Series Info...Playing with History #7:

Death and Beyond

by Michael Karlin
April 30, 2003

“Death values a prince no more than a clown.” — Miguel de Cervantes, author

Death is not the end! Well... maybe it is.

A difficulty with staging a game in a real-life locale, be it historical or contemporary, is the issue of death. Netherworld or reincarnation theories are held by various cultures as explanations of what might occur after death, but none of these have been proven. From the perspective of an online game, death can end complete the story of a character, or merely interrupt it. In this article, I am going to approach the application of character death in a historical context.

Death in Historical Cultures

If the possibility exists for death in your game, characters will die. It is a fact of gaming life that characters die, be it in an exploding spaceship in an old arcade shooter or to a lost battle in Grendel's Revenge. No matter the opportunities that you provide, or the incentives or punishments that you offer to elude death, characters will still end up dead and it will remain an issue that any developer will have to face. When working in a historical fiction setting, the developer has a paradigm of a given culture to work within. Various cultures perceive death differently. To the ancient Egyptians, most of life seemed to revolve around the eventuality of death. One of the first actions a new Pharaoh would take once ascended to the throne would be to construct a burial chamber. Some of the most honoured members of society were the ones who performed the embalming and funerary rites prescribed by Egyptian religious beliefs. While most cultures were not as necrocentric as the Egyptians, death affected them all in some way. Funerary beliefs are one aspect of the culture you are adapting that is easy to make authentic from an IC perspective. If deaths are limited (see below), then emphasise this.

Glory of the Nile will include embalming as a unique character development opportunity for those players who consider themselves a little morbid.

Dealing with Death in Online Gaming

Assuming a character can die, the game developer has a choice: allow characters to die a limited, or an unlimited number of times. If you choose a limited number of deaths, setting the number is important. If a character can die only once before it is deleted and the game is socially-oriented, think about making death a last resort. Provide credible, in-character opt-outs — ways to avoid the death even if a massive penalty is incurred. The unfortunate byproduct of one-death limits is the player's reluctance to take risks with the character, preferring to protect their investment (of time and effort). Glory of the Nile will have a limited amount of deaths, although the exact number has changed more often than a model in a fashion show. I'll update you along the way about what we finally decide. The nice aspect of limited deaths is that it allows for risk-taking while limiting "death abuse," or a character who dies constantly without much repercussion. This is a downside to the unlimited death scheme, though it can be dampened by placing a significant penalty on death. This penalty might be a reduction of skills or assets, or even social demotion or stigma.

How does this fit into a historical context? A challenge that exists is the positioning of death into the culture of your society. This is markedly easier to accomplish in ancient cultures than in contemporary or even renaissance period. Death and afterlife is usually a matter of religious belief and not necessarily cultural acceptance, though in earlier times the two were fused. I am not familiar with every ancient culture, but most afterlife beliefs involve either reincarnation of netherworld. Reincarnation varies from practice to practice, but it is usually defined as the revival of a departed soul or spirit of a person or creature after its death, inhabiting the body of a new human or creature. This is accepted in Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish (to a limited extent) beliefs. By "netherworld," I refer to the passing of a soul or spirit from this world to another. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and contemporary Christians and Muslims subscribe to this belief, although the way these afterworlds manifest themselves, and how one gets there, varies greatly. If your chosen culture believes in reincarnation, you have an easy opportunity for character resurrections, especially unlimited ones. However, if your chosen culture adheres to a belief of a netherworld afterlife, creating a credible outlet for character resurrections is more difficult. You probably do not want to create a separate world representing a netherworld, and so I offer a few suggestions:

  • The first and most obvious option is to have a one-death limit with many opportunities to elude or prevent death. This is the most credible method in dealing with netherworld belief systems.

  • Mixing the two types of mentioned afterlife is another option. In Glory of the Nile, a spirit will have limited opportunities to resurrect after its body has died, though after that number is over their deeds are weighed and they proceed to the afterlife netherworld they deserve in the eyes of the gods.

  • A third option is to co-opt dead players into your Veteran Player corps by making the dead spirits apparitions or ghosts that further plot in some way. While this will certainly change the character, it allows it to persist, including potential opportunities to reoccupy a physical shell. You might not want this to happen too often, else you might find yourself with more ghosts than humans. In order to prevent this, tie some significant restrictions to the abilities of ghosts.

Death is an inevitability in most games, but it does not have to be the end of character opportunities. Just like life, the perception of an afterlife changes the conduct of behaviour in life, so your choice of how you want to apply death will have significant impact on your players. Weigh the pros and cons, and do not choose lightly.

In two weeks, I'll deal with justice and order in historical fiction games. Stay tuned!

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