Villain Crafting: You don’t come for the Dark Lord; he comes for you!

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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!
Kyle

 

 

Review: Diablo 3: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

BLUF: Diablo 3 executes old ideas with flair in an addictive, fun manner.  There are very few innovations, and it falls short in some key areas, seeming to rely on nostalgia to involve its audience in the world rather than story.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

Ah yes.  Diabo. The third of a series in which I have spent many hours.

First, let me get this out of the way.  Diablo 3 is a fun game.  I like it, and I enjoy playing it.  Yet, I have mixed feelings about it.  I’ve stated some of this to my Facebook friends, but let social media not get in the way of blog content creation, so here goes:  Diablo 3, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  But first, let’s kick off our shoes in front of the Hellfire, grab some scotch and reminisce, for Diablo 3 isn’t about anything if it’s not about nostalgia.

I’ve played the series since the beginning.  (In fact, my wife has a theory that the people who like Diablo 3 are people who played the previous games in the series.  People who haven’t–maybe don’t see what all the fuss is about.  I’ve heard this observation from World of Warcraft podcasters who love the game, but have WoW friends who hadn’t played Diablo before and don’t “get” it.  But I digress…)  For someone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, Diablo is a computer game series set in a nightmare/gothic fantasy world.  You play the hero fighting off a demonic invasion from hell.  The enemy is the Devil (well, one of them, in any case), named Diablo (literally the Spanish word for “devil”).  In each game, you fight through hordes of demons to finally stand before Diablo and kill him.  Again.  It’s a classic “kill foozle” style game.

The first Diablo game came out while I was in college.  I was working in the computer lab at school, the help desk support tech on duty.  I made sure students didn’t have computer problems while they churned out papers. or more likely, mathematical formula in Mathematica or Maple.  Or played games.  This was back before anyone had any sort of computer security discipline, and it was commonplace for folks to bring in their own hacked software and install it on the school’s computers.

So I peeked over the shoulder of one student and saw him playing this game.  He was a warrior, and it seemed simple.  Click on the skeleton.  The skeleton dies.  Get the skeleton’s loot.  Click on the next skeleton.  But the graphics were phenomenal (for its time).  It was in high resolution (640 x 480).  The computer in my dorm room was a Pentium 75mhz, and most games in those days were still running at 320 x 200 resolution (Doom 2, Hexen, Descent…).  This thing had small pixels, and the animation was smooooth.  Click.  Hack.  Loot.  Click.  Hack. Loot.  I loved the way the skeletons’ bones just gracefully fell to pieces.  And it was addictive.

So I got my own hacked copy (I bought one later) and started playing.  Goddam that Butcher (the first really hard demon you fight).  It took me forever to kill that thing.  Then on to King Leoric the Skeleton King, down more levels, and I graduated from college before I actually killed Diablo.  The story was awesome and truly horrific.  The body of Diablo was this twisted demonic form of a little boy prince he had possessed.  It was a dark game, echoed by the little glowing inverted spinning pentagram icons on the game menu. (Oooooh.  Pentagrams.  Shocking for its time.  Made it feel a little dirty and scary to play.)

Diablo set a new standard for action rpgs.  Clones of it emerged, with its signature features such as skill-trees and contextual mouse-clicking (move or attack).  It was a single player action game.

Fast forward a few years to Diablo 2, coming out in the summer of 2000.   We find out that the hero of Diablo 1 (the warrior–I guess those of us who played sorcerers and amazons didn’t count) put Diablo’s soul inside him and became corrupted–and became Diablo himself, rising as the Foozle (big bad) of Diablo 2.  Yep, in D2, we’re off to kill the hero we previously played in D1 (if you were a warrior.  I guess if you weren’t a warrior, you didn’t really win Diablo 1.  Your friend did.)  Neat concept.  Poor execution.  File that warrior’s actions (plunging the Diablo soulstone into himself) as something stupid.  Or at least not well explained until Diablo 3 rehashes the entire Diablo 1 story.  (Although I’m still not clear on why the warrior did this.  Still sounds stupid.  Kill diablo, take his soulstone, and then… plunge the stone into my own heart?).  Well, if they had let my sorcerer win, he wouldn’t have done that.  He would have destroyed the soul stone and we wouldn’t have had to fight Diablo again.

It was still critically well received, because it’s gameplay was so addictive.  I don’t want to think how long my brother spent on it, completing it at the hardest difficulty.  However, now its graphics were a tad bit behind the times.  Still smooth, but not quite so high-res as was standard for its day, and it was still using 2D sprites instead of 3D models.  It held true to the underlying model of a single-player standalone game, high action mouse-click-fest, with skill-trees and a small selection of classes to play as. It was still fun as all hell, and kept the community jonesing for more.  And it continued to inspire a host of clones, such as Sacred and Sacred II (which I quite enjoyed on the x360).

Development on Diablo 3 began in 2001.  It was released in 2012 (!) and sold 3.5 million copies in its first 24 hours (among which Blizzard counts the preorders and the free copies given to annual World of Warcraft subscribers).  However, the series introduces some key differences to the underlying game architecture while trying to keep giving players the addictive “Diablo experience”.

1.  Game Design/Architecture:  6/10

Anyone who played in its first week will understand: Youtube: If Diablo 3 Were a Girl.  With so many people playing it at start, Blizzard underestimated the server volume, and people couldn’t get on to play.  Folks who had taken leave from work (I was not one of them) to play couldn’t because the servers wouldn’t support the load.  Ok, that’s unfortunate, but I don’t hold that against Blizzard in and of itself.  However, this reveals the first KEY DIFFERENCE which caught some by surprise:

Diablo 3 is not a single player game.  It’s an online game that you can play by yourself.

Yes, that’s right.  You buy a client, but all the “action” is happening on their servers.  Your characters aren’t stored locally, but are store on their servers.  Blizzard used a MMO (massive-multiplayer online) architecture to serve up the Diablo experience, even to those who want to play it single player.  This was done for a few reasons:

  1. Anti-Cheating: keeping online play (which the game encourages: forming parties of adventurers with friends to kill demons.  I encourage killing demons with friends) with others fair involves trying to crack down on cheating.  Diablo 2 online play was infested with cheaters and hackers who modded their characters, got the best loot, etc.  Now, you don’t have access to your character files.  They are property of Blizzard, stored on their servers.  Good news is, you can access them from any machine.
  2. Real-Money Auction House.  Blizzard built an in-game auction house that players can buy and sell magic equipment for… real money.  The always-on/anti-cheat requirement is even more needed because of this.  Why did they do this?  Because of Chinese gold farmers in WoW, who hack accounts, sell gold, and force people to play WoW all day to generate gold.  Historically, Blizzard has been against selling in-game things for real money, but they decided to legitimize it and bring it above board.  If the demand can be met within game, within the terms of service, then in theory that drives down the impetus to have a black market that floods the ecosystem with hackers and alleged Chinese slave farms.
  3. DRM.  Keeping the always-on and login requirements makes it MUCH harder to play the game without paying for it.  Right, wrong, or indifferent, there is an anti-software piracy effort here.
Pros:
  1. Characters stored on the server mean you never lose them.  You can lose your computer or log in via your friend’s computer.  You still have YOUR stuff.
  2. You didn’t buy a single instance of the software.  You bought that game.  You can log in from any computer on Battlenet and download the client again without paying for it.  No more hunting for disks that got lost when you moved to Belgium and you got a new computer that doesn’t have Diablo on it yet.
Cons:
  1. Requirement to be always on.  I can’t go somewhere without an internet connection and play.  Probably not a concern for most people, but dammit, finding internet in Afghanistan is pretty difficult, much less one which has a fast, consistent connection to game on (you can’t).  Since you play the game on your laptop in offline mode, that means any deployment = not playing Diablo 3.
  2. Always on requirement = network lag.  Even the best connections lag occasionally.  I’ve seen my character appear “behind” herself while my client resyncs with the server.  I’ve died once purely due to network lag.  It was only an inconvenience for me, but what about…
  3. Hardcore Characters?  Blizzard has this neat idea for the uber elite where you can make a character and opt to designate the character as “hardcore”.  This means the character can only die once.  Once he dies, there is no restore.  Dead is dead.  Permadead.  Yes, you can have a level 30 character, go up against Diablo, do something stupid, die, and lose all that progress.  That’s why it’s hardcore (normal characters can resurrect at previously saved checkpoints).  But dammit… it would be hella lame to lose a hardcore character because of something so stupid as network lag.
All in all, I would rather have had an offline-single player option that I can travel with than a real-money auction house.  I could care less about the online experience with Diablo.  I have WoW for that.   So for me, this choice on their part downgrades the game in my estimation.
At least its largely stable and bug-free.

2.  Presentation (Graphics and stuff): 7/10

The graphics are pretty.  Pretty awesome.  I don’t mean the graphics are groundbreaking. I don’t need super awesome technology to appreciate the game.  I want the graphics to be the right artistic presentation for the game (I really liked games like Borderlands and Prince of Persia, with their ‘animated art’ feel), and Blizzard nails it here.

Pros:

  1. Graphics are stylistically great for the game.  Models are detailed and look cool. Setting/lighting is immersive.  Hi-res, interesting 3D models that get even more pretty when you zoom in.
  2. Cut-scenes are brilliant and near Pixar quality in their theatrical presentations.  (Interestingly enough, my wife thought they were TOO good–she found the upgrade in visual style detracting from the rest of the game; she would rather have seen animations more matched in style to the in-game graphics engine).
  3. Music is great–usual Blizzard excellence here.
  4. Voice acting is fine.  Never made me cringe.

Cons:

  1. 3D models, but limited zoom capability and  I can’t zoom in AND rotate to check out my character’s cool gear that she just found?  Fail.
  2. 3D models with not even a skin and hair palette swap options?  Fail.
Maybe you don’t think I should downgrade otherwise fine presentation from a 9-ish to a 7 based on two very subjective pet peeves of mine.  Well, tough cookies.

3.  Gameplay: 10/10

The gameplay is where Diablo 3 excels.  It starts out a little boring, but starts to pick up around level 10… and then really takes off somewhere in the middle of Act 2.  I love when more skills unlock and I have a bazillion demons all dying under my wizard’s dual-laser beams.  Improvements over the previous games include a skill system that you can re-spec at any time.  You’re no longer screwed over in Nightmare mode by “incorrect” choices you made in the earlier levels.

4.  Story: 5/10

This is where Diablo 3 sucks, in my opinion.  This is from a guy who loves angel and demon lore, and spent ten years obsessed with Biblical and apocryphal angelology.  For a long while, stories about angels fighting demons was my favorite “type” of fantasy, and while I’ve since moved on to other interests I still appreciate a well executed fantastic angel concept.  Pretty much if it has wings and a sword, I like it.  I’m the ideal market for Diablo–so what I’m saying, it was really hard for Blizzard to get this wrong for me.

The problem is, the story delivery is just boring.  It relies almost exclusively on nostalgia (my wife asks me over and again: “why do I care about Cain?  He’s annoying.  Why does my character talk about his death as such a tragedy when she knew him for two days?”  I tend to agree).

Cons:

  1. Boring Story.
  2. Nostalgia fail:  “There is more than one Butcher!”  What?!?  I’m just insulted now.  You asked me to pay for Diablo 1 again.
  3. Nostalgia fail: “We must go kill King Leoric.  Again.”  Really?  Sigh.  Ok.
  4. Nostalgia fail: “Let’s go rescue Cain again.”  Cain, your voice is really annoying now.  It was fun in the first one, but now you’re just a caricature of yourself.  No, don’t stay a while.  I’m tired of listening.
  5. Stupid story point:  Leah always saying, “Cain, why do you believe in your stories.  They’re just stories.”  Really?  You doubt your uncle?  You’re stupid.  This is the kind of character stupidity where I don’t irritated at the character.  Just the writer.
  6. Missed story opportunity:  Leah becoming possessed by Diablo was rushed.  I wasn’t exactly happy about it (it felt reused.  Ok, here we go again.)  But there was still potential for awesome.  Why didn’t we fight Diablo in Leah form?  That could have been the final Act 4 fight… after fighting the damned archangel.  We should have then had an Act 5.  Instead what we got was seeing Diablo in Leah for two seconds before the angel brought the true form out of Diablo.  Why did Diablo even stay in Leah’s body then?  There certainly was no reason to stealth it.
  7. Rushed end of Act 4.  So the archangel’s there, and you think you’ll fight him.  Then, immediately, he’s like “Oh, all angels have lost our power.  You must fight Diablo now. He’s in the next room.  Good luck”.  And your sidekick is like, “Oh, well.  I’m not coming with you.  Good luck.  He’s in the next room”.  Then you get this quest: “Find Diablo!”  Wait, where is he?  Maybe…. in the next room.  You go in the next room.  OMG, there’s Diablo!
  8. Demons lords are stupid.  Or suffer from delusional denial:  every time you defeat one of their minions, they’re like “that doesn’t matter, you still have to face my NEXT MINION!”  Then you kill their next minion.  Then they’re like “I have all the armies of hell.”  Then you kill all the armies of hell.  Then they’re like, “You’ll never survive my assault on heaven.” then you do that too.  Then he’s like “you’ll never kill me.” And so then you kill him.  When do Demon Lords get frustrated or scared themselves?  No anger over your continued success? (there was a little of that in Act 2 with Magda’s boss.  I liked that).
  9. No choice.  Maybe we could have picked a side in the Angel war?
  10. Why wasn’t there an Angel War?  Didn’t the archangel say he will kill me when he saw me again?  I was gearing up to fight an archangel.  That would have been a neat change.
  11. Magda betrayed us.  Ho hum.
  12. Really, why the F–K are fighting Diabo again?  We killed him for realz in Diablo 2.  None of the other Prime Evils came back from Diablo 2.  Why him?  Why couldn’t we just get one with new Evils?  I know he’s the name of the franchise, but I swear if we’re fighting Diablo again in Diablo 4, I’m just going to pull an Elmer Fudd and join the dude.  I mean, really, what’s the point?
  13. We don’t care that Leah is possessed, or that Adria betrays us.  Maybe its because that in Diablo 99% of everyone falls and get corrupted (like the warrior, or your friend’s warrior, from Diablo 1), so no one cares when any one person falls.  It’s become normal.

Conclusion:  7.5/10

So I gave some scores above, but I’m not going to do some mathematical thing like average them out.  I’m going to subjectively weigh each one so they arrive at… an 7.5/10.  I’ve gone back and forth with downing it to a 7, but overall I think it’s still a good game, despite the weak rehash on story, and despite the choice of online architecture.  It’s addictive and everything the Diablo series promises: click, kill, loot, click, kill loot.  I would recommend it to people who like this sort of thing.  It’s has replay value, and I’m weighing the gameplay high, so I think an 7.5 is fair.  I can’t see why it took 10+ years to make this.  There’s nothing innovative here in the things that make it good (the MMO for single player architecture might be innovative, but it’s not really a win with most folks).  There must have been a lot of false starts.  It’s a good 5 year game. I almost gave it an 8, but I don’t think it does anything as well as Kindoms of Amalur, which I think deserves an 8 and did have an innovative blend of styles.  But that’s a review for another day (maybe).

On the other hand, I’m sure I’ll log on this weekend to kill more demons.  I love magic lasers.

~Kyle