Spoiler Warning: I will be giving away a significant plot point about the topic under discussion in the text below. It’s about three paragraphs down, so you have time to see something of what I’m talking about before you decide if you care or not. Also, for my readers who are interested, the links off my blog may lead you to some profanity of the sort you might find in a PG-13 movie; actually, nowadays, you’d probably find it in a PG movie.
So I read this online comic, yeah? I’ve mentioned some here before, but I’ve become chary of talking about them or recommending them because the last time that happened I ended up becoming very dissatisfied with the comic and stopped reading it. It’s not that I have a superstition about mentioning a comic on my blog and then finding that I don’t want to continue reading it, but that when I recommend something and then it turns out not to be what I would want to recommend, it’s embarrassing.
Right. I’ve been reading The Order of the Stick (OOTS) for a while now. It’s a stick figure comic strip (though they are more sophisticated than that sounds, pseudo-stick figures, really) about a group of six adventurers in a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. And I mean that in a very literal sense. The characters are aware that they are in a game. They refer to the rounds and turns of attack and defense and discuss the rules under which they operate. But at the same time there is never any mention of a separate person playing them or an alternate reality in which there is a person controlling their actions. Rather, they often behave as if they were actors in a movie. I’m not a tabletop gamer, as they are known, but I have some experience with this kind of game through my computer (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, etc.).
Recently, I had some rather high hopes built up for this comic. The first 120 episodes (rather than a “strip”, I refer to the webpages as “episodes” because many times an episode contains two or more distinct strips) are pretty simple. There is a thread of continuity, but mostly they are vehicles for jokes about gaming mechanics and the behaviour of gamers and such-like. But after that and building on that, Rich Burlew (artist and writer) began to expand the world outside of the initial dungeon and began spinning several distinct threads of plot and as the story grew in scope it also grew in seriousness. There were still plenty of jokes, but the characters were fleshed out and deepened, the story itself became deeper and more interesting and the comic as a whole became a lot less like Archie (where it’s just about jokes and nothing ever changes) and became a lot more like Usagi Yojimbo (where the everything grows, matures and ages with time). The strip had episode 285 posted yesterday and (this is a major spoiler for anyone who is thinking about clicking over and reading through it, so you may want to click that link and check it out and then come back once you’re done looking) I was sorely disappointed because (last chance, here’s the spoiler) no one died.
Now, why should I care that no one died? And how does this matter if you don’t know who is involved? Because killing a major character is an excellent way to amp up the seriousness of your story and suck in people. Granted, killing a major character can often make a lot of your readers mad; this is especially true if it is one of whom they are fond. But as I’ve noted before, killing off a character or two can be important. First, it shows that the author is willing to write the story even if it isn’t all smiles and unicorn giggles. As well, demonstrating that it won’t just be the guys in the red shirts going down helps people invest their emotion in the danger in which the other characters end up later. Because they know that the author is willing to kill people off if the story demands it, they feel the peril the characters are in that much more. Even worse is when you have characters moving into peril and no one (not even the extras) ever dies. When one does that, the movie, book, comic or whatever becomes like GI Joe. There may be lots of danger, but no one watching/reading believes it because we all know that everything will go back to the way it was before the episode started. It becomes Seinfeld. Nothing changes because nothing really happens.
So, I’ll keep reading OOTS, but I have to say that it’s lost a little something.