I wrote a few months back about how the latest Hobbit movie, the Desolation of Smaug, fumbled the dragon’s portrayal a bit at the end and presented him as a bumbler. There’s a certain art to portraying a villain in a way that communicates emotional impact on the audience. Peter Jackson’s opening with Smaug was fantastic; the scene flew off the rails.
More months back, I talked about crafting dark lords. Continuing with both these thoughts, I’d like to analyze the video game, Diablo III, as an example of how your narrative presentation undermines any feelings of fear or dread for the villain.
I’ve recently picked up Diablo III again as we get closer to the release of the expansion set. I absolutely love the gameplay, artwork, story, and overall cohesion of the package. There’s one huge flaw, however. The character of Diablo, Demon Lord of Terror, is anything but terrifying. Blizzard narrated the story in such a way that he evoke no terror at all, and comes across in the end as rather pathetic. That’s probably not the goal for the audience the writer has in mind when architecting a dark lord.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy both the Hobbit movies and Diablo II immensely. These analyses are not intended to say these are bad works of art, but rather to examine and learn. So, what did Blizzard do wrong to make Diablo (the character) seem pathetic (in an otherwise awesome game)? Diablo certain looks terrifying, appears menacing, has a great booming voice, and lots of powers to overcome. And he’s huge and hard to kill… what went wrong?
It’s the plot itself that drives Diablo to a veneer of theatrical fear rather than any actual terror. Throughout the entirety of the game, you (the player hero) are hunting the demon lords. Diablo is your prey when it should be the other way around. Your character never shows fear (the sorceress is downright flippant and assured of her destiny to defeat Diablo). Your character seems completely removed from the horror that’s going on around them. The consistent message throughout the game is that Diablo is scary for everyone else, but not for you. Diablo’s scared of you, and you’re going to go kick his ass.
In Act 1, it starts well enough. You go to Tristram to investigate the falling star. After starting to discover that the demon lords have returned to the lands, you move to Act 2 and defeat Baal. It’s still fairly ok, as far as plot goes. Baal toys with you, and you’re not sure yet whom the enemy is in Act 2, until towards the end. You defeat Baal and move on to Act 3, where it falls apart.
In Act 3, you start defending the keep against the demon armies of the Lord of Gluttony. The first mistake is that the Lord of Gluttony starts appearing before you throughout the act, telling you how insignificant you are, and how mighty his armies are. But every time he appears it’s because you just buck-slapped what he threw at you. You take out one of his lieutenants, and he appears and says, “RAR! But you won’t stand a chance against the next guy!” And then you buck slap the next guy and Azmodan appears again, and it’s like, “NO, RAR! For REALZ this time, I mean it. U gonna die beyatch.”
So then you buck-slap Azmodan and chase Diablo into Act 4, where the formula is repeated. Diablo’s armies are invading heaven and you go to stop them, yet it feels like he and his armies are rats scurrying off a sinking ship, and you’re the monster coming to get them. You chased them out of the world, and then through hell, and now it’s like heaven is the last place they can hide. So they run there, and you chase them there. You close one of the waygates they’re using to invade heaven, and Diablo talks to you and says, “Do you think that’s the only one? I have another waygate!” (Or something to that effect).
At which point I put my mouse down for a moment, looked up from the game to the ceiling and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Diablo’s just a whiny, petulant bitch. I almost feel sorry for her.” (He’s a she in this game).
It’s almost like the script goes something like:
- Diablo: If you follow me, I’m gonna send Big Baddie 1.
- Hero follows and kills Big Baddie 1.
- Diablo: Wha? Um. Ok, leave me alone, or Big Baddie 2 is coming for you.
- Hero kills Big Baddie 2. “Yeah? Whatchyougot, D-man? D-woman? What are you these days, BTW?”
- Diablo: “Don’t make fun of me, it’s not nice. Please go away.”
- Hero: “No.”
- Diablo: “Well, Big Baddie 3, and my armies are gonna—”
- Hero: “What armies? I’ve destroyed all your armies.” SMACK. “And killed that guy too.”
- Diablo: “Wait, Big Baddie 3 wasn’t suppose to die! Oh come on, just leave me alone. I’ve no where else to go now.”
- Hero: “No, I’m coming for you.”
- Diablo: “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Ok, well, you can’t possibly face my wrath. I will end you. RAR RAR RAR. I’m coming for you!”
- [doope dooopee doooo… Diablo hides and waits for you….]
- Hero: “I thought you were coming for me, Diabs. No? Well, find, I’ll go get you then.”
- Hero buck-slaps Diablo. “Well, that was easy. I mean, I was never in danger, I guess.”
Ok, yes, the hero dies in the game and you resurrect. I’m not saying I never died, because it’s a video game. But the narration leaves something to be desired in portraying a big bad as being scary.
How might we fix it? Well, there’s a certain artificiality in a video game like this one. You go through levels, kill demons, and eventually kill the Big Bad Foozle at the end. That framework channels the narrative somewhat. However, Azmodan and Diablo should never have wasted time taunting you. You should come across as an unimportant speck, barely worthy of their attention. The amount of attention they give you betrays their weakness and fear of you, a mere mortal. (Ok, a nephilim, but they don’t seem to fear the Archangels, so why fear you?)
The formula in Lord of the Rings works. Sauron is coming for all of them, and even at Minas Tirith you get the feeling that their victory will be futile against Sauron in the long run (they lost their undead army). Frodo is just too insignificant to capture Sauron’s notice. Frodo’s not fighting his way to Mount Doom. He’s forced to go there, and escaping his way there, narrowly avoiding death at every turn.
Ok, what else might a game like Diablo do differently? If transitions between Acts could feel like escapes more than pursuits. Or, if somehow the state of the world got worse in each act, until you finally pull victory out of your butt by the end, along with some luck. A feeling of “That was a close call!” is missing, and could have added to the effect.
Or… if we’re not retreating in each Act, the world needs to feel worse with each Act. We should feel the desperation of losing… winning the battle in the Act but losing the war/world overall. Instead, I feel like I saved the first land, saved the second land, and keep pushing back the darkness. The darkness is “thicker”, but that’s because I’m going into it and taking the battle to them. Instead, I’d like to feel like the world’s losing with each act, until the end. (Mass Effect did a very good job of this, btw).
I’m not saying Diablo’s game formula is bad. A different game I love, same formula, was Sacred 2. But in that game, there was no overall feeling of fear or terror… nor did there need to be. You weren’t fighting “The Lord of Terror.”
So, what are our takeaways when crafting dark lords?
- Be mindful in how, and in how much, you show your dark lord. The more attention they give the protagonist, the more they take them seriously. If you don’t manage “why” they’re taking them seriously, it can come across that they fear the hero.
- The dark lord should be winning throughout the story, until the end. Don’t make it feel like the dark lord is always, always retreating. Because then, hey! We know everything’s gonna turn out okay.
- Heroes need to run/escape to survive at times. (This happens in some games… ME missions where you have to get in, get out, and not get noticed by the person you can’t yet face). There has to be moments where if the hero were to be brash, they would die. (Frodo tried to confront a ring wraith. That ended badly).
- The Dark Lord can’t threaten the same formula on the hero that the hero’s already overcome time and again. (e.g., “RAR, but my NEXT big bad evil champion will get you, you’ll see!”)
Ok folks, hope you enjoyed another look at villain crafting. (And Diablo fanboys, don’t get your knickers in a wad. I love that game, and critiquing something doesn’t mean it’s bad).
Until next time!