Don’t be that guy: what I mean when I say that Dota has ‘classy’ character design

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Consider Nolan North. He’s one of the most prolific voice actors working in games. Alongside Troy Baker, he’s the guy who most regularly plays you. You know, you: the white, dark-haired, able-bodied guy in his twenties or thirties on the front of the box. Nathan Drake or Desmond Miles. The person that mainstream videogames assume you are, or assume you want to be. The smooth-edged, focus-tested Leading Guy.

Nolan North plays nine characters in Dota 2, and none of them are the Leading Guy. They include - but are not limited to - an old guy on a horse; an old guy in a helicopter; an old bear guy; a drunk bear guy; an ogre with two heads; like, five gremlin dudes. The closest he gets to a traditional Nolan North character is Lycanthrope, who evades idealised everyman status by being a hunchbacked Russian Wolverine dressed as a country club valet.

League of Legends has Darius, Garen, Jarvan and Jayce; Heroes of Newerth has The Gladiator and Jeraziah, when alternate costumes are factored in. Dota 2 doesn’t have a single character in the Leading Guy mold, and it’s a crucial omission.

Presented with a choice of roles in an online game, the vast majority of players will gravitate towards whatever they believe will make them the most important character on the field. ‘Importance’ basically boils down to a combination of power, independence, and visual appeal. This is why every Battlefield match is drenched in snipers and jet pilots, and it’s why it’s important to the game’s balance and tone that Dota 2’s own Sniper is an ugly squat little pink guy and not, say, a twenty-something with cool hair and a trenchcoat.

I like Dota 2’s character design because it rejects Leading Guy homogeneity for generous diversity. Every character sits on a gradient between relatability and monstrosity, humour and seriousness, silliness and grit, but no character settles in the middle. As a result, player preferences are more varied and reveal more about the person behind them. In the same way that its mechanics leads players toward creative play, Dota’s character design leads players toward a creative culture.

Dota 2 certainly has heroes that boring people gravitate to, but generally it presents few opportunities for its audience to Mary Sue themselves into the roster. The pub-match popularity of the heroes that do fit this pattern - Anti-Mage, for example - proves the rule by exception. “I wanna be the guy” is an adolescent impulse: it’s bad for game balance and game culture in equal measure. Dota 2’s rejection of it is smart, and a key reason why it’s a more mature game than its competitors despite featuring approximately the same number of wizards.

Dota’s biggest weakness, stylistically, is that while it cleverly anticipates the behaviour of its presumed young male audience it’s nonetheless designed with them in mind. The roster might not include young men, but it does include two college-age wizardesses, a whole bunch of lady archers, at least one hot ghost and a dominatrix. None of Dota 2’s female character designs are terribly egregious by videogame standards (put it this way: if Death Prophet was a League character, she would have a French Maid skin, no question) but it’s a missed opportunity and something that Valve will hopefully consider for the future. Medusa and Broodmother have to head up the ‘female monster’ contingent by themselves, and in the former’s case her back-story hinges on the notion of lost beauty. You could make an argument for Naga Siren and Enchantress being monsters, and I’d say you were half right in each case. Bottom-line, Dota’s female characters aren’t currently afforded the same diversity of identity as male characters.

Then again, that’s why I buy almost every Anuxi item set that makes its way into the store. She’s got a great eye for redesigning female heroes in ways that emphasise their individuality, and her popularity in the Dota community proves that Valve’s design sensibility has been successfully transmitted to players. The community reliably rates up submissions that creatively reinterpret each character’s well-established identity, and rates down submissions that compromise that identity or contribute little to it. This sense of collective responsibility is in direct opposition to the top-down, appeal-led creative process that produces both generic videogame leading men and porny alternate skins for female characters in League of Legends.

When it comes down to it, I rarely enjoy being on the receiving end of a top-down creative process. I don’t think that appeal works on the basis of hard counters and fixed rules, even though those principles come naturally to the part of gaming that Dota competes in. This refusal to sell the game’s identity short is what gives Dota edge and definition. How a developer chooses to use Nolan North isn’t a perfect barometer for a game’s respect for the player, but it’s close enough: if in doubt, go for the game that assumes you sometimes want to be a weird old man in a helicopter.