Blizzard Hasn’t Told A Good Story In Awhile
If you were to ask anyone what Diablo III’s weakest aspect was, I guarantee you most people would point to the story.
Diablo II was my jam growing up. It was a gritty gorefest that played with modern conceptions of heaven and hell, letting you be the arrogant hero fighting literal demon lords. It was the perfect game for my young, tween imagination. I remember fondly staying up late trying as hard as I can to make it to the next Act in the story. I remember the chill I got every time I heard “ Looking for Baal?”, and I’ll never forget the sheer pleasure of exploding demon after demon into a bloody pulp.
I remember how mad I was when I woke up one day to find my brother had made it to the next Act before me. He was exploring the dizzy jungles of Kurast with his necromancer while I was still still stuck in Lut Gholein. The characters, the cinematics, the gothic cathedrals, and the fatalistic tale of the World Stone’s end, those details still stick with me clear as day, now two decades later.
In summation, Diablo II was a damn good game. One reddit user named axialage summed it up best:
Diablo 2: You show up at the rogue encampment, everyone is already dead, Tristram is burned to the ground and Diablo walks the earth. You get to Act 2. Everyone is already dead, Diablo has freed Baal. You get to Act 3, Mephisto has corrupted Kurast, everybody is already dead, Baal and Diablo escape. Act 4, you kill the devil in hell, Sisyphus would be proud. Act 5, everybody is already dead. You kill Baal but he has corrupted the world stone and the world is doomed. And no shit, they were the fucking prime-evils. You think you were going to thwart their plan?
Enter Diablo III. Now, to be fair Diablo III isn’t a boring game. I’ll readily admit that I’ve sunk dozens perhaps even hundreds of hours into various Diablo III characters. I bought all the DLCs that came out, and I, by no means, regret it. That being said, if you were to ask anyone what Diablo III’s weakest aspect is, I guarantee you most people would point to the story.
It has its moments. Malthael was a wonderful villain and a shining moment for the game. Fighting the Prime Evil and pissing off Imperius was fun too, but overall, the Diablo III storyline broke a few of the cardinal rules of storytelling, cementing its place as yet another Blizzard game that focuses too much on game mechanics and too little on story.
First, the game felt showy and in-your-face, with long monologues about what happens next and what needs to happen and what the villain is doing, the most famous example being Azmodan’s projections coming to the hero every five minutes in Act III to tell you exactly what he was going to do next. Some tactician he is!
Second, there was never a sense of real danger. This is something Diablo II nailed. Whether you’re fighting Duriel in that enclosed tomb or being instantly vaporized by Diablo’s laser beam, there was some sense of real doom, like you’re just barely triumphant, by the skin of your teeth, which felt appropriate when facing the Lords of Hell. In contrast, for almost all of the story of Diablo III, your character is completely sure of himself, he’s thwarting evil plans left and right, the villagers only seem mildly annoyed, and no one seems too worried. The superhuman nephilim is here to save the day.
Finally, there’s no sense of loss or sacrifice. In Diablo II, you barely manage to defeat Mephisto, Diablo, and Baal; and at what cost? The whole realm is decimated, countless lives are lost, the Worldstone is destroyed, and your friend, Tyrael, is obliterated. Diablo I ends with you literally plunging a stone that has captured Diablo’s essence into your own head. You get none of that in Diablo III, no real accounting of what it cost to defeat these big baddies. What did you have to sacrifice? What was lost?
Supposedly a lot, but it’s hard to tell and even harder to believe the outcome. All of this illustrates the fact that Blizzard has been out of the storytelling business for awhile, and Diablo III is only the first in a long line of grievances.
Games are meant to be played, so if a design choice or story choice results in more people engaging with that game, is that a success?
Replayability trumps a good story.
Imagine I am the CEO of a gaming company and my goal is to make money. I’ve just watched one of my beloved franchises evolve from being a simple RTS game to one of the most successful MMORPGs in the world, an unequivocal juggernaut that rakes in truckloads of cash every month from subscriptions. You can bet I’d be looking at how to take that model elsewhere. This is exactly what Blizzard did with Diablo III.
Games live and die on replayability, more so now than ever. Long gone are the days where you popped in the cd you bought from Bestbuy or Gamestop, played through the storyline, put the game on your shelf to gather dust, and moved on to the next one. Blizzard knows this and has acted accordingly over the last ten years to position themselves firmly at the center of this trend, largely at the expense of the great storytelling that made their games such staples in the first place.
Now, part of this discussion inevitably enters into the age old debate of what makes a game great in the first place. Overwatch and Hearthstone are immensely popular games, played my millions of people worldwide. World of Warcraft is still chugging along with a healthy amount of subscribers and their MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, while not even close in scope to its direct competitor, League of Legends, still draws in a decent amount of players.
Games are meant to be played, so if a design choice or story choice results in more people engaging with that game, is that a success? I’m sure the business folk would enter a resounding yes to that question. The artists among us might disagree. The answer is outside the scope of this article and deserves an entire treatise unto itself.
What I’m concerned with now is the deliberate usurpation of story with this idea of stickiness. A direct line can be drawn from Diablo III, where the developers began Frankensteining unlimited replayability into the game, to Hearthstone released two years later, Heroes of the Storm released a year after that, and Overwatch released the year following.
All of these games are heavy on cosmetics and light if non-existant on story. Diablo III is all about the grind now, with the story and campaign a vague memory of the past. Heroes of the Storm made a rather pitiful attempt at a story a while ago that was so vague and convoluted, with little bearing on the game, that it petered out not even a year later. Finally, Hearthstone just recycles Warcraft characters and plots over and over again.
Overwatch is the worst offender. While many wonderful animated vignettes have been released concerning each of the heroes in Overwatch. The story is rarely fleshed out in game. Overwatch 2 promises a little on the story development front, but not much. It’s all in service of playing the same game over and over again, virtual gladiators in a digital coliseum.
People may ask, “Well the games are inherently designed for replayability so what’s the problem?” Overwatch and Hearthstone are intended to be replayed over and over again. It’s about strategy not about telling a story. I agree and I think that’s a bad trajectory for games that companies should avoid. Our games can be better than a glorified Skinner box. Blizzard can and should do better.
By three they come. By three thy way opens.
Diablo IV: A Return To Form.
My first reaction was cautious excitement. When this trailer dropped, I watched it probably a half dozen times. It hit all the right notes: dark, gothic, genuinely creepy, epic, and ominous all in one. The atmosphere effused that sense of loss that was missing in Diablo III, that tension that permeated Diablo II, and the twisted beauty of the Diablo series as a whole.
This trailer is really a testament to the Blizzard cinematics team that consistently one-ups itself with each new entry they drop, no matter the franchise. They are the undisputed champions as far as video game cinematics go, and I hope I haven’t been hoodwinked into hyping an ultimately mediocre game because of it. We’ll see, but I digress.
As a brief refresher, Malthael’s demise has left Sanctuary in ruins with misery and destruction running rife throughout the countryside. The Triune, a cult created to worship the Prime Evils: Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal, has had a resurgence and it seems that their leader, the necromancer Rathma, has summoned his mother, the demon Lilith, from the abyss to be their savior. The trailer I think is intentional in leaving Lilith’s role vague. Will she truly be the nephilim savior, or will she lead to their destruction?
There’s that old saying that Diablo, the Lord of Hatred, is never truly gone. He always finds a way to return. The destruction of the black soulstone at the end of Diablo III seems to heavily imply that as well. We will have to wait and see, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit my excitement is palpable.
This type of game is exactly what Blizzard has been missing in its repertoire. The mantra for Diablo IV has been “A Return To Darkness”. I think it’s even more a return to form for Blizzard. This is the type of game that made Blizzard great all those years ago, when it really was just a “small indie company” trying to make ends meet, a game that sets its story front and center, with everything else falling in line behind it.
I hope Blizzard takes note and adjusts accordingly. We need the old. Blizzard back, the one that cared about the stories they told.
— — —
If you liked this post, I run a free newsletter that delivers informative essays on everything in gaming from the serious to the mundane. Check it out here.
Also, follow me on Twitter for even more unsolicited opinions.