A few weeks ago during a trip back home I went to visit my old high school. Revisiting a place that so singularly defined my identity for a moment in time, I suddenly felt strangely out of place. I scanned my surroundings restlessly until I could lock on to something old and familiar—the office of my favorite history teacher, the courtyard we would pace around in during breaks—before I felt at home again in my own skin.
Playing Diablo again after so many years is uncomfortable at first, like stepping into an old skin. I played enough of Diablo to feel at home in its world. It was the first game I can recall becoming intimately familiar with the tics of the main characters, recognizing the expressions and greetings all the townspeople of Tristram would meet me with every time I returned from the bowels of hell somehow magically unscathed. When Diablo II came out, I remember pacing back and forth in my father’s house, waiting for the mailman to arrive and hoping to God that the box would finally come that day. When it eventually arrived, I did little else for the next three days.
So when Diablo III was announced almost four years ago, I was equal parts overjoyed and suspicious. Games have changed a lot since the mid-nineties, and revisiting an old and familiar place felt daunting, like stepping back into my adolescence to see if youth lives up to the hype we grant it in our memory. And while Diablo may be a timeless game in its own right, it’s gained a reputation for spawning an entire movement of mindless hack-and-slash games with little concern for thematic or logical consistency beyond simply clicking to kill things. It’s not hard to see where this comes from: the first game had you kill Diablo, the most evil thing ever there ever was. In the second one, it turned out that he managed to survive inside a crystal through some crazy loophole of science and soul-worshipping, a crystal the hero of the first game was brilliant enough to jam inside his forehead in the hopes of containing the most evil thing there ever was. So, you had to kill him again. And kill all of his brothers to make sure they wouldn’t pick up where he left off. And kill a lot of imps and zombies. And smash a bunch of ancient rocks to make sure he couldn’t find yet another way to crawl back into existence. So how many more things could you justifiably kill?
Like id Software, another influential game developer that fomented the computer gaming revolution in the 1990’s, Blizzard has often been teased for sticking close to its guns. Since the release of 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the studio has never strayed from its three core franchises: Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo. This makes for some comically forced explanations and additions to the ever-increasing lore for each world. I first heard about Diablo III when my brother emailed me a link about the game’s reveal trailer. How on earth are they going to bring Diablo back a third time, we chuckled. Did the hero of Diablo II accidentally splinter himself with one last shard from the soul cube?
So after years of speculation I couldn’t resist the game’s last round of open beta testing recently. I sat tapping my foot, anxiously watching the bar of the loading screen fill up to 100%.
Finally, I was back. But something was different.
I clicked my immensely muscular and sinewy protagonist forward several steps, unsure not of how to proceed, but if I even I wanted to. There were plenty burning buildings and ghastly corpses to pummel ferociously, sure. But they felt off somehow, as if I was walking through a place I recognized but not completely as I remembered.
Diablo III’s most controversial decision for hardcore fans of the series has been the dramatic shift in its aesthetic away from the grim and ornate artistic tapestries of the last two games towards a more lush and colorful palette, reminiscent of the cartoonish vibrancy of the company’s enormously popular World of Warcraft—a game, it should be noted, that just added pandas as a playable class of character. Fans roared that the company was essentially forsaking the game’s harrowing roots in favor of Lolcats and unicorns. As videogame fans are wont to do, they began a protest. Blizzard once again stuck to its guns.
This cartoonishness struck me as I waded through a pile of listless and violent corpses, finding my way into the town of Tristam. Deckard Cain, the resident old wise man of the series, explained something about a new magic stone. This time, it was black. Everything else was nearly the same as the first game—there was a doomed and decaying castle, a story of a king with tragic ambitions whose greed slowly gave over to demonic urges. I don’t know if it was the new colors or maybe just the forced stiffness of beta testing, but this supposedly noble quest felt dilettantish. Horror is often an art of framing, so it’s hard to scare a viewer from the bird’s eye perspective of Diablo. The original did this with the flat nihilism of its atmosphere—the world was a bleak vision of black and gray, given the luminous color of life only briefly and terribly when blood was split. Killing yet another round of grotesque and bilious undead, my mind started to wander. Were these bloated and farting corpses really that evil? This was more like Shawn of the Dead than 28 Days Later. Then, I heard a noise.
In a game full of blood, guts, and roaring monsters, this was a very quiet moment. A whir of air, a flurry of paper, and finally a dull, moist thud. Or it could have ended with a sharp clatter of metal on stone, the soft and subtle depression of wood against trampled grass. It’s a noise I’ve heard countless times for every opened crate and box in every playthrough of Diablo—the whistle an object makes when, for some reason that only makes sense in the logic of games, it announces its presence so the player can walk over and pick it up. A Diablo game is nothing without fevered treasure hunting, and this is the sound that I’d learned to recognize as the promise of another reward. With a small detail so perfectly recreated from the last game, I finally at home. This was the same Diablo from my childhood. And unlike a lot of memories from high school, this was a good thing.
The game’s renewed simplicity started to make a lot more sense. I had decided to first play as a barbarian, the one hold-over from Diablo II. Like the warrior in the original game, the barbarian is a stark vision of brutal, inelegant force, a sort of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger of isometric role-playing. The character can speak more often in this game, but that’s not to say he has any more of a voice. Late into the beta, you meet a knight who also decided to brave the depths of the dungeon. He fills the dark corridors with periodic chatter that the barbarian mostly shrugs off. “How do you wade into the fray?” he asks. The barbarian grunts something about honor and courage. Apparently, killing tons of monsters does not make you very conversational.
But the beauty of the playable classes is precisely that they aren’t fully formed characters, but nascent emotions realized in the gameplay. If the barbarian is a beacon of stubborn determination, the witch doctor, my second character, is a force of entropy. Hunched over weakly and shaking at half his companion’s height, the witch doctor summons up ghosts and zombies almost as decayed and depraved as the visions of hell your fighting. Too weak to face enemies himself, he chucks jars full of spiders at their feet and calls the arms of corpses up from the ground to help him. While there’s much more nuance and strategy to the type of environmental manipulation you have to perform to survive as the witch doctor, I’ve always found the barbarian and his predecessor strangely inspiring for his incredible endurance. Diablo has always been a game about pointing and clicking (it invented the sub-genre of “point and click RPGs”), but for these guys it really doesn’t get more complicated than that. Any force that’s thrown your way is met with the same austere tenacity. Point, click. Eventually, your challenge will be overcome.
As oddly fascinating as that may be, it can also be devoid of emotional depth. And this is an old type of gaming, a story where good people are pure and kind-hearted and evil is something dark and scary that happens underground in the shadows. The moralistic pervasiveness of karma and player choice that has all but overtaken RPGs is nowhere to be found. The barbarian never questions his slaughter, he never stops like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3 to mourn the loss of his friends or wonder if he really made the right choice destroying that entire species. There are no questions, only more things to kill.
Given how basic the premise is, it’s tempting to see Diablo III as little more than an exercise in nostalgia. And that may very well be true. But hearkening back to the original Diablo only shows the enduring power of an original formula so profound it didn’t need reinvention. And maybe that’s why Blizzard can appear repetitive or risk. At the end of the day and despite years of development and frustrated anticipation, Starcraft II (the studio’s last major release) just felt like a 3D version of the original 1998 title. But that’s the point: there wasn’t much to improve upon. In his review of the game for the New York Times, Seth Schiesel made a fleeting comparison to chess while describing player competition. But there might be a deeper truth in the comparison: Starcraft has reached a rare pinnacle for videogames, one in which the design is so perfectly balanced and flawlessly executed that many treat it more like a competitive sport than what would typically be considered a standard self-contained interactive experience. Similarly with Diablo III, the system is intact, all that’s left to change is all the stuff on top. I don’t know if Diablo will be around as long as chess, but I’m happy to visit its world again and again.