Baranor’s Den #2: Death Incarnate

Death Incarnate

It sometimes strikes me funny, the disappointment I feel when one of my characters dies. Not immediately, but some moments later, when I realize that I did something rather foolish. I wasn’t paying attention, or was half-asleep.

For example, I played a lot of Quest for Glory in the great days of the adventure. Quest for Glory is a typical Sword and Sorcery adventure game with role-playing elements added for good measure. It allows you to take your character from the first episode all the way through to the fifth. If you did acquire Paladin status somewhere in a previous episode, you can keep using it, but you can only become a Paladin in one episode, by means of finishing a quest in a particular way. It is really worth playing. Death comes in a hundred wonky ways in that series. Eaten by an undead dog, seduced by a vampire, turned into some sort of banana by a strange statue, there was no shortage of death… kissed to death by the spirit of a naked woman swimming in a lake (or rather, drawn under whilst attempting to kiss that naked woman… tsk tsk). Most of those deaths were rather insulting, as the creators of the game usually kicked you after you dropped, adding some seriously dark humour to it.

Death takes many forms in our games. In an FPS, it is usually up-front: you get shot, blown to pieces, or fall off a cliff. Your “character” might moan, or you hear the sounds of something ripping you apart, and that is that. You reload in the case of a single player game, respawn in the case of a multiplayer or single-player deathmatch game, and that is that. There are no penalties for this other than the time you lost. You learn something (i.e. “don’t stand in the way of a rocket launcher” or “don’t fire grenades at odd angles unless you want to head butt them yourself”), you respawn/reload and that is that.

Obviously, not all games let you get off that easy. I have done numerous games of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and in the wondrous realm of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (well, it is again Dungeons and Dragons these days) death takes another form. If one of your team-mates dies, he does not respawn, but you can carry his body with you, as well as all his gear, and for a price you can resurrect him at the nearest healer. This has its advantages, and it is a fine suspension of disbelief that magic would be able perform such an act.

In Diablo I we also had this, it was called a Resurrection Scroll, and it allowed people to resurrect someone on the spot he had died. Alas, when an entire level is filled with nothing but Witches and the first thing you see when you come down the stairs is a massive wall of Bloodstars coming at you, and three of the four members of your party drop immediately, there is little chance or hope that you can resurrect any of them, let alone recover their gear if they do wish to restart in town.

Different genres handle death in different ways, and many of those same elements can be found in movies and books. The fantasy genre is littered with people who return from death, ghosts and other strange things. Many of the characters who have returned or have defeated death are evil, and most of the time the antagonist has to fight those evil ones. More rarely we see the main character traveling to the land of the dead in order to right some great wrong or to acquire information. Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea sextet is a good example of this, as is His Dark Materials (does anyone know when and/or if there will be a second movie? I’ve read His Dark Materials, and I’m curious as to how this would turn out). In both those books, traveling through some kind of underworld, or nether realm, is required in order to fulfill a momentous task and to save the earth or universe.

Most games lack something of a spirit world. It is true that in Hellgate: London, that game which is close to being a non-game, one can travel in spirit form to one’s corpse and take it from there. But there is not much different from the real world other than that you travel faster and are stuck in a black-and-white graphics mode. You do not need to find the exit from the spirit world in order to return from the living, no arcane rituals are required and your “ghost” form has no effect upon the world other than to allow you to return to your body. The disembodied spirit is, in effect, merely a different representation from the character you were playing.

In Diablo 2, things are handled differently. In Softcore-land you die, leave a corpse, and can die again, leaving yet another corpse. Only the last corpse you leave is ever carried with you from game to game, so you have to be careful not to loose any gear, unless you die without gear at all in which case you are safe from harm. There was a time when it was possible to “pop” someone’s body if he was careless enough to die with a second set of gear on him (the first corpse vanished and all the stuff spilled everywhere), but that has been fixed, leading to the numerous corpses. Of course, if you leave seven of your own bodies on the ground near Diablo’s feet you will feel somewhat (somewhat… *giggles*… yeah) silly, but that’s big D for you, and you’ll have a lot of running back and forth to do but that is that.

And then there is Hardcore mode where you die, and stay dead. Here again is the principle of learning to stay alive, as most Hardcore players have learned the hard way that whatever worked in SC land eventually led to your death, and in HC land that means there aint no comin’ back Sonny-boy. It took me a long time to really understand what that meant. I had a tendency in Softcore to fight as a berserker, and I carried that tendency over to Hardcore, and it took me ages and ages to learn how to stay alive. I died. A lot. I must have died at least ten times in every act and difficulty from normal onwards before I finally figured out that an all-out assault was not always the best tactic, that having 75% resistance to all was a necessity rather than a luxury, and that getting Amp’ed meant “RUN LIKE HELL!”. Death in HC is handled much like death in real life: Your deeds of valor will be remembered, someone else can take your gear, (if you are lucky they will even return it to your other characters,) but the end, alas, is the end. For a minority of players, this is the only way to play Diablo. It is not the only way to play a game as I’d hate to loose my Oblivion Characters to a permanent death (would be interesting, but I am sure I’d soon turn into a real coward and only use bow, arrow and poison), but it is, for me, the only way to play Diablo.

Now as we contemplate Diablo 3, the question must be asked. What do you think? Multiple bodies? An XP-penalty? No body? No loot? Softcore or Hardcore? If you had a choice, what would be your choice for Diablo 3?

Baranor’s Den is a weekly column that explores all things RPG and fantasy, with a special focus on the Diablo series. Views expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Leave your comment after the column, or email Baranor directly.

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