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!