The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Tristram

Look! I sure do have a lot to say about that Diablo 3 game over there!

I am clearly — and unashamedly, and maybe even a little smugly — not in the target audience for the Diablo series. I’m not interested in min/maxing; in fact, it’s the pandering to players who are obsessive over infinitesimal differences in damage-per-second that turned me off of World of Warcraft. I don’t care about Hardcore characters or Nightmare/Inferno difficulties; for me, I’ve “won” a game when I get to the end of its main storyline, and additional play-throughs with different characters are optional, not mandatory.

Still, I consider myself a longtime fan of the series. The original Diablo was actually my first exposure to computer RPGs; I can still remember having to ask my officemate what “HP” stood for. It was that game — or more precisely, the almost universally-ignored Hellfire expansion — that gave me my first “transcendent” gaming moment that wasn’t in an adventure game: when I took my beloved Monk character, removed his fighting staff, and saw his combat strength double because of his unarmed bonuses. When Diablo 2 came out, I finished it with every character class and again with the Assassin in the expansion.

The reason I mention all of that is to show that I’m not just wandering into a long-running series and complaining that it’s not something it was never intended to be.

Because the story in Diablo 3 just makes me frustrated and sad, and it kills any interest I have in going further. And when I say that, the first response has to be

It’s Not About The Story, Stupid

That seems like a perfectly fair response. It’s a Diablo game. You don’t play it to learn about yourself, or to explore characters pushed to the edge of a world gone mad, or to gain lasting insight into the human condition. You play it to click stuff until it dies and then pick up all the treasure that pops out.

But if story’s not necessary for a Diablo game, why is Diablo 3 so insistent about giving us so much of it? Each character class gets its own introductory cut-scene. Each new objective gets a new dialogue exchange setting it up and concluding it. Support characters have their own back stories they can’t resist telling you about. Ghosts leave journals lying around to narrate more of the back story. There are two characters narrating the characteristics and an additional back story for each type of monster you find.

It’s actually made me appreciate how economical the storytelling is in the first two games and their expansions. Everybody who’s played the game knows who The Butcher is, and he didn’t need an elaborate cut-scene, just a few bits of text and a brief boss fight. Deckard Cain is one of the most memorable characters in video games, and it’s not because of dialogue trees and an introduction to his plucky niece. All it took was a few lines of dialogue, a Sean Connery impression, and plenty of repetition.

Diablo 3 seems to have taken a step back. The production values have improved — Blizzard cut-scenes where the humans actually look like humans and not the alien from the end of the Star Trek credits — but everything seems to ignore the last decade of development in video game storytelling.

Journals and found recordings abound. Unwelcome cut-scenes. A character with amnesia. All the locations from Diablo 2 are revisited. A bad guy actually said “You will suffer as I have suffered” and elicited a heavy sigh from me. When the first chapter ended, and I heard that a sword had been split into three pieces, and I’d need to find them and reassemble them to save the world, I could feel a tiny part of my soul leaking away.

There’s an overwhelming vibe of this is unnecessary. Best example: because Diablo demands procedural level generation and monster placement, and a 2012 multi-million dollar release of a top-selling franchise demands full voice-acting, you get situations where a pack of mini-bosses will spawn and your follower has to comment on it. Considering the number of monster types possible, and the number of followers possible, it’d be impractical to record specific exchanges for every single combination.

Fair enough. But instead of leaving them out, the developers recorded generic versions. “Look at those monsters over there! I can’t wait to fight those!” “Those creatures there look very powerful!” “It’s going to be a difficult battle to defeat those monsters there!” I’ve written for a few games now, and I’ve written lots and lots of generic catch-all lines; I get where they’re coming from. But when I’m clicking & killing it just all blends together into a melange of why?

Stay a While And Listen

So if the story’s not adding anything, and it’s gotten bloated enough to detract from the experience, then why not leave it out entirely?

Actually, it’s for the same reason you’d be inclined to leave it out as unnecessary: because Diablo isn’t a game about story. It’s essentially a really pretty random number generator. Playing the game is only tangentially related to anything like skill, so getting excited over a rare item drop is a lot like obsessively clicking to advance a list of random integers and getting excited when you see a 7.

There’s got to be context, or the whole thing falls apart. The game is just barely hanging onto relevance as it is; if it weren’t giving you constant reinforcement that you’re actually destroying the minions of darkness and collecting weapons forged in the core of the world and enchanted with the magic of the ancients, you’d realize that you’re using your mouse to click on randomly generated hit areas.

Diablo basically created its own genre, so there’ve been plenty of people trying to figure out how it works and what makes it appealing, talking about intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards and slot machines and the nature of “fun.” Nobody’s going to say that people are playing Diablo 3 to get caught up on the senses-shattering story.

But so much of the game already depends on encouraging suspension of disbelief enough to turn the slimmest of game mechanics into a hugely engrossing game. If the storytelling helps that suspension of disbelief, it’s no longer optional; it’s essential.

Plus I can’t really get into the new skill system or the crafting.