Thursday, April 6, 2006

On the Persistence of Corpses

As I was playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion the other night, I got to wondering: What if corpses didn't vanish in MMORPGs?

Early on in the game, I was circling Imperial City to map out dungeons to explore later. One night, I came across several NPCs on horseback on a bridge to the south of the city. OK, mildly interesting, chat briefly with Herminia Cinna and someone else, no big deal, move on.

The next night, while searching the waterline for Nirnroot plants, I happened to walk underneath that same bridge... and there, sprawled out under the bridge, was the dead body of Herminia Cinna. Apparently she'd hung around the bridge too long and been cut down by a bandit without being able to escape in time.

For several reasons, I felt bad about this. For one thing, in the game world, a presumably "good" (or at least weak) NPC had died. Because Oblivion is a single-player game, that meant this NPC was gone for good. Someone who'd probably been an innocent had been cut down forever.

For a less noble reason, I felt bad because Herminia Cinna could have wound up being a quest-giver. Now that she's dead, I'll never know whether she had a quest for me or not, and if she did, I'll never be able to experience that game content. (Not in my current incarnation, anyway.)

And then there was the least noble reason of all... I wanted her stuff. I stripped her body of belongings from head to foot -- it's not like she's going to need her things any more -- including a very nice magical ring and a key to her house (which, once I find it, I'm going to plunder). And I left her unclothed corpse lying beneath the bridge.

From a pure gameplay advantage point of view, there's no reason why I shouldn't have done this. As far as I can see, there'll be zip-point-zero negative consequences; in fact, at a minimum I got a nice magic item out of it. I'd have been crazy not to exploit the situation.

And yet... it bothers me. At the time, I didn't know I could move bodies. As far as I knew, I couldn't do anything with the corpse -- I couldn't bury it, or cremate it, or even dump it in deep water out of sight. I couldn't even build a cairn to cover her mortal remains and mark her final resting place.

So there's nothing respectful I can do toward Herminia Cinna's body to rationalize to myself the acceptability of looting all her stuff even down to the shoes on her feet. And I feel strangely uncomfortable about that.

Is it silly/odd of me to have this reaction?

More to the larger point, is there a lesson here for MMORPGs? Suppose for a moment that when you kill a character -- either an NPC or a player character -- the body doesn't magically and mysteriously vanish. Suppose instead that bodies hang around as objects until/unless they're disposed of (by carrion-eaters in the field, or by undertakers in a city, whatever). Would this affect your in-game behavior?

Even more pointedly, what if there were meaningful in-game consequences for how you treat bodies? Imagine a multiplayer game with the following features:

  • There's a special magical skill that can be used (by players or NPCs) to "see" who killed a character.
  • NPCs can remember which player characters they've recently seen with other NPCs.
  • NPCs can (but may need to be convinced to) describe their memory of player characters talking to a particular NPC.
  • The more time that passes between a character's death and the discovery of that character's body, the lower the percentage chance of being able to identify the killer.
  • You lose faction points with whatever faction the dead character belonged to if someone is able to identify you as the killer of that character (or if a character belonging to the same or closely allied faction actually sees you in the act of killing that character).
  • You can move bodies.
  • Bodies float after three days (game time).
  • Bodies decompose after a week (game time).
Setting aside for a moment the issue of frame rates dropping as more high-poly bodies start piling up, consider instead the effects on gameplay of these features. How would gameplay change if dead bodies didn't mysteriously vanish, and if your character could be linked to corpses?

For example, I can imagine this leading to the creation of an "inspector" NPC type -- based in the larger cities, they travel around examining any dead bodies that are discovered and talking to other NPCs to try to identify who the killer was. (For that matter, why not let player characters do this, too?)

Slightly more macabre, the persistence of corpses might even lead to a new in-game profession: undertaker. Given the kind of non-stop carnage we see in most MMORPGs, clearing the bodies off the streets might be a full-time job for some characters, and even a necessity in big cities if sanitation means anything. And what about the social consequences -- do dead characters need funeral rites? Do they have families who will miss them?

So how about all this? Would features like these make a game world more interesting/fun? Are there particular kinds of game worlds for which rules like these would be most suitable? Or would such rules always annoy too many players who just want to kill any/all NPCs and PCs indiscriminately with no consequences?

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