The Pulitzer Prize for Videogame Narrative Goes to…

…Diablo 3, of course.

Super Meat Boy had just pulled ahead with the judges, until this narrative bomb dropped:

Technically, I guess this constitutes a spoiler…?

Do not let that last line wash over you; let it sink in. “Auriel, archangel of Hope, has been captured by Rakanoth, the Lord of Despair.” Hope had been captured by Despair! Is there a word to describe a metaphor so superficial and goddamn literal that it becomes a mockery unto itself?

All I can think of is “nadir.”

Neither the Diablo series¹ nor the hack-n-slash genre is exactly known for their compelling narratives, and that is fine. Campiness has its place, and that is fine too. But the shit Diablo 3 attempts to pull with a completely straight face is simply ridiculous, bordering on insulting. It feels like placeholder plot, especially in a severely truncated Act IV.

Take, for example, the exchange I posted above. Scroll of Fate? What does it add to this story that such a thing exists, or that the character is outside of it? I am not talking about the idea of a Scroll of Fate and an unbounded main character – that is perfectly fine as a story device, such as in Kingdoms of Amalur, etc – but the Diablo series has never been about that. Remove that bit of dialog (please), and nothing materially changes about the narrative. Maybe there is a tie-in between the prophesy at the beginning of the game and this Scroll of Fate, but that link is so tenuous that the writer is either being too subtle by half, or in wont of an editor with a backbone.

And then there is the Enchantress, whom is introduced as a character by being a wizard kept in stasis for 1,500 years to aid the hero in his/her prophesied time of need. While there was apparently a legitimate attempt to have this add something to the story, I could not help but think that maybe the Prophet should have let the Archangel of Fate look at his crib notes since the hero was apparently featured in them.

It could be that all of this is a setup to an expansion (or two) in which we explore all the random, seemingly banal things the companions said. But, again, that would necessitate a level of subtlety on the part of the writer(s) that is simply incongruent with the John Madden-ning the Prime Evils do throughout every step of Acts II-IV. “What’s that, Diablo? I will never close your portals to Hell? I will never close your other portal to Hell? I will never make it past your lieutenant? I will never make it to you in time? I will never actually read in-game text that is not magic item properties after this and all subsequent playthroughs?”

Damn, you’re good.

¹ I realize that this is actually an arguable point. As one forum poster described, the narrative was much more poetic and Biblical throughout (most of) D2 at a minimum. The Moldy Tome, for instance.

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Posted on June 7, 2012, in Diablo and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. > It could be that all of this is a setup to an expansion

    Maybe D3 was planned to have 7 acts but it was cut down to 4… like WotLK.

    Blizzard is not really known (at least not to me) to finish what they start, they prefer to start another project before the last is finished.

    – Vanilla WoW had tons of unfinished zones and not implemented dungeons (e.g. the multi wing 5 man Kharazan).
    – WotLK was hastily ended, dropping a ton of planned content (the planned 7 tiers).
    – Cata dropped the sea raid zone.

    I would be really surprised if the first D3 add-on would continue or base on anything from the vanilla D3 game.

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    • Slogging through Act 2 in Nightmare, it is really apparent to me that Act 1 & 2 are much longer than 3 & 4. I cannot tell if that is simply because of bad pacing or if they simply didn’t finish, as you suggest.

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  2. Scroll of Fate and such is merely RPGish trappings. They don’t mean anything any more than they have in any other RPG. Maybe people are just growing out of this sort of thing. Diablo does have some silly dialog, but Jay Wilson explained it on the grounds that they have a wide range of ages playing, and what seems obvious to a 30 year old is confusing to a 10 year old. That explains some of it, but not all. The consensus seems to be that Diablo’s and Azmodan’s taunting and monologuing are the worst. Less is more. Azmodan in particular annoys me…he should have been fought on the field of battle with adds and NPCs running around everywhere, rather than waiting in a cave. That act started out so well… The follower dialogue, though, is not meant to be meaningful to the plot, but just to give you some backstory and character development. That part is actually well done.

    But D2 having a great story? It’s basically D3 with fewer lines. Actually when first hearing that (not here) I had to try to recall what exactly the story was in D2. In Act 5, for instance, you are ostensibly racing Baal to the Worldstone chamber, but this is never conveyed and there is absolutely no sense of urgency to the act. Diablo, like Azmodan, simply waits for you on his throne while you kill all his lieutenants. I don’t want to go on forever, but I’ve seen way too much D2 nostalgia over the past week.

    I’d give D1 the crown, for leaving almost everything to the imagination–mine is invariably better than the writers of any videogame. In any case, now that we have ascended to the pinnacle of heaven and defeated the seven-in-one prime evil Lord of Terror, saving the world for good from his plottings, the expansion cannot help but have a more reasonable scale to the narrative.

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    • If I think about it, what I enjoyed most about D2’s plot was the mood/tone. We were chasing the hero of the first game, whom thought to contain the evil of Diablo but gradually succumbed to corruption. Although we’re dealing with a Prime Evil here, it was not some cosmic, prophesied battle between all of creation (even if they used that language at times). It was you, the player, literally following in the footsteps of your predecessor; torn between a need to stop him and a desire to right the wrongs in his wake.

      Maybe that’s still nostalgia, I dunno. Regardless, if D2 is D3 with fewer lines, then D2 was better. Having three Prime Evils narrating my quest tracker does nothing to impart setting, tone, or legitimacy in the narrative.

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      • The minimalism helps, certainly, but that is more a function of storytelling than story content. D3’s story isn’t really that terrible, but storytelling is a massive fail in some places. I remember reading the backstory for D1 but in D2 I only had a vague idea of what was going on…just go forward and kill everything. What’s interesting is that D2 was actually a major departure in mood from D1, lightening things considerably, but this is mostly forgotten since D3 turned the camp up to 11. I say all this hoping that the expansion for D3 is located solely in a quasi-dark-ages-europe hamlet with all the action taking place in a single dungeon…maybe I’m the nostalgic one here.

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  3. I really liked the in-your-face storytelling. I could actually keep up on my curent objective and how it fit into the story. And I’m not ten years old.

    WoW’s story and lore is so convoluted and confusing not least because every enemy you kill reappears. There is no chronology except in rare instanced quest lines.

    Of course it won’t hold up to multiple plays, but at least I got one story that I could follow without reading 5 novels.

    And definite kudos to the follower dialogue. Still enjoying that.

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  4. The story in D3 is undoubtedly mediocre, which is a disappointment for me since I loved the story in the first game (and I think mostly the second game), but I can’t decide if it’s worse than the first 2 games or the same and I just notice the flaws more being 12+ years older.

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    • Coeur-de-fer

      The plot for the series has always had its flaws, but they weren’t as obtrusive; in the current installation, the inane babble never stops (to the point that I hesitate clicking that little “Hire” button for any of the followers, despite the combat advantages they confer). And this is to say nothing of the impact this has on the (relative lack of) atmosphere. Granted, there’s a confluence of factors at work here, but the constant vapid chit-chat (from bosses, followers, random NPCs, the player character, etc) does a fine job of eliminating any ominous ambience one might otherwise have achieved.

      Speaking of which, do I really need to be informed of how great my character is at every turn, by every no-name extra scattered about? I suppose if I were in the market for a self-help booklet, it might be an acceptable means of killing two birds with one stone. Who knows – maybe after the nth+1 run through the brightly lit dungeons, hoping against hope for a pair of pants worth half a damn, my self-esteem may be poor enough to warrant it. Time will tell.

      While we’re on the subject of dialogue, I’m also perfectly fine with a terse – if not outright silent – protagonist. This may have something to do with the fact that many game writers’ characterizations tend to elicit sympathy with far less frequency than they do antipathy.

      I’ve heard several people claim that the story is better this time around simply because there’s more of it: more dialogue, more NPCs, more books, more monster bestiary voice-overs, etc. Blizzard also seems to be of the opinion that more is better, but I can’t say I’d consider Moonlight Sonata definitionally superior if it were played concurrently with Maple Leaf Rag and Yakkety Sax. Might as well tack the Liberty Bell March on the end for good measure while we’re at it. Theme, presentation, style, atmosphere, and pacing are all part of the picture (among others), and the negative space is just as important as the positive. Arthas was effectively de-fanged by the constant cameos and Skeletor-level grandstanding, and it’s rather disappointing to find them still approaching their villains in the same way.

      As far as writing with children in mind, that’s actually somewhat interesting in light of the M rating. Of course, I’d wager most of us realize that some number of kids will play it whatever the rating might be, but designing specifically for a demographic that is theoretically excluded from the game by virtue of its violence and gore makes an interesting statement about their regard for the entire ESRB system. Or perhaps about a schizoid design trajectory. Either way, despite such academic curiosities, it’s little consolation when I actually sit down to play it. I have no problem with them choosing to chase the prepubescent dollar, and hopefully that works out for their bottom line, but my already dwindling interest in their forthcoming products is quickly approaching arbitrarily small figures.

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  5. I can’t tell if you’re being ironic in talking about the Super Meat Boy story, because I found the cutscenes in that game genuinely entertaining, much moreso than any of the ridiculous high-budget CG wank that Diablo III had.

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    • In truth, I was remembering the creator’s own description of the game in the Steam Store:

      “A story so moving you will cry yourself to sleep for the rest of your life.”

      I only got halfway through the Hospital levels (2nd world?) before it became apparent that the keyboard wasn’t going to cut it as a controller anymore, so I will take your word for it for now. Based on what I had seen thus far, it would not surprise me.

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  6. Two words: Chris Metzen

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  7. Well, in fact Enchantress’s Prophet was an Angel, as she says in final dialogues. Which means entire D3 was a plot by Angels to get an upper hand in Eternal Conflict. It had a few complications (Diablo as Prime Evil rampaging through heavens), but it worked out fine in the end. It was written that way anyway in Scrolls of Fate, so no harm done

    And since Prophet was an Angel, obviously he knew limitations of Scroll of Fate and it’s final outcome, as well as that Nephalem are exempt from being there.

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