The Devolution of Diablo

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The Devolution of Diablo

by Syrmaticus (@IronDaggerGames)

Writing about a game long after the dust has settled is good for one thing, at least. I can better hold myself apart from the inevitable, populist sentiments that riddle unworthy sequels and oft-cursed Part Threes.
Or so I told myself when I fired up Diablo III and saw Tristram for the first time in almost a decade. Oh, my bad. It's New Tristram now... and what a difference that word makes.
On my way to the infamous cathedral, I reflected on the terror that place had stoked in me when I was, what, fourteen? Creeping along dank hallways, back glued to a wall, quaking behind the woefully inadequate buckler I had arrived in town with, breathing a sigh of relief Diablo himself must have heard at the first, blessed discovery of an enchanted club.
The present recreation of that delicious nightmare drew from me a sigh of exasperation Tathamet himself must have heard.

This game is supposed to scare me, damnit

No, a tricked-out church crypt packed with easily defensible corners, well-lit spaces wide enough to golf in, and laughably disposable undead I can see coming half a mile off isn't scary.
Scary was why I wall-hugged in the original Diablo. Not out of any 'close off your blind spot' tactical consideration or any similar Sun Tzu jazz; I was gnawing the heart in my mouth at the prospect of venturing into that claustrophobic yet frightfully open void, away from the cold, animal safety of the stone at my back.

Scared of the (digital) dark. As a teenager. And it wasn't even a survival horror game.
Diablo II, while not quite as hair-raising, did try valiantly with places like the Rogues' Monastery and the Durance of Hate, which actually made me hesitate to push on at certain junctures for sudden fear of the shadows ahead. What did Diablo III accomplish in this regard?

Right from the zombie movie ripoff of a kickoff, I was about as fazed as I was much later amid the newest, obligatory magma-and-brimstone Hell reprise. In fact, once the classic first dungeon of the Diablo series failed to frighten in its second incarnation, no others came close.
I can only put this down to level design, the mood generated by the plot, and my having aged some ten-plus years.

Facing my fears... and smacking 'em down

The first Diablo, greeting me with dim, tight corridors and chambers punctuated by drafty, open halls that looked about as welcoming as the gaping maws of demons, evoked immediate fear and suspicion – made only worse by the omnipresent gothic architecture and funereal ornamentation.

Okay, so the lava caves below (when did Diablo, right or wrong, turn into D&D dragon den?) dealt a heavy blow to the atmosphere. So did, to a lesser extent, the series's first rendition of Hell: a curiously sanitized chain of ballrooms with scattered Chinese Mythology 18th Level of the Underworld decor. But the potency of the atmosphere in the cathedral and the catacombs? Undeniable.

The dark low fantasy formula of blighted medieval countrysides and desolate castle ruins served Diablo III well in its early outdoor areas, as a tether to the series's thematic roots. However, the blatantly overpowered nature of the player characters killed a good deal of the spookiness. A ravening undead horde, climbing out of a mass grave decked with swinging corpses, is naught to be feared if you can draw steel with the air of a B-movie action hero and wade in smirking like a boss.
This only got worse later on in Persian deserts and war-torn tundras, both rehashes of Diablo II settings and not entirely congruous either (particularly the latter; what room is there for the series's classic creepiness on a battlefield?).

Yes, back in Diablo II, fighting grenade-lobbing catmen in the desert and blowdart-spitting pygmies in a twisted fantasy Vietnam War simulation sort of detracted from my expectations. But I don't recall being bothered much.

Suspense and suspension (of disbelief)

Because I knew what I, or rather my character, was up to. And I believed in it. That all-important accessory known as the plot made it so. It seemed, back then, that the more outlandish and un-scary the setting, the more the writers tried to give you a purpose; one that didn't seem too out of sync with the humble quests players of the first game were used to.
In Aranoch? Searching for a tomb-sized needle in a haystack. (Fair enough.)
In Kurast? Undermining the world's biggest religion. (Read: a head-on assault on their damned HQ. Going downhill here.)

And in Arreat? Plowing through infernal legions to stop Baal and save the world. (Wow, all grown up now!)
Diablo III didn't just fail harder than this. It repeatedly insulted players' intelligence, plot-wise: blatant giveaways such as the Stranger's identity (his sword was the clincher but I hoped I was wrong, for freshness's sake), Belial's disguise (so obvious from the outset that I refused to swallow it until the bitter end), and Adria's true nature (a shining example of foreshadowing via flavor lore taken a hundred steps too far) come instantly to mind.

Dropped balls like these underscore the tragic lack of mood throughout the game's quests. What is left to immersion when you can effortlessly guess what's really going on, all the time? Add an environment that casts the spotlight more on epic monster-slaying than the finer points of what, in essence, is a tale of humans contending with forces beyond their ken (nephalem... ugh), and it becomes easy to see the series's downward slide.

The original Diablo suffered from no such issues. There wasn't much of a plot there, just a hack n' slasher garnished with a few key lore points and a few more smaller ones for aesthetics. The whole game was level one to level sixteen, point A to point B; a great deal in between was up to you and your imagination.

By contrast, its successors tried harder, and, accordingly, opened themselves to the risk of falling harder. The latest tried hardest, especially by introducing persistent, prominent plot figures (Leah, Tyrael, et al) that function like the essential NPCs in an MMO – keeping the player on story rails, and supplying superfluous filler.

The result of having these characters accompany us from Act to Act and drive things along? It comes off as us following them. We're back to the old MMO trope of players immortalized in official lore as the brave, but somehow unknown champions that aided Sir Protagonist in the slaying of the dragon.

I am afraid – but for the series, not of it

Would Diablo III not have been far better off keeping faith with its prequels' comparatively more stripped-down nature and player-centric plot focus? After all, is it not scariest when you're all by your lonesome?
Nobody's contesting that it's a fantastic team action game. That was always the point. But taken as an RPG experience (and I employ the RPG designation loosely)? Not quite as stellar. It was more than a little disappointing, watching the genre-defining precedent set by the first in the series muddied by declining writing standards and mass market appeal.

Warcraft went the dumbed-down route long ago. Even StarCraft, the last of Blizzard's franchises to stick to its C-10 canister rifles, has thrown in the towel with tragic hero Zerg and space hadouken matches. While Reaper of Souls went a considerable way towards redeeming Diablo's past glory, the outcome remains in doubt – this franchise is just one more disappointing expansion away from going to hell.

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