A Strategy for Dying

Karthus (Grim Reaper skin), a champion from League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)

The option to “continue” changed the nature of death in games. It could certainly remain an annoyance and a sign of failure, an indication that the player is not executing well, but frankly, any number of games also seem to use death as a feature, as a necessary mechanic for play.

In games, death can be an impediment. From the earliest days of video games in the arcade, death marked a game's fail state. Three deaths and it is over. Insert quarter.

Of course, death rarely leads to the Game Over screen any longer, not on home consoles or even on arcade machines. The option to “continue” changed the nature of death in games. It could certainly remain an annoyance and a sign of failure, an indication that the player is not executing well, but frankly, any number of games also seem to use death as a feature, as a necessary mechanic for play. I've written before, for instance, about how Limbo (or Dark Souls) in some sense insist on a player's death and even encourage the player to take unnecessary risks in order to better learn how puzzles work and to eventually solve them (”Dead Again: Notes on the Impermanence of the Virtual Body”, PopMatters, 26 October 2011), as has my fellow Moving Pixels blogger, Nick Dinicola (”Death Is Boring: Immortality as Character Development in Video Games”, PopMatters, 21 July 2011). Likewise, Hotline Miami is another recent title in which death is frequent and also frequently serves as a method of better understanding how to proceed in a level by testing approaches to solving that level, knowing full well that death is likely, but potentially, again, an important learning tool or vehicle for honing a larger strategy.

Death, in essence becomes a strategy for better learning how to play on the whole. It may even become a necessity to progress, a not too terminal state at all. Of course, the examples that I describe here all do have one element in common. These are single player experiences, games in which no one is depending on you to do well, to carry the burden of anyone else's play. And indeed, once other people enter the picture, other opponents, other teammates, the troubling aspects of death as a fail state or as a stall or an impediment resurface in play.

Deaths are frequently a means of keeping score in multiplayer games. While respawns are common enough, these “continues” tend to function a bit differently than they do in single player experiences, especially in terms of the near instantaneous respawn times possible in games like Hotline Miami or Limbo. In team-based multiplayer experiences, a team member's death can cost precious time spent filling a gap in a defense or in an offense. A teammate that spends much of their time respawning can mark the death sentence of the entire team, putting the outcome of the match on the line.

Now, I have spent an awful lot of time playing League of Legends over the last several years, a game that seems particularly punishing to players that die. Actually, to really be more accurate, I really need to say that because of the beneficial nature of death to an opposing team, team members themselves are very much encouraged to punish any teammate who has a hard time surviving.

As a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (a MOBA), League of Legends is a game whose goal is quite simple: destroy the nexus located on the other side of the map in your opponents' base. Doing so requires players to work their way down lanes that are guarded by turrets that have to be destroyed before that nexus becomes vulnerable to attack, but frankly, much of the progress that a team makes in League of Legends is based on doing battle more directly with the opposing team. Killing off an opponent is, of course, impermanent, forcing a respawn, but its consequences have a more permanent benefit for the successful player. That player gains a healthy chunk of gold for the kill, which allows him to empower his champion with better equipment, which, of course, will lead to an even stronger, more effective killer as the game progresses and ultimately makes destroying those turrets and that nexus a much greater prospect.

Players who die often in League of Legends are labeled “feeders” by their teammates, as the act of dying, this failure on their part, enables the other team, “feeding” them by giving them access to more powerful weapons and armor. Such empowerment, of course, harms the team on the whole, as suddenly a character that has a few kills is significantly stronger than he was before and can more easily kill or disrupt potentially any of one's teammates much more easily than before.

When players die in game, it is not uncommon for teammates to “advise” their fellow teammate to “stop feeding,” as if this is a strategy, avoiding death (which admittedly, it is too a degree, what this phrase amounts to is saying something like, “play tighter, less recklessly, more defensively”). That being said, one of the reasons that League of Legends can sometimes be an unpleasant experience is that teams can very quickly begin savaging and abusing their own as anger arises over that “noob who keeps feeding!”

All of this is to say, I have been playing a champion that I haven't played before off and on for the last week or two called Karthus. I really like Karthus. And I really kind of like when Karthus dies. And even my teammates seem to be pretty okay with me when Karthus dies.

Playing Karthus has made me rethink playing League because of his relationship to death and has changed my habits on how I think about dying in League of Legends and about how fearful I have become about becoming the dreaded “feeder.” Karthus reminds me of the pedagogical tool of death from single player gaming experiences because I have begun to think less about how to avoid death while playing Karthus. Instead, I have begun thinking about questions like, “When should I die?” or “Where should I die?,” because playing Karthus allows for strategic reasons to do so, allowing me to think about the game in new ways.

Now, don't get me wrong. There certainly are roles that one can play in a MOBA that do allow for a player to play recklessly and even encourage suicidal strategies. In some sense, that is the nature of the role of a tank in any game. A tank is a defensively-based character, built not to dish out punishment, but to take it. A tank ideally starts fights in a MOBA in order to get damage from the other team focused on him, so that his fellow “squishier,” but more powerful offensively-built teammates can mop up the other team while he does. Often a tank will trade his own death for multiple deaths on the other team by barreling in head first, disrupting the other team, and surviving long enough that his death pays for itself in the blood of the enemy.

However, Karthus, is a mage, a damage dealer, and one that is especially squishy. He is no tank. But then again he isn't exactly designed to survive.

Visually and conceptually, Karthus demonstrates his nature, he is an undead priestly-looking figure, a floating skeleton, attuned to death and decay. Some players feel that Karthus is also a character for “noob players.” All League of Legends characters have several unique abilities of their own that allow them to deal more significant amounts of damage than their base attack or allow them to slow or stun opponents or heal other characters, etc. They also have an “ultimate,” an ability that is especially devastating offensively or especially useful in some other way. Karthus has an “ult” that allows him to do magic damage to every character all at once, no matter where they are on the map. It is really pretty devastating and only requires the press of a single button to initiate. It's like setting off an atom bomb, but a bomb that knows who its enemies are and where they are. Thus, he is a “noob character.” In other words, it would seem that this ability to deal global death in such a simple manner requires very little skill on the player's part. And to be honest, this claim is not unreasonable. (I would say that Karthus requires a player to have more map awareness and trains players to have more map awareness in general because his ult, which is called Requiem, requires you to pay attention to attacks and retreats all over the map in order to know the best time to aid in a kill or to finish off a retreating or several retreating champions. Still, it is pretty easy to use. Satisfying, but kinda noob.).

But it is less the manner in which Karthus deals death out than the manner in which he himself dies that most interests me, especially as his deaths empower him to become a more significant death dealer as a result of his own “failures.” Karthus has a passive ability called Death Defied. The ability kicks in automatically (passively) on death. Basically, when Karthus is killed, he remains in the spot where he died for seven additional seconds and can keep casting spells. In fact, he no longer has to use mana in order to cast spells, meaning his ability to trigger abilities becomes unlimited.

I have probably killed more champions while dead as Karthus than I have when alive.

While Karthus is a champion that I play conservatively, keeping him in the back of fights to deal damage and disrupt before retreating back, back, back behind my sturdier teammates, there is often a time in a fight when I dive right in, not just recklessly, but with the specific intent of dying. Karthus has an ability that allows him to lay out a fairly large circle of death around himself, so when he dies, I can basically “plant” a plot of ground beneath the feet of my enemies that they can retreat from or die on – their choice. Figuring out where that dying is “best” (under a turret I am trying to defend, under a turret that my allies are trying to destroy, in an area that separates retreating allies from their foes, etc.) becomes a tactical decision. Sometimes I have used up all of my mana, though, during a prolonged encounter. I want to blow some enemies up with my Lay Waste spell or I really need to deal some global death with Requiem to turn the tables on our opposition or to finish off a hurting, but still living groups of opponents. At that point, I try my damnedest to find a way to die. I need mana, and death is the answer. These moments are when dying becomes the “best” possible option.

While Karthus is still “feeding” the other team, when played well, or put another way, when dying well, he is going to trade his life for kills and assists of his own or kills and assists for his own teammates. “Feeding” can become a strategy for Karthus because he is paying a smaller price (his own death) for a better long term investment (much more death to feed on for himself and his team). I guess in that sense Karthus parallels some of the qualities of a tank, but when I tank, I am willing to die, not trying to.

Now, I'm sure that having largely mastered Karthus that I will be on to playing and attempting to learn a new champion in League of Legends soon enough. That being said, I will be mastering a character and his or her play style. I think, though, that I have come to appreciate the experiencing of playing Karthus in a different way than I usually do, as his death has taught me less about a singular play style, as it has taught me to rethink strategy in this battle arena on the whole. Accepting death has breathed a bit of new life into my multiplayer gaming experience.

yolo. sort of.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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