Mechanizing Terror: ‘League of Legends’ and Character Design

Recently, when playing League of Legends, I have been playing Nocturne a lot.

As a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, League of Legends concerns pitting players against one another in 5 vs. 5 matches on a three lane field of battle. Each lane contains turrets that need to be defended or assaulted by players, and at the beginning of the game, this is usually done by assigning two characters to the bottom lane, one to the middle lane, and one to the top lane. The final player is usually assigned the role of jungler (which is typically the role that the aforementioned Nocturne plays). While players in the three lanes battle to advance on one another’s towers, the jungler roams a neutral territory in between lanes, killing neutral monsters in order to level up and gain gold to buy items to empower himself. Additionally, the jungler’s job is to harass the lanes that are in contention by attempting to gank (that is, attempt to kill) opponents in a lane to give his teammates an advantage there.

Nocturne is a melee assassin, who has a wicked ability to initiate fights in the various lanes through an ability that allows him to streak nearly instantaneously to a single target from quite far away on the map and then to terrify them with another of his abilities (slowing their escape) before savagely attacking them with his claws.

League of Legends offers players over a hundred unique characters to play, each with their own distinct set of abilities, look, and feel. There are characters that are pirates, ninjas, gigantic insect monsters, steampunk inspired heroes, knights, cowboys, and just about any other character type associated with action and adventure that one might want to geek out about and play as.

Nocturne is described as a “living nightmare.” Composed of only a shadowy head, a torso, and claws, Nocturne glides slowly through the jungle before streaking off to strike his opponent. He does look like some kind of eldritch being out of nightmare, dripping in shadows and floating as he does a few feet off the ground.

Certainly, Nocturne’s appearance defines him as a personality. He looks like a killing machine, and from the standpoint of simply looking at his visual design, Riot seems to have done a great job at creating a character that communicates terror.

However, the real achievement in Nocturne’s design and what makes Riot very good at what they do is not that he merely looks terrifying, but that his mechanics, his abilities, and the like provoke a form of terror in the players themselves, reinforcing the whole theme of the character. In other words, the appearance of characters like Nocturne (and many others in the League of Legends roster) parallel how the character plays.

Nocturne’s aforementioned initiation power “Paranoia” in which he streaks across the board to initiate a kill isn’t merely useful, but it manages to actually provoke appropriate responses in players appropriate to the idea of being assaulted by a thing of horror. Paranoia is actually activated in two parts. A player presses the R button on the keyboard, causing Nocturne to hiss, “Darknesssss,” and causing the entire battlefield to slowly darken. This”dimming of the lights” has its own non-offensive function and affects all of the players in the game. Everyone playing will watch the lights go down on the battlefield and additionally will no longer be able to see other players on their screen, only themselves. This provokes a mild panic in the player. There is some helpful foreknowledge in Paranoia’s darkness effect, the knowledge that Nocturne is going to strike, but that knowledge increases one’s own “paranoia” because if you are his opponent, you might be Nocturne’s soon-to-be victim.

When darkness falls, players on the opposing team tend to immediately retreat towards their own defensive turrets, run for bushes that might hopefully make them untargetable before he strikes, and generally just try to disentangle themselves from whatever they were doing because they don’t know where opponents or friends might be when the lights come up.

As a fellow League of Legends player recently said to me: “The scary thing about Nocturne is when his darkness falls, you know that someone is about to die.” And indeed, any well played Nocturne will complete the second part of Paranoia, which involves pressing R again to choose his target and streak to them, with an inevitable kill.

Basically, what I admire about Nocturne’s design is how its function reinforces the theme of the character himself, going so far as to evoke visceral emotional responses and actions that again make sense given the horror that Nocturne is supposed to represent to his opponents.

Other characters designed by Riot frequently provoke such functional and thematic responses. Cho’Gath is a kind of humanoid insect creature that likewise is supposed to represent an obviously terrifying monster. While Cho’Gath looks horrific in that way that only insectoid monsters do, he does begin the game as something that is roughly the same size as his fellow characters. Weird looking, I guess, but not especially intimidating.

However, Cho’Gath has an ability called “Feast,” which when activated while making a kill on an opponent, minion, or neutral monster, causes Cho’Gath to gain more hit points. When he gains more hit points, though, he also grows slightly larger than before. Feast can be stacked up to six times on Cho’Gath, granting him a huge hit point advantage and “growing” him to a creature that roughly takes up about half a lane, towering over his opponents and even enemy towers.

Even when equipped with the fastest boots, Cho’Gath still lumbers across the field of battle, but when he is marked visually for successful use of the Feast ability, he becomes a lumbering beast that the player knows they need to avoid. You can literally see his durability advantage through this representation of the underlying numbers that define his accentuated health pool.

Certainly, Riot isn’t the only game developer to successfully create characters whose visuals reinforce their mechanics or whose mechanics reinforce their themes, but there are a fair amount of video game characters out there that are much less well designed and whose mechanics and defining narrative and visual characteristics are often confusingly wed. What is really impressive, though, is Riot’s consistency in creating characters like this.

I wouldn’t say that all 120-ish characters in the League of Legends roster are perfectly crafted visually and mechanically, but a pretty goodly chunk of them are. This reflects a great deal of what the character designers on Riot’s various character teams say in interviews about their process. A great deal of effort is put into designing individual characters (that are usually in development for months at a time) in making sure that who the character is supposed to be matches their “kit” (their in-game abilities) and vice versa. Indeed, the most common descriptions of the process of character design that I read from these developers is discussion of their sense of the “theme” of a character. And in some of the best character design it is not just the backstory that defines a character, not just the way they look, but what the player can do with them that makes us understand who they really are to us.