Still working hard on the MMO, but not much new to show yet. Soon! In the meantime, let’s talk a bit about the back story of the game.
“Oh No, It’s the Undead!”
Early in Diablo 3, you meet a Necromancer. And your character basically says something like, “Hmm, you don’t see many of those around town!” This is the saddest reaction to necromancy ever.
Necromancy should be evil. For one thing, they muck around with your dead relatives, which tends to piss people off. But that doesn’t seem to be enough these days. Hell, in the Diablo universe, necromancy is practically a noble profession.
So what went wrong? Why do modern games not have scary evil undead? Partially we’re just used to it. (“Yeah, he uses skeleton pets. They’re basically like any other pet class, but bonier.”) But I think a bigger part of it is our TV and movie culture. Most zombie flicks don’t suggest that it’s Grandpa inside that rotting corpse: it’s just a meat puppet. So if you can get over the shock of seeing Grandpa’s rotting body, reusing his corpse isn’t so evil. It’s almost a noble act: you’re up-cycling useless flesh into something productive!
Well, I want necromancy to be hated and feared in Project Gorgon. There’s very practical reasons for this: the undead are too damned convenient. This is a very magic-rich world, and if everybody could have living-skeleton butlers and gardeners, they would. What’s to stop them?
But the bigger reason is that it’s just more fun if necromancy is evil. The game already has plenty of noble occupations. Swordsmen study calligraphy and the art of war. Druids follow the dictates of nature spirits, which can be harsh, but not evil. Werewolves are feared, and everybody agrees they’re incredibly dangerous, but they’re not inherently evil. They’re mostly misunderstood. Necromancers, though: they should be evil.
What Makes Undead Evil?
To make undeath feel more evil, let’s start by assuming the soul of the dead person is trapped inside the body. So that zombie of Uncle Mort actually contains Mort’s mind, and he’s in terrible pain. Okay, that’s a great start. Torturing the souls of the dead is always a good start.
But what about the fancier undead, like vampires? Your classic vampire doesn’t seem to be in terrible pain all the time. And indeed most fiction vampires aren’t evil at all. Here’s the test: if your son was dying, and the only way to save him was to turn him into a vampire, would you let him die? If you say “yes, it’s better for him to die,” then vampires are sufficiently evil. Few modern vampires pass this test. I want my vampires to be scary, evil, horrible things that no sane person would want their children to become.
(And it’s not enough to make vampires feed on humans. Hell, what doesn’t feed on humans in MMO worlds? They need to be real bad things.)
Driven By Hate
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to pin down “evil”. Whenever you analyze something, it stops being “evil” and starts being “misunderstood”. I need to curb that. My plan is to focus on emotions, because those create a visceral reaction, and are less susceptible to scrutiny and analysis. (For instance, if I say somebody has a racial hatred of elves, you don’t necessarily need me to explain why. He can just be a racist. Emotions don’t have to make sense.)
So let’s say all undead are powered by strong negative emotions. And while I’m at it, let’s do away with “dumb” non-sentient undead, such as mindless zombies. All undead in this game are sentient, and powered by emotion.
Most undead run on hate. When a necromancer tries to raise skeleton warriors, only the people who were most susceptible to feeling great hatred will come back to life.
These skeletons are still self-aware, and they retain the memories of their former lives, but their need to hate is all-consuming. So they twist and corrupt all their memories until they hate everything they used to love. They hate their former loved ones most of all.
Initially, the necromancer has complete control over them, but eventually many undead will break free and flee their masters. Then they make a beeline for their former family and friends. Driven by their hate, they will go to any lengths to find and kill them.
Okay, yeah, that’s pretty evil. Nobody wants to wake up in the night to find their dead wife looming over them with an axe, shouting about how terrible they are while trying to kill them. If that’s a side-effect of necromancy, you can see why it’d be very illegal.
Necromancy mostly uses hate-filled undead, but there are other kinds, mostly occurring naturally. Ghosts, wraiths, banshees, and so on are fueled by unpleasant emotions like depression, greed, agony, and jealousy. They’re all sentient, and all of them are feared, though not as much as the hate-filled ones.
The purpose of a backstory in an MMO is to help create compelling game scenarios. Otherwise, I would just pencil in “they’re evil because I said so” and be done with it. What can this backstory do to make the game more interesting? Well, let’s brainstorm:
- Skeletons like to band together in little clusters to give each other emotional support: they need to keep their hatred high. When they’re not hating, they get weak-kneed and sluggish. So they give each other little pep talks about why they should hate their family, or that deer over there, or that player coming over to kill them.
- The Combat Psychology skill now has direct tie-ins to undeath. If you make a skeleton feel less hatred, you’ll literally make him weaker. Psychoanalysis can kill the undead!
- It lets us have some startling scenarios. Imagine you’re in town when a skeleton runs by and starts banging on the door of a house. “Martha, it’s me, I’m back! Let me in!” He’s preying upon his wife, hoping she’ll open the door so he can kill her. And even if you save her, she’s likely to have mixed feelings about you killing her husband…
- Maybe depression in this world is now a serious public safety issue. Most suicides are committed by extremely depressed people, and if they come back as ghosts, haunting their loved ones, they can spread more depression like an infectious disease. What would society do? Would they give depressed people more aggressive treatment, or would they banish them to the countryside? (For variety, it’d probably vary from city to city.)
- If depression causes ghosts, that has lots of practical side-effects. When the constabulary investigates a suicide, they can just wait and see if a ghost appears. If no spirits have tormented the family within three days, they start to suspect foul play.
And much more. It gives me some interesting back-stories for tombs (“the elves created an undead-proof chamber, and…”) and it helps me create undead NPCs with more compelling personalities, from tragically evil skeleton minions to cruel and vicious vampire kings.
While the backstory isn’t super weird, I think it’s fresh enough that it won’t seem like the same old thing, either. And with any luck, it will be easy to see why raising the dead is Evil.