Diablo 3***8242;s Story: What Went Wrong
In my review of Diablo 3, I had to hold back on discussing why the story was mediocre in order to avoid spoilers. I made mention of predictable plot twists and clichéd dialogue, but I’d like to now revisit the topic and spell out every issue I had with the game‘s storytelling — I’ve been happy to note that I’m not the only one who has problems with it.
I’ll start by mentioning that the companion storylines and interactions are fairly good, and probably make up the strongest storytelling in the game.
As for the “A plot,” its quality peaks in Act 1 and progresses steadily downhill from there. Instances of subtlety are buried under heavy-handed storytelling and characters that spew mountains of exposition for no reason other than keeping the audience informed about every plot detail.
Now, I can forgive any number of problems with a plot as long as a story delivers a satisfying conclusion, but Diablo 3 sadly fails here as well.
We’ll analyze the game’s cinematics, the villains as a whole, and several of the key characters individually.
I’d like to begin with the more positive aspects of Diablo’s story, which mostly revolve around its cinematics, before we tear apart its characters.
Blizzard is off to a strong start, both by opening with a dramatic hook and by clever use of foreshadowing.
Cain narrates, “And at the end of days, the first sign shall appear in the heavens; Justice shall fall upon the world of men.” This, of course, foreshadows the reveal that the falling star will turn out to be Tyrael, the archangel of Justice, but the story doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
There’s also a scene in which Imperius is depicted on a stained glass window, which parallels a scene in a later cinematic in which Imperius is splayed against the gates of Heaven as they shatter like glass. It’s genius. So genius, in fact, that one may say it was unintentional, but I’m willing to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt.
After his cheap death, Cain gets a proper funeral in this cinematic, which suitably closes out Act 1. The cinematic, however, suffers from melodrama, cliché, and jarring character behavior.
For instance, as Tyrael mentions sacrifice, Leah snaps at him: “What would you know about sacrifice?” I get that she’s emotional, but that’s a tad presumptuous of her. Then, after seeing the flashback, she is moved to tears. “You chose… to be one of us.” Why is she so moved by this? She goes from being snippy to being awed almost instantly — and don’t joke about mood swings.
In the flashback, Tyrael speaks to Imperius. “All I am guilty of is bringing justice, while you cower behind your throne,” he says, and shortly thereafter, adds, “You cannot judge me; I am Justice itself.” That’s a cool line, but it’s clearly exposition for its own sake. Why would Tyrael say this to Imperius? Does Imperius suffer from Alzheimer’s? And you’re laying it on a little thick with the justice talk, there, Tyrael.
“Thus I fell… willingly,” Tyrael later says. “Because humanity is the only hope for this world.” And there we are. Did you order some provolone? Parmesan? Feta? No? Then why is there so much cheese around here?
The cinematic closes with the lighting of Cain’s funeral pyre, with a shot of Tyrael and Leah standing before the burning pyre, backs to the camera. As the smoke rises, we pan to the starry sky as John Williams-esque brass orchestrals play. The scene is so reminiscent of Darth Vader’s funeral that I expected a circular wipe to cut to credits while the Star Wars theme played.
As harsh as I’ve been here, the cinematic is nonetheless an appreciated send-off to a beloved character, and features some thrilling Tyrael vs. Imperius action.
While this cinematic starts off rough, it presents an intimidating introduction to Azmodan while proving once again that Blizzard is capable of subtlety.
Leah opens the cinematic by speaking aloud: “None of this makes any sense to me. What am I missing, uncle? What am I supposed to see?” Why was this dialogue necessary? What purpose does it serve the rest of the cinematic? Nothing — you can remove it without affecting the rest of the scene in any way. More exposition for expositions’ sake.
Then Azmodan makes his terrific first appearance and begins talking to what initially seems like Leah — and the player, through association. But after beating the game, the dialogue takes on a completely different meaning:
“You thought you were so clever… that you’d outwitted us all. One by one, our brethren fell into your trap. But not me. I defy you. I know the Black Soulstone is the key, and it shall me mine. Soon my armies shall pour forth from the shattered mountain, ravaging this world and all hope of resistance. My minions will find the stone, wherever you choose to hide it. Then, at long last, Azmodan shall reign as the Prime Evil.”
Azmodan is actually talking to Diablo. Once again, Blizzard shows that it can be clever in its storytelling and doesn’t have to make everything glaringly obvious.
Not much to discuss here; Diablo and Imperius pontificate vacuously, then we get that lovely scene that was foreshadowed with the stained glass, and we end with a recycled shot from a WarCraft 3 cinematic: a tumbling tower-like structure that slowly collapses, blowing smoke up to the camera as a fade-out.
Bring out the cheese grater. Diablo 3 closes with a symbolic sunrise as Tyrael monologues as trite an ending as he can possibly muster, challenging himself to stuff as many clichés in as he can before the credits roll.
“A new day breaks for both Angels and men. For mankind’s greatest champion, the Nephalem, rose to confront the darkness that we, in our pride, would not face.
“My brethren, I will take my place among you once again. But this time, as a mortal. Since justice has been met this day, I will now stand as Wisdom, on behalf of those who risked all to save us. Forevermore, we shall stand together, angels and men, in the light of this glorious new dawn.”
Due to misconceptions I had about angels in the Diablo universe, I did not expect the stranger to be Tyrael, but I believe that even for those who did predict it, this was the game’s strongest twist.
However, nothing interesting happens with this character beyond Act 1 — he’s just there. He’s doing stuff, stuff that you presume is important, but there’s no further development of the character apart from a brief stint of feeling downtrodden because the Angel of Hope is lost.
Oh, right — he uses his MacGuffin magic angel sword to open a gate for you. Apparently, you can beat all of the Lords of Hell combined into a bloody pulp, but you can’t smash open a shiny door.
Then, during the denouement, the story becomes all about Tyrael, like he’s the protagonist all of a sudden. Hold on a minute, buddy — you may be one of my all-time favorite video game characters, but you’re not getting away with this fake character growth. I think it’s great that you’re now the Mortal Angel of Wisdom, but… where was the character arc?
You can’t just sit down and decide you’re now Wisdom. If this whole story was building to that scene, then why didn’t we see a character arc? Show us Tyrael’s transition from Justice to Wisdom, give it some context so that it doesn’t feel so out of place, build up to it so that we actually care.
A flaming meteor man falls from the Heavens, smashing a deep crater mere feet away from Deckard Cain — assuming it didn’t strike him directly — and given Leah can no longer see him, Cain is presumed to have plummeted several stories into unknown depths.
As a decrepit old mage whose known powers include casting Town Portal, identifying magic items, and remaining stuck in cages, he somehow manages to not be instantly killed, and actually goes on to survive in the depths of the ruins among the undead for six days before being rescued, presumably living off food supplies stuffed in one of his satchels.
Then some fairy kills him with magic.
I’m willing to accept whatever plot contrivance meant Cain miraculously survived being struck by a meteorite, but to kill off the most memorable character in the entire Diablo franchise midway through the first Act of D3 — and having him die to some two-bit villain in a lame in-game cutscene — is, to quote Imperius, sacrilege.
Honestly, I didn’t even realize he was in any serious trouble until Leah said, “You can’t die!” and he replied, “Nothing can stop that now.” I literally spoke the words, “Wait, what?” aloud to my computer screen. I don’t believe that was the intended reaction Blizzard sought to elicit.
Cain’s death deserved more ceremony than it received. His funeral, thankfully, sent him off in a respectful manner, but why even have him implausibly survive the falling star when you plan to kill him one hour deeper into the story?
Leah is intended to be the character we relate to and empathize with. She’s the Luke Skywalker of Diablo 3 — yeah, yeah, I make a lot of Star Wars references.
The story begins with Leah as a simple (farm boy) research assistant under her uncle (Owen) Deckard Cain. She never knew who her father was, but he is later revealed to be (Anakin) Aiden, who became (Darth Vader) the Dark Wanderer, corrupted and evil. (Ben Kenobi) Deckard Cain, the last of the (Jedi) Horadrim, passes his teachings onto her before she comes under the tutelage of (Yoda) Adria, who hones her (force aptitudes) magic powers.
Leah works as a character for many of the same reasons Luke Skywalker does. She’s the audience’s anchor in a world full of fantasy, and she experiences a character arc that resonates with the player. Wonderful — Blizzard has created a character we care about.
Naturally, she dies unceremoniously and is instantly forgotten by the plot.
Killing Leah — and having her stay dead — was a ballsy move, and I respect Blizzard for not giving her a Disney ending, even though I’m unhappy she’s dead. But for crying out loud, show us that her death matters!
Now, I’m given to understand that certain followers and some classes make passing mention of wishing to avenge Leah, or give her a proper burial, but that’s not enough for such a primary character.
Leah is featured in every cinematic but the last, in which Tyrael gives his lovely sunshine and rainbows ending monologue — without once bringing up the poor girl. “Since justice has been met this day, I will now stand as Wisdom, on behalf of those who risked all to save us.” Uh, Tyrael? Leah didn’t just risk her life. She died. Horribly. After being betrayed by her own ****ing mother. Where’s the justice in that, buddy? Maybe you should rethink that whole “Wisdom” thing.
How am I supposed to find satisfaction in an ending that completely glosses over the most important character in the story? Hell, you’ve already filled the game with Star Wars references — show us Cain and Leah’s spirit smiling by a damn campfire if you have to. Just… SOMETHING.
Blizzard had good intentions when designing Diablo 3***8242;s major antagonists. By introducing a villain early and often, you build up anticipation for the eventual confrontation, which makes victory far more satisfying than if the first time you’re introduced to the villain is when you’re splitting his skull open.
Unfortunately, the implementation suffers from overuse of the same devices and poor execution. Maghda, Azmodan, and Diablo repeatedly speak to the player directly in some disembodied form or another, spitting taunts, revealing the player’s next objective, and dismissing the player’s successes with what amounts to, “Nanee nanee boo boo, that part of my plan wasn’t important anyway.”
I swear, you can create mad libs with the dialogue. “So, you destroyed my ______? Bah! I still have my ________, which is located _______! There is nothing you can do to save ________!”
Blizzard succeeds in building anticipation for the eventual confrontation with these villains, but for the wrong reasons — we just want to shut them up and rub their faces in their incompetence. Terrifying monsters are reduced to caricatures of Bond Villains, the likes of which you’d see in an Austin Powers movie.
While it’s personally satisfying to crush these fools under your heel, at the story’s end, there’s no greater sense of satisfaction in defeating incompetent villains.
It is possible to introduce villains early and often without having them show up and taunt the player constantly until any potential feeling of intimidation is crushed to dust — especially in the horror genre, in which playing up the element of the unknown is paramount. Let the villain’s reputation precede him; create an air of mystery while dropping clues; reference the villain indirectly; show his effects on the world and its people; slowly build up to the final reveal.
Blizzard manages to do the exact opposite of this with the Act 1 boss: the Butcher. Rather than any kind of buildup, you’re slapped into a brief cutscene in which Maghda literally says: “Meet… the Butcher!” For anyone who isn’t familiar with the franchise, this is completely meaningless, and for those who are, while it’s great to see the Butcher again, he’s stripped of all emotion and transformed into just another mook.
How is the Butcher even an Act boss? What’s his role in the story? Nothing. You can swap him out for the McDonald’s Hamburglar and the plot would make just as much sense.
A brief note on Imperius, who I’m lumping in with the villains because I expect to fight him in the expansion: not fighting Imperius was the game’s biggest plot twist. Sadly, this isn’t a compliment. After all that buildup, the rising anticipation of the confrontation, we’re robbed of our moment of satisfaction with a cheap cop-out.
Ah, Belial, Lord of Lies. Master of deceit. The one who manipulated Azmodan into leading a revolt against the Prime Evils. An intellectual, an illusionist, a puppet master.
Belial isn’t just supposed to be a great liar — he’s supposed to be deception incarnate.
Then he turns out to be the kid.
To be fair, I didn’t expect Emperor Hakan II to be Belial — because I thought that would be too obvious. “Well, all evidence is pointing toward the kid, so he must be a red herring,” I thought to myself. Apparently not.
I will at least give Blizzard credit for making our character lampshade the fact that the Lord of Lies fails at lying by calling him out as Belial when he’s still taking the guise of the boy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make us feel intelligent — it just makes Belial seem like a fool, which isn’t a desirable trait in what is meant to be a frightening and intimidating villain.
Oh well; I guess that’s why he’s just a Lesser Evil.
A fan rewrite
proposes an alternative in which, after killing Belial, an illusion is dispelled and you realize that you’ve just murdered the child emperor and his personal guard — Belial tricked you into committing regicide and becoming a public enemy. Now that would be a chilling twist.
King Leoric (the Skeleton King)
King Leoric is a tragic character with a deep backstory. He was a just and wise king, beloved by the people. Diablo attempted to corrupt and possess Leoric, and while the king managed to fight off the demonic influence, he was driven mad in the process. That, combined with an advisor whispering poisonous words in his ear, led the once great king to commit horrible acts, until his most loyal knight was forced to kill him.
Much of this story is conveyed throughout Act 1, through lore journals and in-game sequences that you can miss if you run by too quickly. You experience Leoric’s descent into madness through the eyes of his men and through flashbacks to critical moments — like when he executed his wife by guillotine, a disheartening show of just how far he’d fallen.
It’s a build-up that was leading to a powerful moment in which we would be forced to fight a once great man who was driven to madness through no fault of his own. It would be a morally ambiguous battle — could his spirit not be redeemed somehow? — and there would be tragedy in killing him.
Instead, his spirit preemptively pops onto the scene and spits:
“You will never defeat me! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!”
Oh. I guess he’s just a cartoon villain, then.
Oh no, the guy who was obviously going to betray us has betrayed us.
Blizzard achieved something impressive with Kulle — they made him at once a complex character and a caricature. His motivations are not just evil for evil’s sake. Technically, it is not he who betrays the player, but the player who betrays him. Throughout the story, he continues to warn you about being manipulated and deceived about your quest, and when he realizes the Black Soulstone possesses the souls of five Evils, he knows something is horribly wrong.
Again, he tries to warn you, but then a boss fight breaks out and you’re too busy beating his face in to try to reason with him.
Like so much in this story, Kulle’s strong concept falls apart upon implementation. Rather than being portrayed as a morally ambiguous character, he cackles maniacally after just about every sentence, and I can only imagine that if the animation allowed for it, he’d be twirling his moustache.
There’s also this whole power-hungry side to him that degenerates into a climax of cliché when he just about paraphrases, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
Oh, and that achievement, “Kulle Story, Bro?” It really doesn’t help establish a character’s credibility when you make it seem like his name was crafted to be the butt of a joke.
So, Blizzard, you said you wanted to remove references to real-world religions from the franchise. You removed the crosses and the pentagrams, and even banned certain names associated with religions from being used as character names in Diablo 3. Okay, I’m Kulle with that.
Then you meet Diablo for the final showdown, and he spits out this most hackneyed of biblical references: “I am Legion.” I felt sick to my stomach.
Pervasive in popular culture, the paraphrased quote from the Gospel of Mark (5:9) manages to at once spit in the face of all those who opposed the removal of pentagrams and reduce Diablo to a walking cliché.
Then, during the battle, Diablo transports you to his Realm of Terror, which immediately becomes devoid of any sense of terror when he actually spells out exactly how to overcome this challenge. “Only by defeating us can you return to your own realm! But none have ever crawled from the depths of their own terror!”
Why was this dialogue deemed necessary? Did the writers think players would become confused and suddenly forget that the objective of the game is to kill everything they see? Duke Nukem’s “Eat sh*t and die” taunt is less trite — yes, I’m actually comparing Diablo’s dialogue to Duke Nukem’s, a character designed to spit cheesy action flick one-liners.
To Blizzard’s credit, Diablo doesn’t cackle maniacally after that line.
The Lord of Sin, Azmodan has no shortage of pride, given he feels the need to constantly boast to the players about how futile their efforts are because he’s just so damn awesome. Unfortunately, this is at odds with something the lore goes on and on about — that Azmodan is the greatest military tactician in the Burning Hells.
Now, I’m no tactical genius, but I’ve played enough StarCraft and watched enough G.I. Joe in my time to know that you want to keep your plans hidden from the enemy, because knowing is half the battle, yet Azmodan telegraphs his precise plans to the player at every opportunity. And when the player thwarts his plans? He dismisses their importance.
I can accept that Azmodan is supposed to be arrogant — but I can’t accept that he somehow became the greatest tactical mind in the Burning Hells when he makes the same mistakes as villains in Saturday morning cartoons. Like Belial, Azmodan just comes across as foolish — and, by consequence, every other demon as well, given Azmodan is apparently the top student in the remedial class.
I’d even go so far as to accept Azmodan slipping up once and letting his arrogance reveal the player’s next objective — but he repeats the same mistake over and over again, meaning he lacks the intelligence to even learn from his errors. Cows touching electrified fences are smarter than this.
The saddest part about all of this is that, in most cases, I can see the intent, I can see what the writers were trying to accomplish. Their execution was just so misguided.
One can argue that the plot isn’t meant to be important, that “Diablo was never about the story.” Perhaps so, but if that’s the case, then why did Blizzard put so much emphasis on it in Diablo 3? Hundreds of lines of voice-over dialogue, countless cutscenes — Blizzard wanted the story to be a big part of Diablo 3.
Ultimately, the game’s story isn’t bad — it’s just mediocre. Forgettable. It does a serviceable job getting the audience from point A to point B, and provides some entertainment along the way, but fails to deliver any deep or meaningful experiences.
To sum up my grievances in two words: lost potential. The conclusion to this trilogy could have been fantastic — there are strokes of genius buried amongst all the clichés — but the real tragedy here is that this is how the story ends; not with a bang, but with a fizzle.