Everybody dies in 'Heroes of the Storm,' and everybody is to blame.
Images courtesy of Activision-Blizzard
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Over the past week, this one moment in a Heroes of the Storm game has been getting a lot of press coverage. Arcanetoes's "Encounter at the Hanamura Boss," which has the cadence of a French film of the 1960s, tells a simple story with a simple moral: Everybody dies, and it's everyone's fault.
If you're not super familiar with Blizzard's MOBA that recently launched into its "2.0" rebalance, let me lay the simple stuff out for you. There are two teams of five players each. Some of them are good at attacking, some of them are good at healing, and still others shine when they are taking the hits in the stead of their weaker teammates. These teams are put onto a battleground, which is basically game board, and they have to attack their opponents' Big Shiny Thing, a big glowing thingamabob in the middle of the enemy base.
What makes Heroes of the Storm different from competitors like DOTA 2, League of Legends, or Smite is that each battleground has a different gameplay mechanic. Some have you collecting gems to empower your attacks; others have you take control of vaguely-Egyptian laser beams to shoot the opposing nexus directly.
Each of these require group effort, but they also punish players for not playing to the best of their ability. Being one player down for an attempt at taking a laser can be very bad, and I've seen it be an excuse for unleashing a huge amount of toxic speech at players who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. (I have been on both sides of this event.)
The recently-introduced Hanamura battleground is unique in that it pits the two teams against each other in a strange adaptation of the gameplay found in some Overwatch maps. Payloads, little explosive carts, spawn all over the map, and a player has to make sure that theirs reaches the launch point while making sure that the enemy payload does not.
Importantly, this is the only way to win this map. A team can't just storm their way up to the Big Shiny Thing. You have to play this little subgame of payload capture and denial. It's a neat little push-and-pull game that is sometimes very fun and sometimes like slamming your hand in a car door. It's a gamble, honestly.
In the middle of the map lies the potential for the encounter that Arcanetoes's video captures so well. There is a boss there, and it is a big robot. If your team can kill that robot and stand on the place where its corpse should be, you can get a free payload shot. That free shot is critical in the video, of course, because each team's Big Shiny Thing only has a single hit point left. This robot will determine who wins or loses this game.
Watch this version of the video, which is reconstructed from the original replay of the game. It's a slow-motion trainwreck that starts out in a simple manner: Some specialist heroes over on the right (the Red Team, if you will) engage the boss to try to get the win. The Blue Team, mostly over on the left of the screen, comes in to do a little counterattack. It's their idea to destroy Red Team and then take the glory of the robot missiles. It mostly works, too, in that they are able to kill that team off, but at the great cost of their own team dying off in one of the most interesting versions of a Pyrrhic a game has produced.
The video, at least in the ways I have seen it presented, is treated as a kind of gag because of what happens next. Each team has an Abathur, a noncombat hero who stands behind the safety of walls to poop out little siege locusts and buff his allies. Those Abathurs immediately teleport to the middle of the map and begin duking it out for supremacy. And, as you can see, it doesn't really work out for either of them.
Dying is something that's to be avoided in MOBA games. At best, you're denying your team a player for a certain amount of time (as is visible in the countdown timers at the top of the screen), which can be detrimental to team success. At worst, you can be purposefully or accidentally "feeding," which is dying repeatedly and giving the enemy team experience every time you do so.
Experience means that they're leveling up, and if they're a higher level then it is harder for your team to win. In MOBA's, death is the engine of the game, and it has a multiplyer effect. The more you die, the easier it is for the enemy team to kill you again. They can run away with the game. It's a boulder rolling down a hill.
There is something wonderful about the clean encounter in this video. No matter how the players struggle tactically, and no matter what abilities they use, there are no victors in the moment of the fight.
Like all MOBAs, Heroes of the Storm has its share of "toxic" players. Someone dies, and a teammate immediately tears into them. The dead player is bad, should uninstall, and should rethink touching a computer for the rest of their days.
In reality, "badness" is a social phenomenon. Players are parts of teams, and the ability for a single player to truly tank a game is much more limited than we like to think. A "bad" player can easily become a focus point: "We're going to lose because that player is bad" is an easy way to convince yourself that games are made up of individual actors instead of being deeply social, networked things.
The dual teamkill reveals the MOBA for what it really is. While commentators and commentors can parse that video for days to then tell you exactly what each player should have done, the reality is that those players were making choices that were bounded by what they thought each other could do in response to the giant robot and the other players. The dual teamkill is the natural antidote to the individualist fantasy that one person is carrying or losing a game for a team. When we see every character die off under that robot, we're seeing a model of how the game is in reality.