Death in RPGs: Different forms

Written in 2019 by Kaoru and DocOwer

There are several aspects of death and RPGs that cannot be categorized into "friends die", "foes die" or "there's a difference between story and gameplay". This article here covers some interesting aspects of how games handle "dying".

Thanks to Kaoru again for providing most of the aspects of this report.

Rescued for a fee

A lot of RPGs, especially Japanese ones, will simply give you a Game Over if you whole party is killed. Load the last save, done. But their most traditional, quintessential franchise Dragon Quest handles it in another way. If everyone is dead, your team re-awakens at the last visited church, with all their progress in gaining levels and acquired items still there. But half the gold they had on hand is gone. Implying someone found them, helped them back to town, and took a bit of a gold coin compensation with them.

There are a few other RPGs that do this, like Shining Force or Pokemon, which will also explicitly state that your character only blacked out instead of died. Monster Hunter, while not quite RPGs, also have their missions on a three strike system. Every death the reward money gets reduced and the mission is failed once it hits 0. They even show you a fun little animation of some felines (cat-like helpers) rolling the player back to camp on a cart – so I guess the lost money goes to them for the help.

Ashes to ashes

Wizardry. It’s one of the oldest, most prolific Western RPG franchises. And it was quite popular in Japan, producing dozens of spinoffs over there even long after the Western main franchise died, plus many very largely inspired games like Elminage. And with a twist on dying. Because the resurrection spells in these games have a certain chance of failing. If a dead character’s corpse fails to get re-animated, it crumbles to ash. Ash is even harder to revive, and if it fails again, the character is gone for good and you have to recruit someone new to fill their slot.

They also offer a twist when you get a whole party wipe in the dungeon. Because you can take a second team in there, to where the previous group died, and rescue them, carrying their corpses out of there and back to the temple for resurrection. Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land even has the Grim Reaper himself as an enemy starting to roam the dungen floors, if you dally to long within them, randomly posessing a character upon catching the team (he’s also a boss fight later on). Posessed characters might turn to ash or permadie right away upon getting killed by an enemy.

Roguelikes and Death in Baroque

Roguelikes are a special kind of breed of game. To die several times is expected, completely resetting your progress. The random nature of the dungeon(s) and the player starting all over after each death means they are entirely built around always trying to make the most of your current loadout, and of course praying for the luck of the draw. Traditional Roguelikes do actually kill your character – after death you roll a new one. Japanese games like Shiren the Wanderer or Azure Dreams don’t really do that. Upon death they simply somehow loose all their stuff and levels, but wake up in town just the same.

An interesting diverging example is Baroque though. A game that originated on the Saturn and PlayStation, and got a remake for PlayStation 2 and Wii later on. It is a dystopian, convoluted game, that tells its vague narrative through bit sized pieces that are hard to come by and to put together. It also has a fixed protagonist who gets his mission to climb the euro tower by the archangel as punishment for his sins. To die or warp out of the tower means a full character reset as is integral to Roguelikes (though as per usual with more modern ones, there are ways to keep at least some items).

But when it comes to Baroque, this is part of the narrative and game’s structure. It is actually impossible to reach the end of the game right away, because the tower advances in floors several times before the real end goal appears. New things happen within, characters offering new tidbits about the world, and the growth of the tower are linked to several obtuse triggers, and sometimes simply having to die and restart the thing afterwards. Even if your intial rollout would have been beneficial, you can not win this game without dying at least a couple of times. And your character does die this time around despite being a fixed one that initially seems to simply start at the base of the tower stripped of his belongings and levels like business as usual. Later on there is even a scene where, when you make the protagonist approach the tower, you see him falling from it. That’s because it is not the same protagonist each time, but a new clone of him, reproduced eternally until his task will be fulfilled.

Of creation and destruction

Terranigma has an interesting narrative about life and death - this is an essential part of its story. In Terranigma, there is no life and death but rather "creation" and "destruction", with every part being equally important. Terranigma calls this moment of imbalance between "life" and "death" the 13th hour, as impressively shown by its intro.

This scenario is not limited to Terranigma. The predecessors of this fine game, "Soulblazer" and "Illusion of Time / Gaia" included the same concept. Illusion of Time, for example, covered the topic of the world constantly changing with a recurring destruction and recreation of everything. Basically the heroes of that game tried to stop the end of the world and the death of all, without realizing that this was just how the world went on for ages.

This is only a story concept in both games, though, as they are pretty normal games when it comes to game over screens as the protagonist actually just reaches 0 HP.

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