Aerith and the Phoenix Down

There’s nothing like death to add drama and angst to a story. It’s a source of grief, of guilt, of shame. What leaves the biggest scars, though, is that while the angsting character might have contributed to their loved one’s death, there’s nothing they could do to stop it once the pieces were in motion.

Except when they can.

Enter the Phoenix Down.

For the uninitiated, Final Fantasy VII featured one of the first permanent character deaths in video game history, with the brutal and dramatic murder of Aerith. It’s a tearjerker if you’ve ever seen one, but there’s one major problem: in the same universe exists Phoenix Down, a potion that was named for its ability to bring people back from the dead. Which summons the age-old question:

For anyone decrying the lack of spoiler warnings: the game came out in 1997. You have no excuses.

A lot of those tears turn into an angry facepalm as we realize that Aerith didn’t need to stay dead.

In many worlds with fantasy or sci-fi elements, there are ways to conquer death. Critical wounds can be healed almost instantly. Ghosts can interact with the world as actively as living people. In some worlds, you don’t even need a body– cough up a diamond and you can True-Rez your companions. Find those Dragon Balls and we can bring back Goku… again.

So you get some serious head-scratchers when the characters in this world still react to death like it’s permanent– or in some cases, like it’s even a serious affliction– in a world where this obviously isn’t the case. Too often it can turn an otherwise devastating moment into pointless melodrama.

Conflict is the essence of plot– and often, healing and resurrection suck the conflict and stakes right out of a story. But if you play your cards right, they can become sources of conflict all by themselves.

How do you bring back the drama?

  • Is super-healing/resurrection necessary in the first place? Sometimes you  can achieve the same effect with a skilled doctor and a few weeks of good old-fashioned healing, and forego that particular variety of magic altogether. Your characters might end up with a few more scars for their trouble, but that adds an extra dose of realism and drama to the plot. And if the story can’t survive without it:
  • Add in some drawbacks. Maybe the healing can only speed up the natural process, and so can’t save damaged eyes or prevent scarring. Maybe your resurrection requires a human sacrifice to balance the scales. In my current MS, I have a magical healer who can fix almost anything… assuming the agony of the healing process doesn’t kill you first.
  • Add some obstacles. The problem with resurrection in Dungeons and Dragons is that it only costs 1000 gp– depending on your GM, you can find that kind of dough in your couch by your fifth level. Take away an adventurer’s easy access to money, and suddenly you’ve got confict: how far would you go to get enough money to bring back your friend? Would you steal? Would you take money from a loan shark? The plot of Tangled is all about this– Rapunzel’s magic hair is the only healing power in the world, and people (at least one person, anyway) are willing to kill for access to it.
  • Let it affect your world. Who has access to healing/resurrection? How did they get it? Is access restricted or open to everyone, and who decides that? How does society deal with distributing resources in a world where the population isn’t naturally curbed by death? How would tastes change– would gore still be as shocking? Would murder? What taboos would replace them? Also keep in mind that in a world where cash resurrects your dead relatives (or provides unlimited healing), the ridiculously wealthy — meaning the lawmakers and policymakers– would be virtually immortal. Keep in mind that a 150 years ago in the United States, women weren’t allowed to vote or own property… and people of color were considered sub-human. Many of the social changes of the last century happened because the older generation passed on, and took their hangups and prejudices with them.

Do you know of any other ways to spice up the stakes when healing is involved? Do you know any instances where it’s done well– or where it’s done poorly? Tell us about it in the comments!


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