MMORPG Chestnuts: Death

August 3, 2007

No not a new food in World of Warcraft, I’m talking about those subjects that come up over and over again in discussions of MMORPGs and typically involve a good degree of chin-stroking in the process.

Today’s MMORPG Chestnut is the rather unsavoury subject of ‘death’.

Prompted by a rather strange article in the Technology section of The Guardian called ‘why do we have to die in games‘, it’s certainly not the first time this subject has come up. Apparently a lively debate about the ‘sacred cows’ of MMORPGs took place earlier this year at the Indie MMOG conference that included a discussion about ‘death’ chaired by Richard Bartle himself. For old-school MUDers the merits of perma-death are still worthy of discussion, even as the rest of the rapidly growing MMORPG population wince in frustration at the prospect of another corpse run.

I have to admit I don’t get what the debate is about, sure games designers should always challenge conventions, but in doing so they need to consider what benefits doing something other than the convention will bring to gameplay other than being ‘unconventional’. Let’s be realistic, in most games you don’t really die, if you did the game would surely be over, instead of death players simply have to reload or go back to a save point.

There are of course games that weave ‘death’ into gameplay, the classic example being Legacy of Kain: Soulreaver, where the protagonist Raziel can move between the ‘material plane’ and ‘spectral plane’, this ability is often used to solve puzzles throughout he game. When Raziel’s body is destroyed on the material plane he shifts into the spectral plane and must feed on souls of the dead to increase his energy levels then must find a portal to return to the material plane. So technically Raziel never dies, can’t die in fact. As the Wikipedia article puts it “he is beyond death; the greatest potential setback he faces is mere displacement”.

A similar device is used in the game Prey where the hero Tommy can spiritwalk where he moves into the spirit realm a where amongst othe rthings he can wield a spirit bow. Like Raziel, when Tommy’s material body is destroyed he shifts to the spirit realm from where he can return to the material plane by killing the spirits of the dead.

Dying in World of Warcraft seems little different from the two scenarios presented above, it just hasn’t been explained in the same way. Your character’s body shifts from the material realm to the spirit realm from where you can choose to be resurrected by the Spirit Healer and take significant damage to your equipment or run back to where your corpse fell and resurrect there. While death in WoW hasn’t been used as a mechanic in the same way it was in Soulreaver of Prey it doesn’t take much to conceive if Blizzard making a quest that actually required a sojourn into the spirt realm, maybe into the afterlife itself.

The reason computer games have ‘death’ is as many have said to maintain the level of challenge, if you die you know you have to do better next time, but also because it is universally recognised it adds a degree of gravity to the act of failing. The reason perma-death is a bad idea is that it’s too much like reality, games no matter how seriosuly people may take them, are still escapism, which is perhaps why Chore Wars isn’t as exciting as grinding primal earths in Nagrand,



  1. Just found your blog, I enjoyed reading this post, I really loved playing Soul Reaver back in the day and you brought back memories I hadn’t thought of for a while. I have added you to my blogroll, look forward to reading your thoughts.

  2. Thanks Sean, glad somebody else has such fond memories of Soul Reaver, would love to see a new game made, maybe even an MMO set in Nosgoth??

    You’re blog looks great too, will add you to my blog roll also.

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