Stay a while longer, and listen some more

Thoughts about Diablo 4 after the open beta, and how much storytelling is actually “necessary” in one of the most successful game series of all time

Featured image for this post is from the Diablo IV website.

Last weekend, I played through a little bit of the Diablo IV open beta — long enough to get past the tutorial section, but not long enough to form any kind of solid opinion on the game overall. Disclosure: one of my friends has been working on it, so I’m not going to do any kind of real “review” of it, even after I’ve played it for much longer. I will say that I enjoyed the beta a lot, and while it was probably inevitable that I’d end up buying the game no matter what, I’m actually looking forward to getting back into it now.

But while I was playing through Diablo IV, I was struck with the uneasy realization: this franchise isn’t made for me! I don’t mean that in the usual sense where any white American male gets uneasy when confronted with any media that isn’t made specifically for him. I mean that I’ve put dozens if not hundreds of hours into the Diablo games over the years, more than any video games apart from The Sims and maybe SimCity and Civilization, but I don’t think I’m the target audience at all.

I just play these games as single-player action/adventures. I don’t care at all about min/maxing. I’m actively repulsed by multiplayer. I don’t pay much attention to weapon or armor stats, beyond the slot-machine “this number is higher than that number” dopamine hit that forms the basis of all Diablo games. I don’t care about the ideal build of a character, only about what’s the most fun to use to smash shit up. And I play the games for the story.

Well… maybe “story” in the same sense that Disney parks are all about “story.” It’s not actually the narrative, so much as an experience where you’re surrounded by details that suggest interesting stories. After all, I’m not genuinely surprised when I’m on a tour of a facility, or a typical cruise aboard a tourist spaceship, and something surprising suddenly goes wrong. And I’m not particularly invested in stories about members of ancient orders devoting their lives to keeping the lords of Hell at bay. I’m just interested in walking around cool, creepy cathedrals killing monsters and smashing treasure chests until I find a boss monster.

I remembered bouncing off of Diablo III pretty early on, largely because of the single-player story. After all of the evocative locations and encounters in Diablo II, I was disappointed to see that the “bigger and better” sequel had devolved into just retrieving pieces of a lost magic sword. That’s the most trite and overused video game plot there is! It was especially disappointing after they’d built up to it with a story about a mysterious meteor and the strange man found in the center of its crater.

As a result, my expectations of the next Diablo game were condescendingly low: remember that these are fancy slot machines, made for people who spend months obsessively looking for the single piece of legendary equipment that will complete their ensemble. Get in, try the different characters, skip through the cutscenes if need be, and commence to clicking the mouse to smash stuff over and over again. Stop thinking of these games as RPGs, and start appreciating them as really, really expensive and elaborate versions of Crystal Quest.

So when I actually started up the Diablo IV beta, which has a fairly lengthy (and very expensive-looking) cutscene before your character is even introduced, and then a lengthy cutscene showing your character in the events leading up to the game’s start, my first reaction was: oh dear. This is all so unnecessary, I thought. The minimum viable Diablo story has already been long established, several times over. You show up in a miserable town, the people there earnestly deliver a dire prophecy about demons and the end times, and they point you to where you go to start smashin’.

And it’s not just a case of “don’t mess with the classics.” Too much focus on — or time spent on — a story can throw off the balance that made the first two games in the series so compelling. The story only needs to be just compelling enough to make the experience seem like more than a random number generator; if you go too far, you’ll throw off the pacing.

Despite my negative first impression, I kept at it with Diablo IV, and came to an even more unsettling realization: this story’s actually pretty good. There were novel ideas there, well-presented (which I expected with Blizzard’s budgets) and, possibly most surprising, well-delivered (which I hadn’t expected given Blizzard’s seeming focus on game mechanics above all else). This series is always so devoted to apocalyptic prophecies and dark fantasy that end up having as much emotional weight as a heavy metal album cover, but Diablo IV actually concentrates on characters as much as it can. You actually see people under the thrall of an antagonist, and simply showing close-ups of characters makes all the difference. These types of stories are hinted at throughout the series, but you never connect with them, since you’re watching them from 100 feet above and eager to get back into the clickin’ and smashin’.

Also, the game is every bit as lurid and overwrought as previous installments, but there’s a subtle shift in tone here that makes me feel as if they’re in on the joke to exactly the right degree: not laughing it off to the point where it becomes completely meaningless, but not so pleased with itself for its own darkest and most hellish imaginings that it reads like Goth Talk.

In fact, once the open beta ended, I found myself (predictably) wanting to play more Diablo, so I re-installed Diablo III.1I got obsessed with the Diablo II remaster a couple months ago, but fell off before too long. I just played so much of that game already that I’ve wrung all the fun out of it. It still pushes the same buttons, but I can’t get very enthusiastic about it again. It’s very little like what I remembered: what I remembered as excessive devotion to its own trite story is actually a story that seems eager to keep shooting itself in the foot. Playing it after Diablo IV — and even Diablo II, for that matter — feels like they took all my “lessons” about a minimum viable Diablo story to heart. All of the dialogue is edited down to one or two lines at most. Anything that would require more time than that is crammed into optional character dialogues, or recorded “journals” that you pick up as you go around the world. It feels like they were so wary of their story getting in the way of the player’s action that they did everything possible to condense it, or hide it away completely.

It feels like what I probably would’ve done, actually, had I been in the same position: overreacting to players skipping through dialogue, eager to get back to the killin’. And it’s jarring to see it in practice, after playing a game that seems like the storytellers were given all the time needed to get their mood across.

One example early in the game: the village blacksmith’s wife is infected by some plague that’s going to turn her into a zombie, so you’ve got to go into the cellar with the blacksmith and murder her. Every event is given one or two lines of dialogue maximum. The actual event just has her scream “oh, help me!” and then vomit a spew of gore and then more or less explode. The blacksmith says thanks and immediately and casually asks you to do his next quest, which is find his missing apprentice.2Who’s also dead. Not really a spoiler since it’s not at all surprising and you’re not given any time to care. It’s all undermined to the point that it just seems silly and honestly a bit adolescent. It ends up feeling like a super-expensive and massive blockbuster game that’s undercut by its story.

In other words: I think I’ve completely misremembered Diablo III all this time, and took the wrong “lessons” from it. It’s not necessarily that the story was trite — it’s still not the greatest, but there are still some novel and memorable ideas throughout — but that it wasn’t given much of a chance to connect with the player, because so little of it is given enough time and weight.

I’m not going to suggest that Diablo has been about story all along. It’s still about tinkering with a bunch of interconnected systems, and seeing how they all interact with each other. The magic of the original, in my opinion, was in translating purely mechanical dungeon crawlers to contemporary platforms in exactly the right way. And part of that was recognizing how much you could accomplish with the barest hint of a major antagonist, and then a ton of evocative character and equipment names that suggest a much more elaborate lore.

It’s interesting to see how much they’ve experimented with the formula, trying to figure out what’s “core Diablo” and essential to that addictive gameplay loop, and which aspects were left over from earlier dungeon crawlers and more traditional RPGs. But what I never appreciated is how much the storytelling has had to evolve as well: how much story really is appropriate for these games? How much can you build on the lore of this comically grim-dark fantasy world without its becoming too silly? Can a Diablo game make you cry?

Okay, not the last one. It’s not just that I don’t expect an emotional connection to these games; I don’t even want one. They’ve already got enough of a hold on the irrational parts of my brain as it is. But even after seeing only a bit last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by Diablo IV‘s story. And especially surprised by how it manages to make that story feel engaging, largely by taking the time to tell it right.

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    I got obsessed with the Diablo II remaster a couple months ago, but fell off before too long. I just played so much of that game already that I’ve wrung all the fun out of it. It still pushes the same buttons, but I can’t get very enthusiastic about it again.
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    Who’s also dead. Not really a spoiler since it’s not at all surprising and you’re not given any time to care.