((I originally posted this a year ago, a bit after Blizzcon. I wanted to reshare because I’m hyped for tomorrow… here’s hoping!))
In the wake of all this Diablo Immortal controversy and the assurance that the team is listening to us, I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt on that and articulate some opinions I've held ever since Diablo 3 launched. We talk a lot about gameplay, but to many of us, the story and ambiance is just as important. Much has been said and continues to be said about "cartoony graphics," "WoW-like atmosphere," and cheesy one-liners — that's all fair and valid, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into that and what exactly it is I'm looking for in the tone and setting of the next major Diablo game.
To me, growing up with Diablo 1 and Diablo 2, I always felt like the overarching theme was one of attempting to overcome absolutely insurmountable odds, even though the outcome may very well be a hollow victory at best. The Lords of Hell were horrific forces, and we were just doing our best in their devastating wake. We were insignificant to them, even though they may have underestimated us. Obviously, this runs contrary to the entire concept of being "The Nephalem," all-powerful merger of angel and demon, which is the baseline of Diablo 3, but that is what felt incongruous with the classic games. When I enter a world in which these Lords of Hell are run amok, I want to be the underdog to such a degree that "saving the day" feels impossible, where the best case scenario is "winning" by plunging the soulstone into your forehead, or "winning" by shattering the Worldstone and potentially plunging the world into even further chaos. What I don't want is to feel like the Lords of Hell are scared of me, and that was consistently the impression I got throughout Diablo 3. I was the juggernaut coming for them and my victory felt inevitable. This can be an extremely empowering fantasy, but for the love of all that is (un)holy, we have enough games where you're a superhero, the chosen one, the most powerful person in existence. That doesn't mean the gameplay can't be fun, frenetic, and explosive — I don't mind ripping through eight thousand goatmen in five seconds of sheer badassery — but it's all relative. I know it's possible to achieve a balance of "I'm a powerful champion compared to a random guy, but I'm nothing to Diablo/Mephisto/Baal" because D1 and D2 captured this pretty perfectly.
This manifested itself in a lot of ways in D3, whether it was Azmodan monologuing like a member of Team Rocket for the hundredth time, Diablo repeatedly showing up to remind us that there's still another Hell Rift to close, or the entire concept of being "the nephalem" itself, but it truly does apply across the board to the entire tone of the game. Diablo, for my money, needs less "epic" and more "oh that is messed up." Thinking back to the D2 cinematics, I always think of Baal/Tal Rasha writhing in the darkness, the creepy closeups of the drunks mocking the Wanderer, Diablo ripping through the Wanderer’s skin, Marius barely being able to make it through his sentences without crying and shattering entirely upon realizing he'd just been deceived by Baal… that's the dark, personal stuff that used to drive Diablo's tone.
As the topic title references, Marius mentions "what I saw next was not meant for mortal eyes" — that really sums it up right there. The Prime Evils need this borderline-Eldritch quality to them, the notion that they could truly drive you mad in moments. Maybe this means less dialogue — I'm not a dev but I would start there, as a big part about what trivialized their threat level to me in D3 was how often the villains and my character would basically trash talk each other. Silence can be powerful, guys. It can be powerful, threatening, and haunting. You know what games make me think "damn, this reminds of me of Tristram/classic Diablo" constantly as I play? Dark Souls and Bloodborne. They could not be more different in gameplay, but in how those worlds and those enemies/bosses make me feel? That's the good stuff right there, that overwhelming sense that very few living things care about me, that I am constantly the underdog to the forces behind this by a vast margin, that I am screaming into the void of a world possibly already beyond saving in the vague hopes that I can make a difference. That is dreadful in the best way. That's what Diablo needs to get back to tonally.
It's possible that the unannounced projects are already so far underway that it's too late for this post to matter, but I truly hope it's taken into consideration. I wanted to get more detailed and personal than just "less like WoW" and "less cartoony" by really driving at the heart of it, and I hope I've done an okay job with that. I'll always love Diablo, Blizz, but I want the heart of it back.
I just wanted to add — the Reaper team absolutely got closer to this as RoS went on. Maybe not where I wanted it to be, but probably about as close as it could get given we were still working within the confines of D3 and not an entirely new game. The Ruins of Secheron were barren and haunting (and it's beautiful — haunting doesn't necessarily mean everything is grimdark) and ESPECIALLY the Temple of the Firstborn… you guys nailed that place. That's the kind of "oh man, this is screwed up" that can still take place even in moment-to-moment action RPG gameplay.
My main post was more about the lore/story direction and the bosses, but still, more generally speaking, I wanted to acknowledge that stuff (and most of Westmarch on the whole, really) was on the right track. If you can take that direction and go another big step in a fresh game — less dialogue, more isolation, fewer mini-cutscenes interrupting the flow and ambiance — you might really have something cooking.
I don’t think this is an unrealistic desire, either, or a longing for days gone by — like I said, plenty of games such as the Soulsborne series prove that you can have this kind of lonely, desolate, hopeless atmosphere and still be a smash hit. Even viewing it cynically from a financial standpoint only, Souls is INCREDIBLY successful. I’d argue bringing back this vibe could help Diablo make even more money by offering that truly dark fantasy, which is a rarer niche, while keeping the trademark Diablo fast-paced gameplay.
Again, I really don’t mind being a god amongst men in Diablo. You are, by default, a hero, the lone champion with a chance. However, that’s the key phrase — a god AMONGST MEN. I don’t want to be a god amongst angels and demons, you know? It was vastly more interesting when I felt like I was closer to being Marius than I was to being Tyrael — Marius might have been a wimp, but we operated on his plane, not Tyrael’s. In D3, I felt like I could’ve taken Tyrael’s lunch money, and not just because he was mortal, it was true of every character that wasn’t me. Being a superhero can be an empowering fantasy, but triumphing against all odds can feel even better, even if the victory is hollow/temporary. That’s bolder storytelling.
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