Death Stories in MMOs

Okay, let’s talk about something completely unimportant for a while. This is the tiniest little detail, and it doesn’t make or break the game in any way. But I found it interesting, so maybe you will too. Let’s talk about the death-story.

Explaining death in an MMO is tricky. After all, you don’t really die for long. And because it’s a persistent world, your un-deaths can be extremely noticeable.

In many cases, the game just says “screw it” and goes right past logic and into surreal weirdness. For instance, Dark Age of Camelot directs players to literally go and visit their own graves when they die. But other games try to explain death.

There seem to be three general approaches:

  1. Explain that people don’t really die, it just looks like they do. Instead, they just become “disabled” or “unconscious”. (This is what LoTRO does.)
  2. Ignore death, so that it happens out of story. They don’t “die”, they just “fail” and have to try again. Their death never really happened and there will not be any funerals. (This is pretty much what WoW does, with just a flicker of acknowledgement via the angels in the graveyards. It’s also what DAoC does — those “gravestones” are purely a game mechanic, not a story element.)
  3. Decide that people don’t die because of story reasons. This is what happens in sci-fi games with “clone activation” systems and the like. A fantasy example comes from Asheron’s Call 1: in that game, players don’t die because Asheron created some relics that keep bringing them back. When players die, they’re resurrected with just a smidge of their life force stolen away, to power the artifacts’ magic.

That last option is common, but it’s actually bat-shit insane, from a game design point of view. It’s one thing to completely ignore the logic of death like DAoC does, but it’s another to flaunt it, wave it in your face, and then keep pretending that death has meaning.

If every middle-class person in your dystopian future can afford their own personal clones, doesn’t that affect the story a lot more than we’re letting on? Of course it does. Murder stops being the most heinous crime you can commit, for one thing.

Sci-fi novels have explored this material with lots of interesting results, but I’ve yet to see a sci-fi game that really explored their clone system (or any of the rest of their tech). Instead, it’s just a cutesy metaphor that is otherwise ignored. Really, it’s more like option #1: ”people don’t really die.”

That’s convenient, because it means that NPCs are all still scared of death, and murderers are still a lot worse than evil investment bankers.

But if you aren’t going to follow through with your fiction, I’d rather you didn’t have it at all. DAoC’s “visit your grave” system feels a lot less bizarre than the “resurrect at the clone station for the upteenth time, talk to the NPC nurse, and then go back to pretending that death is scary” system.

To Turbine’s credit, they eventually tackled the story ramifications of AC1′s death system, exploring what the world would be like if a large population could keep coming back over and over. This turned out to be pretty disturbing.

Some of the most memorable AC1 game fiction involved villains that maim and torture their foes until they go insane. After all, killing their foes would accomplish nothing!

Various Turbine writers have told some really interesting stories along these lines, exploring what it means to just keep coming back over and over. But in the big picture, this approach ties your hands. Your stories end up reaching a cosmic power level in order to maintain high tension levels.

I don’t want to go there. At least, not at first.

Death in Gorgon

Which brings me to my game. My first instinct was simply to go with the “you don’t really die in-story, it’s just a game mechanic” explanation. This is the default assumption in any game, I guess. And until recently, I hadn’t given it any further thought. But I’ve been expanding the death mechanics in the game, and ignoring death has started to feel pretty weird.

Death is a great hook. As a designer, it’s pretty safe to assume that players are eventually going to die, every now and then, and you can associate game systems with that occurrence.

Most games go the punitive route, explaining that you have to recover your lost power somehow. But that didn’t seem very fun, so in my game I switched it around. When you die, you earn Death XP, which slowly makes you more powerful and unlocks new abilities.

But how do I explain that, in-game? Suppose you need to reach Death Skill Level 40 before you can become a necromancer. Okay, that’s fine. But if you go visit the Necromancy Trainer (or whatever) before you’ve reached that point, what does she say? “Sorry, you need to go kill yourself some more and come back to me?” Kinda weird if the deaths didn’t really happen in-game.

It’s a nit, I admit. I’m nit-picking. I’ve never seen a death-story that broke an MMO: I’ve always been able to suspend my disbelief, more or less. But if I’m creating the story anyway, can’t I get something as important as death right?

You Don’t Die Because You’re So Special

My current approach is #3, but with a slight twist. Instead of saying “nobody dies because of <technology or magic thing>”, I say “your particular character doesn’t seem to be staying dead, but you aren’t sure why not, or how long it will last.”

There are reasons, but they’re a plot secret that slowly unfolds. Players will first notice this when they meet their personal guardian angel. At least, that’s who he says he is. But why does your guardian angel live in a sewer and look like a lich? Those are valid topics of concern.

So basically, I’m using the same cliche answer as a million single-player games: the reason you don’t die is that you are special. But everybody else is in danger of dying. And you aren’t sure what’s keeping you going, or if it’s a good thing. Could there be sinister forces at work? (Hint: of course there are.)

I think it makes the game a little more coherent to think that most people don’t survive death. It’s just you, and maybe a few other people. Some NPCs get wise to this and some are even jealous, but most NPCs don’t really notice.

It’s a cliche, but it fits better than the others.


Speaking of storylines: the game’s story is slowly taking shape, and every so often I allow myself to be briefly excited about it. It’s full of plenty of cliches — you start the game with amnesia, for chrissakes — but it’s also got a lot of twists that will make it feel fresher. And there are some great NPCs to meet.

But I never get to spend much time on the story. It’s not what people are coming for. I certainly want the story to be interesting, and I want it to make sense, but I know I won’t be winning awards for story.

But every once in a while, I can daydream, can’t I?

Next time: I’ll talk about necromancy and what it means to be undead in Project Gorgon.


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8 Responses to Death Stories in MMOs

  1. Kdansky says:

    While I prefer an explanation, I don’t think that “you are unique and special” is a good one, when there are five thousand people on the server who are also unique and special. You have replaced one issue with another. Pretending that a player is special in an MMO is one of the least sensible tropes, ever. Can’t you go more closely with Asheron? If you acknowledge that there is more than one special person, it’s far less jarring.

  2. Sandra says:

    Kdansky: I truly appreciate your assumptions about the game’s success!

  3. Eric says:

    @Kdansky: I’m using the same conceit that explains why every player saves Farmer Brown’s daughter from the rat-men. There aren’t 5000 daughters that need saving… you’re just special, and you get to do the uniquely heroic thing. (Pay no attention to the other people doing the heroic thing next to you.)

    That’s the core concept that requires suspension of disbelief in order to play an MMO. So I’m just tacking onto that, rather than creating yet another thing that requires suspension of disbelief.

    That said, the story does acknowledge that multiple people are affected by not dying… but it’s not clear how many or whom. (Are NPCs affected? Which? Nobody knows.)

  4. Ashen says:

    LOTRO is an interesting example because they’ve gone to some lengths to justify this (especially given the low-magic setting). You don’t die, you just sort of fall over then lose heart and run away. That’s why HP bar is called morale, why minstrels ‘heal’ etc. Most games, especially nowadays, just don’t bother at all, you just respawn and there’s that.

  5. Jason says:

    The whole clone issue is funny because in Eve you actually do pay for clones of your character. So, after your first death if you think about it your character really isn’t the original. Its too bad they don’t introduce some “flaws” or “errors” into the cloning process… The more you die, the more flawed you become in some way. Hahah.

    I agree about wrestling with the death story concept. In Istaria we treat everyone as “Gifted” which means they are immortal. They cannot truly die, but are bound to the Prime Plane and so are brought back at Shrines. The issue I’ve always wrestled with was a) what about the NPCs? and b) if the “Gifted” are so special, where are the non-Gifted?

    I’ve never come up with a good solution for it, unfortunately. If NPCs can’t die either, then they are just as special as players. Of course, the whole static nature of MMOs really creates issues as well. If you cannot die, why do you need players to kill some rats or spiders that are twenty feet from your house? Suspension of disbelief is required, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.

    Truly I think Lord of the Rings Online’s solution with morale and defeated instead of dead is probably one of the best non-SciFi solutions I’ve seen.

  6. Ah, the LOTRO death penalty.

    Surrounded by a pack of orcs? Wait until they beat you within an inch of your life and then run away – never mind that they killed the poor questgiver’s buddy, they’ll let you go. Chomped on by a small dragon? Boy, that hurt my feelings. Deliberately jumped off the shattered bridge of Khazad-dum because waiting out the death penalty is faster than any other way to get down there? (There’s even a deed for jumping off all the un-survivable falls in Moria!) Sure, just AFK for a few. The things my character accomplishes while demoralized are much more heroic than what I can pull off while in control of my character.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they had to do this in the context of the IP/lore. I suppose it’s better to have an explanation that does not make any sense than none at all? By comparison, yes, the “single player” approach is probably for the best.

  7. Meridian 59 handled death in an interesting way. If you died you left a body and appeared in a small room called the underworld. There were portals to the main inns in the world. It wasn’t really explored by the game, although some of the NPCs in the inns had some funny responses to some keywords. (There was also a puzzle in the underworld where you could bond with a mana node to increase your maximum mana if you solved it.)

    We did play a bit with the death story in M59 when we did a big event. The duke was killed, and we had some letters related to quests floating around. One letter from an NPC to another mentioned about how the adventurers were special and and able to come back. Nothing explaining the situation, though.

    The old art for the Duke was still in the game, so sometimes I would disguise my character as the Duke and sit in the underworld, waiting for someone to die. I’d then role-play a bit with players. Usually they would try to convince me to enter a portal, and I’d say I didn’t see the portals there. :) Was a fun little bit the players seemed to enjoy. I’d love to see more games really consider death as an interesting mechanic.

    As for other games, I agree with Green Armadllo about LotRO. I thought renaming “hit points” as “morale” was kinda lame. It was pretty much death as you find in every other MMO. Would have loved to see the designers tackle the concept of morale and really apply it with new mechanics.

    A lot of areas like this are ripe for exploration in online games, though.

  8. Sungazer says:

    Here’s a thought… just a thought mind you…

    Have two game play styles (select-able at character creation). Normal: where the character is “special” and has their soul bound by the lich in the sewers, or whatever story you want to put to it; and Hardcore: the standard, you die you’re dead, just tag on a small perk of some sort for enticement (exp++/tougher to kill/whatever). Granted a lot of people will avoid the HC play for casual but the perk and bragging rights always draws people to it

    Just thought that could be one way to deal with the “special” and “normal” problem.