Diablo III Part 3: The “Story”

By Shamus
on Jul 6, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

So you go to an American football game. I dunno why. All kinds of weird stuff happens in hypothetical situations. Just go with it.

The NFL has decided they want to give the sport a bit of highbrow class, so they’re having players come out to enact random scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s terrible. Everyone is wearing mouth guards, so you can barely understand what anyone is saying. Since it’s just a bunch of random scenes there’s no sense of investment or drama. And since the actors are football players, the acting is pretty much intolerable. Half the guys are punch drunk and can’t even remember their lines.

The crowd either boos or sits in stony silence during these scenes, but the coaches don’t give up. Every 15 minutes the game stops and you have to endure more mangled Shakespeare.

At half time you’re talking about this with a friend, shaking your heads and wondering why the NFL went to all the trouble. Then a guy a few seats back starts yelling at you. He’s a burly guy in facepaint and a team jersey. He’s gesturing at you with his ten dollar beer and shouting, “Dude! Who cares if it’s good? Football has never been about the story! Just shut up and watch the game!”

It Was Never About The Story

I will destroy you! But first I will bore you into submission with a brute-force exposition dump!

I will destroy you! But first I will bore you into submission with a brute-force exposition dump!

It’s true. Diablo was never “about” the story. We knew this already. The problem is that nobody told the game designer.

People remember the story in Diablo 2 fondly, but it was mostly an exercise in great cinematography. It was style over substance. It was told in minimalist fashion, with a pre-rendered cutscene at the end of each chapter. At most there was maybe a minute of cutscene for every hour of gameplay. The story wasn’t long. It wasn’t complicated or deep. But it was gorgeous and it managed to perfectly maintain the tone the game was aiming for.

To be fair, Diablo 3 has the same sort of scenes between the acts. From a purely technical standpoint, these cutscenes are better than ever. Each cinematic is built around a single idea and conveys it with confidence and purpose. The problem is that these cinematics are no longer the backbone of the story. Instead, most of the story unfolds using in-engine cutscenes. They’re all shown from roughly the same overhead view you get during gameplay. It’s told without the dramatic lighting, facial expressions, special effects, musical cues, careful pacing, subtle body language, and spectacular camera framing that makes the cinematics so powerful. Instead it feels like watching a child smash their action figures into each other and narrate a formless improv of cliches.

Super Friends Storytelling

Wow. That 1977 animation looks like crap on modern HD monitors. Which makes sense. It looked like crap back in 1977, too.

Wow. That 1977 animation looks like crap on modern HD monitors. Which makes sense. It looked like crap back in 1977, too.

Back in the 1970s, entertainment was terribleI’d caution young people against arguing with me on this point. If your view of the 1970s comes from “That 70’s Show” or memories of a couple of good songs then you don’t REALLY know the 70s. You know the handful of good things we fished out of the vast landfill that was 70s culture.. So it’s really saying something that Super Friends – the saturday morning cartoon starring the Justice League regulars – managed to stand out as particularly bad, even for the time period. It’s a big joke now, but if it was 1977 and you were six years old, this was it. It might be fun to watch the show today and laugh about how bad it is, but you have the luxury of living in the future. When you’re done mocking the past you can just jump over to Netflix or whatever and watch Justice League, Batman The Animated Series, Teen Titans, or a hundred other shows that are better in every way that can be measured. But in 1977 this was your saturday morning, like it or not.

Here is an imitation of the style:

EXT. BLUE BACKGROUND – DAY

Dr. Mordo:
Mua-haha! You can’t stop me. I’ll use my wizard staff to teleport Superman to the CHAOS ZONE!

(We cut to Superman, who – despite this telegraphed threat – is hovering in the air and doesn’t seem to be doing anything in particular. Dr. Mordo’s beam hits him and he VANISHES AWKWARDLY.)

Wonder Woman:
Oh no! Superman is the only one strong enough to stop Dr. Mordo!

Dr. Mordo:
Now nothing can stop me from completing my doom laser and using it to destroy the moon! Mua-haha!
(Dr. Mordo flies away, laughing.)

Wonder Woman:
We’ve got to stop Dr. Mordo, but first we need to rescue Superman!

Aquaman:
The only way to get someone out of the Chaos Zone is to use a nega-crystal.

Batman:
I can have the Bat-computer triangulate the location of a nega crystal for us.

(Batman suddenly seems to be in the Batmobile. He makes vague poking gestures at a rectangle of blinking lights on the Batcomputer and the Bat-screen reveals a Bat-map.)

There! In the lost ruins of Tipachochek.

Wonder Woman:
It will be dangerous, but it’s our only hope to save Superman.

CUT TO: Toy commercial.

I call this storytelling style “Super Exposition”. While lots of 70s and 80s cartoons were constructed this way, I think Super Friends is the clearest example of the form. The villains blabbed their plans for no reason. Heroes narrated their own actions to themselves, out loud, during a fight. Characters would stop and explain why something was good or bad right in the middle of it happening, because the writers didn’t set anything up ahead of time. There weren’t any rules to what was possible and so scenes or even entire plots might turn on fantastical elements that were randomly introduced in the middle of the action.

When someone mentions the “Chaos Zone” it’s okay if you don’t know what they’re talking about, because they’ll explain it in the next breath. And it’s okay if you don’t remember, because the story doesn’t really build on it later. Ideas are introduced simply to advance the current scene with no thought to what came before or what will follow.

This is how the Diablo 3 story is told.

This cutscene is every bit as random and stupid as a Super Friends episode. Click to watch.

This cutscene is every bit as random and stupid as a Super Friends episode. Click to watch.

The heroes – especially the player character – are inert during these cutscenes. Villains will announce what they’re about to do, then the heroes will stand by passively while they do it, then the heroes will offer an emotional reaction after the deed is done. Villains will explain their allegiances and long-term plans for no reason. Most of the conflict is built around a series of various magical MacGuffins, the rules of which are both arbitrary and vague. None of it hits an emotional chord. It’s not scary, exciting, funny, clever, surprising, or thrilling. It feels like someone ran the contents of TV Tropes through a markov generator to produce something completely derivative and yet lacking in structure.

Super Exposition is a storytelling style aimed at helping distracted channel-surfing six-year-olds understand a scene despite having no context for what’s happening in the story. So why is it being used here in a videogame for a captive audience comprised primarily of adults? If it’s supposed to be enjoyed as cheesy camp, then why are the pre-rendered cutscenes working so hard to get us to take it seriously?

Super Exposition is too schlocky and childish to mesh with the pre-rendered cutscenes of Diablo 3. At the same time, the Super Exposition scenes where the player becomes a passive observer are in direct conflict with the gameplay centered around player empowerment. This story isn’t just “bad”. It’s fighting against all the good parts of the game.

Fine. Diablo 3 isn’t about the story. But then why is there so much of it? And why is it told in this atrocious way?

The Voiced Blank Slate

My character (who I named Lana in the case) opens the conversation with this one line of dialog, but then for the rest of the scene she`s a completely passive listener.

My character (who I named Lana in the case) opens the conversation with this one line of dialog, but then for the rest of the scene she`s a completely passive listener.

In the first two Diablo games, the player character was basically a silent protagonist. Sure, they had lines of dialog, but that dialog was either to themselves or to the player. They would announce that their inventory was full, or comment to themselves on a new area when entering it. They never spoke to other characters in the story. If I clicked on sage Deckard Cain to open his dialog and clicked on the “Tristram” dialog option, then he would tell me some lore about the town of Tristram. You could extrapolate that the player character had somehow asked Cain about Tristram, but the question itself was never depicted. The player was able to decide for themselves how their character felt about everything.

I know some people like the silent protagonist because it gives them space to project their own personality onto their avatar, while other people like a properly characterized protagonist because it gives them an emotional connection to them and makes it feel more like their character is an active participant in the conversation. Somehow Diablo 3 manages to split the difference and come up with something that fails both groups.

The player character is given voiced dialog, but they are not a proper character within the story. They occasionally belt out lazy declarative statements, particularly when meeting new people. They say stuff like, “Don’t worry, these demons are no match for me!”

So we don’t have a silent protagonist. So what do we have? Well, if we add up their dialog I suppose we can conclude that the player character’s personality boils down to, “Arrogant, shallow, and dull”. They don’t make decisions, or discoveries, or form any sort of meaningful relationship with any of the main charactersThe spontaneous chatter between your character and their (optional) hireling companion is actually pretty nice. But like the player, the hireling isn’t really involved in the story except they follow you around.. They’re absent from the most important scenesThey never show up in the pre-rendered scenes. and even if they’re present they’re always a passive observer, regardless of the situation or the stakes. They never say anything witty. They never ask any incisive questions. They don’t express an opinion on the proceedings except to reiterate their ability to kill demons. They have no personality flaws and no character arc. They never express affection for the real characters in the story.

Sure, the player character didn’t have any agency in the Diablo 2 cutscenes either. But in that case it worked because the story was told in flashback and explained what was going on while the player was busy mowing down demons elsewhere. We certainly can’t complain that the player wasn’t able to influence events that took place when they weren’t around. But here in Diablo 3 the player is explicitly present for many major events and yet they do nothing, say nothing, contribute nothing, and learn nothing.

Broken on Many Levels

A vague yet oddly specific prophesy. A guy with amnesia and an artifact to cure it. A doomsaying old sage who reads old books for exposition. A situation where people disbelieve the sage no matter how accurate his claims prove to be. A zombie invasion caused by a meteor. A damsel with strange powers she can`t control. A magic sword broken into scattered pieces that must be collected. Congratulations, you just won Fantasy Trope Bingo, and we haven`t even finished the first chapter of the game.

A vague yet oddly specific prophesy. A guy with amnesia and an artifact to cure it. A doomsaying old sage who reads old books for exposition. A situation where people disbelieve the sage no matter how accurate his claims prove to be. A zombie invasion caused by a meteor. A damsel with strange powers she can`t control. A magic sword broken into scattered pieces that must be collected. Congratulations, you just won Fantasy Trope Bingo, and we haven`t even finished the first chapter of the game.

In the past I’ve contrasted details-first stories with drama-first stories. In a details-first story, there are clear rules that govern what can and can’t happen. In drama-first, the rules are left vague and the job of establishing stakes and possibilities falls to the characters. Diablo 3 is leaning hard on drama-first, but none of the characters are coherent enough to support that kind of story. Their dialog is inane and cliche, their stated motivations (assuming they have any) don’t line up with their behavior, and they don’t follow proper character arcs. People can teleport in and out of scenes at will in some parts in the game, but then in other parts the writer seems to forget this.

The characters don’t work, and the details don’t work either. The whole point of basing a story around a MacGuffin hunt is so you can quickly build a simple story framework to contain the action. “The bad guys need the MacGuffin. The good guys need to prevent the bad guys from getting the MacGuffin. They fight.” But even when working from a simple fill-in-the-blanks template the writer can’t make something coherent.

It would take a very long series to properly deconstruct everything that Diablo 3 does wrong in terms of story, and I’m not really interested in doing that. The plot is obvious yet over-complicated, melodramatic yet lacking heart, filled with twists yet totally predictable, filled with epic battles for the fate of the world yet completely lacking tension and stakes. It’s a sad mess that’s not even interesting enough to entice me to pick it apart.

Tone Matters

Remember, it was never about the story, which means you can`t criticize the game no matter how grating and infantile the story turns out to be.

Remember, it was never about the story, which means you can`t criticize the game no matter how grating and infantile the story turns out to be.

How does a game feel? Is it humorous yet menacing? Grim? Filled with existential angst, regret, and frustration? Corny? Gleeful, juvenile, and empowering? Cute? Quiet and cerebral? Whimsical and playful?

Tone is the culmination of a dozen artistic decisions. Art style. Musical score. Character design. Lighting. Subject matter. Presentation. Pacing. All of these elements come together to give a game its personality. Tone is part of the identity of a game.

So what is the tone of Diablo III supposed to be? The gameplay is energetic bombast, the environments and soundscapes are Gothic horror(ish), the pre-rendered vignettes are trope-y melodrama, and the in-engine cutscenes are infantile and campy.

Yes, Diablo always had a small strain of dissonance in its design. The empowered gameplay was a little out of tune with the horror presentation. But the cutscenes of Diablo 3 amplify that dissonance until it drowns out everything else. In terms of mood and story, I have no idea what it’s trying to be.

Wrapping Up

Diablo 3 still has the special Blizzard brand of magic. Everything feels good, looks gorgeous, and sounds amazing. It’s a wonderful sensory experience. The problem is that that’s all it is. None of it forms a cohesive whole. Sure, Diablo isn’t about the story. But that doesn’t mean it benefits from a dumb story told in the most desultory way possible. This is fine if all you want is a skinner box built around farming loot by mowing through demons by the screenful, but it’s sad that they spent all this money making something that can’t even rise above the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Oh, and I suppose Blizzard has earned one of these:

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Footnotes:

[1] I’d caution young people against arguing with me on this point. If your view of the 1970s comes from “That 70’s Show” or memories of a couple of good songs then you don’t REALLY know the 70s. You know the handful of good things we fished out of the vast landfill that was 70s culture.

[2] The spontaneous chatter between your character and their (optional) hireling companion is actually pretty nice. But like the player, the hireling isn’t really involved in the story except they follow you around.

[3] They never show up in the pre-rendered scenes.



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From the Archives:

  1. Grey Rook says:

    Blizzard has been writing World of Warcraft for so long that it’s all they know how to do any more. It’s a shame, but the more I learn about Diablo 3, the happier I become that I never bought it.

    • Arstan says:

      Well, they did much better with StarCraft 2, although it’s story is not Planescape:Torment level of course.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Not really.Alone starcraft 2 story is plain bad,but as a sequel its far worse than diablo 3.

        • Tohron says:

          Yeah, and the problems are similar too – a failure to create compelling characters with personal goals that they proactively try to realize, and a tendency to base plots around MacGuffin collecting. A high point of Legacy of the Void was when Alarak questioned whether Artanis had the motivation and will to face Amon, and he responded with an expression of anger at all that had been lost – I think that was the most emotion any of the characters ever showed about everything they had known being torn apart.

          • Blake says:

            Yeah I’d pretty much agree with this. Starcraft 1 and Brood War had pretty great stories considering for the time and genre.
            I think the Starcraft 2 series really struggled with the length of each story though.
            Wings of Liberty had a clear enough objective, but by the third act I’d pretty much stopped caring.
            Heart of the Swarm was just a mess, the less said about that story the better.
            Legacy of the Void I only played through once but I think I enjoyed more than WoL and HotS. Some interesting characters and interesting world-building, but I think it didn’t quite stick the ending.

            • Sleeping Dragon says:

              Legacy did have a bit of a field advantage by focusing on the established as aloof and pompous Protoss, it wasn’t excellent by any means and for me it really went downhill as soon as it started approaching the endgame.

              I will give HotS that it had a couple nice lines in some of the Zerg interactions (whether that made sense or not) but the storyline was just so ridiculously bad. I get that they wanted to de-villainize Kerrigan but really, the only angle you can do that is “I’m crying for Jim so bad”? And the ridiculous “executed offscreen” trope… urghh…

              • FelBlood says:

                I think the tug of war over the depiction of it’s character’s was ultimately Starcraft’s downfall.

                SC1 clearly wanted Kerrigan to be a villain you could hate just as much as Zzaz, Mensk, Daggoth, “Duran,” or that Judicator guy with the giant stick up his bum.

                Brood War managed to actually make her into that monster, in two easy steps.

                First establishing that she had completely, and perminantly lost her humanity to the cold-hearted and hungry nature of the Zerg. Kerrigan wins her free will back by betraying the new Overmind, and proceeds to wipe out the rest of the named Zerg cast to ensure she stays on the throne of the Zerg Swarm. However, getting her freedom back doesn’t turn her back into the helpful and flirty girl we met in the SC1 tutorial. She’s a changed woman, and she sets out to exterminate anyone who might be a threat to her, or who she has a grudge against, or just happens to have an exploitable vulnerability– like trusting her. She makes peaceful gestures to Jim and the Raiders and then betrays them, killing numerous innocent Raiders, including Duke (Good Ridance) and Fenix(Noooo~!!). Fenix’s death is a major story turn. Jim stops the action and swears a gruesome oath to avenge his fallen friend, the player really looks forward to the day they get to fullfill that oath. She’s a bad guy, and the player and the hero are now in agreement that she needs a heaping helping of comeuppance.

                Secondly Brood war succeeded by establishing her as a threat that could take on the entire galaxy at once. In the closing chapter, Zergx10 “Omega,” even with the combined Protoss fleets, Raynor’s Raiders and the Terran Dominion* working together she cannot be stopped. The structure of the battle is a callback to the final battle of SC1, except the player is defending a central Zerg hive on 3 fronts, rather than attacking it on 2. This highlights that not only has Kerrigan won her freedom, but she’s thriving where the previous generation failed. Her Brood is the next evolution of the Zerg threat.

                With all that evil, power and bad karma piled up on her, having someone decide that such a popular character needed to be a good guy and pull the plug on the entire plot basically gave the story terminal whiplash.

                *That’s right. Jim allied with Mensk to try to kill Kerrigan. WoL tries really hard to ignore this, and focus on Jim hating Mensk for letting Kerrigan become a monster to begin with. SC1 might have played fast and loose with a few details, but SC 2 is a lot more about Drama First, and even more about “Marketing says this character needs to be more sympathetic.”

                • Kentauroi says:

                  I don’t remember Raynor ever allying himself with Mengsk in the last mission. I think the last time you see Raynor is when he gives his speech right after Fenix dies. The three people attacking Kerrigan in the Omega mission is the Terran Dominion, the United Earth Directorate and Artanis’ fleet.

                  • Zekiel says:

                    This is correct. And they’re not allied (in story terms) either – in a massive coincidence they all happened to turn up at the same time to fight Kerrigan. From a story perspective it’s a really terrible final mission. From a gameplay perspective its a gripping final challenge that demonstrates Kerrigan’s ultimate mastery over all the major players in the Koprulu Sector.

                    But to be fair to FelBlood there are a LOT of things that SC2 quietly retcons, not least the fact that Raynor has mysteriously gone from swearing vengeance on Kerrigan to pining over her because he failed to save her.

                    • Daemian Lucifer says:

                      From a story perspective it’s a really terrible final mission.

                      Why?Kerrigan has screwed over all of them,so there is a reason for all of them wanting to hunt her down.Coincidences can happen.They are bad storytelling only when there is no reason other than coincidence for something to happen.

        • Narkis says:

          The first half of Wings of Liberty was decent, if not exceptional. It all went downhill from there though.

          • Lanthanide says:

            Eh. WoL’s story amounts to a big fat nothing.

            It was because of their “you can play any mission in any order, and you get to direct the storyline!” approach to it.

            It was never explained why the Xel Naga artifact would de-zergify Kerrigan, or why they needed to do that.

            The whole colonist Dr Hansen vaccine thing, and Terrazine gas storyline was a pointless side-quest that added nothing.

            A very simple tweak that would have made the whole thing better, is if they used Dr Hansen’s vaccine, in conjunction with the terrazine gas and somehow combined them with the Xel Naga artifact, and *that* is what de-zergified Kerrigan. It would have actually made the whole thing into a cohesive whole (not good, but far better than what it is).

        • Tizzy says:

          It’s different though: an RTS requires reams of story to go from one battle to the next, with dramatic betrayals and the likes to keep the cast small and reusable. It is doomed to get silly fast.

          Diablo OTOH benefits from light story touches. As unobtrusive as possible, let the atmosphere make the game.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            It is doomed to get silly fast.

            Starcraft 1 and warcraft 3 managed to avoid it though.Especially brood wars,like Henson mentioned below.Its not easy,but its doable.

            Or,one can go a full ham route like red alart and revel in the goofiness.

            • Tizzy says:

              I guess I can give you Warcraft 3, where they managed by growing the number of factions, so that the sheer number of possible interactions gave them a lot to work with.

              As for Starcraft 1, we’ll have to agree to disagree. (I’ve never played Red Alert, or Diablo 3 for that matter, so I’m not saying that SC1 is comparable in goofiness of the story. Just that I ended up zoning out with the story pretty rapidly. )

  2. Ashen says:

    I still can’t believe Troika’s Leonard Boyarsky worked on this game. According to wikipedia: “His role included fleshing out the lore, dialogue and quests in the game. He found it important to build upon the story elements of the Diablo franchise, and covey its intricacies in a more compelling way.”

    My brain just does not comprehend this. How do you go from Vampire: Bloodlines to.. this thing.

  3. DanMan says:

    To further the football analogy, the players come out and recite Shakespeare, but if you’re bored, you can just finish your beer (pressing buttons) and the players will just stop in the middle of their line and go back to playing football. Sure, you were going to finish your beer anyway, but now the game is taking the fun out of the act of drinking beer.

    Oh, and also, sometimes the arena announcer will start reciting Shakespeare narration while the players are still playing football and no matter how much beer you chug, it won’t stop (Those books you find in the dungeons). But the arena announcer is muffled and echoes a bunch and you’re really trying to focus on the game so you can’t really understand what he’s saying.

    What I’m trying to say is the mechanism for delivering a bad, disjointed story is broken and annoying

  4. Bubble181 says:

    While I do agree that the story and its presentation in D3 absolutely suck, I do have some nitpicks.

    1. The follower DOES have some agfency and personality in their personal side quests. Do’nt know if you ever got around to those, but talking to them enough and learning their story unlocks smallish side quests in Act V.

    2. The discrepancy between the tone of the story videos and the in-game story was there in D2 as well. There was plenty of lore/story around in D2 that was of quite a different tone than the cutscenes. There’s plenty of goofball comedy in both of the sequels, which clashes quite a bit with the grimdark horrorish atmosphere on occasion.

    3. I don’t agree D3 “is not about the story”. There are those of us who do care about the lore and the story. I know it’s a defense made by many fans, but in this case, I just don’t agree. The expansion sort of helped, but the story in the base game was horrible, doing terrible things to the established lore.

    • Darren says:

      Regarding point 2, I think the critical difference is that the goofy stuff was almost always on the periphery. You might have a silly quest to investigate a “huge, swollen, disgusting black mushroom!” but the main plot was still about the Devil possessing the body of a young boy and unleashing Hell upon the world.

      In Diablo 3, the game makes stupid shit front-and-center. When you are storming Leoric’s estate at the end of Act I, you will, 100% of the time, encounter a group of mooks all but pissing themselves at your approach. It would be really funny as a side encounter, but in the middle of what should be the climax of the act it undercuts any sense of threat. You are unstoppable and the bad guys know it, so the multi-level dungeon crawl to the Butcher, through miles of body-part strewn torture chambers, is just a formality to beating a bunch of silly non-threats. Same goes for Azmodan popping up every five minutes to boast that there’s no way you will stop him this time. If he said nothing, it would feel like a well-earned fight against an opponent who can throw a bunch of stuff at you across many fronts. But his constant assertions of victory make him seem like an ineffectual cartoon villain who announces his schemes and is immediately thwarted every time.

      My 2 cents on Diablo 3’s use of humor.

      • Bubble181 says:

        I still haven’t figured out of they *intended* Azmodan as an ineffectual cartoon boasting, or as an actual threatening commander who’s going to overpower you. Same goes for Belial and his lies. They’re both so incredibly over the top that….I mean, even the writers must’ve known how it felt.

        • Darren says:

          Belial was so campy that I have to imagine they were aiming for it, and I’m certainly not opposed to having a single villain be kind of ridiculous. It’s just that every villain in Diablo 3 is set to maximum cartoonishness. Belial and Zoltan Khul* were the only ones who kind of worked for me, and even then Belial would’ve been better without parading the kid in front of the player or providing audio logs of his flamboyant scheming.

          *Actually, I kind of love Zoltan Khul. He’s the only ridiculous villain in the game to seem to recognize his own ridiculous villainy. If you want to have campy villains, you need to dispense with the pretense that they aren’t campy, and having a guy who cackles maniacally every time he’s done talking with you is an example of how to do it.

          • Kylroy says:

            My favorite part about Zoltan Kulle was by making him so mustache-twirlingly evil, they could have him tell the player *exactly* how they were being used by Diablo without having a word of it be believed.

          • ZoeM says:

            The impression I got from Belial (and Maghda too) was definitely more along the lines of “leading the player”. Maghda basically gives you a series of quest objectives on a map to help you assemble the sword, then tries to grab it at the end – which in turn can be seen as a play to get you to Kulle to assemble the soul stone.
            Then Belial is *literally* helping you along up until the end when it turns out you’re an unstoppable death carnage ball.

            Honestly if you look at the whole of Acts 1, 2, and 3 they read like everything was planned in order to have you be Diablo’s errand boy, collecting all the elements needed to resurrect him. It’s not a good chessmaster plot if the master never comments on it, but it makes more sense from that perspective regardless.
            (With the exception of Tyrael – why’d anyone need an angel in the first place? I suppose it’s arguable that Belial had his own plans for him and they were simply thwarted by the larger Diablo arc, but it’s still a bit disconnected.)

            Edit: By this reading Azmodan was definitely working with Diablo to resurrect the Prime Evil. He pretty much step by step guides you through the process of killing him, after all.

            • Darren says:

              I think it’s just bad writing on Blizzard’s part. For one thing, Azmodan’s dialogue in the Act III cutscene strongly suggests that he’s aware of Diablo’s plan and has no interest in being subordinated into the Prime Evil (“You think you’re so clever” “Azmodan will reign supreme!”). For another, Diablo’s plan doesn’t even begin to make sense if the other Evils are all in on it; why get a third party to kill them if they are all want to merge?

              • Zoe McClatchey says:

                5/7 of them were canonically already inside (and absorbed by) the soulstone, and its way easier to die (with a witch on their side to unleash the stone) than to wrest it away from the heroes? Especially if they need the aid of like four separate people to make their plan a reality, nearly all of whom are trying gamely to defeat the demons.

                It makes Zoltan Khulle’s dialog also make sense – he puts some logic together to figure out that Witchy McBadGuy is planning on combining the demons (though he could have told you in a more convincing way).

                I could also believe Azmodan wasn’t on board with the whole scheme – hence his rather premature invasion. If the choices are die or have an outside chance at winning (but die if you fail) it’s an easy one to make. M

          • krellen says:

            I was at least grateful that my Wizard wasn’t made to play the fool. When you confront Belial in the palace the second time, he’s still pretending and the PC just goes “Yeah, you’re not fooling anyone Belial, I’ve come to kill you.”

      • Henson says:

        Are you saying that Azmodan is the Ultros of Diablo III?

    • Hector says:

      Followers have extremely tedious, drawn-out conversations that in no way link to the overall plot, barely touch on the actual themes involved, and don’t really have any importance in the game. Personality-wise, they’re ok, I suppose, but nothing worth paying attention to. I don’t think anybody was desperately waiting for the next templar conversation to unlock, and it all kinda goes nowhere.

      As far as story goes, I would link Diablo to the Aliens franchise, at least at first. Like that series, Diablo started out with a relatively, but extremely tense work that was short on explanation and heavy on atmosphere of helplessness and fear. The second in both works, instead of trying to completely recapture the raw tension and isolation of the original, instead went with a feeling of being overwhelmed by nigh-unstoppable forces (which, not coincidentally, was a major theme of the cutscenes in D2). The action may have been turned up, but it was accompanied by a feeling of failure that was only barely redeemed at the last second, and even then it was only a partial victory with great loss along the way.

      Then, D3 descended into B-grade wannabe camp, kinda like Alien 4. Additionally, humor was only ever a small side bit to ease the tension now and then up to Diablo 3, which didn’t seem to understand the difference between a little chuckle and an obnoxious smirk.

  5. PPX14 says:

    This sounds rather like the reason that I hate the Tomb Raider reboot, an otherwise inoffensive game with decent gunplay.

    • Duoae says:

      I don’t know if you played rise as well but the story in that is even worse! Plus, it’s sort of a rehash of tomb raider’s plot and themes instead of doing something new.

      • PPX14 says:

        Even worse?! Thank you for telling me this. I had decided no way am I going anywhere near it given the first one, but know that I will be tempted if it goes on sale because it’s supposedly better with the tombs etc. But if the story is worse then I know I’ll come away angry :D

      • PPX14 says:

        It was the way they spoke, so sincere yet so awful. “I can’t do this” “Of course you can, you’re a Croft” “I don’t think I’m that sort of Croft” … “Sure you are…you just don’t know it yet”.

  6. Steve C says:

    The sad thing is that they specifically focused on and prioritized the story. That’s not my opinion either. That’s what the developers explicitly stated when Diablo 3 first came out.

    The developers talked about the story a lot in interviews. Not specifics. They stressed it’s importance. I specifically remember one of the lead designers talking about how Diablo was a game designed to be replayed a lot. So they wanted the story to be good. The story was good (according to them). I can’t stress enough that “story first” was their stance. Focusing and prioritizing the story was cited as justification for why other parts of the game didn’t work right.

    Of course the story is absolute garbage.

    • Darren says:

      It’s always frustrating when a developer buys into the most dismissive take on their own franchise. “It’s all just mindless clicking, so we’re going to focus on the story and put the gameplay on the back burner.” I’m seeing the same thing play out with the new God of War, where the challenging enemies, varied encounters, and decent puzzles seem to have been forgotten by developers and critics alike and the series was only ever a mindlessly easy game of “Square, Square, Triangle” and it’s OK to focus exclusively on telling a story because nobody’s in it for anything else.

      Sucks for the people who actually stick with a franchise because they liked the game part of it.

      • Fizban says:

        Do we know how much the top people at Blizzard play games? One would assume they do, but then the same could be said of any game company, and I’m fairly certain it’s known that the top people at most “triple A” companies don’t play any games, much less know anything about making them. It doesn’t take much for the people in charge to buy into the “it’s just pressing buttons” idea when they’ve never actually played a game.

      • Shoeboxjeddy says:

        You already know that the new God of War doesn’t have “challenging enemies” or “decent puzzles”? So how was it, since you have clearly been playing it and are now willing to break your NDA?

        • Darren says:

          I don’t know much about it’s gameplay because none of the interviews talk much about it. Check out this typical example from Eurogamer:

          http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-06-21-god-of-war-director-explains-why-the-entire-game-has-no-camera-cuts

          Where in that interview does the game’s director talk about the game play? Who gives a shit about camera cuts?

          I’m a fan of the series–including the unfairly forgotten Ascension–and really want to be optimistic, but they seem to be completely ignoring the actual things about the game that I most care about. To close out, go watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY6vIDCK7iQ. Now tell me, over a year later, how much more information have we received to counter those criticisms?

        • Tizzy says:

          The guy said “seem to have been forgotten by devs and critics”, not “the game won’t have them”. I don’t think you can ask for a more carefully worded way of stating an impression, give the guy a break already!

          • Shoeboxjeddy says:

            It doesn’t matter how carefully worded it was, it was a MASSIVE leap to make because he’s mad that the old games are, in his opinion, being disrespected. Nobody knows if the gameplay will be dumbed down or better than ever or what. Being like “I think they have ruined it… based on nothing” is real real dumb.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              He didnt say that the gameplay is ruined,but that its not being focused on by the critics and the devs.Which is true,because no one is talking about it,ergo not focusing on it.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Wait,what?Bwahahahahahahahaha!!!

      I love blizzard,but everything they wrote after warcraft 3* is utter trash.Enjoyable at times,sure(when they embrace the silliness),but never really good.

      *Maybe even before that.I read the expanded warcraft lore once,and its just an endless repetition of the lucifers fall from grace.Arthas was the best good guy who fell from grace and became an evil servant of the lich king,who was also the best good guy once who fell from grace and became an evil servant of some other dude who was ALSO the best…..you get the gist.It was mostly well written,sure,but the repetition sure stuck out in more and more laughable ways.

      • Taellosse says:

        Blizzard’s writing has never been what I’d call great. It’s at it’s best when it’s a minimalist framework around their very good gameplay and production values. Their writing is done with a broad brush, and is best when it isn’t allowed to get either too complicated or too overbearing.

        Warcraft’s writing up through 3 was solid (it, on the whole, improved as the series unfolded), but never inspired. As you say, it leaned heavily on familiar arcs and tropes – but that was always fine because the single-player campaigns were mostly about learning the games’ mechanics and occasionally leveraging them to engineer interesting scenarios. The story was a framework to permit engaging gameplay first and foremost.

        Starcraft and Brood War was the same kind of thing, only more so. The cancer of “we’re telling an epic story!” really flowered with Starcraft 2, unfortunately (the seeds of it are there in Warcraft 3, but don’t take the game over) – making the whole first 2 parts of the game (the human and Zerg campaigns, I mean) revolve around the tragic love story between Kerrigan and Raynor (which was a hinted at background element in the first game and its expansion, not a central theme) forces the far more interesting saga of clashing civilizations, ancient demi-gods, and the will to power to take a back seat. Even the hate-affair between Kerrigan and Mengsk is more interesting than the star-crossed lovers thing with her and Raynor (especially since in the first game it seemed pretty one-sided – Kerrigan was barely interested in giving Jim the time of day).

        • Henson says:

          Starcraft 1 was relatively solid, but I hold Brood War as the best thing Blizzard ever wrote. I remember cheating my ass off in the Zerg campaigns just so I could see what happened next.

          Warcraft 3 is where I started to see their limits. Everything around the fall of Arthas was pretty good, but the story kinda fell apart after that. Not to mention the disconnect between serious drama and blocky-cartoony art style…

    • Tizzy says:

      Never mind how good a story is, it will not get better by repetition. I think in this case, your best bet would be to have the story be as unobtrusive as possible. Though clearly it’s a question of taste too.

  7. Daimbert says:

    Being old enough to remember the 70s — at least somewhat — I was going to challenge your view of them … but then remembered that most of the things I liked while growing up were probably from the 80s, so it wouldn’t count [grin].

    Speaking of which, in that “Death of Cain” clip I’d compare it more to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe than Superfriends … at least in part because the evil magic-using woman sounds an awful lot like Evil-Lyn [grin].

  8. Steve C says:

    The Diablo 3 story suffers greatly from and then… followed more by and then… This excellent 2 min clip explains what I mean.

  9. Darren says:

    The story in Diablo III is rough, and it’s almost all down to the villains. If you were to cut it down to strictly the heroic characters, I don’t think it would be half as unbearable. The heroes are all fairly likeable, most of their dialogue is optional or background chatter, and there are a lot of little gags and pay-offs for the player dedicated to seeing it all (like the mayor of Tristram’s arc). The villains, meanwhile, deliver empty threats, obvious schemes, and generally do everything in their power to undermine any sense of threat. In Diablo 2, the Druid could whip out the Indiana Jones gag about snakes and Diablo could say nothing at all except, “Not even death can save you from me,” and it worked because the humor was cute and unobtrusive and Diablo really was the toughest boss in the game (at least to me) and didn’t promise anything more or less than what he delivered.

    On top of that, I think there must have been a different process or even different writers for the pre-rendered cutscenes compared to the in-game ones. The introduction of Azmodan leans into the horror of the situation in a way the rest of the game just doesn’t, and it does a somewhat clever thing where Azmodan seems to be speaking to Leia but, in retrospect, is clearly speaking to Diablo, who is scheming to steal her body (and actually does). It’s a subtle thing that builds up to a genuinely dark plot point and is totally at odds with the Azmodan and Diablo who constantly undermine themselves with empty threats and long-winded monologues.

    One thing I will defend is the voiced player characters, because–setting aside how little impact they have at major moments–I think the writers did a very good job of characterizing each class. The Witch Doctor is super nice and pleasant, the Demon Hunter a raging psychopath, the Crusader incongruously quippy and goofy, and so on. I generally will never say “no” to a player character having more personality–even if I don’t have a say in it–so this was right up my alley. If Blizzard is going to insist on adding tons of dialogue to a franchise that doesn’t need it, that’s the way to do it.

    • Blake says:

      “One thing I will defend is the voiced player characters” – I’d probably agree with this. I think all the voice acting in the game was good.
      The issue is definitely on the writing side of things.

    • Duoae says:

      Now that you’ve mentioned it (without realising) I had a major beef with the writers because they wrote her name as Leah but had all the voiced content pronounce it Leia.

      Now, sure, in a phonetically based language that works where each letter gives the same sounding each time – but as far as I can see the world of sanctuary uses the English language.

      I know it’s petty but it REALLY bothered me!

  10. Lazlo says:

    distracted channel-surfing six-year-olds

    But, but but… you can’t have distracted channel-surfing six-year-olds without channel surfing, and you can’t have channel-surfing when it’s the ’70s and there are 3 channels except maybe if the stars align and your fine-tuning-knob skills are on point, you can banish enough static to mostly see what’s going on on that weird PBS channel that shows the nature documentaries and Dr. Who reruns.

    • Fizban says:

      With the whole quote:

      Super Exposition is a storytelling style aimed at helping distracted channel-surfing six-year-olds understand a scene despite having no context for what’s happening in the story. So why is it being used here in a videogame for a captive audience comprised primarily of adults?

      I think this may answer its own question. Even though the idea that X/Y/Z niche games are dead is rubbish, the bigger the game the more it panders to the lowest common denominator. And, well, there are plenty of adults that don’t have any more focus than a distracted channel-surfing six-year-old. Even if they focus just fine on “serious” things I’m pretty sure there’s still a majority of people that simply don’t pay attention to their entertainment. If the majority of the audience only pays a six-year-old’s worth of attention (weather because they’re six or they just play videogames like they are) and you’re trying to force the story down their throat, you’ll need to deliver it the same way.

      And even if it’s quite provable that the majority of adults do in fact pay more attention to games than a distracted child, it doesn’t matter. Because in the condescending view of the corporate owners who barely know what a game is, anyone playing a videogame might as well be a child. Combine some corporate direction with an inflated idea of your own storytelling ability from decades of hype and. . .

      • Kylroy says:

        And again – no one is buying this *for* the story. A solid story would be nice, sure, but what’s selling it is the gameplay. Metal Gear Solid hasn’t had umpteen sequels on the strength of Kojima’s whacked-out storytelling – it’s succeeded because it has solid stealth (and later, open-world shooting) gameplay.

        • ehlijen says:

          I don’t know that I agree with that.

          First, if no one buys the game for the story, why is significant effort put into making the story? Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to limit the resources spent on the story then?

          Second, if no one buys the game for the story, but rather the gameplay, shouldn’t the story then stay the hell out of the way of the gameplay? (This is more in references to Shamus’ recent RE4 post: QTE’s are a pox on anyone trying to just play the game and not worry about the story, because it forces them to watch the cuscenes over and over).

          Third, I’ve seen my friend play MGS 3. It took about 30 minutes of cutscenes before he got to input any player commands. With no sign that the amount of cutscene was ever going to simmer down. That must have been solid gold gameplay wrapped in honeychocolatecocaineorgasms if it justified someone sitting through that much story without caring for it.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            First, if no one buys the game for the story, why is significant effort put into making the story?

            Thats a really good question for many a game.

            Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to limit the resources spent on the story then?

            Yes,it would.

            Second, if no one buys the game for the story, but rather the gameplay, shouldn’t the story then stay the hell out of the way of the gameplay?

            Yes,it should.

            Dont assume that people making stuff that sells for lots of money are rational 100% of the time because they made lots of money.

            • ehlijen says:

              No one is 100% rational. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t worry about the irrational 10%’ is always a valid excuse.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                But it is possible to enjoy the good parts without being bothered by the injection of the silly story.Otherwise no mmo would ever make any money.The quality of the story CAN impact the quality of the game,but its not always the case.

          • Duoae says:

            I’m one of those people who really enjoys story in my games. For me, the more complex a game is, the more story/world building it needs to bring it all together.

            To give an example: I don’t need much story for tetris, Mega man or Good Robot. But moving to something like assassin’s creed, I need motivations and reasons for caring /killing.

            I’d make the argument that a good story or good world building really elevates any game.

        • stratigo says:

          I bought diablo 3 in large part for the story.

          And the rendered cutscenes are really neat.

          Sad the hammy in engine shit is awful

    • Blackbird71 says:

      Kids and their gazillion cable and YouTube channels these days!

      I barely saw the 70’s, and was largely a child of the 80s, but when I was a kid, we had seven channels: the three major networks, PBS, and three UHF stations. Believe me, that was more than enough to enable channel surfing. Just having the three UHF stations showing cartoons at the same time each afternoon caused quite a bit of dial-switching to try to catch what was going on in each show (we didn’t have DVRs, or even VCRs, so you either had to watch the shows live or wait for the reruns).

  11. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I never bothered with the story.I always saw diablo for what it is:A fun mmo.So like in any mmo,I half listened to the opening first lines,then tuned out everything else.Other than as a source of laughs(intentional or mostly unintentional)I cant really see any mmo with a story worth exploring.

  12. Bloodsquirrel says:

    I think story was important in the first Diablo- the game didn’t spend much time directly telling it (hell, most of it was in the manual), but what was there was important in establishing the mood for the game. Walking into that church for the first time was creepy and tense in a way that no other ARPG I’ve played since has managed to capture.

    I think it’s been well-established by now that certain kinds of games benefit massively from minimalism in storytelling. A video game can get away with a story that is very structurally sparse as long as the core concept is strong and the environments reinforce it.

  13. Hal says:

    I’ve tried a number of ARPGs, and it seems like the Madlib Fantasy problem is endemic to the genre. It’s as if everyone who makes the games decided, “No one really cares about the story, so just try to do something that bridges the player along to the next objective.” Then for some reason they hire writers who want to be the next Tolkien to craft the scenes and dialog.

    A big part of this is the multiplayer component. Most of these games are made with the idea that you’re playing with other people. In an era of voice chat, it’s probably common that you’re missing 100% of the onscreen and audio dialog, just killing everything between you and the map markers.

    • Axe Armor says:

      If nothing else, I do think Diablo 3’s aesthetic and the tone of it’s story do reflect the mood players are most likely to be in if playing multiplayer. Co-op converts drama and horror into humor with high efficiency.

  14. Radiosity says:

    Man… now I feel like writing a parody work in SUPER EXPOSITION style. That’d be fun… if I had the time between my other novels/works ;_;

  15. Ronan says:

    In my first D3 playthrough, I remember some character calling the hero “Nephalem” and I thought “Oh, so I’m a nephalem now? I must have missed some dialog”.

    And then I played it again, and again , and again and never have I been able to find the moment when your character (or the npcs) learns he is a nephalem.
    It seems like it should be a big deal, but it’s just one scene you’re an ordinary adventurer, and the next one you’re a demi-god, but nothing happened in-between.

    • krellen says:

      All humans are nephalems, though they were unable to unlock their power as such while the World Stone existed. There isn’t a hard reveal; it’s heavily suggested that your character simply always was one, possibly due to having been born after the World Stone’s destruction.

      I think Kulle has some background dialogues in Act 2 (when he just shows up and babbles at you) hinting at knowing “what you truly are” which is probably the closest it gets to a “reveal”.

      • Xapi says:

        The dude who guards the temple with Larry, Curly and Moe (not kidding, although the names are some garbled rewrite like Curlonious and Moentian), (maybe he’s Orek who later guards the rifts?) tells you after you defeat them “What now, do you think you are?”, and I think, but I’m not sure, he’s the first to call you Nephalem.

        So I think you’re supposed to not know you are a Nephalem until that guy nonchalantly calls you one, and then you prove him right by defeating the most famous physical comedy trio off all time in combat.

    • Darren says:

      They establish that all humans are Nephalem, but with their power suppressed by the World Stone. With the World Stone destroyed, their true power begins to manifest again.

      How this works is never explained: will everyone in the world eventually be godlike? How do you account for the fact that some of the playable characters were clearly born before the destruction of the World Stone?

      They’re not complicated questions, but they are way more important to the rules of the setting than Blizzard seems to realize.

  16. TMC_Sherpa says:

    …It’s a Hanna Barbera cartoon, the Cannon films of animation studios. 30 frames per second? Nah, too much work. Running to the left instead of the right? Shoot it in a mirror, cells cost money you know. OK in this one scene we need. Nope, see cells cost money above. You got fifty plates to film the entire series, go nuts.

    It was marginally better than Yogi Bear, I don’t remember seeing a head animation clip the (only) standing body cell.

  17. The Rocketeer says:

    As bad as Diablo III is, StarCraft II is worse. There was a lot of warning (the awful and inappopriate character of Valerian in his entirety was a big hint), but I think the exact moment I lost faith in Blizzard’s ability was near the very end of Wings of Liberty, when Arcturus Mengsk responds to some victory of Raynor’s by bellowing, “You’ll regret that!” over the radio. There was no end of warning before that point (the awful and inappropriate character of Valerian in his entirety was a big hint) but there was just something in the delivery of that line that served as the last straw, completing Blizzard’s degradation of Mengsk, the compleat schemer and master of pragmatic amoral cunning, into a doddering, apparently senile caricature with nothing interesting to do or say while he sits on his Villain Throne and waits for the hero to break all his stuff.

    The bastardization of what might have been StarCraft’s most interesting character into a one-note moron was a very telling sign of StarCraft II’s overall direction, and a portent of things to come. Mengsk’s fall from competent writing wasn’t the largest impactor on StarCraft II’s story quality; the incoherent and inexplicable writing of Kerrigan is champion in that regard, without even a close second. But the overall decadence of the games’ direction that, in time, precipitated Legacy of the Void’s outright embarrassing conclusion, became evident to me in something as simple as three words from Mengsk, and by what a magnitude the man had been reduced from his peak well over a decade ago.

    I want to find whoever told Blizzard they were good at writing and strangle them. It was a true thing to say, but it poisoned their minds and has led to their reach so far exceeding their grasp that they keep toppling over on their faces.

    • Tohron says:

      Yeah, both Mengsk and Infested Kerrigan suffer from an overabundance of impotent threats and a severe lack of proactive countermeasures (the Moebius Factor mission is the only time either of them do anything more than show up in the place a mission was scheduled). On the hero side, Zeratul also got hit pretty hard with plot-mandated passivity (which was a real shame for me, since he used to be my favorite character).

      Not sure what you don’t like about Valerian though, imo he could have worked fine if the rest of the plot had been written better, and the power dynamic between him and his father had been better defined/explored more thoroughly.

  18. CJGeringer says:

    “People remember the story in Diablo 2 fondly, but it was mostly an exercise in great cinematography. It was style over substance. It was told in minimalist fashion, with a pre-rendered cutscene at the end of each chapter.”

    I will disagree with you over this, (Though I am well prepared to admit I am the exeption, rather than the rule).

    I remember Diablo´s story fondly for the quests and characters. I liked the Charsi wasn´t simply ablacksmith, that she wanted to adventure and was facinated by barbarians. I liked that some enemies of the first act were rogues that fought Diablo in tristam, came back as veterans and then were corrupted, which helped with the horror-ish tone.

    In the second Act there is a quest where a woman asks you to kill a monster. But isntead of a simple “kill x” She talks about her family that was killed.

    After accepting she says she can´t bear to talk about it, setting up an in-world reason why the subsequent Dialog is short (instead of merely being limited by developer´s resources).

    When the player comes back without having completed the quest she expresses feeling a bit of remorse of asking you that, despite her hatred after she thinks for a moment, she feels guilty that the player may die trying to fulfil her request.

    When you complete the quest she starts dialog with a flavourfull “”They say that the taste of vengeance is bittersweet, but I find it to my liking.”, which I never forgot.

    I remember all those little touches that give tone and flavour to diablo 2’s world a lot more foundly than any of the cutscenes

    • Duoae says:

      I agree with you but I think the disconnect here might be due to people separating out writing “story” and “world building” even though a writer’s duties most often have them doing both and they are intrinsically interlinked in games.

      • Bubble181 says:

        Indeed. There’s plenty of good writing both in D2 and D3 in the side quests and small blurbs – quite a few of the side instances and such have nice little lore implications or build a backdrop. In D2 the overall story still was somewhat OK, though, while D3’s is….Yeah, bad.

  19. Dreadjaws says:

    Hey, Shamus, when are you getting around to publish the print version of the Mass Effect Retrospective?

  20. mechaninja says:

    For the website, I’ve linked a youtube video by a dude named skillup, in order to give credit.

    He says that most of Bioware’s good writing came/comes from Drew Karpyshyn.

    He argues that the downturn in writing for other projects happened when Drew went to SWOTOR, and when he left the company. Apparently he’s back, and the one writing for Anthem, which is a big part of why Skillup is excited about Anthem.

    So my question is – how realistic is it to believe one person could be so heavily responsible for successful tone/etc in writing a game, and what’re the chances that Blizzard let that person go? Or re-reading some of it, maybe that entire team?

    Google “Diablo 3’s Jay Wilson Tells Diablo 2 Designer, Fans To F*ck Off Diablo 3’s Jay Wilson Tells Diablo 2 Designer, Fans To F*ck Off ” for an example. (Because I don’t know how to include two links in a comment)

    I wonder so much about writing. My mind boggles.

    • Naota says:

      I suspect a great deal of it depends on the organization of the company in question. Where I now work, for instance, is a publisher with multiple IP’s spread over several studios around the world. They choose a “lead” studio for each, which gets core creative direction, but pass around responsibilities globally. This isn’t merely a conceptual split, either – we’re physically divided up into sections within the studio to work on our respective games.

      Anyhow, a big question is whether you’re referring to the actual writing of specific plot beats and story elements, or more vague creative direction. Here, one or two people on the narrative team steer the ship on themes, tone, and character so to speak – but many more take their cues to plot the individual missions and storylines.

      The guys at the top only really dip their hands directly into the biggest, highest-level pieces of writing, but oversee the general goals basically all the time. Technically speaking, as a mission designer, even I have the ability to write plots for the game. I just need to pitch something that gets approved by the lead narrative director. How busy they are, how hands-on their approach, and how closely they can afford to be an editorial voice on my work changes a lot from person to person, project to project, and studio to studio.

      It’s also worth noting that even if a great writer is exclusively in charge, they ultimately still have to deliver what the upper management have laid out (not even necessarily business types – we have a company-wide Chief Creative Officer for instance). If the word is, say, punchy action franchises with Whedon-esque dialogue, that’s what the narrative director is going to plan for, whether or not it’s their preference or area of expertise.

  21. guy says:

    Wow, that cutscene managed to be incredibly confusing. So the evil demon lady wants the guy to fix a sword to give to her boss and is holding his daughter hostage, but she blasts her way out. So demon lady kidnaps the guy who is linked to the sword, thus inducing the other guy to fix the sword. But, uh, doesn’t she need that sword? It seems like he could best thwart her plans by not fixing the sword she really wants fixed.

  22. Rosseloh says:

    OK, while I’ll admit that your 70’s Culture video itself is pretty bad, I thought the song was pretty good. I guess I can see someone disliking it if they don’t like disco as a concept or genre, but musically it was sound.

    Also the guy in the back on the congas is having a blast. Just look at him.

    (Not that any of this changes your point. So many people in my age group say “[thing] was better in the [decade] than it is today”, without realizing we only think that way because all the dross at the time was rightly forgotten.)

  23. DeathbyDysentery says:

    I suspect a lot of these problems can be explained by the corporate culture at Blizzard. They seem to heavily prioritize quality, as they should, but only in a very segmented way. What I mean by this is that almost every component of their games shines when examined in isolation but fails to contribute to a cohesive, sensical whole. Diablo III’s gameplay loop, for instance, is masterfully created in terms of presentation, gamefeel, flow, etc… It is incredibly satisfying to kill things, loot, and level up in that bombastic way, but those huge flashes, explosions, and bursts of light do nothing to help the tone the level designers and artists are trying to set or the story that the writers are trying to create. You can see this in games like Overwatch as well, where the gameplay, lore, and character designs are all well-done but have little to do with each other. Overwatch is a game which is supposedly about a Justice League-esque team of super heroes who fight for peace and work through their complicated back-stories…. but then the gameplay is entirely about objective-based competitive shooting between these people who are all supposed to be friends.

    I think that Blizzard has separate teams focusing on individual aspects without talking much with each other. There was a group of 5 – 15 people who worked tirelessly to bring that vision of bombastic fight/loot/fight fun to life which did not overlap significantly with the writing team, for instance. Problems like this with the story can probably be explained by this problem too; I doubt the cinematic cutscenes were written, directed, or produced by the same people who did the in-game story scenes, and I doubt the lore tidbits were written by the same people who wrote the plot. These teams seem to have exactly enough communication to ensure that their projects do not directly ruin each other (IE:, the lore guys are making sure their bestiary entries don’t contradict the main plot), but they aren’t focused on actually making their different areas work together.

    Of course, this is all speculation. If this is what’s happening, I’d probably blame it on the company’s vast experience developing an MMO, since MMOs are characteristically ‘scattershot’ with their development, needing to cater to many vastly different kinds of players. The producers of an MMO, for instance probably need to create separate teams to build different zones even if both teams are doing basically the same thing because of how huge each zone is. By a similar token, there is so much lore and flavor text in an MMO that it is impossible for the lead writers to create even a fraction of it. Having a huge, compartmentalized team was the only way they could manage to create WoW, but now that same philosophy seems to have creeped into all their other properties.

  24. Sartharina says:

    Frankly, I think the game’s writing was at its best when it recognized that yes, the player character is an unstoppable juggernaut of destruction, and everyone was aware of it. Because you are. The worst of the writing came when the game didn’t recognize your power and onslaught – the gloating from Azmodan and Diablo being awful here, as well as Magda’s fairy. The point where she’s yelling at her cultists to hold you off as she runs away was the only high point of her involvement in the story.

    I mean, I guess I can get some villainous gloating to introduce bosses/champions (Such as the Butcher and Ghom) right before you fight them, but Azmodan saying exactly what he’s doing during the siege felt dumb (Though I guess having a defender run up to warn of the new developments in the battle would have gotten old the second time it happened)

    The best way for ARPGs to tell a story and have villains act is for them to do so right before you arrive, leaving you to clean up the mess (Possibly with a parting gloat. But not stand around chatting)

    My favorite story in an ARPG has to be Titan Quest.

  25. Tuck says:

    Honest query Shamus: how you’ve described in the story here sounds very much like how you described the story for FFX (note I haven’t played either game). The main difference being that here you’re almost exclusively hostile, where in FFX you had positive things to say. Do you think you’re more inclined to take a gentler stance with a game that you had built a strong connection with in the past?

    What you describe here also sounds very much like the stories for both Guild Wars 2 (worst piece of game writing I’ve ever pushed myself through) and Final Fantasy XIV (drawn out far far far too much). Also both games with fun, although very repetitive, gameplay.

  26. I find that blizzard games typically have a better story when there are more races and diversity in characters. Although I never played WC1 or WC2, I recall WC3 having great gameplay and an immersive story that I found incredibly touching at parts. Diablo 3, on the other hand, never really had a focus on developing a good story. It is more an action RPG than wc3 is an RTS with elements of ARPGs.

  27. RCN says:

    It’s a shame. Not that Blizzard ever had strong narratives. But it always nailed the MOOD of these narratives. Diablo was gothic and gloomy. Starcraft was cynical and unpleasant. Warcraft was goofy but charming. Now it fails flat everywhere.

  28. JjmaC says:

    I’m a bit late to the discussion, but this was an intriguing series to read.

    Shamus description of the villans and the story is 100% accurate to how I remember it in the main game, from Acts I through IV. However, I thought Reaper of Souls and all content afterwards has had marginally better writing, following a fitting tonal shift towards being more serious and grim. RoS also concluded what I thought were the only endearing story elements of the base game: the Followers and Artisans’ backstories.

    There was also an area they released in patch 2.4 called Greyhollow Island which had a hauntingly creepy, mysterious vibe. It uses strictly environmental storytelling, but is only in Adventure Mode and with the random generation of maps + events it would take recreating multiple games to see everything, so I don’t think very many people even fully experienced it. The fan wikia seems to have all the details, but it doesn’t really capture the first-hand experience and I couldn’t find any youtube videos showing this off very well.

    On a semi-related note, I recently watched a documentary about FFXIV that delves into the history of its’ initial failure and thought it is an interesting comparison to Diablo III. FFXIV 1.0 was mainly a failure for its’ gameplay and attachment to the past – be it the corporate mentality of Square-Enix at the time or any of the design choices derived from FFXI. As for Diablo III, it had the basis of enjoyable gameplay, but implemented a number of deviations from its’ predecessor and fans’ expectations like its’ focus on a terribly written story.

    All in all, both games started off terribly at launch, but FFXIV went down an inconceivable route of being entirely rebuilt, whereas Diablo III retained its’ core, stripping off only some of its’ bad parts and going through Blizzard’s standard of continuous re-balancing, updates and patches over the years.

    I hear FFXIV is a good, well-liked game, and though I’ve not played it myself I’ve somehow absorbed this sentiment from how genuine the games’ fans appear to be. On the other hand, Diablo III seems to be a slowly sinking ship and I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if Diablo III had done what FFXIV did.

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