Storytelling in Diablo III; How Blizzard Has Changed Since Diablo II

Written by PhilPhoenix
Sep 15 2012, 12:43 AM EDT
While Diablo III has received both praise and criticism for its gameplay, music, sound, and art design, the prevailing sentiment regarding the story seems to be apathy. No one seems surprised that the plot was clunky, half-baked, and lazy. Most of the people I know who fell in love with Blizzard games did so because of the storylines, not in spite of them. Where did Blizzard lose its way, and most of all, why doesn't Blizzard seem to be correcting the issue?
Blizzard’s games used to be celebrated for their intricate lore and thrilling plots, so at a certain point they definitely knew what they were doing. Beyond the big-picture issues of Blizzard’s acquisition by Activision and general staffing changes, there has been a large shift in the way Blizzard games are being designed. This shift is subtle, but it’s enough to cause the general malaise in Blizzard’s games that many have noticed.
Diablo II: The Heyday
Diablo II emerged during a string of successes for Blizzard. In terms of scope, Diablo II made a massive leap forward from its predecessor. Diablo is a tight and focused mystery that unwinds itself the deeper you progress through the Cathedral and into the depths of Hell itself. Diablo II, on the other hand, is a sprawling narrative that catapults the player across the world of Sanctuary as they chase down Diablo and his brethren.  Despite the broader scope, Diablo II uses the same techniques to unfurl its story. Even with the best efforts of the player to vanquish demons such as Andareal and Duriel, there is a foreboding sense of inevitability to Diablo’s plan. He is a Prime Evil, his powers are beyond comprehension, and by sheer force of will he is able to shape his twisted plans into a reality. It is despite these unholy powers that the player is able to vanquish him long after he has managed to revive his brothers and return to Hell. And even though Diablo is defeated, we see that regardless of our meager triumph, Baal is still alive and wreaking havoc.
Diablo II’s expansion, Lord of Destruction, provides closure to the game’s story, but it doesn’t give us a happy ending. Once again the player races against time to thwart the plans of evil incarnate, and once again they are too late. Baal is killed, but his corruption of the Worldstone leads to its destruction and an uncertain future for humanity. One of the defining traits of the Diablo universe, as seen in both the first and second installments, is that nothing ever ends well. Evil is too powerful, its touch too infectious to be wiped out entirely.
Diablo III, or Evil Will Always Triumph Because Good is Dumb
Just shy of 12 years after Diablo II, the long-awaited sequel was finally released. Players were immediately thrust back into blissfully familiar territory. A dark, foreboding countryside, a village under siege, and a cathedral effusing dark magic. These elements make for a great Diablo game. But as the game unfolds, it becomes clear that something is different. Everybody talks. A lot. Cain gets a pass on this; he’s a storyteller, after all. But why do the villains need to talk so much? In the previous games, they simply leapt out and started attacking, which is perfectly sensible behavior for demonic killing machines. In Diablo III, they appear incessantly to taunt the player, slowly unveiling their plans to destroy all that humanity holds dear. Don’t they have better things to do with their time? In Act III, as the player slowly beats back the army that is ransacking Bastion’s Keep, Azmodan appears constantly to taunt the player. Wouldn’t his time be better spent rallying his troops and planning new strategies?
The other issue that plagues Diablo III’s story is the questionable behavior of the heroes. Nobody stops for a second to question anything that happens. In a world where demons can take the form of humans and use their overwhelming powers to influence the mortals around them, shouldn’t any self-respecting hero exercise a healthy amount of skepticism when discussing the means to conquer the armies of Hell? If a witch appears out of nowhere and proclaims that the heretofore unheard of Black Soulstone will conveniently solve every problem the heroes have encountered, shouldn’t someone, maybe the Archangel of Justice, take some time to think about why this is happening? My character, a Wizard, may have been smarter than the other hero classes, as he wasn’t surprised when characters like Belial and Diablo revealed their secret treachery. But if he was so on top of his shit, why didn’t he tell anyone else?
Where Did Blizzard Go Wrong?
This dip in storytelling prowess didn’t start with Diablo III, but the central cause is the same as it has been in other recent Blizzard games. The fundamental difference between the older and newer games is the shift in prioritizing the player’s role in the story. In Diablo II, the player was a tough-as-nails badass, but he didn’t play a key role in the events that unfolded. He showed up in time to kick some ass, but Diablo was able to see his plans through to the end relatively unimpeded. The use of Marius as a narrator in Diablo II was a great way to frame the story, as he had no control over what was happening around him. In contrast, Diablo III is entirely focused through the player, and since the player can’t appear in full-motion cutscenes, there’s a lot less flexibility in how the narrative for the game can be shaped. This doesn’t explain away the plot holes, but it does explain why all the villains are so chatty. Since the player character’s is the only perspective we have in Diablo III, that’s where all of the information has to be directed.
This trend of player-focused narrative began with World of Warcraft, most notably in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. This was the first expansion to be themed around a reoccurring villain, and it created some interesting narrative hiccups. Suddenly the all-powerful Lich King was showing up to shake his fist at you when you were completing quests and smaller dungeons. You couldn’t fight him because he was obviously the final boss, and he couldn’t kill you because, well, I have no idea. The final content patch brought some much-needed menace to the Lich King’s modus operandi, but it was too little, too late for the expansion’s storyline.
Even StarCraft isn't immune to this methodology. Whereas in the first installment you were an invisible general marshaling your armies across a galaxy was at war, StarCraft II zeroes in entirely on Jim Raynor as its protagonist. Granted, the expansion will focus on other race-themed characters, but this jarring decision to take the pawns of war from the first games, retcon their experiences and motivations, and spotlight them in a personal-level narrative left many confused. Perhaps Blizzard felt that even an RTS, a genre defined by its macroscopic view of war, needed to have a main character to root for, but trying to invent a love story and cram it into Wings of Liberty was not the way to go about it.
Future Installments
It’s hard to say where Blizzard will be going as a developer as their existing IPs continue to age. WoW is still around, but past it’s prime, StarCraft II has two more expansions in the pipe, and Diablo probably has at least one expansion in the works. All three games are mired in existing storytelling troubles, so it will be very tough for expansions to dig them out of their respective holes. But if Blizzard is looking beyond their current three juggernaut IPs, I hope they think more about how to structure their games’ stories to focus on tightly woven and well-paced narratives instead of resorting to boring dialogue and style-over-substance plot developments. If they need inspiration, they should look at their own back catalogue to find it.