Perfect Ten: How MMOs explain away our infinite resurrections

    
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Why? Why do we die in MMOs and keep coming back to life? Are we in a type of hell defined by endless combat and suffering, doomed to never escape the cycle? Is this a cruel experiment being performed by supreme alien beings from afar? Does that make us the living undead, immortal Highlanders, or something even more significant?

If you’re looking at me with that look you have in your eye right now, I’d like to remind you that asking these questions is more in line with the core of RPGs than just mashing the 1-2-3 buttons. The rules that make up and dictate our virtual lives should have both meaning and sense, yet so many of these games expect us to just blithely accept that we can come back from the dead over and over without nary an explanation.

Well, I like explanations. Even if it’s just polite nonsense, a thought-out reason as to why our characters are death-proof tells me that the devs treat their game with a higher degree of integrity than others. So here are 10 explanations of how the endless cycle of death and resurrection works in MMORPGs.

Glitch: You go to hell and have to stomp grapes to return. Seriously.

Since Glitch wasn’t your typical combat MMO, the thought of death might not enter your mind. Yet you can die in myriad ways (stay away from the No-No Powder, trust us), at which point the game sends you to Hell One.

It’s in this flame-decorated underworld that you’ll need to stomp 11 grapes to earn your resurrection and second lease on life. Fortunately, it’s not all bad, since there are achievements for croaking and dealing with life in Hell One.

Allods Online: You spend time in purgatory to be worthy of resurrection.

Perhaps, as with Glitch, this can be filed more under “interesting death penalties,” but I appreciate the effort to fill in the blank between dying and coming back. In the case of Allods, you’re sent to a dismal place called purgatory, where you spend ever-increasing amounts of time (based on your level) before being allowed back in the world. You won’t be able to see most other people while there or do anything other than wander around and jump.

Of course, even death has its soft spot for avarice, and you can bribe your way out if you’re in an all-fire hurry.

You made it sing, all right.

City of Heroes: Supers never die, they just go to the hospital.

Superhero MMOs have an advantage over the rest of the crowd, at least when it comes to giving an explanation for the death-resurrection loop. After all, every superhero fan worth his or her salt knows that you simply can’t count on any death to actually stick in the comic pages. So why would it be any different online?

The explanation that City of Heroes provides is a simple visual cue: You wake up in a hospital. That’s all you need to deduce that you were beaten to within an inch of your life, but because you’re all super and everything, you were able to hang on while someone dragged your sorry spandex butt back to the ER.

Lord of the Rings Online: Your morale drops too far and you retreat.

In attempting to create a lore-worthy explanation for immortality, the developers ended up making a bizarre world where nothing, not even animals, can ever die. The fiction behind this is the substitution of “morale” in place of health or hit points. This works great to explain why players don’t die: They’re just demoralized and slink away in defeat. Yet this gets really weird when applied to everyone and everything else in the world because they all have “morale” instead of health as well.

So that crumpled bird, bleeding orc, or savaged serpent lying on the ground? It’s not dead, it’s just demoralized. That’s why you’re going to see it again in a couple of minutes.

The Secret World: You assume anima form until inhabiting your body once more.

As part of your perks package of becoming a slightly superpowered member of the secret world, you’ll be able to cheat death! Not too bad, eh? So instead of dying forever, you’ll slip into an “anima” form and run through the world until you find and reinhabit your broken, bleeding body.

Many games like to use this ghost form technique to wordlessly explain away resurrection, although it doesn’t do a great job with the issue of why NPCs don’t have access to the same ability. I guess you’re blessed? Or something?

RIFT: You’ve become an immortal ascended.

You might have been a normal person in Telara, but those days are past; all players begin the game as an “Ascended” immortal being. This is treated with surprising continuity in the game, even in the death system. You don’t die forever because you, unlike most everyone in the world, can just keep coming back.

One of my personal favorite references to this fact is an NPC in a Sanctum tavern who bemoans that nobody will invite him to dungeon runs because he has only one life. I almost feel bad for the guy. Almost.

Fallen Earth: You’re a (defective) clone of the guy or gal who died in the tutorial.

Fallen Earth’s tutorial concludes with a pulse-pounding race away from an explosion, a race that you lose every time. Yup, you begin the game by dying. Fortunately, you’ve been wearing a collar that transmits all your memories to a nearby cloning facility called LifeNet, and you pick up your life as a clone.

I appreciate that the game not only came up with an explanation for the resurrections but actually heavily incorporates that into the storyline. NPCs know that you have this ability (which they envy), but you’ve also been saddled with the knowledge that your cloning is somewhat defective at the start.

EVE Online: You cope with insurance and self-cloning.

Ships and hardware are replaceable — but is a human life? In EVE Online, it apparently is. Players can pay in advance to insure their persons so that when the inevitable death occurs, their latest brain scan will be sent to a full-fledged clone for more hilarity.

This sets itself apart a smidge from other sci-fi MMOs that utilize cloning as a lore excuse because the player is a proactive participant in securing his or her afterlife. I can respect that.

Dungeons and Dragons Online: You turn into a fancy rock.

D&D never was too respectful of eternal death, seeing as there are a few hundred ways in the pen-and-paper game to cheat the Grim Reaper. Why should DDO be any different? There are several ways to come back from the beyond, but the standard way is that you turn into a fancy rock called a soulstone. Players can pick up your soul — now in convenient stone form — and get you to a bigger rock that does MAGIC! and makes you a new person.

Rocks. They’re awesome.

The Matrix Online: You were just in a virtual world, so no biggie.

The Matrix Online had one of the best freebies of an explanation thanks to its IP. Since players aren’t physically in the Matrix, they don’t actually die. Following the events of the movies, the devs wrote that the truce between the three sides lessens the effects of in-Matrix death to merely shock your physical body instead of killing it outright. So all you have to do is jack back in and shake it off.

Of course, MxO was taking you three levels deep with this fiction, as you’re a human playing an in-game human playing a virtual human who may die but doesn’t permanently affect the in-game humor nor the real-world one. As Neo would say, whoa.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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Utakata

“City of Heroes: Supers never die, they just go to the hospital.”

…I think there might be a few MMO’s that take “the parrot is just resting” approach to this. o.O

Corey Evans
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Corey Evans

I want to design an MMO that saves spell progress (soul of a hero inhabits a new body or whatever) but kills the named character. So you get the same kinda vibes as XCOM where you name your favorite unit after you brother and then it dies.

Faye
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Faye

“… it doesn’t do a great job with the issue of why NPCs don’t have access to the same ability.”

They do have the same ability. That’s why they keep re-spawning :p

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Bryan Correll

you were able to hang on while someone dragged your sorry spandex butt back to the ER.

In game lore is that heroes are equipped with emergency teleport transponders that automatically beam you straight to the hospital when you’re critically injured.
Some villain groups use technology (The Council) or magic (Circle of Thorns) to jam this signal in some of their bases and you end up imprisoned if defeated. It’s not clear why they don’t just kill you or at least put a decent guard on your cell.
It makes a lot less sense for villains to have such transponders, but apparently Lord Recluse likes his potential destined ones to live long enough to have a chance to complete his plans. The opposite case would seem more likely though, as separating the wheat from the chaff is one of the principal points of Project Destiny.

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Sleepy

I’ve always gotten a kick out of how much Fallen Earth embraces this concept. If you ask the fast travel system (it’s an AI) how it works, it turns out that it kills you and creates a clone at the target destination.

Sixuality
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Sixuality

Yes, and as I recall your gear also takes minor damage when you FT, just as it would from any other death.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

It’s been a long while since I’ve died in EVE (have to play to die!), but I don’t think one needs insurance to revive in a new clone. Waking up in a clone bay at whichever star base you chose is default behavior after death.

One pays for jump clones, but that’s a whole other thing…

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Rob Hagaman

Yeah, you pay for jump clones only. When you’re killed, you just lose your ship and everything on it to SAFETY.

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Gamhuin

I always appreciate when an setting integrates the eternal respawning cycle into the narrative.
Many have included a reason for the player, and while I’m not the games biggest fan, the cloning in Fallen Earth is one of my favorites.

I do appreciate New World applying the mythology to all the NPC/mobs as well. While many games explain the PC immortality, they tend to gloss or look over entirely the fact that everything and everyone else in the world keeps coming back as well.
I think most just handwave, that in theory you constantly progress forward and shouldn’t look backwards narratively – if you never go back, you’ll never know they actually respawned. So they’re actually Schrödinger’s NPC; both alive and dead until you go back into Kedge Keep to see if Phinagel is actually there or not.
Bad example. He’s NEVER there if you want him to be…stupid blue crystal staff. /grumble/

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r00ch

Good point about New World. One piece of lore in NW suggests bears get very angry because, while they are immortal, they still very much remember the pain of death.

Since nothing really dies on Aeternum, it adds this sense of uncanny, unnatural rot about the whole island. It’s not just the corruption, everything feels unnatural and I appreciate that there is quite a bit of lore to explain it, even if it’s tucked away in lore pages and NPC dialogue.

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Bruno Brito

Actually, in FE, you are already a clone in the tutorial, and you simply get cloned years later because of Elena.

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Phubarrh

ESO: You have no soul!

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Hurbster

And your body is made of plasm.

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Arktouros

Really surprised not to see Destiny 2 in this list because it’s just so ingrained and embraced as part of the lore that we die and are resurrected by our ghosts. We’re all walking zombies brought back to life repeatedly and sometimes it’s brought up in some grim ways like literally starving to death only to be ressurected back still hungry to do it all over again kinda thing. Whole other alien cultures have these views on us undying monstrosities that just annihilate them and everything.

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r00ch

I love how Destiny 2 plays with the whole “are we the baddies?” idea. Guardians really do sound like a horrifying undead army. We even use live rounds in the crucible (PvP), where we kill each over and over so we can perfect the art of annihilating alien species.

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Arktouros

Yea and what other races/enemies canonically do the same? The Scorn which are depicted as vile and disgusting. Basically that whole expansion was dedicated towards the idea of the Fallen corrupted and constantly resurrected over and over into enemies and that was continued a few seasons ago with the Presage quest.

That whole concept of death and rebirth is just baked into the game on a fundamental level it’s really neat and directly addressed where as most games it’s like “lets just forget that detail…”