Diablo 3′s Story: What Went Wrong

Tyrael

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.

Deckard Cain

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

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.

The Villains

Blizzard had good intentions when designing Diablo 3′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.

Belial

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.

Zoltun Kulle

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.

Diablo

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.

Azmodan

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

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.