An empty medical bed surrounded by police tape.

A Well Designed Death

Death is not a subject I’ve managed to find my comfort with yet. I think most people live in the same ‘pretending it’s not going to happen’ bubble that I do, and yet we participate in games where it’s something we need to face on a semi-regular basis. From long term campaign larps where there is a possibility of permanently killing a character in unplanned fashions, to events like Inside Hamlet, where the goal of many players is to create the most epic death possible, it’s a theme we often explore in larp. For game designers, deciding on how to handle death in your event is a pivotal design choice and one that will make or break a player’s experience if it’s handled well. I’ve spent a lot of time in staff capacities being worried about how characters die — How badly will a player take it if their character perms but also how bloated will a long-term campaign get if a certain percentage of characters don’t die routinely? Our avoidance around the difficult conversations that death ensues can create an immensely jarring player experience if the game isn’t built to handle this deeper examination.

Losing a character for an unprepared player (especially one that hasn’t done their own self-examinations about death) can be devastating. Games have developed ways of putting salve on these wounds (one last life, an epic death, pick your own death) but they still don’t really prepare players for the reality of losing a part of their lives. It has come to the point that Entropic Endeavors has no involuntary death in our games. In Velvet Noir, no one dies until they are ready for their characters stories to wrap. However, death is also encouraged. Players gain access to more knowledge about the world, a few other types of characters, and open new story lines when they voluntarily end their first character’s story. We’re hoping with this motivation, players will be willing to face the concept of death more openly and negotiate with each other for captivating story that embraces death as a part of the tale, not an unplanned ending.

In the middle of all these thoughts and all this game design, I was talking with Ryan Hart of Sinking Ship Creations, and it came up that Sinking Ship’s current season turned into a ‘Season of Death.’ Every game they produced this spring had heavy themes of death and getting the participants to engage with the concept of death, instead of ignore it as an uncomfortable part of gaming. While Sinking Ship is running freeform, one shot events and not the campaigns many of us love, I think there is something all game designers can learn from how other designers handle death. So, Betsy Isaacson, curator and designer of Sinking Ship Creations Presents, agreed to talk to me a little bit more about their season, and then the creators of several games answered my questions about their take on death in their game designs. Thank you to Ryan Hart, Kathy Amende, and Nina Essendrop for opening up about their experiences designing around death. I invite any other game designers to comment about how they’ve handled designing around death in their games, because I’d love this to just be the beginning of the conversation.

Betsy Isaacson on Sinking Ship Creation’s Season of Death

Death is like, this low-level constant thrumming in our lives — we all know we’re gonna die. But we rarely think about it. So what do we think about when we think about death? And we’ve got these three experiences — Mortality Machine, Fade, and White Death — that tackle death from really different angles. Mortality Machine — it’s about grief. It’s about the need for closure. And it’s about how death is mysterious — we really don’t know what happens after death. What would you give to find out? What would you give to see your loved ones again? What would you give to make it so someone you built your life around wasn’t just gone? Whereas Fade — Fade is about immortality. You can live forever, but you can’t remember everything. What happens to your memory? How do you get close to anyone? How do you deal with other people dying around you? And if you have the choice to die — do you take it, eventually? Does everyone? White Death finally…White Death is the most peaceful of the pieces, in a weird way. White Death is about accepting death, accepting your own death, learning not to fear death, the incredible freedom that gives you. The incredible fleeting freedom that gives you, because of course we’re all going to die.

And all three of these pieces tackle not just death but the idea of afterlives — the concept of the afterlife, what happens after death, if you continue to exist after death in any form at all — each of these pieces has a very different take on what the afterlife is, and that leads the pieces and the tones of the pieces into SUPER distinct and different directions, but honestly I think this ‘season of death’ could just as easily be called ‘season of afterlives,’ even though that’s not as pithy — those afterlives are really punchy in the pieces.

Why Explore the Topic of Death?

Ryan Hart (The Mortality Machine): It’s a universal. There’s only a few concrete things everyone relates really quickly and in a big way.  Family is one of them, and a theme I explore a lot. This was our chance to talk about death. What we were doing with the medium was so new (combining larp and dance, and doing it theatrically), and the audience we were shooting for was new to larp, so we realized “hey, we can take on a really big topic in a fresh new way.”

Kathy Amende (Fade): Death is always an interesting topic to explore because it’s the great unknown – the thing from which all other fears are ultimate derived.  We fear what we don’t know and what we don’t understand, and figuring out how to make peace with that fascinates artists, philosophers, religion-makers, and well, really, everyone.

Nina Essendrop (White Death): White Death was based on a scene from the film “Dream” by Akira Kurosawa. In the scene a group of mountaineers is getting caught in a snowstorm and they are met by a beautiful woman in a white dress who peacefully put them to rest. There is this sense of relief and letting go and that is the feeling we wanted to replicate in White Death.

Dead bodies on a floor seen over a camera screen.
The dead lay in a white room during “The Mortality Machine.” Photo by Zach Filkoff

How Did Your Project Tackle Death in Innovative Ways?

Ryan Hart (The Mortality Machine): There’s a lot of things we did that no one else had done before, but I think the biggest is that we gave people a very real, 360-degree experience, that included a “supernatural” brush with death. Because we’ve been trained as immersive theater-goers to accept dance as something otherworldly and representative, we could use dance to present dead people and allow interaction. By making it a larp, people got to meet dead family members, which is, I believe, the ultimate wish of the grieving.

Kathy Amende (Fade): Fade doesn’t make any claims about what death is.  It allows the participants to decide for themselves what it is, and how they want to handle it. Whether the Void represents some form of continuation or a lack of anything is unknown not only to the players, but to the designer as well.  I didn’t set out to create an answer to that question, but only an exploration of how we deal with the understanding that it’s there and always an option. I think that one of the things I do that a lot of experiences don’t is that I make “death” only possible through a choice.  It’s not something that can happen to you, but something you have to opt in to. When their only two options are to stay or to go, it forces the participants to really think about what gives meaning to their lives and what makes them worth living.

Nina Essendrop (White Death): I am not sure the theme is necessarily tackled in an innovative way, but it does have a specific focus. It is more about the general sense/feelings connected to death or transformation than about replicating a specific real life situation. In White Death we defined life as being restricted and death to be a relief. This has to do with the scene from “Dreams” that the larp is based on, but it is also a broader point about letting go of the things you fear or feel restricted by and embrace change. For some players White Death might be a larp about pioneers dying in the snow, but others forget about that story and just experience the change from being the restricted, scared, lonely humans to becoming the happy, free, social transparent ones.

What Experience Around Death Do You Want the Participants to Take With Them?

Ryan Hart (The Mortality Machine): The thing I’ve always thought, and heard other people talk about, when they talk about dead friends and relatives… “I would do anything for more time.” Death as an event horizon, after which you can’t interact with a loved one, is a harsh reality, and we wanted to let people directly explore if that boundary could be crossed. Maybe you only get 30 minutes of more time with them.  Maybe you get another lifetime. Regardless, that sense of “I can have this release from sorrow” is at the heart of The Mortality Machine

Kathy Amende (Fade): I want the participants to really think about what death is only in regards to what it means for living. If you can live forever, but you have to live with the same people in the same room, and there’s a doorway that leads to possible death, what choices do you make?  How do you give your life meaning?

Also, death is a theme that is always relevant to deal with and this abstract, non-verbal playstyle works well with this theme. Keeping it abstract allows for a change of focus from a concrete situation, to more broad emotions like fear, loss, longing and acceptance. Death is something all human beings is confronted with and I think exploring this subject in a safe way can be helpful.

Nina Essendrop (White Death): That death can be a beautiful thing as well as something scary. This does not mean, that death is something to long for, but possibly not something to fear either. We don’t know for sure what death is like or what comes after, so we might as well imagine something pleasant. And death is inevitable, sooner or later we will all have to let go and believing that there is something good in the end rather than just loss, can maybe help focussing on living rich lives rather than fearing or preparing for what might come.

(A huge thank you to Robin A. Rothman for helping me gather answers to my questions, and to Sinking Ship Creations for being one of the first to really support Space Between Stories. Every co-collaboration has been a joy and I’m forever glad we get to have these creation conversations. Fade takes place 3/22, 3/23, 3/29 and 3/30 and tickets are on sale now. Early bird ticket sales end March 9. White Death tickets launch March 19th and it runs 4/19, 4/20, 4/21, 4/26, 4/27, 4/28.)


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