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
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
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:
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.)
Oh no! Superman is the only one strong enough to stop 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.)
We’ve got to stop Dr. Mordo, but first we need to rescue Superman!
The only way to get someone out of the Chaos Zone is to use a nega-crystal.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
 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.
 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.
 They never show up in the pre-rendered scenes.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
Marvel's Civil War
Team Cap or Team Iron Man? More importantly, what basis would you use for making that decision?
Denuvo and the "Death" of Piracy
Denuvo videogame DRM didn't actually kill piracy, but it did stop it for several months. Here's what we learned from that.