Diablo II is the first videogame I remember developing an obsession with. I played every character class through to the endgame (except for the necromancer: in minion-on-minion action at the beginning of Act IV even my most powerful golem crumpled like paper before Hell’s candy-aura-fisted skeletons and left me reduced to a puddle of goo before I could say, “Hey, where did everybody go?”).
I never got tired of Deckard Cain’s craggy voice. I think I had a bit of a crush on Tyrael (I watched the final cinematic in Lord of Destruction where he destroyed the Worldstone to prevent the corruption of humanity – well, numerous times). But a lot of games have come and gone in the twelve years between the Diablos. The best narratives approach the complexity of a good novella. NPC interactions have become more – interactive. So after all these years, how does Diablo III’s story measure up?
My husband and I have finished a regular play through with my demon hunter and his barbarian and are halfway through nightmare with his wizard and my monk. So I can’t say we’re not enjoying it. And yet as the tired tropes and unintentional hilarity multiply there’s this little niggling at the back of my mind. After twelve years, Blizzard, this is the best you could do?
*spoilers for Diablo III’s plot, such as it is, and – if you’ve been a gamer living under a rock for the last twelve years or (God help me I feel old) weren’t old enough to play them – the earlier Diablos as well*
If you’re a software developer of a certain age you might remember DEADBEEF, a value indicating newly allocated but uninitialized memory. Debugging a troublesome problem you might find the phrase sprinkled about in your memory space, inexplicable, in places that you didn’t want it. Or, no less maddening, fail to find it in places you were expecting it.
What does this have to do with Diablo, you might ask? And I would respond: Dead Villagers.
They’re everywhere in Act I. Everywhere, that is, except in the villages. Oh sure, you find the occasional batch sprawled in a root cellar where they belong. But more often they’re – elsewhere. Solitary bodies crumpled at the edge of precipitous cliffs. At the mouths of vermin-infested warrens. Tucked in the back of cultist-infested caves. In tombs.
This is no nuclear apocalypse. The dead are rising from their graves. So why in the name of Tristram would anyone think it’s a good idea to take refuge in a tomb? At least in Leoric’s manor they’re stretched out on racks and locked into iron maidens and looking like they desperately wish they were elsewhere. But that’s the exception, not the norm.
Peasant corpses dust the landscape like powdered sugar on beignets. Or DEADBEEF on a bad day. I know the treasure chests littering the ground and the halberds lurking in tree stumps aren’t plausible either, but at least I don’t have to contemplate them running out into wilderness that probably wasn’t safe before it was demon-infested and expiring with pockets full of gold and the occasional magic daibo.
When All Else Fails, Forget!
Maintaining the proper play balance between frustration and boredom can be a tricky thing. Designers typically respond to the challenge by scaling the difficulty curve over the course of the game. This leaves the poor sods of writers needing to explain the protagonist/player’s arc from a loincloth wearing, club-wielding Cro-Magnon who offends a shopkeeper by standing in the doorway to a gold-plated, silver-tongued dervish of death.
There are very few ways to accomplish this, especially since voice acting and art asset budgets typically make starting the protagonist as a child prohibitive. That leaves some variant of Talented Nobody Who Becomes Someone Very Important or…
Tell me you’ve played RPGs regularly for the past decade and didn’t groan at that. Go on. I dare you.
The worst part of the amnesia in Diablo III is it isn’t even the protagonist who is afflicted with it. So instead of being a cheap, transparent gloss over game mechanics, it’s a cheap, transparent way to build artificial suspense. “Who am I? How did I fall out of the sky and survive? What was I going to tell you? I don’t remember, but I remember that the fate of the entire world depends on it!”
(Fun fact: according to the Mayo Clinic, amnesia doesn’t even work that way. Christopher Nolan got it right with Memento: amnesiac memory loss typically affects the formation of new memories, not the retention of old ones.)
Four Calling birds, Three Sword Shards, Two Key Fragments and a Partridge Impaled on a Pear Tree.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “MacGuffin” as “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” Diablo III defines the word MacGuffin as “standard, mind-numbing operating procedure.”
I get that in order for a hero to be a hero she needs to be given things to do. And in order for a game to be a game those things need to be fairly tangible. But after a while “find this thing here and that thing there and the other thing over yonder and we’ll fit it together into something really powerful that will probably backfire” elicits all the motivational excitement of doing laundry.
To be fair, there’s a stretch in Act III where you light signal beacons and raise ally catapults, and the catapult raisings are actually fairly entertaining and the signal beacons have a noticeable, immediate effect in the game world. And I remember fetching the head of some evil Horadrim mage who thereafter follows you around and concludes every sentence with “Mwahahaha!” (“I can open this door for you. Mwahahaha!” “Would you like butter with your crumpets? Mwahahaha!”). But that’s only because he is So. Damned. Annoying.
I know that Diablo II wasn’t MacGuffin shy either. But somehow I don’t remember it irritating me so much.
Pay No Attention to the Demon Behind the Curtains
The Man(Thing) That Is Not What It Seems is another narrative device that could stand some quality time in a Tibetan cave reflecting on how to renew itself. And Diablo III employs it not once, not twice, but four times.
Surprise! The Fallen Star is a man! Actually, that makes five times if you count Surprise! The man is an angel! And six if you include Surprise! The angel is Tyrael! Anyway. Moving on.
Surprise! The child ruler is a demon!
Surprise! The long-lost demon-hunting witch mother Adria is actually Diablo’s consort!
And Adria’s hidden identity unspools into the one narrative turn that made me sit up and take notice – in a frothing rage monster sort of way – Surprise! Deckard Cain’s honorary niece Leah is Diablo’s daughter! And now she’s Diablo!
I assume this turn of events was intended as tragedy. Over the course of the game you develop a friendship with Leah. You comfort her when Deckard Cain dies. She talks about someday wanting to settle down and run an inn. She even banters a little about hiring you as an employee. You remind her of that dream as she struggles to hold the Black Soulstone together.
And then Adria betrays you, and her, and turns her into Diablo, and without so much as a “Hey Tyrael, can we exorcise her or something?” you kill her/him/it. And I wasn’t moved by that turn of events. I was annoyed.
I was annoyed because there was no interesting way to figure it out. (Note to Blizzard: hanging a little Diablo head over Leah’s room at the inn does not constitute foreshadowing). She has some arcane power, but so does Deckard Cain, so I dumped it in the “has a witch for a mother and hangs around with Horadrim” bucket (and since the blacksmith Haedrig had a witch-wife I didn’t automatically associate that with anything negative either). Especially since no one around Leah mentions anything “off” about her personality or questions her power’s source. Not the powerful Horadrim Deckard Cain. Not the archangel Tyrael.
When Adria turns Leah she crows that Deckard Cain always suspected. And wouldn’t bother to mention the possibility to anyone? All of his interactions with her are “Dear Leah” this and “Brilliant Leah!” that. Given his almost cloying displays of affection, how could Adria possibly have known he thought anything was amiss?
As for Tyrael, he asks, “How could I not have seen the corruption within her?” A most excellent question. But never answered. The enchantress hireling says something about a “powerful illusion” that no one could have seen through. Except, apparently, Deckard Cain. Who decided to say nothing because, you know, it’s not like Diablo lurking in other people has ended badly before.
Classical tragedy is the unavoidable train wreck you see coming from a long ways away. Oedipus killing the man he didn’t even know was his father at a crossroads and unwittingly setting in motion all the events that would lead to his ruin. Macbeth twisted by prophecy and ambition into an act of regicide with dreadful consequences for everyone in his orbit. Leah is just a sweet young thing with a power that she can’t quite control. Up until she isn’t.
Even the events of the first two Diablos – the hero of the first driving Diablo’s Soulstone into his own forehead and then slowly succumbing to its influence over the arc of the second – had a kind of tragic grandeur. But because I didn’t know Leah’s heritage until it turned on her, her fate felt more like running over a squirrel that dashed the wrong way on the road.
That may be pathos. But it doesn’t fit my definition of tragedy. And Diablo is too operatic to deal in mere pathos.
I’ll Bite Your Legs Off!
The villains of Diablo III are an inordinately chatty bunch, always popping up with remote holograms of themselves (scientifically advanced, those demons) to taunt you and chortle over their inevitable triumph. This might have more dramatic resonance if they didn’t generally appear as you’re busy looting a small mountain’s worth of their minion’s corpses or otherwise delivering what any perspicacious opponent would consider an unpleasantly serious setback.
“I didn’t need those catapults anyway!” Azmodan announces after you rally the defenders of Bastion’s Keep, get their catapults up and running again, and take out the demon’s own catapults on your way to his hellish lair. Right. Just like Maghda didn’t need Tyrael’s sword shards, and Belial didn’t need Maghda, and the Black Knight didn’t need arms.
“You’re getting closer and it’s so…tantalizing,” Azmodan’s spiderish lieutenant Cyndaea purrs as you leave a trail of her succubus minions dismembered in droves behind you. She seems so delighted in spite of (or because of?) the havoc you’re wreaking that you might be forgiven for expecting her to break into a chorus of Lovely to See You. Which might have brought me up short for a moment. But, alas, no. Instead it’s some variant of “Your life ends here, Nephalem!” and a howl of dismay as you blast off the last of her legs, and just like the dozen or so mini-bosses you’ve killed before her she seems vaguely surprised even though you’ve just finished denuding her lair of every last animate being.
I don’t remember the baddies of the first two Diablos talking so much. And on balance, if these are the things they would have said, that was probably A Good Thing.
I’m Sorry, Did You Say Something? I Was Too Busy Admiring Myself.
The fact that the hero in the first Diablo was King Leoric’s son was so backgrounded that I didn’t realize it until I read about the Dark Wanderer on the Diablo wiki. As far as I know the hero of Diablo II wasn’t anyone in particular at all. The story focus in Diablo was on ending the Diablo-possessed King Leoric’s mad reign. In Diablo II it was on tracking down Diablo again in the guise of the Dark Wanderer. The hero’s special qualities began and ended with (1) being powerful and (2) being nearby. And I was okay with that.
But in Diablo III, you are Someone Important. You are not a mere mortal, you are Nephalem! (Right, that makes seven Things That Aren’t What They Seem). Your destiny is not written in the angelic Scroll of Fate! (Why is that, O Wise Itherael? Ummm, I don’t know, it just isn’t here.) “The angels are helpless before Diablo’s assault! Only I remain to set things right!” (Yes, that’s an actual line of dialog. But as you pass angels swinging their swords about in the general direction of demons, I’m not sure what it means).
Although mortals are great too! Tyrael voluntarily falls from the heavens to aid humankind and then discovers that it’s way more awesome to be a human like everyone else than to be an angelic being. Well, like everyone else except you, because you are Nephalem! Or is that like being a human? Or is Tyrael something like a Nephalem? In any case, you are doubly great!
I admit I tuned it all out after a while. Because it didn’t make any sense, and because I didn’t care. I left a pile of demon corpses behind me as tall as Everest. I killed Belial’s lieutenants and then Belial himself. I did the same for Azmodan. I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m great.
What I need – or would like, anyway – is a story. Something as simple as Marius telling Tyrael the tale of following the Dark Wanderer, only to discover that he wasn’t talking to Tyrael at all and had just handed a Soulstone over to someone who really shouldn’t have it (that was actually a pretty okay use of Things That Aren’t What They Seem).
Because in the end Diablo is all about looting and leveling up and watching beautiful cut scenes. It needs enough of a story to ground those cut scenes and to put the looting and leveling in a little bit of context, but really not much more.
A Dragon Age or a Witcher invest a great deal of effort in constructing a coherent narrative and then seeding it throughout the game so an engaged player can uncover its often elegantly intertwining threads. Diablo III felt like it was supposed to have a narrative. But even though I’m on my second full playthrough I couldn’t tell you what it was, just that there were a lot of scattered bits of triteness and unintelligibility that often actively distracted me from my leveling and looting. And that’s probably worse than not bothering to tell a story at all.