strengthen as “the B team” to whoever’s got the spotlight that session.

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  1. […] approach the multi-faceted imagined worlds we spin into being with our words and thoughts. We can expect more from characters, and through those expectations, bring them to life… kicking and screaming if need […]

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