Critical Hit!: Diablo III's Disappointing Narrative

This article contains spoilers. Not the light, “I didn’t really give anything away,” debatable kind of spoilers, but the rock solid, no-doubt-about-it kind. Within, I discuss the tone, plot, and ending of all three of the Diablo games, including Diablo III. In fact, the focus of this piece is Diablo III. Do not proceed if you prefer not to have any plot points spoiled. I cannot make this clear enough.

But if you’ve beaten the game on Normal, or you simply don’t give a damn about spoilers; stay a while, and listen…

What I have to say about the narrative in Diablo III is not flattering, and so I’m going to say up front, and as clearly as I can: I am a very, very big fan of this series. Of the Big Three properties Blizzard is responsible for, Diablo has been, and continues to be my most favorite. The tone of the setting and consistency of the story have been excellent, from the first game, to the second, and all throughout the novels. Mechanically, Diablo III is just as fun and appealing as its parentage – bashing things in the face and picking up “phat lewtz” is extremely compelling – and it looks fantastic; the textures and models are surprisingly detailed and polished for the scale at which we’re able to view them. I am NOT reviewing Diablo III in this piece. Had I done so, it surely would have received no lower than a 9 out of 10 (but more likely I’d give it a perfect score). What I’m doing here is critiquing the narrative, and unfortunately, just like what you’d expect of a Prime Evil, it is a betrayer. It perverts, and often outright ignores the previously established tone and lore in such a way as to completely undermine itself, while making both Diablo and Diablo II irrelevant. Let me explain:

In Diablo II (and Diablo, but in a much more limited capacity), it is explained exactly why things are shaking loose as they are. The angels of the High Heavens, and the demons of the Burning Hells have been locked in an eternal struggle since time immemorial, and Sanctuary, the world of mortals, is thought by both sides to be some sort of swing vote. Whichever side can lay claim to the human race will tip the scales in their favor. There’s a lot more to it I’m not going to touch on, because what we need to focus on is the idea that Sanctuary is what’s key, here. In Diablo and Diablo 2, the singular motivation of Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal is obtaining Sanctuary for the Burning Hells, and then marching on Heaven, but it’s made clear, with a great deal of intent, that the march cannot mount without having first acquired Sanctuary’s resources – the human race (or Nephalem). Diablo III completely undoes this idea by having Diablo mount an assault on Heaven while utterly ignoring Sanctuary. See, as it turns out, Diablo’s plan was to have all of the Prime Evils physically join together, with him as the dominant personality, and then he was going to attack Heaven. None of this is too terrible. Maybe the plan changed on the fly. Maybe Diablo identified an opportunity too good to pass up, and so called an audible. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, as Adria, Leah’s mother and a Diablo loyalist, states that “this was his plan all along.”

Wait… what? I thought Sanctuary was the plan all along. That’s what I’ve been told for the past two games, and several novels (particularly the Sin War trilogy). Without this line of dialogue, the notion of the narrative is still deviant, but reconcilable. Like I said, maybe Diablo called an audible after recognizing an opportunity… but not now. Not after Adria opened her big mouth. Now we know that, beyond the shadow of any doubt, Sanctuary never mattered. Diablo just planned on consuming the other Prime Evils, and then going to war with Heaven the whole time. I suppose you can make an argument that Diablo is simply manipulating Adria, and she might not know everything there is to know. I might even suppose that’s a fair claim, however, understand that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. I have actual spoken dialogue to point at when I say “this was his plan all along.” Anyone claiming Adria is in the dark has nothing more than conjecture and speculation… neither of which you can build a convincing argument on. If this was, in fact, Diablo’s plan the entire time, why all the focus on Sanctuary in the previous two games? Or in the books?

Next is the tone. Diablo was a horror game. It was marketed as a horror game, and though there weren’t any cheap thrills, the lonely, foreboding setting sold the idea in a very tactile way. Playing Diablo made you feel uncomfortable, as it should have. You had no idea where you were going, what you would encounter, or why you were forging forward. All you knew was that you had been confronted with vile evil, and you were moving downward… ever downward. Tristram felt like a village out of time – alone, and doomed. I’m sure it was technical limitations that kept us from visiting other pockets of humanity and civilizations in Sanctuary, but it added to the game’s dark allure. You felt alone, and you knew the people in Tristram were alone. You also knew life in Sanctuary sucked. Ask anyone: Griswald can’t get the supplies he needs, Farnham is perpetually drunk due to a brush with demonic death, and Gillian’s sick mother isn’t doing so well. Life is a daily struggle for these people… and now they have evil to contend with.

Diablo II picked up where the first left off, both in narrative and (more importantly) tonally. You never had a clear goal aside from cleaning up after the Dark Wanderer who eventually became Diablo (when I say “no clear goal” I mean strictly in the grand scheme of the plot… obviously you had clear goals set, by way of quests), always putting you one step behind, and plagued by confusion; and though your perspective on Sanctuary is broadened through your constant and relentless journey East (always East), the world is still just as lonely as ever, and the unclear path you’re expected to take in order to help the people is shrouded in the darkness the Wanderer leaves behind. Having the cut-scenes involve Marius, someone you have no direct contact with, does wonders in selling the desolate setting, as nothing you see in those scenes has any direct impact on you. You’re constantly arriving after the fact, watching just how out of control the Wanderer’s passing has caused your new surroundings to spiral. Though the world seems much more populated, it’s still sparse, stark, and all of the places you visit are in disrepair. Civilization is pocketed, and every settlement is cut off from every other settlement. Life still sucks in Sanctuary, it just sucks for more people than just those in Tristram… which was razed to the ground, by the way, so I guess, technically, life doesn’t suck there anymore, but that’s only because no one lives there. Sanctuary is still the focus of the Prime Evils, though. Only one Angel bothers himself with involvement, and it’s absolutely apparent that he’s in over his head. The tone is still dark. Grim. You cannot win… and you know it.

Enter Diablo III. You know exactly where every remaining Prime Evil is located, exactly what you have to do to get to them, and exactly what you need to do to kill them. Belial? He’s in Caldeum! Azmodan? His armies overflow from Areat Crater, pushing South against Bastion’s Keep. The confusion and cloudy perspective are gone. You’re just systematically exterminating the remainder of the evil forces present on Sanctuary, whose locations you are completely aware of from the word “go,” until, oh, hey! Diablo’s back! Better do something about him, too. The horror is completely gone. The tone has changed. Life is no longer a struggle. New Tristram is bustling, though dealing with an undead outbreak (which the guards are, apparently, more than capable of handling). Supplies are no longer in short supply, the inn is completely bereft of drunkards, and there isn’t a sick mother to speak of (though there is a sick wife that you handily dispatch after her zombification). Then there’s Caldeum. Oh my, Caldeum! That place is as populated as a Middle Eastern bazaar, and the people all live in the lap of luxury with ready access to silks, books, you name it. It’s wonderful to look at, but it contributes to completely ruining the tone of the series, not to mention (again) having invalidated virtually everything that came before. What follows Caldeum is Bastion’s Keep, and to its credit, it feels the most lonely and the most forlorn of the settings. Though it’s heavily populated, it’s located in the frigid North, under the constant, driving oppression of the snow, and the armies of Hell would throw themselves against the ramparts until eventually the huge structure crumbles. This setting is the exclusive redeemer to the tone of the game, standing lonely and alone, muted under the weight of bastardization.

The best illustration of the tone having shifted is an examination of the endings. In Diablo, your chosen hero defeats Diablo and then jams the soulstone into his head (later, this was retconned to say king Leoric’s eldest son possessed the stone), because the stone has been corrupted over the millenia that the aspect of terror had been trapped within, and it requires a will to battle him back. You win, sure. You defeat Diablo. But you don’t really win. The ending voice over confirms it when he tells you Diablo will eventually return, because you’re simply not strong enough to contain him. Then, in Diablo II, you defeat Mephisto, Diablo, and finally Baal, smashing their stones and releasing them back into Hell, but at the cost of the World Stone. You won, sure. You defeated the Prime Evils. But you don’t really win. The World Stone had been destroyed by Tyrael, the implications of which we knew absolutely nothing about. Even while we knew nothing, though, we knew it was bad, and Tyrael’s motivations were called into serious question. In Diablo III you kill the Prime Evil, and Tyrael gets a promotion. Seriously, that’s actually what happens. If this doesn’t illustrate the tonal betrayal, I don’t know what does.

There are other, minor, and completely overlookable inconsistencies (such as Tyrael telling you, while accompanying you through Heaven, just how important it is that Diablo be stopped, only to abandon you right outside of the boss room because this is a battle for mortals, not angels… oh, did I mention he’s a mortal, and completely capable of helping out? Instead, he just sort of says “get in there, slugger,” and slaps you on the ass on your way by), but given the rest of this debacle, they only add to the disappointment.

By itself, the narrative isn’t bad… but in conjunction with everything that’s been previously established in Diablo, Diablo II, and the books, it’s complete nonsense, and a terrible way to end a usually brilliant series.

-James Bacon