I vowed never to become a certain kind of person — out of touch, curmudgeonly, refusing to engage with the tech and art of a younger generation. Thus, I am always hesitant to declare something of the past superior to its current incarnation of the present.
Video games are steadily losing their categorization as a nascent medium. They are at least 50 years old by now and in-game narratives in the realm of 40. It is about time more than a tiny handful of classic, medium-specific stories ought to arise. Video games do face unique challenges. Unlike film, where incredible works can be created inexpensively — their basic elements being merely people and writing — the building blocks of games are all technical and typically expensive to make. Thus minimizing risk and ensuring return is paramount.
But indie games and their development are not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the studios that do have the money. Blizzard in particular.
The first Diablo featured a fallen Cathedral. The architecture was Gothic, the music subtle, the town creepy and subdued. Something terrible was amiss. The Satan of The Exorcist was invoked — horrific and beyond the scope of sane human mind and faith. A single brave soul ventured into the Cathedral, which went down and down, through winding catacombs to the depths of Hell itself. The narrative was generally relayed via scattered tomes within the dungeon or chatter from the townsfolk (not too dissimilar to Dark Souls actually). There was a demonic carver of human flesh known as The Butcher, who greeted the player, before you could even see him, with the voice-modulated grumble-shriek
Ahh, fresh meat.
Certainly scared the shit out of the thirteen year old version of me
Things got bigger and blander in Diablo 2. The quest crossed the continent, Diablo’s biblical brothers leapt (creeped, slithered) into the fray. The story was largely forgettable but still vaguely sinister and served the gameplay — the actual triumph of Diablo 2. The gameplay was simply far better designed than the first. Most importantly, it rewarded continues play and Blizzard updated it long, long after it originally released or when any new player adoption was likely to occur.
So by the time Diablo 3 rolled around, it faced two interesting challenges:
Problem 1 — Narrative: How to make the story even BIGGER and MORE EPIC — because by this point you see, video game stories were leaving behind their pulp novel roots and gazing, hungry-eyed, at blockbuster films — than going down to Hell and punching the devil in the face?
Make the player some kind angel-demon hybrid badass (ahem, a ‘Nephalem’) capable of murdering anything on the planet. Oh, and take the fight through the literal pearly gates of Heaven. In addition, make the character unbelievably stupid and miss obvious plot cues right under his or her nose in a failing attempt to create tension.
Next, and more inexplicably, turn the demonic lieutenants of Hell into Saturday morning cartoon villains who show up to taunt you at any and every opportunity. See Azmodan, the commander of the legions of hell, who shows up to shout Arrogant Nephalem! whenever you foil each of his plots, to explain why the strategic blow you just dealt him was actually not much of a blow at all. And he’ll get you next time!!
You locate missives written by Azmodan to his troops, addressed as
The expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, seemed to realize that it had jumped the shark and the player character suddenly becomes mighty sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek w/r/t to the plot. The narrative does not even attempt tension, merely accepting the player is the baddest motherfucker in all creation, and the villain, a rogue angel set on blowing up all humanity for obscure reasons, is actually running from you the whole game. Once you catch up with him and start crushing his skull too, he turns out to be a gigantic hypocrite whose whole ideology (see: the plot) was a sham since once his life is in danger, he absorbs the black soulstone which is —- DUMB. IT’S ALL DUMB. REALLY FREAKING DUMB. WAY DUMBER THAN IT NEEDED TO BE.
Problem 2 — Gameplay: How to make the gameplay addictive and fun, keep players interested, in an era where incredible grinds and time investment are no longer acceptable? When being able to permanently mess up a player character was tantamount to murder? And anything approaching true penalties upon player death are anathema? But the same children-now-adults expect to be captured just as hard as they were in Diablo 2?
For the initial release — not much. It was similar to Diablo 2. Find loot based on low drop rates. With less imaginative loot. Predictably, players (myself included) did not stick around.
But for the expansion? They axed the story! Beat it once, on any character, and you can choose to play ‘adventure mode’ which randomizes kill and clear tasks across the game world. These are topped off by rifts, randomly generated dungeon floors filled with randomly chosen creeps. Thus you have bite-sized chunks of character progression, sans awful writing. And there’s even a built in counter to make sure you receive higher quality loot drops after a set period of playing. And the loot is more fun. Some of it. Instead of larger numbers, they also have unique affixes that change your character in interesting ways.
They added a veritable truckload of difficulty levels. Prepare to be bamboozled by a chart full of percentages explaining monster health and damage, experience and loot gain, and special circumstances to each. They ran out of names after the fifth one, Torment. They then become Torment II, Torment III, etc.
But. I’m still 29 and not 18 or whatever and the truth is the loot grind in itself no longer does it for me. Not for long anyway. Especially when there is not an appropriate challenge aside from percentage-increase difficulty levels to go with it. And the axe the story solution, while correct, is also kind of lame. I want to be terrorized by Diablo! I think the vital takeaway here is not that something in the present is superior to the past but that satisfying rehashes of decades-past games are often impossible to realize for a host of cultural, technological, and simple life-space reasons. It’s new games for new times that push things forward.
1. And sometimes the influx of money and technology makes the narrative worse. When playing the very simple and charming Nintendo and Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games, one could only wonder what they could do with a better budget and fewer limitations. The actual result was/is a cacophony of visual, audio, and narrative incoherence. The limitations were keeping them in check. Back
2. Yeah, thirteen tops, probably younger. How can I possibly gauge how good the story was when I last saw it through a child’s eyes? See my promise in the first paragraph. Indeed, this whole article might be garbage based on a groundless premise… but hell if I am going to go find a way to play the original Diablo to confirm one way or another. Back
3. Okay, so I’m what at this point? Sixteen maybe? Seventeen? Yeah the gameplay was great! It involved absurd amounts of time investment, but I had plenty of that. You had to start over if you messed up your character. A slew of available loot was almost impossible to acquire outside of cheating. It took a long, long time to reach the maximum character level of 99. Few did. Back