A Strategy for Dying

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.