Spoiler Warning: Diablo III (seriously, I’m going through the whole plot here…), Diablo I and II (But Rosebud rules apply here…)
So, as you may have noticed from my last post, I’ve been playing Diablo III a fair bit since its release. Faults aside, it really is a very good game, with strong visuals and exciting gameplay and an absurdly addictive loot system. Blizzard really should be commended for the game’s quality.
But I’m more of a story guy, honestly. I tend to care more about the narrative of a game than the actual action of it, and am more willing to forgive a game with weak gameplay but a good story than most. That said, I don’t require every game to have a strong story in it. A sparse story that exists solely to drive the action can be quite enjoyable if it doesn’t get the way. Its like Independence Day: Terrible plot, but no one really cares when the action’s so fun. This is kinda what Diablo and Diablo II had, as well as most other games of that era: The plot was thin as hell, pretty much existing to explain why thing X needed to die. Settings and characters were made up on the fly and no one really cared.
And, honestly? Diablo III’s a bit like that, especially given the number of locations that are just made up as needed. While still much more than in Diablo I and II, Diablo III spends very little time on the story, focusing heavily on the action. There’s a lot more characterization and dialog when compared to Diablo II, and the player characters actually say things to the NPC’s, which never happened in Diablo I or II, but its still very lightly touched upon in III.
And its such a shame.
Hope and Tragedy
The thing that really gets to me about Diablo III is that, if you look at the plot of the game, action by action, it probably had the potential to be one of the strongest stories I’ve ever seen in video games. We’re talking about KOTOR, Bioshock and Mass Effect levels of story quality (well, less the last ten minutes of ME3, of course, and yes I’m still bitter) .
(If you’ve already beaten Diablo III, go ahead and skip down to the next section, just giving a plot recap here)
At its core, its a story about perseverance through tragedy, and quite often tragedy that the hero’s have a hand in.
The action that kick-starts the whole plot is when a meteor, in actuality an Angel who has become mortal and is being cast out of Heaven, crashes to the world of Sanctuary. This raises the dead as zombies, because the Angel that fell was Tyreal, the Angel of Justice, and his coming signaled to all those killed by the legions of Hell that they would have Justice. This ends up killing a lot of people, of course, including the wife of one very important NPC. And it turns out that Tyreal willingly turned himself into a Mortal, because he was disgusted that Heaven refused to defend Sanctuary against two Demon Lords, Belial and Azmodan. The chain of events in Act 1 even ends up killing Deckard Cain, a long time standby of the series. Think Obi-Won Kenobi if the prequel trilogy hadn’t existed, and he died in Return of the Jedi.
This ends up shaking Cain’s adopted niece, Leah, voiced by the always fantastic Jennifer Hale. After briefly refusing to follow in her uncle’s footsteps to help the hero’s defeat the demon’s, Tyreal’s sacrifice so moves her that she ends up agreeing to help Tyreal and the heroes. And throughout Act 1, we’ve been fed tidbits about Leah, about how her mother, the witch Adria from Diablo I, is said to be dead, and she doesn’t even know who her father was. She also has this strange power that seems to manifest all on its own, generally resulting in powerful explosions and massive flames. Anyway, the heroes, in Act 2, journey onto the jewel of the East, Caldeum, where they have to find Belial, the Lord of Lies. During their efforts, they discover that Adria is really alive, and has discovered of a way to destroy all Seven Evils forever (the other 5 dying in Diablo II), with a dark artifact that was created by an incredibly evil dead man, Zoltan Kulle.
Of course, being Diablo, the dead guy gets brought back as a ghost to help find the artifact, the Black Soulstone aka the Ebon MacGuffin, and during their efforts the heroes learn more about Zoltan, also about how the thing that was destroyed in the end of Diablo II was meant to keep humanity’s power dampened, how Heaven strongly considered wiping out all of humanity (1 vote away from going along with it, of course), and how humanity was the truly powerful race in the world and that the Heroes were the first of the new Nephalem, the old name for the incredibly powerful humans.
But, he’s obviously evil, so once he gets access to the MacGuffin, and discovers that its been tampered with by someone (Adria) adding the souls of the five slain Evils, he tries to take it for himself and kill the Heroes. This doesn’t work, and the Soulstone gets brought back to Adria, Leah and Tyreal. Of course, at this point, they’ve figured out who Belial is impersonating and kill him, trapping him within the Black Soulstone along with the other Five Evils that have been slain.
And so, there’s one Evil left, Azmodan, who of course launches a massive attack on Sanctuary to capture the Soulstone to claim the power for himself. All the while, you see Leah doing her best to hold the power of the Soulstone in check, and its clearly taxing her, despite her mother’s assistance. But the Heroes fight on, sometimes with the direct aid of Tyreal, who has a badass sword and knows what to do with it, and eventually kill Azmodan, and trap his soul in the soulstone. Now all that is needed is for Adria to do a ritual to destroy the Black Soulstone and destroy the Evils forever.
Everyone’s expecting a surprise twist here, of course. Its Act 3 out of 4, and the game’s named after Diablo, who hasn’t shown up yet. Still, its an incredible shock that, while the Heroes are trecking back home, Adria has subdued Leah, attacked and disabled Tyreal and announced that Leah’s father was actually Diablo himself. She then stabs Leah with the Black Soulstone, turning her into the host for Diablo, and in fact a gestalt of all of the Evils. Diablo then announces that with his newfound powers, he’s going to attack Heaven itself.
And that’s where Act 4 comes into play. Diablo pretty much trounces all resistance in Heaven, leaving only the super-powered Nephalem Heroes to save the day. Tyreal comes with you, but he’s shaken by seeing Heaven, his old home, so devastated, and that mortal fear rears its ugly head, and he can’t go on. The Heroes do, which inspires Tyreal to join them. After rescuing some named Angels, and getting glared at by the head honcho Angel that really hates Humanity and the Nephalem, the Heroes save the day by killing Diablo, which of course purifies Heaven and leaves Tyreal to rejoin the council of Angels with the Wisdom of mortals, and it was happily ever after (except for the countless dead)
Everybody Got All That? Good!
Sorry for the exposition dump, but I really wanted to put down a baseline of knowledge, because it allows me to go into the strengths of this story.
In essence, this story is driven by the actions of the good guys who, while trying to do good, often end up helping the cause of evil. Tyreal’s fall in Act 1 is the first, pure case of this. His actions, his willingness to become a Mortal, causes a lot of horror and a lot of death, even in the death of his old ally Deckard Cain. But this doesn’t seem to faze him too much, as he knows what he has to do to save humanity. And while the end result of his actions, Diablo’s invasion of Heaven, nearly breaks him, he overcomes it fairly quickly and aids the heroes until the end (well, you still have to kill Diablo yourself, you know).
Diablo’s revival only occurs because the heroes helped Adria, whom they trusted without a second thought. And wasn’t a case of the Heroes being incredibly stupid, either. Adria was found being tortured, she pointed the way to the only avenue to victory, and she clearly seemed to care about her daughter, she just felt like she couldn’t be around her in the years prior. While I was expecting a twist, and I knew Leah was Diablo’s daughter early in Act 1, I still didn’t think the twist was going to happen like that.
And then there’s poor Leah…
If anything, throughout Act 1-3, Leah is the protagonist. She’s friendly and as cheerful as one could expect, given the circumstances. At no point does she seem to have an evil bone in her body, always striving to do whatever she can for the sake of victory, and at points it becomes clear that the effort is overwhelming her, but she won’t stop trying. Her uncle dies, and after finally realizing the stakes, she takes up his charge to aid the Heroes. It is only her power that can keep the Black Soulstone subdued, and even then only just barely, but she does so without a sign of doubt that it must be done. To see such a heroic character die, and not only die but become the new vessel for Diablo… in retrospect it’s simply heart-wrenching.
There’s the minor NPC’s as well. The Blacksmith that aids you throughout the game had a raw as hell deal. His father was murdered before his eyes by a vengeful mob, for a crime he didn’t commit. He had to flee his hometown as quickly as he could. He found a wife, but had to escape persecution because she had some magical talent and thus people thought her a witch. And finally in Act 1, she becomes a zombie, and he has to put her down himself. This would break anyone, and it nearly does for him as well, but he knows he has an important job to do and must see it through.
The Followers (NPC’s that you can have fight alongside you) have similar tales. The Templar thought he was a great sinner before the Templar order found him and cleansed his sins from him via brutal torture, but he finds out during the game that the order lied to him, that he was an up and coming soldier that they recruited and beat, and that the Templars were even planning a war against Heaven (…not without reason, of course). This might break another’s faith, but for the Templar? He keeps fighting, knowing that what he is doing is right, and that when it is all done he will visit justice upon his former order.
The Enchantress is a thousand years of of her time; she and her sisters were powerful wizards who were put in a stasis by a mysterious prophet so that they could help the Nephalem Heroes, but in the end only she survived. Not even the prophet can be found. While this troubles her, as it would anyone, she knows why she is there, and carries on.
And then there’s the Scoundrel. Classic thief with a heart of gold, really, but he carries heavy guilt about his past, as the only woman he ever loved married his brother, and a misunderstanding led to his brother’s arrest, with his love blaming him for it, of course. He’s really the most normal of the Followers, and that makes him shine all the brighter, really. He’s thrown into this impossible situation with the world on the line, and he carries on without hesitation.
There’s also the knowledge that humanity really is all alone in this tale. Heaven constantly refused to assist the mortals of Sanctuary when the demons threatened them. They considered wiping out all of humanity, given the power that the old Nephalem had, and humanity was spared only because of Tyreal’s vote. When the last two demon lords attacked Sanctuary, only one Angel would help the humans, and he had to shed his wings to do so. To know that even Heaven refuses to help, and to keep on fighting? That takes true bravery not often seen.
By all rights, this should be a true epic, with grand stakes, powerful characterization, and a truly moving theme that, no matter the odds, there’s still something that can be done, and there’s nothing else you can do but try.
So, What Went Wrong?
My god. The story was served TERRIBLY by the execution. In the end, Diablo III has five ways of telling its story:
- Expository notes that can be found throughout the game world, although these generally just go into background information on the world.
- Voice Over narration of mostly static imagery, generally serving as shoe-horned in exposition dumps.
- Dialog between the PC and NPC’s, either triggered by the Dialog option, brief quest conversations (generally 4-5 lines of dialog per quest) or random party chatter when the player is exploring the world.
- In-Game Cutscenes where the camera moves up, existing animations are used to show what’s going on, sometimes with a lot of dialog but often not much more than 7-10 lines.
- Spectacularly done 4 Full Motion Cinematics, one after each of the acts.
Now, this sort of treatment isn’t too uncommon in video games. In-game cutscenes often have to be used for time constraints. and to not break the game flow. Cinematics can be spectacular but are VERY expensive, and simple voice over without lip movement is cheap and can be done en masse.
But, first of all, there’s just not much talking. The followers and their plot arcs have, maybe, 50-75 lines of dialog in the entire game, with no actual in-game interaction. You progress through the game, and a new Dialog option appears for your followers, and… apparently they’ve done something on their own since their last chat option. They don’t ask you to go anywhere, they don’t insist on following you into specific areas, and after their introductory missions there’s never any areas that have a reason to favor one Follower over another. The quest information breezes by, with no real discussion taking place between characters, and no sense of effort behind character knowledge. A lot of plot points just come out of nowhere, like how Tyreal’s amnesia will totally be cured by reforging his shattered sword. A lot of important elements, like how Tyreal’s fall causes all the zombies to rise, how Heaven seriously considered killing all humans, and Tyreal being overwhelmed by despair at seeing Heaven under siege, are pretty much brushed over.
The narration over mostly static imagery is… wretched. Granted, most of it comes as “This is how your class is reacting to the stuff that just happened”, but it’s clunky, forced exposition that adds little to the story.
The in-game cut-scenes are okay, for the most part, but the camera’s still too far back, it feels like you’re watching a cheap machinima, and almost all of them are very short, doing little actual story telling or characterization. A lot of them literally translate to “I’m going to kill you!” “No, I’m going to kill you!”
And then there’s the cinematics, and the source of one of my biggest complaints. Don’t get me wrong, they are freaking gorgeous, expertly created and clearly with no expense spared (aside from the small number that are used)
By far, the three most important scenes in the game are: Tyreal’s Fall from Heaven, Deckard Cain’s death (partly for those who player Diablo I and II, but its significant for Leah’s character), and Adria’s betrayal.
Now, since you start off with Tyreal already having fallen, and how there’s supposed to be a big secret about his identity for the first act, they can’t show that as it happens. And Deckard Cain dies in the middle of Act 1, so its hard to work a Cinematic in there without hurting the game flow. As such, the end of Act 1 Cinematic deals with Cain’s funeral, and Tyreal showing Leah (and the player) why he’s not an Angel. It’s a powerful scene, and it actually left me genuinely surprised and touched by Tyreal’s sacrifice.
Cinematic 2? It deals with Leah being overwhelmed by the power of the Black Soulstone, and how the last Lord of Hell is sending his armies to take it. Its not that great, since it involves the finest of Hell’s Generals saying “I’m sending my armies from this crater to crush all of Sanctuary! Ready or not, here I come!”, but it does a great job showing how out of her league Leah truly is. And there’s not much else you could put here, so it works.
Now, Cinematic 3, the one that plays at the end of Act 3, where Adria has betrayed the heroes and killed her own daughter, to bring back Diablo…
Takes place AFTER all that boring stuff has happened. Instead it deals with Leah!Diablo stepping into Heaven, turning into Diablo proper, and having a flashy fight scene with the Head Angel, Imperius (not a nice guy). The end result of this cutscene is the player’s introduction to Heaven, the fact that Imperius got his ass kicked by Diablo, and that shit’s really hit the fan now. All well and good, but it doesn’t do much to advance the story.
Adria’s betrayal is the centerpiece of Diablo III’s story. This is when the cards are laid down and we find out what Adria was really doing. This is when Leah, the protagonist for the whole game up until now, gets brutally murdered by her own Demon-Worshiping mother, as her mother crows about how this was Diablo’s true plan all along, and how she knowingly had Diablo’s child. This is when the ultimate victory is snatched from the Heroes’ hands by a trusted ally, especially since we watch Adria, a character we had to rescue, thoroughly whoop Tyreal’s ass with her magic. This is when we realize that everything we’ve been doing for the entire game has only aided Hell’s plans for domination, and how we have inadvertently created the most powerful monster in all of creation. All of the old rules are now out the window, and the Heroes have to now figure out how to salvage this impossible situation…
And it gets the same treatment as finding out that the ghost who laughs maniacally every time he teleports is actually evil.
What the hell.
There’s no mechanics reason to make this an in-game cut-scene. Immediately after it ends, there’s a big portal there, you enter it, and you get put into Act 4 and see the flashy fight scene that has absolutely no bearing on the plot, aside from showing how badass UberDiablo is. They could have done the Adria scene as a Cinematic, end with Diablo entering the portal, and simply have the player show up and see Angelic corpses strewn about everywhere, with a clearly injured Imperius present cursing the player out. All you lose is some meaningless eye-candy, and you give Adria’s Betrayal the time it deserves to really make an impact on the player.
Obviously, narratives in video games have a long way to go, and they’ve come a long, long way already. We’re still figuring out all the rules. But… if I may make a suggestion, Blizzard?
Save the cinematic money for the most important scenes in the game. These are the scenes that players will remember and talk about, not some pointless fight scene where Diablo kicks an asshole-Angel’s ass.