Three Lane Highway: your Dota hero is having a good time and so should you

Three Lane Highway is Chris' column about Dota 2.

Dota 2 is funny, both by design and by accident. It's funny when people get angry. It's funny to screw up. It's funny to Force Staff your friends into the enemy fountain. It's funny to get a rampage as Axe . Laughing at the weird stuff that springs from Dota forms the basis of a healthy number of YouTube channels. It's as vital a part of the life of the game as the competitive scene or making items for the Steam Workshop.

Relatively speaking, the parts of Dota that are designed to be funny - particularly the writing - get less attention. This is a really interesting aspect of the game, specifically as it relates to a broad shift in the tone of multiplayer games over the last decade or so. In the 90s, competitive gaming on PC was characterised by grit. Quake looked like a prog-metal album cover. Counter-Strike was a Tom Clancy game given a shot of adrenaline. The early MMOs chased realism (elf realism, anyway) and Team Fortress Classic took place in some vague modern military otherworld where mercs with furrowed brows fought over the same flag forever.

Notable exceptions to this rule were games by Blizzard, which had always been funny, and, to a lesser extent, Valve's debut. The first Half-Life had a streak of black comedy running through it, though this wasn't something that manifested in the series' multiplayer until the second one allowed you to fire toilets at people. Then, all of a sudden, Valve became really funny. Portal came out, and Team Fortress 2 emerged from multiple attempts to create a 'serious' shooter as a kind of FPS Adult Swim cartoon.

This shift took place everywhere. Blizzard's sense of humour resurfaced in World of Warcraft and, as a consequence, comic characters and situations are now a stock part of an MMO gameworld. The lane-pushing genre grew out of Warcraft 3, inheriting Blizzard's tonal sensibilities along with DotA's game mechanics. The most successful games of this type, Dota 2 included, are cartoons of one sort or another. The characters may kick seven shades out of each other, but they do it while smiling.

To an extent this is done with the goal of attracting a large audience, but it's not entirely marketing-driven. In fact, marketing often complicates this general trend towards lighter, more accessible games - I can think of a number of games that might have had decent art if somebody in a suit hadn't stapled boobs to everything. Nor does it suggest that games have become easier or more infantile. Overall, the trend has more in common with the influence that Pixar have had on kids' movies.

Dota 2's character roster is so varied that it borders on incoherent. Its writers have always been reluctant to use backstory for anything other than flavour, and wisely so: it'd be quixotic to try to wring a plausible fantasy narrative out of a hundred-plus heroes. I mean, okay, yes, George R. R. Martin did it, but his characters are not - in the main - helicopters or bears. These characters, their backstories and their voices are designed to be emblematic of the types of things they do in the game, not to serve a function within a wider plot.

And yet, despite all of that variety, one remarkably consistent quality of these characters is how happy they seem to be. There's very little actual nastiness or complaining or strife, except - perhaps - from Troll Warlord, who is intended to be a send-up of his comments thread counterpart. He's one of the only characters that doesn't vocalise a genuine 'thank you' when the player types 'ty'. I mean, even Doom says thank you, and he's literally Satan .

There's a lot of funny writing in Dota, and the net effect of that funny writing is that the characters themselves come across as funny people. Windranger is funny. Storm Spirit is funny. Juggernaut and Brewmaster are funny. And so on, and so on. I'd go for a drink with most of these people. Hell, even Bane - I mean, he's a little weird, but everybody has a friend like that. That sense of personality plays an enormous role in balancing Dota 2's tone. If it was a game of tooth-grindingly serious battle between serious warriors I suspect it'd be unbearable: it's bad enough when you're stuck in a game with somebody who only wants to scream at you. If your character seemed to be hating the experience too, what would be the point?

But here's the conundrum - and, I guess, the irony. The way Dota characters speak and interact with one another sets a standard for behaviour that offsets the bad attitudes of other players but - in itself - doesn't succeed at influencing or moderating that behaviour. Nobody who is so self-serious that they're willing to scream obscenities at a stranger is going to be dissuaded from that path by the fact that the ancient undead ice wizard that they're controlling is actually kind of a nice guy. The game can demonstrate a model for competitive behaviour that doesn't involve being a dick, and it does so well - but most people ignore it.

As a result, Dota 2 is a game where Satan is - more often than not - more polite to his rivals than most of the people you'll meet in solo ranked matchmaking. There's a punchline there somewhere, I'm sure.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here .


Chris is the editor of PC Gamer Pro. After many years spent turning beautiful trees into magazines, he now oversees our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports.
We recommend