Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Sacredness of Life and Death

There is a sacredness to life and death. Every true assassin understands this deeply. We are not wonton killers, abusing our skills to spread misery and destruction. It is a tool to change the world around us and not one to be taken lightly. With the stay or strike of my hand I could end or begin a war. Just a single life could spare or cause untold bloodshed. There is honor in the one who dies in order for their people to live. We never forget this...

As living, breathing brings we intrinsically understand the concepts of life and death. We understand the emotional and social impacts of these concepts, and as such, they make wonderful tools within the world of gaming. We might breath a sigh of relief as our hero barely evades death, cheer when an evil overlord is finally toppled or weep when a character dear to us tragically passes on.

One of the most recognized deaths in video game history. (Picture found on this site)

Despite being fantastic storytelling tools, these concepts unfortunately do not translate well into actual game play. When death is nothing more then a minor inconvenience it loses its edge to the viewer. It becomes a simple matter of numbers and whether or not you remembered to buy those phoenix downs at the last town you stopped at.
It's hard to appreciate death when all you have to do is to run back to your body! (My poor paladin!)

To be fair it makes sense why these aspects exist within the game play itself. If the game were to adhere with a more meaningful portrayal it might end up in an extreme amount of frustration on behalf of the gamer. For instance what if, when you died, that was it? Game Over: straight back to the opening menu, with your character deleted, forced to start all over again. Although some games do feature this in the option of what is known as an “iron man mode," "hardcore mode," or "permadeath mode", most players would not find the challenges associated with this entertaining. It is for this reason that games use death as a deterrent for poor decisions and poor preparation while simultaneously leaving the consequences manageable.

Unfortunately I've found that these very same tools that allow us to continue to enjoy our gaming experience also tend to blur into the realms of the individual game's story. Why didn't we just use a phoenix down on Aeris? Why didn't we cast mass resurrect on Cairne? When our own character have the power over life and death, why do /any/ of these tragedies happen?

Now most players will accept these instances because story is story and game play is game play. When this truly bothers, I mean REALLY irks me is when this concept of the lack of respect for life and death leaks into the roleplaying community.

I cannot count how many times I have seen a character on the brink of death magically spring back to life and leap back into battle within minutes of their near demise. Sure one of the nicest parts of roleplaying is the addition of manipulation of reality. It's fine if you don't want to spend the next few months playing out the recovery of one's character. But if you do not wish to accept any sort of reasonable consequence then I have to question what your motivation for going through all the other motions was. Sadly, I tend to find that this most often was simply a cry for attention. A dramatic setting that most people can immediately identify and sympathize with that forces attention upon the player's character above others.

While I respect people's decisions and do not intend to tell anyone how to roleplay, I can speak from personal experience the frustration that often follows such outbursts. While roleplaying in World of Warcraft, I created a shaman with the power to heal and to mend. I couldn't tell you how often her home was filled with injured or dying members of her Tribe all seeking some miraculous treatment for their wounds. Now I expect a tribal healer to see wounds from skirmishes or from hunting accidents, but not from the fourth mother-to-be who was near miscarriage from a fierce battle while /seven months pregnant/. Not from a tribal warrior suffering from his umpteenth fatal blow that should have struck him dead on the spot. Even more disappointing was, upon extensive healing efforts of the part of my shaman, they would often decide they weren't quite ready to be healed and magically reopen their wound minutes later for another to pine over if they did not simply roll over and attempt to die again in my character's home instead. Not only did this distress my character, but it bothered me as well. Roleplaying interactions are beautiful for the reason that they are the cumulative effort of multiple people often resulting in many interesting and unexpected turns. When I feel that my actions did absolutely nothing whatsoever, I begin to question why you came to me in the first place? To use the subjects of near-death or death for the sole purpose of attention is somewhat offensive to me.

Now let's talk about character deaths. Though I am not a fan of killing off one's character, I can certainly appreciate a well thought out and well roleplayed death scene. However many character deaths have instead left me with a bitter aftertaste. I have seen characters killed off in a fit of frustration and/or anger, only to see them brought back later thanks to a timely retcon when the player regretted their decision. I have also seen characters killed as a way to get revenge upon another player, using the sacredness of death as a tool for revenge. This to me feels like all the wrong reasons to utilize the effects of death.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is another interesting roleplay potential that I find often tends to turn foul. Pregnancy and children, the miracle of life. Although I do not expect people to roleplay out the full extent of a nine month pregnancy (or however long their race's gestation period is), I also find it hard to accept when they draw it out into some big dramatic event and then suddenly rush it to completion in a few days. And never mind the children I've seen born to characters, only to be forgotten a few days later because they turned boring. I find so often that because people seem to universally understand the wonderment of pregnancy and birth, they tend to get excited when it happens to someone their character knows. Unfortunately this attention or idea often seems to spread to others, creating this competitive field where so many characters become pregnant or bear children that it is hard to keep up and support all of them in character. Sadly this usually leads to the player finding the concepts to be no longer fun or entertaining and I've seen many tragic miscarriages or retcons because of this. Heck, I've even seen a newborn baby sacrificed to a dark god because the player stated they “no longer wanted to deal with the kid and their jerk father.” A few times I've found people who truly nail these concepts, creating some of the most awesome family oriented roleplay I've seen. However this only makes the other instances all the more frustrating to myself.

Lastly I wish to touch upon character resurrections. This is another tool that, if well thought out and played, can result in some very interesting developments. However, I find it frustrating when people use this as a means to patch up their poor decision in killing off their character or shrug it off like a common occurrence. Although we typically enjoy playing a character of some significance, it is generally accepted that our characters are not on par with the standings of the characters within the story of the game themselves, such as war chiefs, presidents or corporate leaders. So when a character intrinsic to the story of the game's world does not get resurrected by the combined efforts of the untold masses that mourn their passing, why does this random nobody get brought back to life for the /third/ time?

In the end I find that the concepts of life and death are a very powerful and meaningful tool used in the world of gaming and especially in the roleplaying community. But just as you would not wish someone to make light of such occurrences in real life, it is up to us to use these tools responsibly when they lie within our own hands.


  1. This is a terrific post and analysis. Very well thought out.

  2. Thanks! (Also if you or anyone else would like to view further discussion on this blog, check out my link to this site from > forums > Ideal Laboratory > The Sacredness of Life and Death)