On playing the big bad spider: Elise

League of Legends features a champion known as Elise, the spider queen. Yes, that’s her actual in-game title. I have a lot of happy memories associated with Elise, even though she has fallen out of favor lately and I’ve been playing her less. I began playing League on the patch in which Elise was released, and picked her up as my second champion (after Mundo, who is bae). I’ve always had a soft spot for her as a champion, and have recently been trying to build her in a relatively unorthodox way (if you’re a LoL person we can talk more about this).

Elise’s schtick is that she can transform between human and spider forms, and therefore has access to a greater variety of spells than most other champions. Elise is not unique in this; I can think of Nidalee and Jayce who also transform between ranged and melee forms.

Elise has three skins which allow her to appear slightly differently. In the image below, the picture on the top left is Elise’s default appearance, and the other three are the alternates. The picture on the top right represents a skin that was given as a reward for achieving a high level in ranked play (Championship Elise).
All four (including the base) skins for EliseElise is also described as an archetypal femme fatale/black widow, and her basic character design supports this. From her lore:

Elise’s entrancing beauty and grace conceal the pitiless, black heart of a deadly predator. With ruthless cunning, she lures the unsuspecting with promises of favor from the spider god. Having exchanged her humanity to become something far more sinister, Elise sacrifices the innocent to maintain her power and seemingly eternal youth. No one can fathom how many have been caught in her web, slain to feed her insatiable hunger.

Biggest Pet Peeve: Despite the fact that she correctly has eight legs and that some of her skills depict this, one image for one skill depicts a spiderling with six legs. 😦

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Image Courtesy Riot Games

Elise is an example of a spidery champion designed to be vaguely terrifying. If we look at an interview with some of the designers, we can see that they intended to tap into a widespread cultural arachnophobia. In fact, some of the designers suffered from this same arachnophobia:

When our animation director RiotBamDragon goes over animations for review, he looks at everything for little fixes. I found it weird that he only had suggestions for the female-form, when he’s usually more comprehensive with feedback. I quickly realized that he never looked at the spider form because he’s terrified of spiders. “The spider’s fine. Spider’s fine. Just ship it.” I asked him, “Did you even look at the spider?” “Yeah, I’m sure it’s fine,” he hastily replied.

– “Inside Design: Weaving the Spider Queen’s Web,” Post to Riot Forums, 19 October 2012 (Retrieved 10 June 2015)

In fact, the designers mention having to put effort into editing Elise’s design in order to make her less scary to view and play. Mike “ohmikegoodness” Laygo, –Senior Animator, says in that same interview, “I had to de-creepify her a bunch … reduce a lot of the twitchiness because it was just too frightening and unnerving.” Similarly, Mark “Riot G Mang” Sassenrath,– Game Analyst, remembers, “She actually became too scary, so we had to tone it down.” Despite comments like these, it is clear that being terrifying is part of Elise’s character design; perhaps the real challenge was making her scary without being unplayable.

As a side note, one thing that emerged from that interview was a meditation on the challenges of cross-cultural design. Sassenrath mentions in an aside that “something that I didn’t know was that arachnophobia is pretty much a uniquely western phenomenon. In China, for instance, there isn’t the widespread association between spiders and scary that we have here.” Designing a game for a worldwide audience makes some of these culturally-specific fears apparent, waggling an eyebrow at socialization as a means of intensifying a small fright.

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On playing the big, bad spider: Overview

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post where I outlined the problem of spider representation in popular culture. Here, I will give an overview of all of the (digital, mostly) games where you can play as a spider, or that feature spider protagonists. There will be a few examples where I stretch the concept of protagonist to include what I see as meaningful representation. List presented in no particular order (release dates in parentheses, but note that many of these games have regular updates):

  • League of Legends (2009), a popular online multiplayer game, where you can play as Elise, the Spider Queen. Elise has a human form and a spider form. In League of Legends, you control a single champion from a third-person view (Elise is one of many champions).
  • In both DOTA (2003) and DOTA 2 (2013), you have the opportunity to play as Black Arachnia, the Broodmother. Like League of Legends (the original DOTA mod was the inspiration for many MOBAs), you control your character from a third-person perspective. Unlike League of Legends, you can control multiple units at once. The Broodmother spawns spiderlings out of the corpses of her enemies; these spiderlings are also controllable.
  • In Don’t Starve (2013), which has single-player and multiplayer capability (as of June 2015 with the release of Don’t Starve Together), you can choose to play as Webber. Webber is a boy who was eaten by a spider—it’s complicated, but Webber is effectively a spider-human hybrid with an affinity for spiders. Don’t Starve also has the player control one character from a third-person perspective.
  • In Arachnophilia (2008), a free online flash game hosted on a variety of sites, you control a spider trying to build an effective web. Insects fly through your web, and depending on the insect, are either caught or break your web. Different insects provide you with extra stats or do more damage. It’s a cute flash game about web-building, although the interface could be smoother.
  • The card game Hearthstone (2014) features a few spider cards, although it’s debatable whether they count for this. In Hearthstone you play as a hero and then play minions (cards), and there isn’t really a spider hero. I’m arguing that since they’re your minions they count as protagonists for the purposes of this post—although it’s definitely possible that I’m just swayed by the cute spider tank. Look at it!
  • That’s all I can think of, although I’m sure there are some oversights here. I’m pretty confident that there are a number of board or card games with spiders (Betrayal at House on the Hill seems particularly suited to this), but I haven’t played them or played those scenarios so I can’t say. Feel free to comment and point me towards additions to the list!

On meeting the big bad spider

From a discussion on twitter (see this link for an anchor to the discussion), I am inspired to make a post about a subject I’ve thought about for a long time: spiders in games (and other cultural artifacts).

Part of why I’m writing this post is to interrogate why exactly spiders are featured as monsters and villains so often. Western popular culture is full of mythic villain spider figures, and some of these are detailed in Michalski and Michalski (2010) if you’d like to explore this archetype. Other cultures include vampire-like spiders, like the Jorōgumo (絡新婦) of Japanese legend who seduce and kill men (not coincidentally, this word colloquially refers to several species in Argiope and Nephilia, known for their striking webs and coloring). The trickster Anansi, whose stories were first told among the Ashanti, usually appears as a spider. It is important to note that like many trickster figures, Anansi is not quite good and not quite bad—but always clever. A very different sense of spiders comes out of a story I grew up hearing, although infrequently, details the spider responsible for saving Muhammed’s life when he was hiding in a cave: she spun a web over the mouth of the cave and the searchers passed it by (spiders have a small measure of respect because of this myth). This list is by no means exhaustive.

Here, we must first take a short detour and think about Tolkien (as perhaps the originator of much of what passes for fantasy these days). In Middle-Earth, giant spiders (including Shelob, so don’t nerd out at me and say she doesn’t count) are evil, horrific aberrations, who want only to kill and eat what they find. Shelob happily exists on the border of Mordor, and she is never shown as having interiority or a sense of self. She is just a big bad. It’s not surprising that most high fantasy treats spiders the same way. Anything vaguely arachnid is bad, especially if it’s also magic and also giant. I’m not going to veer into literature too much, but I will list a few examples:

  • R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels (based on a Dungeons and Dragons setting and inspiration for some of the Bioware Forgotten Realms games!) depict the drow living in service to their goddess Lloth, the spider queen. For all intents and purposes, the drow are evil, spiders are also evil, and the morality imposed by living according to spider rules is bad. (Yes, it’s kind of reductive…luckily there’s a lot to work with within these extremes and thus role-playing can be entertaining.)
  • Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels (featuring feminist heroes like Alanna, Kel, and Daine!) include an immortal race known as spidren, giant furry spiders with human faces (I’ve never quite understood how exactly this is supposed to work…magic?). Most other immortal races are given the benefit of ambiguous morality, or even of members who exemplify goodness—anyone else remember Rikash Moonsword, the stormwing? No spidrens are ever named (unless things have changed since 2005 or so), and none of them are shown to speak. They are violent: according to the wikia, which I visited to get that link for Rikash, they are “intractably vicious.”
  • Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, in the second book, features a race of Weavers who hate giant bugs almost as much as the mammals hate giant bugs (n.b., this series is incredibly bizarre). This example is a bit of a switch-and-bait, because it’s actually one of the relatively positive depictions of spiders; giant spider warriors are terrifying and led by a queen (who resembles a black widow and wants to mate with and eat the protagonist??), but they also end up allying themselves with the mammals to save the world. Soooooo….
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Aragog—I mean, Chamber of Secrets. Need I say more? OK OK, giant talking spider with hundreds of spawn who want to eat Harry and his best pal Ron. He helps out, first, though, which I guess makes it okay. (I’m not even going to start nitpicking about how Aragog is long-lived and stuff but is male…)

Some of these examples, and many more, can be found on the exhaustive TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider,” which I found as a result of googling the Weavers from Spellsinger. This page also has a subcategory for “Tabletop Games” and one for “Video Games.” (So my work here is done, right? Right?)

Naw, my work is not done, and let me tell you exactly why. These lists are great (no seriously, I learned a lot just by glancing at it), but they don’t do two things: 1) they don’t tell us why this convention keeps propagating, and 2) they don’t feature games where you can play as a spider. Even with some beneficial giant spiders, we still don’t have a sense of the interiority of spiders. As the TV Tropes page for “Giant Spider” says, “[t]hey usually have little personality, beyond vague malevolence.” That said, I’m in no way arguing that spiders have demonstrated a sense of self or anything, but some species have been shown to exhibit personality traits (Jackson et al., 2002 ($); Holbrook et al., 2014 ($)). And creators throughout history have endowed all sorts of things and creatures with personalities—how many candelabras do you personally know that can talk? Why is it that this creative license seems to falter in the face of an overwhelming, learned, social stigma against spiders?

I could speculate about this, and I have. But I don’t want to leave you with answers, I want to leave you with that one question, and hopefully, if you make something in the future, you’ll consider the spiders.

(They’re way cool, really.)

Part 2 of this post might involve me actually listing or critiquing some games where you play as spiders, and no, Spiderman doesn’t count…stay tuned!

Home, sweet home.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table is on homes in games, a topic I’ve thought about for years. Read other blogs on the same topic by following the links in that post.

At first, when I read the inspiration/solicitation/prompt, I thought about Minecraft. Minecraft is for building things; if you want to get a sense of what people do when given the tools and time, check out the top posts on the r/minecraft subreddit. Most of these, I can’t look at without gasping (or wondering why the hell people do this).

Since picking it up again a few months ago, I’ve made many homes, most of which I shared with other people. What can I say, I like designing and building a space for myself and for people I care about. In Minecraft, I tend towards a type of architecture best characterized as Hobbit Holes: I dig into features in the landscape, and hollow out rooms for myself. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and I don’t follow a pattern. I just carve out space to suit my fancy.

There was this one time on a server I shared with a few friends, and I basically created an underground island base by digging. The only above-ground bits were two structures, one of which was a basic shelter/harbor (because who doesn’t want a pool of water in their entrance hall?) and the other ended up becoming a giant obsidian spider (thanks creative mode). Over the course of several weeks, I just dug, and built, and dug, and built. You can see the resulting change of landscape in the three minimap images below from screenshots I took in summer 2014, and get a sense of the visible (and invisible) structures.

I am not writing this post to show off my giant obsidian spider, though. Perhaps the most important lesson from the above anecdote is one for myself: though I claim to abhor an industrialized building style in Minecraft, I still end up doing significant violence to the landscape. There’s no way that spider is natural. There’s no way that shelter is natural. But what is even natural in the world of Minecraft?

I mean, take blocks, the foundation of the game. The placement of blocks in Minecraft is procedural, except for the involvement of players or (some) hostile mobs. When I destroy a block and place it elsewhere, this feels unnatural to me, unlike the game’s block generation or the interference of mobs. Those are natural. Things created by code, and things molded by code, are natural in this cybernetic landscape. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of free will allows me to claim that my adjustments to the world in Minecraft are unnatural and unrelated to code. I dig hobbit holes because I work with the space I have, I say. I dig hobbit holes because the houses I build aren’t on a grid, I claim. I dig hobbit holes because what I am doing is human, unique, flawed, and unnatural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural.

Cows are very natural. Cows coming through solid wood doors are also very natural. Screenshot mine.

When the fuck did that association happen? Imperfection generated in a replicable way (procedural generation) is natural, but imperfection generated by human involvement, and generally not replicable, is unnatural. What I’m doing with this association is coding my interaction with the game space as violence, as unnatural, as artificial, as conscious creation.

But it’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years to take structures like anthills created by non-human animals, call them natural, and then turn around and call a city unnatural. Either the product of living creatures is natural, or it isn’t. There’s no reason why technology can’t be natural. I could give a repetitive lecture on the rise of the pastoral in conjunction with industrialized society (try reading anything from like 1660 to 1900), but I’ll abstain, because this isn’t college. This is me wondering what it means to make things in a generated landscape in a game created by a team of people. What it means to be a person, and have a conversation with other people, through the process of creation. What it means to find something like home in that.

Homes don’t come pre-fabricated, we have to make them into homes. And in so doing, we do violence to the environment around us. I could idealize some non-conventional life philosophy that advocates living in harmony with the environment and sleeping under trees, and sure, I know there are some people and traditions who work like that. The whole world is home, because home feels right and being in the world is right. My approach to what makes a home (something set apart from nature, created, unnatural) is heavily influenced by Western cultural traditions. It’s interesting to see these traditions continued in virtual space, though not surprising; virtual space is cultural space. In Minecraft, for instance, you cannot sleep through the night without using a bed that someone has crafted. It is impossible to sleep without having changed the world around you. There are no soft patches of moss, no convenient trees, no rocks under your hip to poke into you at night. Sleep is comfort, and more importantly, sleep means no monsters to terrify you. It’s true, you don’t need to sleep to succeed in the game, and I’ve gone long periods of time in games without ever crafting a bed. But by and large, the game expects you to have a bed: sleeping in a bed makes the night pass quicker, prevents the spawning of hostile mobs, and resets your spawn point to near the bed. Beds are extremely good and cool.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows.

Beds are good and cool and also apparently have super high pillows. Screenshot mine.

Beds are also perfect crystallizations of an ideology at the heart of Minecraft: survival means taking things around you and making them into things that you can’t find. Survival, and gameplay.

The best part is, I wanted to get all of that out so I could talk about the Anvil house in Oblivion, which to this day feels like home even though the computer I played on is a decrepit husk and the save files are on some hard drive. The way that homes work in Elder Scrolls games is weird, and quite capitalistic. You have to buy your home after the person in charge of its town likes you enough. Returning to an earlier point, these homes do come pre-fabricated and you can even buy upgrades and DLC.

The house in Anvil (Benirus Mansion) is a bit different, though, because you have to complete a quest after buying it in order to transform it into a safe place. I’d normally say spoilers here, but really? It’s a game that came out in 2006. You’ve either already played it, or you probably won’t play it. So on to the spoiler: the house is haunted, and you need to complete a quest in order to make the ghosts go away. You don’t know about the ghosts until after sleeping in the house, but they will attack you when they appear (so here’s hoping you can defeat them!). Ghosts keep spawning when you enter the house until you complete a quest and defeat Lorgren Benirus’ undead Lich, giving you a book and a staff and an awesome house.

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

My house, but not my house. Thanks to the user Nutter in this forum thread for posting an image of the Anvil house: http://forums.hexus.net/gaming/168356-oblivion-iv-im-stuck.html#post1747402

For some reason, when I played Oblivion, I fell in love with this house even during the ghost incidents. It’s green, and Anvil is a harbor city on the southern coast, and the house is full of light—these make sense to me as things I want in a home. To this day, thinking of the afternoon light streaming through the bedroom window in this house brings me peace. I know the scale of this house intimately, know when to jump to skip up the stairs and when to turn and close a door. All that, despite the fact that it’s a house created anew with every new playthrough of the game. Despite the fact that it’s not something I made, and not something I can ever make.

All this, because for however many hours I sank into Oblivion, I lived in that house. That house was home.

My thesis is online!

Just to show that there’s some reward to hard work, I now have my thesis online (hosted by my department). Whee. It’s a little terrifying, honestly, to have it up, but it’s the good kind of terrifying.

You can download or read it here, but I’ll include the abstract in this post in case you just want to congratulate me and move on. 😀

This paper explores the relation between criticism and establishment of narrative forms and genres, focusing on the cultural situation of video games. Comparing the context of early film criticism and contemporary video game criticism, I argue that the public negotiation of meaning and value codifies a new medium as it emerges. In the case of digital games in particular, contemporary critics approach the question of “what is a game” rhetorically, rarely addressing it outright but allowing metatextual considerations to influence their readings. I trace the sites of criticism, moving from newspapers and weekly periodicals in the case of film, to blogs and web publications in the case of digital games, and explore how the shifting reception of each form took hold in the different media available. I focus especially on the state of public video game criticism today, locating the persuasive strengths in the ability for quick communication between writers, as well as the easy dissemination of digital games. I ground my analysis in the game criticism produced in response to Dear Esther (2011) and League of Legends (2009) that visibly struggled with ideas of narrative, game, and interactivity.

And I promise I’ll write those other posts, someday…

How do we talk about character in eSports, Part 1

To continue from where I left off in the first post in this series, I am going to look at how people within what I consider “mainstream games criticism” (aka, the major blogs and sites) talk about League of Legends. I mentioned the two camps of posts referenced in Critical Distance: two about the player community, and one about the character. Similarly, out of eight posts on Borderhouse Blog tagged “League of Legends”, six reference character design and two discuss the player community.

In this post, I’d like to talk about character:

Defining “character” in League of Legends can be surprisingly tricky. On one hand, champions are probably the most commonly identified “characters” in the game, with names, appearances, and particular playstyles. The champions are the face(s) of the game and they are the player’s interaction with the game world.  Like in Diablo or Warcraft, you control the character’s movement and action to an extent, with paths and autoattacks handled by the game itself.

On the other hand, champions do not persist as player avatars past the duration of a single match. This strange feature is also supported by the lore. One of Riot’s guides to gameplay identifies the summoner as the player’s persistent character, a force of political balance who fights by summoning champions.

A player in League of Legends takes on the role of a Summoner – a gifted spell caster who has the power to bring forth a champion to fight as their avatar in Valoran’s Fields of Justice. With all major political decisions on Valoran now decided by the outcome of the contests that take place in the battle arenas, a Summoner is the key force of change on the continent.

– “Summoner Information“, League of Legends Learning Center, July 6 2010

This convoluted relationship of summoner to champion allows Riot to sidestep the issues raised by quasi-persistent champions: the champion serves as the in-match “avatar” of the summoner, in the same way that the summoner serves as the invisible in-game avatar of the player. There are a few characteristics of summoners and champions that complicate the idea of character in League of Legends.

Summoners, for example, can heal their champion, damage opposing minions directly, teleport their champion anywhere in the Field of Justice they are in, fortify their team’s turret defenses, and a slew of other game-impacting results.

– “Summoner Information“, League of Legends Learning Center, July 6 2010

So we can see that summoners and champions both impact the game during a match, and summoners, though they do not have a manifestation on the field, have a direct connection with the game world.

I’m going to try to replicate a quick table here that captures the messiness of these two categories:

How character is spread over Summoner and Champion

How character is spread over Summoner and Champion (Google Doc version here)

I need to flesh out the terminology, but I hope you get the idea.

Why don’t we talk about eSports?

Or, Do We and I Just Don’t See it?

In trying to find an angle onto games criticism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to sports discourse, I had a discussion with my advisor (yay advisor, doin it rite), and he advised (lol) that instead of looking at eSports broadcasters and how they construct the game, I should investigate why eSports titles don’t show up in the main outlets of games criticism that I’m familiar with. I understand the danger of making sweeping claims about the lack of discourse, because it’s quite possible that I just don’t see it. And if this is true, pleeeeeeease tell me.

On the other hand, I consider myself pretty on top of current games criticism: I read Critical Distance almost every week, I follow a set of games critics on Twitter that keep me in touch with what’s going on, I read Borderhouse Blog, I read other outlets ranging from Kotaku to Nightmare Mode to certain tumblrs (this isn’t meant to be braggy; the thing is, as someone researching games criticism, I have to know these things). And rarely do I come across any kind of discussion of eSports titles.

For example, I’d like to look at Critical Distance. Critical Distance bills itself as a curated archive, creating a weekly round-up of critical writing on video games. It’s one of those sites that is central to games crit, and really does have its finger on the pulse, as they claim.

With our coverage we aim to provide both an entry point into the wide network of like-minded blogs and websites, and to promote up-and-coming or lesser-known authors. We are not, however, a site for original writing that is criticism itself, instead we aim to capture the videogame criticism ‘zeitgeist’ and act as a ‘memory bank’ in this notoriously short-sighted and quick forgetting industry.

– “About“, Critical Distance

Keeping this in mind, let’s try an experiment. How often does League of Legends (or another eSports title) show up in the kinds of critical posts that are featured on CD? Searching the archive of Critical Distance (using their own site search tool) reveals three compilations linking to posts on League of Legends. Two of these compilations are from 2012 (December and August), and one from November 8, 2009 (within two weeks of the open release on Oct. 27, 2009).

For a site that has had weekly round-ups since 2009, the (admittedly not thoroughly controlled) numbers are dismal. I searched for some other games, popular and indie, using the same interface (CD’s in-site search). Here are the results in the order that I thought to search them, and remember, LoL had 3 hits:

I also did a (highly unscientific) attempt at widening the net by searching for “league”, got 14 results, only 3 of which referenced League of Legends and were in fact the original three results from my first search. As you can probably see, all of the games on this list had more results than League of Legends, except “dota”, another eSports/RTS title. Even “tetris”. Really.

Back to these elusive three posts! One of the posts, the most recent, highlights a discussion around character design: responses to Todd Harper’s open letter to Riot to claim Taric as gay.

In a similar vein, Zoya Street of The Border House responds to recent calls to ‘out’ League of Legends champion Taric as gay, challenging the assumptions taken in assigning Taric’s gender and sexual identity […]

UPDATE: Also recommended is Todd Harper’s response post.

– Kris Ligman, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: December 23rd“, Critical Distance, 12/23/12

I’ll definitely be returning to the centrality of character in discussions of eSports. Bother me if I don’t.

The other two posts, one from August 2012 and one from November 2009, discuss the League community and its notorious toxic behavior; these posts try to explain why the relationship between players within the game is often so riddled with negativity and zero-sum competitiveness.

At Moving Pixels, G. Christopher Williams actually attempts to answer the question of “u mad?” He’s a braver person than I, evidently. His piece is an interesting consideration of why League of Legends players so obsessively want to know if they’re hurting their opponents. The answer speaks quite directly to the lack of consequential signifiers in online competitive play, he says.

– Katie Williams, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: August 5th“, Critical Distance, 8/5/12

And from 2009: “The Blame Game“.

This is getting long, but I guess I just want to pause here: the three posts on CD talk about individual character representations (again, I’ll go into this more) or the community. There are no close-readings of the map or of the rules. The lore doesn’t enter into any sort of critical discussion, often.

Why not?
aka, stay tuned for the next segment, where I offer some rampant speculation!