We sit in a gothic Abbey surrounded by brick and shelves of leather bound tomes. A fire blazes in the hearth. Blade, vampire hunter extraordinaire, is draped in a leather jacket and reflective red glasses. Captain Marvel sits next to him in a grey and gold version of her suit. Across from them, Steve Rogers, lounges in a sweatshirt and speaks about his favourite part of revisiting The Art of War. “The first time I read The Art of War I was attracted to the leadership”, he explains, “but now I’m more interested in the enemy. How they think and feel. How we might convince them our greatest strength is our greatest weakness.”
And then he asks me what I think our greatest strength is. Not just a question of who is the strongest hero, but a challenge to my idea of warfare. What do I believe is a strength that could surprise our enemy, win us the day? I end up explaining “The Abbey, our transdimensional hideout, is our greatest strength.” Not for any reason other than I remember how important geography is from when I read The Art of War at University. What follows is Captain god-damned America reflecting on the sixth chapter of The Art of War in detail, and how it informed his tactics in combat. And, if we’re being honest, he makes some interesting points about the ideology of warfare.
This book club goes on for a handful of books over a period of nights. This all sounds, well, neat but nothing to write home about. Except for the reason book club exists at all. I am playing the immortal Hunter, the daughter of Lilith, Queen of Demons, resurrected to fight the Queen of Demons once again, and to this end, we’ve recruited The Avengers and the home team, The Midnight Suns (including Blade, the vampire running book club). During the opening of our campaign against the forces of hell, in our down time, Blade was speaking to Captain Marvel, who he fancies, and suggested they read a book and discuss it. Captain America overheard, invited himself, and now here I am. Trying to mediate Steve Rogers, Captain America himself, a fourth wheel to this evening, while waxing philosophical about The Art of War. This is Midnight Suns at its best -
And then, incredibly, after the meeting Captain America corners me and explains that he thinks book club is Blade’s way of getting to know him - explains he thinks it’s odd that Blade didn’t feel comfortable enough to just come out and ask to be friends, completely misreading the constant flirtation between Captain Marvel and Blade. Captain America’s earnest concern for wanting to be buds with Blade makes it all the funnier.
I didn’t have anything to write about the game until this moment and it just hit me in its profound mundanity: it’s nice to hang out with my superhero pals in a big ole mansion, talk about stuff we like and fight bad guys. More than that it feels like sharing a dorm room with earth’s mightiest (and weirdest) heroes. And it can be charming in a way that the MCU films struggle with at times.
Midnight Suns isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny with quips and jabs, though sometimes it is. Instead, the majority of the humour comes from sitcom style setups where different characters have assumed they understand a situation, and me, playing a resurrected demon hunter from 300 years ago watching, knowing the what’s really going on, only adds to the enjoyment. Often Hunter can’t quite understand how to explain and resolve these misunderstandings as she lacks the contemporary vernacular or context. Instead, your main role as the player is to empathise, relate and support your team as people, not just as heroes.
It’s hard to explain what makes Midnight Suns sing because it isn’t any one piece of the game. Early one, many story missions start with your team ala Batman on a rooftop speaking in hushed tones about the assault. Invariably someone on the team mentions a careful approach, and seconds later someone else smashes a skylight into pieces. And this is the team we have: these are the most powerful heroes on the gosh darn planet. Captain Marvel has no need to sneak around when she can punch the building down.
Later on, you roll into missions with swords and powers out, no pretense of sneaking. You’re the god damned Midnight Suns and you’ve got IRON MAN with you. And… the hero stuff does rule. It’s deeply satisfying to string together abilities and powers to decimate your foes. Watching Iron Man fly above the battle and unleash an attack that kills ten enemies at once never gets old. But it’s the melodrama back at base camp that’s the real crunchy goodness of the game. You get to see these ultra strong folks who were just blowing scores of demons into smithereens make very human choices among similar company, and develop a brotherhood of a sort.
To this end, Midnight Suns takes a while to find this charm. Understandably, initially these characters feel like simulacra of their film counterparts, but it becomes obvious they are not based on the actors who made them famous. While Downey Jnr’s Iron Man is charming, brash, and eventually loveable, here Tony Stark is superstitious, wicked-smart, fragile, and struggles with social moraees when interacting with the younger members of the team. And unlike their MCU versions who find common ground, personal disputes in this game are not solved through hardship.
As you and the team fight against the forces of hell itself, friendships grow, but so too do interpersonal dramas intensify. Stark attempts increasingly outrageous plans to prevent the end of the world while the Midnight Suns, the home team of spooky sorcerers and the new Ghost Rider, grow frustrated at being side-lined. Doctor Strange spends most of the story barely able to propose an idea, sticking instead to high-minded rhetoric that serves only to block everyone else’s ideas at every turn with what-is-isms that remind me of the worst parts of the manosphere.
And perhaps this is where Midnight Suns most coherently describes the complexity of heroism. In your negotiation of these conflicting personalities, the game presents an understanding of how teams function. The mundane, interpersonal drama that affects on-the-field-performance of football players is maneuvered here into something much more akin to the drama of Formula One racing. This isn’t high school students trying to navigate dating, homework and football training, this is a handful of ultra powerful individuals with traumatic backgrounds with a singular focus. In Formula One, it’s all about the team winning. In Midnight Suns, it’s to stop the end of the world.
You can be dismissive to Tony Stark and his plans, but he’ll do them anyway. You can effectively call Doctor Strange a pompous arse (multiple times, I checked) and he stays on the team. But in doing so the game misses a trick. Sort of. Beyond losing some friendship points, these choices don’t affect the combat. When you get out in the field and play the card game based combat of Midnight Suns, there are few consequences to how you behave in The Abbey beyond the better friends you are with a hero, the better they are in the field.
Rather than placing you in impossible “best of bad choices” moments where helping Stark might insult Wolverine, who then, during a moment of importance in combat ignores your orders, you get to always be everyone’s friend and they’ll always follow you into battle. Do what you say. At all times.
The narrative wrapper of the Hunter leading Earth’s mightiest weirdos against tides of demons while periodically pissing off said weirdos creates a curious friction. You may be at odds with Nico or Stark or Reyes, but they will always step up when the time comes. Heroes do not falter in their service. And I’d marked this as a challenge of the game - a critique, even, until maybe 30 hours in when I’d become chummy with Captain Marvel, a woman who spends most of her life in the stars fighting entire empires by her lonesome. Captain Marvel - Carol - spends most of her off-hours chatting to me about her love life, her origins and her place in life. And that was when I got Midnight Suns. Not just got it, but it got me.
Perhaps the most profound experience of my time with the game was sitting on a rooftop with Captain Marvel discussing her loss of wonder at the comos. After so many years traveling the universe, even the infinite has lost its luster. She laments that working out holds no real rewards: she can lift any weight. Sparring is dull: she can best any opponent. A sport she loved, darts of all things, is something that’s lost its purpose: she has true aim. Carol Danvers tells me her life has become frictionless. She has, in some sense, everything anyone could ever want (and let me tell you, the other heroes are jealous of this), but she hasn’t quite squared it away with herself, not really.
Quietly, the story allows me to suggest this is because Carol has grown. Changed. The wonderful and challenging is mundane to her, and so she owes it to herself to find the next frontier (pun not intended). We speak of what could have beens and what might of beens. The dialogue treats the existential enormity of these heroes as a given: these are conversations they must have regularly in the same way Wolverine bitches about the coffee beans and Peter Parker never shuts the god damn hell up literally ever about anything oh my god I wish Peter would just be quiet for like ten minutes it’s exhausting.
And that’s the magic of Midnight Suns, really. It finds the mundane within, and despite, the extraordinary. Movie nights with heroes who could end the world with the slash of a sword or the snap of a wrist. Shop classes where Stark tries so hard to fit in he pisses everyone off. The deep insecurity of Scarlet Witch who can’t quite ever let herself fit in. The consistent, unending personal drama of keeping the world’s greatest heroes on each other’s side is the crunchy, fascinating hook.
The writing can be doofy and awkward, yes, but that's the point. Hunter is out of time, trying to connect with our favourite quip-tackular heroes. Capable of being a little sarcastic and a whole heck of a lot of earnest. It remains, somehow, risky to write stories with characters who authentically engage with each other. Who take each other's concerns seriously. And the empathy that waxes and wanes within the cast is often compelling, strange but forever interesting.
Midnight Suns may only describe these ideas of heroism, interpersonal drama and responsibility - it never really has anything to say about them. But it sort of doesn’t matter. A bit like Citizen Sleeper and all the good Fallouts, the story finds success in the characters feeling realised: folk with competing ideas, motivation, heck even conflicting powers, doing their best to save the world, sure, but more importantly, are trying to save each other.
The game forgoes the quip-a-minute formula of its parent company and chooses, instead, to be deeply, awkwardly humanist. The world isn’t saved by a very big gun, but instead, but by the Hunter connecting with her team as people, and rallying behind their needs, desires, and insecurities. In the midst of the end of the world, you get to be warm, compassionate, complicated and honest. Hunter might be able to throw baddies around with telekinetic whips and slay wave on wave of demons, but that isn’t her superpower, not really.