Diablo 3′s Story: What Went Wrong

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t completed Diablo 3, this article spoils the ending and many plot points.


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.

The Cinematics

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.

Cinematic 1: 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.

Cinematic 2: 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.

Cinematic 3: 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.

Cinematic 4: 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.

Cinematic 5: 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.”

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26 Comments on Diablo 3′s Story: What Went Wrong

Ted

On June 1, 2012 at 5:12 am

The overall three cheese factor of the entire story of the game was summed up perfectly in one word- by how Diablo pronounced “terror.”

“Only by defeating us can you return to your own realm! But none have ever crawled from the depths of their own ter-rawwr.”

Peggle20

On June 1, 2012 at 5:32 am

Still a better ending than Mars Effect Tree.

Peggle20

On June 1, 2012 at 5:43 am

Also I guess the story really didn’t bother me? I’ve long since ceased to expect anything but attractive visuals from Blizzard, and I took it as icing on the cake that there was a story at all, and that some of the characters were, at times, well done.

I mean, it’s an action game, not an RPG, and a Blizzard game on top of that. I’m not sure what you can reasonably expect in terms of storytelling here.

mark

On June 1, 2012 at 10:10 am

peggle you shouldnt write things or make judgments. don’t.

Peggle20

On June 1, 2012 at 10:45 am

@mark – Did the point of article comments sections change while I wasn’t looking? Not sure what you’re talking about.

Name*

On June 1, 2012 at 10:46 am

“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.”

You know very little about the DIablo universe. An Angel giving up its power is a HUGE deal. Of course she is awed instantly. In our universe I don’t even think we have an equivalent to what that is like. Maybe the President becoming a bum on the street in order to save a small town from getting flooded. Humans don’t even mean that much to Angels at all.

Mozer

On June 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

If you watch the final cutscene and look closely as Diablo is burning up, as he vanishes, you can see the black soulstone falling from the sky. Since we all know that the evils cannot die unless the stone is destroyed, which it wasn’t, Blizzard has obviously planned an expansion. So I wouldn’t say the trilogy is concluded just yet.

CJ Miozzi

On June 1, 2012 at 11:29 am

@Mozer:

Blizzard said that Diablo 3 would conclude the story of Diablo 1 and 2:

http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/08/12/diablo-iii-storyline/

There will be more Diablo, but a new storyline. Diablo 3 concludes the “trilogy.”

CJ Miozzi

On June 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

@Name*:

I’m not questioning the significance of the event, but her sudden change in demeanor. She knew he was an angel before she saw the flashback, yet she was rude to him regardless. I’d treat a former supernatural being with a little more respect.

If I reacted like Leah and then found out he willingly sacrificed his angel-hood to become mortal, I’d feel embarrassed that I was just rude to him.

The scene should have played out with Leah looking ashamed and apologetic. “I’m sorry… I… I didn’t know…”

Danny

On June 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Great read but you got one thing wrong. Tyrael is the Archangel of JUSTICE not HOPE.

Danny

On June 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

ANYTHING has a better ending than Mass Effect 3.

T Wal

On June 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Leah’s role at the end was the biggest disappointment in the story for me, she gets turned into the prime evil and no one seems to care, then we kill Diablo then just roll his body off the roof. What about the end of Diablo 1? When Diablo is defeated Alberic appears, though I suspect he dies soon after. Why couldn’t that have happened? Leah turns back to normal then says a few grateful words before dying? That would have been much more fulfilling. Poor Leah, it’s not her fault she’s the daughter of Satan.

Nathan

On June 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I really enjoyed this. It was pretty funny commentary!

Ryan

On June 1, 2012 at 10:09 pm

i agree with what the author said. on top of that, claiming that you don’t expect a good story from a blizzard game is absurd. there is absolutely no reason to not expect a good story from any game, especially a game as well funded and from as large a company as diablo III. i wonder how they can hire such wonderful animators and yet let the writers craft something that could have been written by a C student in a middle school creative writing class. the story has absolutely no impact and no creativity. and it could have. having a solid story, the game would have been much more beloved than just a plain action game. much of the game is well crafted and this strikes me as a severe deficiency. many indie games do significantly more with significantly less.

Adam

On June 2, 2012 at 12:04 am

I agree with pretty much all the points here, especially that the faults in the plot and storytelling are all the more glaring for the amount of resources apparently placed in the production of the voice-overs and cutscenes.

Beyond that (which was bad enough, surely), there’s another problem I had. Why is vital plot information obfuscated by hiding it in out-of-the-way places? It took me three times going through Act 1 before I managed to figure out exactly when each part of Leah’s journal became available. What’s the point in even having a multi-part plot dump if you’re going to make it absurdly easy to miss whole chunks of it? I also was thrown by the reveal of the player as some sort of nephalem atavism. I spent my entire first playthrough wondering why the hell everyone was calling me “Nephalem,” because I missed running down a side hallway to find the one journal that explains how new nephalem can even exist. Why wasn’t that part of Alaric’s dialog when you’re questing? What was the benefit from a story-telling perspective of having him just sort of speak in riddles?

Leyst

On June 2, 2012 at 4:20 am

Overall, on my first playthrough, I was so hyped that the story just seemed…Kulle to me (I had to do that).

But reading this, I found myself nodding my head in agreement – for example your point on Belial, if you talk to Emperor Hakan II when standing at the portal to Zoltun Kulle’s domain, you can practically ask him if he is Belial, where he just goes “oh nooo~~~~I stole an amulet from the vizjerei!”. If you have the Enchantress follower, then she will go “oh he did not answer our question, how odd!” in her usual, blank-as-a-mirror-monotone-as-an-idiot kind of voice (oh yes, all of the followers were deable, but that is not what we are here to talk about)

Just my €0.02

Spoonmaster

On June 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Dammit you spoiled the entire story for me…. oh wait it was already spoiled to begin with.

Archangel

On June 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Great article – Just found you guys recently since the whole Diablo 3 debacle. Great stuff.

Jay

On June 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Great article, totally agreed. I will say the first 2 acts felt very well thought out, though poorly implemented, and Act 3 felt “fun” and reminded me of Act 4 of D2, but parts of it were tedious (catapults and such).

The villians truly are reduced to rubble, as well as the whole Diablo universe. The removal of crosses/pentagrams and gothic art style made it felt like I was visiting Disney land not sanctuary.
Isn’t that the point of the Triune in the lore? They used their opposites to create followers (creation vs destruction) and then corrupt them only in the hierarchy?
Big D fought on a cross in D2 that had a pentagram under him…

Like there’s nothing in D3 to even tell me that we are going to face Diablo, until basically he shows up… I mean my favorite villain was Kulle, because he knew something I didn’t, I KNEW I couldn’t trust him, but I had to abuse him to get to my goals.

Then there is the whole part about Big D wanting to assimilate his brethren… I am honestly confused… In D1-2 he is the strongest of the 3, in the sense that he escapes his soulstone first. He immediately frees his brothers trying to reunite their realms in hell “Send forth Terror into Hell.” I guess I visualized the burning hells are more united but bickering brothers holding as many good qualities as the high heavens seem to hold bad ones, just enough to be ambiguous and mysterious.

As for the story as a whole, I consider it to be cannibalism. Every main character dies, some with no mention or purpose, Tyrael is reduced to being a mortal for no apparent reason other than he chooses to be. Cain is replaced by Leah, but even as much as I liked her I also didn’t… Adria’s character seems forced, but is interesting… In the long run though, I don’t consider it cannon, let alone a closer to the story.

Caore

On June 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Hey there,

great article outlining the shortcomings of D3′s story. It’s not so much the story itself but its execution.
Anyhow, I’m a bit late to the party, it seems (only got pointed to this article a few minutes ago). Nevertheless, I wanted to share a rewrite of the story with you:

http://eu.battle.net/d3/en/forum/topic/4211013554

Maybe it brings a little smile on your face :-) .

Alex

On June 11, 2012 at 1:57 am

Diablo3 is a huge failure by far. The worst title Blizzard has released to date bar none! I won’t go into details as to why since this thread deals with the storyline alone. Please, anyone who thinks that Diablo3 storyline is good or acceptable, please please please, go and play Diablo2 or at least plese view the cinenmatics of the storyline there. Diablo2 storyline is a masterpiece in its own right, after the end of last cinematics after playing it for the first time i was like “what, whoa what just happend” i got my ass kicked by the most decietful, masterful twist i have seen in videogame history. Diablo2 writers could teach hollywood movie studio writers a thing or two in stroytelling and character development/twist.

To those who say that Diablo3 storyline is not important, and that the entire game ephasis is mindless running around killing mobs for gear… no this is not world of warcraft. Diablo was all about the story, from the original to Diablo2 the story was the intergral part of the expereince. It served immersment, imagination, i remember dropping my mouse out of my hand couple of times when the council of kurast ganked me… the story was responsible for this. Diablo2 was best written story PC game i have ever played.

Nicholas

On June 12, 2012 at 6:53 am

This is a really great article that just about sums up the grievances we have with the story. But I think you give Blizzard too much credit when you assume that Azmodan was talking directly to Diablo, which would be really great story-telling. It poses the same conundrum as the Imperius foreshadowing: could it be a work of genius, or is it simply unintentional creativity? Judging by the absolute lack of intelligence in the actual story itself, it seems more likely that Azmodan was SIMPLY talking to Leah and the player.

TatteredHat

On June 13, 2012 at 4:26 pm

What I don’t understand is that Blizzard seems to be conflicted as to what they want to do with the story.

On one hand you have them stating that they just wanted to make a pulpy story about heroes fighting demons.

On the other hand you have them stating that they chose to put a large emphasis on story, and thus the game had to be made more linear.

You would think that if they wanted to put a larger emphasis on the story, they’d actually attempt to make the story somewhat decent. But no, now we have to go through the same heavy-handed monologue every time we want to farm.

Row

On June 15, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I agree that the side-stories of artisans and mercenaries are a nice addition. What I don’t like is that even though the main story is generally OK, certain specific lines of dialogue ruin it. Also the whole game feels too linear. Even though there are small side-quests (“events”), these are just too short.

{jordans for sale

On June 16, 2012 at 2:33 am

ahh…i see…for some reason i read that bottom part as available now and not available soon…my bad

LTenhet

On July 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I was disappointed that they changed the Barbarian from the grizzled, veteran from Diablo 2 that he was originally supposed to be… to just some old guy. Because they didn’t want to write separate dialogue for the male and female.