Clicky

“Quite Deadly” – Death, Dying & EverQuest in 1999

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

“Although exploration of Norrath is encouraged, you need to keep in mind that it can be quite deadly.”

– from Everquest’s Official Player’s Guide

On March 16, 1999, a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO for short) called EverQuest was released into the world. Like thousands of people around the globe, I logged into the fantasy world of Norrath on that day and did not leave for several years. It was a world shaped by the usual Tolkien and D&D inspired ingredients—quests, elves, dwarves, ogres, trolls, monsters, good and evil, adventure!—but while I’ve played a lot of computer games in my life, no other game before or since has claimed as large a chunk of my heart, soul, and time as EverQuest did.

Truthfully, I’d already traveled to Norrath before that day in March since I’d been part of the late stages of pre-release beta testing. The phrase “it blew my mind” is probably all washed-out and almost devoid of meaning by now, but, even in beta, EverQuest thoroughly blew my little gamer mind. I’d played single-player role playing games for years, mainly as a devotee of the Ultima games, but playing online with masses of other players from all over the world was still a pretty new experience for me in 1999. EverQuest wasn’t my first MMO. I’d been part of Ultima Online (UO) since that game’s launch in 1997, but, as much as I loved the world of Ultima, EverQuest brought the multiplayer online gaming experience to another level.

I had never seen a game world with such stunning graphics (you might laugh at those graphics now, but at the time they were state of the art), had never been able to explore a world so vast, so grand, so full of dangers, quests, cities and villages, NPCs, monsters, and other players. EverQuest, to my gamer-eyes, was breathtakingly beautiful and also hella, hella dangerous: the world of Norrath was a place where death often came swiftly and where the penalties for dying were (in retrospect) ridiculously hardcore.

It’s difficult not to sound like Grim Elrond when talking about EverQuest with those who weren’t around at the time, so I’m just going to embrace it: “I was there, Gandalf. I was there 25 years ago…”

“You are going to die. We all know this instinctively, but it still comes as a shock when it happens. And during your first few levels, it’s going to happen a lot.”

Lagging to death

Playing any online game in the days of dialup modems was hazardous. Lag, AKA when your internet connection either unceremoniously dropped you (often at a vital gameplay moment) or slowed down so much that the game became unplayable, was a common cause of in-game death. In UO, which was a PvP (player vs player) game where all players could kill each other, I died innumerable times because I would get attacked (usually the first warning would be an ominous CORP POR spell appearing on screen), get hit with a lag spike, lose my connection, and come back to my corpse being looted by some twinked out tank-mage while I could only stand by in ghost-form, sadly crooning “OoooOOoooOo”.

EverQuest was not PvP (unless you chose to play on a PvP server), but lag was a constant menace there too. If your dialup was having a bad day, if there were lots of people logging on at the same time, or if there was just a lot of people in your in-game vicinity, you were likely to lose your connection and would then have to spend precious minutes (or more) logging into the game again. Meanwhile, in the game world, your character would eventually disappear once your connection dropped, but there was always a moment or two (or three or four) when they just stood around like an absolute dumbbell, vulnerable to any and all attacks.

It seems ludicrous in this era of fiber-optic cables and 5G to recall those ancient times when your modem worked off your phone’s landline, and when the internet moved at what, by today’s standards, is a literal snail’s pace. In those days, my sweet summer children, you could click on a link to a webpage, go make a cup of tea, and the page would still be loading when you got back to your desk.

In a game like EverQuest where everything was pushing the limits of what was possible to do on a home computer with a dial-up modem, death by lag was ubiquitous.

“Once you die, the game will take a few seconds to let you contemplate your own corpse from above as your soul gently drifts away. Then, you’ll find yourself suddenly returned to life just outside the gates of either your hometown or the last spot that you were Bound…”

Losing your body, looting your corpse

Dying in EverQuest in 1999 was a painful ordeal in a multitude of ways. When you died you didn’t just respawn at the place of your demise. Instead, you would respawn in the last place you were “Bound” (which could be very, very far away if you were unlucky). Worse, whatever items were in your inventory when you died would remain on your corpse, wherever the heck that was. To get your things back, you had to hike to the place where you died and loot your own corpse to get your stuff back. If you died at the bottom of a dark, dank, dangerous dungeon such as Lower Guk (a place full of terrifying, undead frogloks), too darn bad for you.

You could also return to your body if a friendly player-cleric, of sufficiently high level, found your corpse and resurrected you. Some of my most enduring EverQuest memories are of resurrection/recovery missions with my Dwarven cleric, Disa. As frustrating and time-consuming as that process could be (hours and hours), it was a good way to meet new people to adventure with. Few things built a Norrath friendship as effectively as fighting your way to somebody’s corpse and resurrecting them.

“Dying hours away from your starting location can be a real hassle and can end up being a dampener on your urge to explore the huge world of Norrath.”

Losing experience

Another painful part of dying in EverQuest was that you lost experience every time you died. Each death made your XP-bar go down and if you died just after leveling up, even one death could cost you that newly gained level. (This hit even harder because leveling was so slow and laborious in EverQuest.) If you died repeatedly, you could lose more than one level. Much more. One guy (hi, Talador) in the guild I was a member of (hi, Lost Soldiers of Darkness), famously fell asleep during a big dragon raid (he had been awake and playing for something like 48 hours, which was not an uncommon occurrence). And, because he had bound himself inside the dragon’s lair, he kept respawning in the same spot every time he died, and that spot was smack-dab underneath the dragon. He died so many times that he got knocked down to his teen levels.

“Try to remember where you died, or else locating your equipment will be much more difficult than it should be.”

Train to zone!

One very annoying, and very common way to die in EverQuest was running into a train of mobs. To quote the ever-friendly Player’s Guide: “Make sure to watch for trains, and /shout about any that you start. Trains are just what they sound like: a long string of monsters that come boiling up from the dungeon when a foolish adventurer has set them off.”

If you played EverQuest back in those days, you soon became familiar with the phrase “TRAIN TO ZONE!” because trains were especially common at zone-boundaries. The entire in-game world of Norrath was divided into zones, places with names like Crushbone, Dagnor’s Cauldron, Butcherblock Mountains, Kelethin, and West Freeport. When moving about the world, it would take you a moment (or many moments depending on the servers and your dialup connection) for your character to load into one zone from another.

Players would try to escape their trains by zoning out of trouble into a neighboring area, but that also meant that there was now a group of aggro monsters lingering right at the zone. You couldn’t see what was on the other side of a zone boundary before crossing it, so when you popped into existence in a zone, you sometimes ended up being hit by a trainful of irate monsters and could become gnoll-food before you even knew what was happening.

“Keep in mind that the further you travel from your starting city, the longer you will have to travel to retrieve your corpse if you are suddenly and spectacularly killed.”

Death on a boat

Another much too common cause of death in the early days of EverQuest was to die while traveling by boat between the continents. This kind of travel was a major undertaking and a huge pain in the ass at the best of times. You had to go to the dock. You had to wait for a boat (up to 30 minutes!). You had to get on the boat. And then the boat took its sweet time to get to its destination. 10, 15 minutes? 20? It felt like an eternity. But the real danger was that your character would often “glitch” off the boat, get dumped into the ocean (shark-infested), or get marooned on some island (monster-infested) in the middle of nowhere. Knowing where to sit on the boat was the key, and then not moving from that spot until you reached your destination, but even then, there were no guarantees.

“If you die, don’t quit out right away. If you intend to gather your belongings. Your body will only last for a set amount of time on the server, else Norrath would resemble a great funerary plain strewn with the bodies of the fallen.”

Death (and life) in 1999 Norrath was hard. Ridiculously, unnecessarily hard. Of course, there are penalties for dying in most games. Your gear might degrade and eventually break. Your stats might go down (which is usually temporary or reversible). A few games have even played around with the concept of perma-death where you have to make a completely new character if you die, but that’s never really caught on for obvious reasons. There’s clearly a balance to be struck here. If the penalties for dying are too severe, the game isn’t fun anymore. If there are no penalties at all, the game might feel too easy and less exciting. These days, most games have significantly reduced the penalties for dying and those penalties are often relatively easy to overcome or mitigate. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It definitely makes it easier to play casually and to just enjoy the in-game world.

Part of me, even in 1999, during the headiest days of my EverQuest obsession, hated the game for making the penalties for dying so harsh. I wanted to see that whole entire world, but many parts of Norrath were terrifying to explore, not just because of the monsters that lurked there, but because I knew it would cost me so many real-life hours (as well as lost experience and potential lost corpses/gear) if I got killed in some mob-infested swamp or murky dungeon. And yet, that sense of frustration and fear was somehow also part of the allure.

(Reality check: It’s also a fact that in its first glorious heyday, EverQuest could afford to make us all suffer through lengthy corpse recoveries and massive XP-loss because it was more or less the only game in town. Sure, there were some other MMOs back then, but nothing, for quite a while, could compare to Norrath.)

Early EverQuest could be a brutal, soul- and time-devouring place where unreliable servers and laggy dialup connections combined with harsh game mechanics, bugs, and glitches to drive you to distraction and beyond. And yet, Norrath was a mind-blowing place to be, and the game was a blast to play. The excitement of completing quests, exploring new areas, outfitting your character, crafting new items, and meeting up with your friends to take on all sorts of monsters and challenges, made it all feel worth it. In a very tangible way, it was an online world that felt like a real place, a place where you could make friends, have fun, and die together.

Yes, 1999’s EverQuest was hard (senselessly hard at times), and I don’t think anyone could, or should, make such a frustratingly punitive and time-consuming game now. When I eventually left EverQuest, I drifted into other MMOs where death was easier to deal with—games like Dark Age of Camelot, Lord of the Rings Online, and Asheron’s Call—but part of the pull of original EverQuest, part of what made it so exhilarating, was that the penalties for dying were not something you could just shrug off in an instant. The world was beautiful and terrifying, and, for a while at least, the hardships of dying made it feel real and immersive in a way that few games have made me feel since.

Looking back on 1999, I know two things for sure. One. I would never play a game like EverQuest today. Two. I’m so glad I did, back then.

Sources:

All quotes taken from the original EverQuest Player’s Guide.
“Breaking the internet: The story of EverQuest, the MMO that changed everything”