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.
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.