a review of Diablo II
a videogame developed by blizzard north
and published by blizzard entertainment
for Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system and the macontosh operating system x
text by action button dot net
Incoming Sacred Cow (moo).
We brought you here to talk to you about Starcraft. This is not a trick of context, and we’re not doing this to be clever. It’s just that the roots of sin run deep, and Blizzard long ago put on the grandma costume that they’d subsequently use to fool Little Red Riding Hood, which, in this case, is twelve million people worldwide (and growing!).
Starcraft is an abomination if you like strategy games, for the simple reason that it requires far too much personal input on an ongoing basis which has nothing whatsoever to do with strategy, and everything to do with execution. No, this is not “tactics.” We are not talking about “tactics.” If there is someone out there nodding knowingly, nudging the person next to them, and anticipating where this discussion is going — that’s not it. What we are talking about is reaction-based timing puzzles in the interactive medium involving another person. Playing tennis is not tactics; it is a fighting game with rackets and a ball. And sweat bands. Starcraft is a fighting game in which the bodies of the two opponents are multifarious growing and shrinking things that contain units and buildings, and many sub parts; health is measured in a number of ways, and your special combo bar for using super moves (which was probably at least subconsciously borrowed back by the fighting game genre, later) are represented by minerals and gas. The modern fighting game owes a great debt to Blizzard and Starcraft. They showed them their own mechanics like a gastrointerologist selling you the video of your own colonoscopy, and commenting “Polyps are unusual at your age” on the bonus track.
If you’re a fighting gamer, loving Starcraft makes all kind of sense.
Which is precisely why Korea has embraced the mothership. They’ve built a helicopter rigged with speakers in order to approach with a gentle “dah dah daaah . . . duh . . .” In response, the spaceborn-thin alien equivalent of Bill Roper (formerly of, etc.) at Blizzard and the saucer flatulated with the deafening final note of the sequence (Starcraft is what we’re talking about). Rejoicing, the Korean Richard Dreyfuss could finally stop sculpting his mochi (which is, technically a Japanese form of clay made out of rice that is allegedly edible — but don’t try it if you know what’s good for you) into images of what seemed, at first, like any natural formation of rocks, but was, in fact, a crude representation of a very specific guard tower along the DMZ’s fence line. The aliens at Blizzard don’t speak Korean, so they leave, and come back years later with Starcraft 2, which is Independence Day (Welcome to Earf!).
Let’s just say this. The Grognard (which is a term invented for painting; a kind of Hemingwaysian respectability to being an analog nerd in the days before nerds did much of anything, besides play with toy soldiers or trains), which is the key demographic for “pure” strategy (at least when it is not otherwise sullied with random anime bimbos launching into strange disjointed soliloquies about death and war that do nothing but cheapen the literary works of every human culture on the planet), is not exciteable. This is the sort of man (not person) who takes pride in their ability to go to sporting events and never cheer. You see, getting excited, and having fun are for plebians. That’s why the chosen form of entertainment for the Grognard is meant to be painful; memorizing panzer silhouettes and calculating odds in between bouts of painting the correct Afrika corps desert camouflouge on the correct Afrika corps insigniaed canine unit, or, god forbid, mule cart — which could feasibly be Italian, I suppose, making the mule really tender when rubbed with oregano and garlic — is the only righteous hobby for the truly lost.
These people have probably seen some shit, man. Like. Real shit.
In the civilian “sheepdog” squads of northern Colorado.
If you’re a fighting game enthusiast, you can conclude that we’re stupid if we don’t love this to death. Except that we’re not, and we have reasons.
If it’s not going to be strategy, in the sense of a cerebral, recline and ponder strategy game, where the collision of units is either a moment of satisfying outcome divorced from immediate decision making, such that you can truly enjoy what display is on offer, or an efficient perfunctory footnote designed to report the outcome of your decision such that you can internalize it and move on to further decisions, then it must be visceral. The communications are not simply a matter of delivering information clearly to a mind reeling with variables, but doing so quickly and elegantly so as to indicate what a decision’s outcome means, and — more importantly — what the decision itself has actually caused (since meaning is subject to interpretation, and you could probably say, in the case of the strategy game, the point of being there is to determine the meaning of the outcomes for yourself — but in a fighting game, you don’t have time for that kind of nonsense; did I win or what? Cut to the chase). We’re not just talking about punching someone here, because we haven’t been just punching people for a very long time. When the Ki ball of living fire leaves the rigid palm-forward stance of Ken or Ryu (or, to be technical, palm down, palm down forward, and then palm forward, plus P), you know not only that Something Has Happened, but that it’s Important, and, if you missed it, last we saw, it was Going That Way. If you hurry, you might catch it, mister.
This instantaneous, forceful and meaningful movement is full of some kind of word representing the way things rub together. Immediacy. Desire. Ki. But definitely not chafing.
Anger is the righteous emotion, and anything worth a shit is worth getting angry about. The games which please us make us furious, the games we hate are disgusting, sad, and, furthermore, boring. Nobody who ever played a video game past the age of five did so because they were bored and frustrated. They did it because they were controller-chewing furious. We know that the Super Nintendo was the best console we ever owned, for the simple reason that there are the most teeth marks in it (our religion is such that we believe everybody goes to Silent Hill, whether they’re good or bad, and enjoy it to varying degrees based on their own comfort with their quirks — in light of this, we strive to get to a place, spiritually, so that when we see the tumor bristling with molars that rolls over King of the Monsters cartridges while shrieking hideously (probably moments before Pyramid Head wanders into view to place a quarter on the urinal, because “he’s got next”) we will feel nothing but pride (so far, it’s not working). You could autopsy any given gaming device this way to determine its age by tree-rings of animalistic rage. It’s very clear to the gamer why some women are beaten. Only something you love can make you truly furious.
If you think we’re mocking spousal abuse, you’ve underestimated how much we love games.
Is it better to say why some children are beaten? We suppose, to be absolutely correct, we should say why all children should be beaten.
But this is about Diablo II, and we need to say the whys and the wherefores of beatings and love. Generally, when we dislike something, our urge is to disengage immediately. This is why we didn’t play Ico past the first forty minutes (don’t look at us like that — if we’re going to have fantasies about saving a foreign woman from certain doom, we want those fantasies to not make us look like an underage minotaur with lukemia fighting shadows with a stick; I also want “calling her to my location so that she stands next to me” to have roughly the same game effect on magical bullshit as”‘holding her hand” (the ham-fisted metaphor here for holding hands as being a fantasy form of intimacy only makes sense if the woman isn’t a pale spectre (and on the subject of holding hands, if you’re holding someone’s hand, it’s because you don’t trust them, and you intend to grip some part of their body, because you figure they probably wouldn’t accept wearing a leash)). So, then, to truly render something into paste with hatred, it has to possess a strange ability to make us love it and give nothing back. Like the illegitimate child in The Count of Monte Cristo who was buried in a box in the back yard at birth (on the assumption that he was dead because he was blue and also wasn’t breathing — and they didn’t have incubators in those days), adopting it will ultimately destroy you. This thing doesn’t understand love, and doesn’t want it, and you are a fool to think otherwise.
This is also how we feel about cats.
The sin Starcraft commits, which has nothing to do with us, we assure you — we are here to save it, is of failing the fundamental test of Fighting Game (dom) — that of being a vehicle for the genuine, and righteous emotion of anger (which is, as previously discussed nothing more than a vessel for love (or perhaps the ironclad ram on the prow of the vessel (no hymen jokes will be made here))), yet being engrossing in any case, and frittering away your genuine emotions in a distracted manner that seems to suggest that you are stupid. Which is something nobody likes feeling.
Whereas in the fighting game, it is your duty to make the decision, execute the control, and observe the immediate result, sometimes while also making the next decision, and executing the next control so that something on the screen translates all this into action which feels immediate and real, very often, in Starcraft, those decisions fall into a pit off screen, or, even worse, exist only to remove any kind of noticeable effect.
In the ideal game of Street Fighter, every hit is something your opponent feels. In an uninterrupted triumph, he will be crushed repeatedly — always on the verge of coming back or making an escape, and always forcefully and emphatically put down as though you’ve backhanded him on the couch. In the ideal game of Starcraft, your colorful blanket will sweep gently, smoothly, and without impediment over your enemy’s base as if it isn’t even there. You won’t have time to see any bodies left behind, because your units will be standing on top of them. You won’t see any individual explosions, because they’ll happen quickly and nearly simultaneously. In fact, if done with the right sorts of units, and when your victim is distracted elsewhere, it may happen without anyone ever seeing it.
Ideal victory in Starcraft is frictionless.
Starcraft is the sound of one hand clapping in a room full of fallen trees (or some other clever sounding statements which are complete bullshit). The fact that people pursue these unfeeling experiences of clinical victory is totally okay (this originally read “nightmarish” — but I have a beer in my hand, now, while I’m revising). Furthermore, while the flailing of the complete novice can, quite often, prove to be an impediment to a fighting gamer, by simple virtue of unpredictability, and the fact that the game is a scrub-nurse to the surgeon of the player, handing him the tools that the nurse knows he needs to complete the surgery because, guess what, that’s what we’re all here to do, the flailing of the complete novice in Starcraft presents an, if possible, even smoother feeling of victory. As if the skill of the superior player’s petroleum jelly is lubricating the teflon of the ignorant player. By the standards of the Ultimate Starcraft Victory, beating the absolute shit out of a complete novice is more satisfying, as measured in unerringly smooth torque curves of cutting blades attached to warmachines, than the most deft beating of an experienced player, for the simple reason that they can provide no hiccups.
However, this does set up a beautiful message about human competition — that Starcraft is kind of the ultimate lubricated prophalactic between two consenting gamers. It will never get in the way of the feelings of friction that result from the presence of the other person. They must be *there*. You will never search online for a Starcraft player, find someone who beats you once, and then never wins again for thousands of hours, as they learn just enough of the game to figure out how to lose to you endlessly, at some kind of formal rate of nine out of ten matches with a variation of ~2% (probably due to fatigue, distraction, or hand cramps). Instead, you will start by fumbling, providing no challenge whatsoever, and then, because they *must* do so, they will have to cultivate you. They will have to get on their knees and stir your chowder in order to get you to loosen up. There will need to be flowers, and candy, and tender nothings whispered by siege tanks so that you can provide to them the agonies that are a part of genuine love, not because love is bad, but because love is a challenge — and challenges are to be loved (it is a challenge to be loved (and to love)). Even without cultivation, the process of dealing with these frictionless victories will be a building desire to provide more difficulty. More nuannced resistance — even if survival is all you can do, that probe will be wandering around on the map, hiding behind crystals, trying to stave off that defeat for a legitimately aggravating five, ten, maybe even fifteen minutes. You are not reduced to doing this; you are arising to this level of genuine human love.
As expressed by anger.
So, while our Starcraft is Company of Heroes, a direct outgrowth of Starcraft‘s contributions to the genre of RTS (with Relic’s genius invigorating it), I still know and see very well what it is about this game that has made the frictionless lubricatant like quality of it so wonderful (and slippery).
Diablo 2, on the other hand, while emphasizing the design decisions which made Starcraft what it was, takes place alone, in front of your computer, one handed.
In order to talk about it, I think it’s important to talk about Diablo. After all, this is the game that put rogue-like graphics packages into the spotlight again after years of toiling in vaguely Zelda-like mineshafts, attempting to prove that merely being a good hunter is not enough to secure the respect of the tribe (turns out, actually, it is — especially when people are hungry).
When your fighter appeared, ex nihilo, in the middle of Tristram, and those purple tones of the soundtrack began to claw in at the warm orange light behind your eyes, everything you did was full of pushback. Every invisible tile you strode stiffly into, sword and shield at the ready, despite being among the villagers, gave a tiny nudge of resistance to you.
What were you doing there?
Making your way to the church was, in a way, the act of a pterodactyl keeping its head facing into the wind for the sake of stability, devoting all other potential control surfaces to maintaining forward momentum. These creatures had no feathers, no articulation to manipulate their spacing and the shapes of their wings. Wilbur Wright hatched these bizarre demons in an attempt to prove that a lizard might fly without need of a cumbersome and difficult-to-control harness of foot-long dragonflies (as part of a more general, satanic deception to mislead the faithful as to the age of the earf).
When you approached the front door of the church and saw the miserable dying man, who, much like you were about to do, had plunged head-first into the waves, and received your first quest/ominous portent, you knew that what was on the other side of those stairs was going to be a struggle.
Here’s what it was possible to do in the very first moments of Diablo. You could arrive at the bottom of the stairs of the first level, look around for a grand total of four seconds, see five skeletons and two goblin things, and then get eaten by them. This game was not here to invite you cordially into its lush, verdant fields. It was not about to throw stuffed animals at you and then giggle. This was a crypt, by god, full of monsters. You just saw a man outside with his guts spread all over the walkway. Did you think it was a good idea to go see what happened to him? Did you decide to come down to this creepy fucking town where it’s always nighttime to prove that you’re really great at ignoring the warning signs of mind-destroying evil? Did you make your way here from miles to the west, side-stepping carefully, four feet at a time, the whole way? Your thighs must be insane.
When you encountered a zombie, some time a little later in this adventure, you were already conditioned to be deathly afraid of any shapes lurking in the endless, pale blue dimness. Caligula couldn’t make you senator fast enough for you to volunteer to walk up to one of those things (allow us to explain: horses charge into fire, because their instinct, when confronted with danger, is to run toward it — probably because most forms of danger will have to get out of the way, and then turn around and try to chase the horse — which is, as far as large mammals go, pretty fast, but not especially good at cornering (oh, and Caligula made his horse a Senator (we guess he was crazy?))). Thank goodness everybody got to shoot fire every now and then, or you might have to actually walk up to those things and shake hands with your rusty cheese knife and rotten wooden serving platter you were using to deflect arrows. Those things were clearly a problem.
Later, when you were in the oppressive brown endlessness of the catacombs, rooms full of invisible demons and the awkward steps of literally dozens of the terrifying things — which had said “Mmmmmm, fresh meat” before dicing you into perfect cubes on level two — were the right kind of sticky sensation you felt wading through the tar pits of this hideous fantasy world (as opposed to the wrong sort of sticky sensation, which I won’t get into — see earlier comment re: not saying anything about hymens). Because of them, you treasured the moments on dry, bare ground (within the swamp metaphor; all ground is dry in crypts (or else it’s all wet, in hell (Diablo’s hymen is made of interlocking bone spikes)) in the libraries where some book would improve your fire wall, or at the mysterious shrines where a fortune cookie might give you mana shield (speaking of temporary barriers that hurt when they’re broken!), or a stat boost, or god knows what (your virginity back).
The ultimate example of these triumphant moments of respite was Arkhaine’s Valor. The armor that had so much good shit on it, you couldn’t *not* wear it (nothing says reasoned persuasive argumentation like a double negative flanked by asterisks). In fact, for levels thereafter you would turn your nose up at plate (armor) just because it didn’t seem as good as what you had on (as it turns, out, it was better, but let’s not dwell on that). As part of this amazing moment, when you grabbed this thing off a pedestal in a mini-fortress of insanity, it was quite often *also* the first time you put on armor high class enough to change the appearance of your character. This reward mattered, especially in light of the emotionally exhausting slog through the levels.
In the first levels, discovering a new monster might mean running around a bit to avoid getting overwhelmed. In the 5-10 areas, in the catacombs, that experience became the process of opening doors and wondering what you might have to face inside. By 10-15, in the caves, merely taking a few steps in a new direction might result in a torrent of invisible enemies, acid spitting dogs, and magic flying fire. This progression of circumstances might drive you to stay at an earlier level (you know, among the skeletons — where it’s safe) just to avoid finding out what hell is like. In a way, this made Diablo one of the most effective tools of Christianity in the digital age.
Eventually, if you fought the game’s namesake in his final, hideously empty room full of danger, you could, if you wanted, turn him to stone and destroy him without much trouble. However, if you were in the grips of the game’s intended mood, you wouldn’t *dare* expend something so precious as a turn-to-stone scroll on an actual monster. God knows when you might need it, and then where would you be, having expended it? In fact, it’s probably best to just sell it, so that you’re not tempted to waste it.
Diablo was paced, and each one of its set pieces had the feeling of magic when you discovered that, yes, this configuration of hallways should mean that X was about to happen. When X is about to happen, there is Y reward. You didn’t expect the thirty-third goat-man to drop trow and reveal shimmering riches with which to equip yourself. The majestic thoroughbred special characters were the harbingers of those rewards, and the confrontations with those characters were suitably epic. We enjoyed fighting King Leoric every time we saw him, even though he was stale. We must have killed the dead king several times before we ever got up the courage to go down and tangle with the slippery wet passageways of “hell” (stocked with batwinged tits that shot energy balls (just to put some previous comments, which we will not revisit, into some kind of context)).
Milano cookies are now sold in packages containing “100 calorie pouches.” This is due to the fact that behavioral science has produced a coherent theory that shows people can control their weight better when their food is individually packaged (one, assumes, in packages that are not liars — for instance, a foil wrapper which must be torn off and discarded to eat the food it contains, yet, mysteriously, is meant to contain four servings, or the abundantly more insane 4.5 servings), as opposed to a portion they themselves construct from an amount which is legitimately Too Much. The packages in question contain two (2) Milano cookies, but it would be more accurate to say they contain 1.5 legitimate milano cookies, as they are, each, roughly two-thirds the size of the kind you may be used to purchasing. When presented with the genuine article, you may eat one cookie, and while swallowing think, This experience is great. I should get another cookie loaded into the pipeline in order to continue it.” Cookie might follow cookie, until you reach the end of the package and think, “My god, what have I done? That stupid bag represents four hours of time in the gym, or two hours of wandering around the hilly countryside of northern Italy, or twenty minutes trying to find your friend’s apartment in Kobe.” With the microscopic package, not only are we amused by how tiny they are (we fantasize about being a gay giant), we also have no recourse but to savor the damned things, because we know they won’t last forever. The other mini-cookie languishes in its hilarious, clear plastic casket, awaiting our sick pleasure. Taunting this cookie is almost more amusing than actually eating. Though we do feed on the suffering of biscuits (as the English call them).
As well as the biscuit proper.
We’re probably being pretty obvious here, but the only reason Blizzard made Diablo II the epic, endless bag of cookies they did was because that’s what they believed their audience wanted (and they were right, as they are always right, and the audience doesn’t really get that the pigging out it wants to do isn’t good for it — you have to be firm with your audience and act in their best interest even when they don’t know that’s what you’re doing (and the audience has to eventually tell you to screw yourself, and they’re marrying him, and they don’t care *what* you say)).
There is no atmospheric escalation in Diablo II. You appear in what passes for a verdant field a la late 90s computer graphics (I say late 90s, because Blizz aimed for the proletariat’s machine specs, to reap the greatest harvest of cash money). You appear there without any kind of prelude or explanation, ex nihilo (again), because that’s what happened in Diablo. I’m not saying you necessarily have to have a reason to be in a weird hold-out camp full of lesbian archers, especially if you’re a shirtless barbarian, but I doubt anyone thought about it one way or the other. The character from the first Diablo fell out of the sky, so this one should too. Also, the character select screen sort of lies, in terms of how exciting it makes you look, but we’ll get to that later. If you talk to the domineering pussy cat standing nearby, you find out . . . something. I forget what. Honestly, it’s been so long, I have no idea at this point. You almost inevitably cut to the chase.
The chase is just outside town, across a bridge which demarcates an invisible no-demon zone. However, upon exiting, you might still think it’s a no-demon zone, since all you see are hedgehog muppets wandering around in broad daylight. If you walk up to one of the muppets, they’ll make a cute growly noise like Fizgig from The Dark Crystal and launch paperclips at you.
These are reasonably easy to dodge, if you happen to have a mouse plugged into your computer. As you run around the green fields, again, in complete daylight, and swipe at the stuffed animals, you will find a well marked road that leads onwards through a gap in the obsessive low stone walls which seem to have been erected to keep the deciduous forest in check. There’s probably some interesting back story there. Also, there are no crops where you run around bopping the bunny foo-foos, so the whole circumstances under which these walls were built are ambiguous. You do, occasionally, find what seems like must have been a farm house, even, occasionally, with fresh bodies in it, but the supposed infrastructure of this community seems tenuous. What did they export? Where are their specialty laborers? I suppose the husky lady in the camp near an anvil qualifies as your skilled workforce, but she supposedly came from somewhere else (you later discover). In any case, wander around long enough, and one of three things will happen.
1) You will find a pit into the ground labeled “The Den of Evil.” It has a road leading up to the entrance, most likely for the easy and convenient access of purgatorial cleaning services such as yourself, and, once inside, at least looks slightly more hellish. In a hobbit-home kind of way. Down *there*, the muppets are augmented by various other denizens, including huge hairy things which I can’t properly identify. If you kill every moving thing in the place aside from yourself, holy light will erupt from an unseen ceiling, and you will be informed that you have purged the den of evil.
2) You will find a strange gap in the stone walls that leads to a graveyard full of people with skin conditions, and their coke-fiend leader: the pale, bisexual evil version of Conan the Barbarian’s Scarface, as played by Charlize Theron. She will run around like she needs a fix, pausing long enough to put more worthless minions in your way until you run out of healing potions or succeed in getting enough hits in on her for her to die. When she collapses, abundant lightning froths out of her body, killing most, if not all of her minions, and you are free to notice two standing structures with stairs. I forget the names, but it’s something along the lines of “Crypt” and “Mausoleum” (there are several important differences; for instance, do you know that blah blah blah blah?). If you go down into one of these, you will see something vaguely similar (identical) to the first part of Diablo. Further adventures will reveal crazy shiny ghosts, and barrels that explode for no good reason. They are both very short, contain only one floor, and have nothing of substance to discover or achieve. They are complete wanks.
3) A fairly nondescript brown pad with a target on it that lets you teleport back to town instantly.
If you take too long doing any of these things, the lighting will transition to a faux nighttime.
What’s happening here is very specific. Rather than being on a journey to reach a specific ending (and therefore to feel some kind of tension or . . . anything at all, regarding that ending), you are simply wandering around. When you find something vaguely climactic, it is, really, a dead end. You have to leave the way you came in. In the case of the waypoint, there is a very specific suggestion going on; you will be *skipping* content on a regular basis. The difference between Diablo, where you found entrances every 5 levels, and therefore acted like a save system of sorts, and Diablo II, where every significant area, and most insignificant ones have a tram system connecting you to them, conveniently and quickly, for pennies on the dollar, is striking. Don’t feel tense about moving onward; you will always be able to return to where you were. In fact, you will have to. In fact, do it right now, because we’re done here — this cave is empty, except for dead bodies, and there is no resolution awaiting at its bottom. Meanwhile, time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future.
The day night cycle is particularly defusing. In Tristram, it was always night. A hideous black (and blue and orange) night, the end of which might never be seen by any man living. If you didn’t plumb the depths of that church, was there any certainty that there would be a dawn? While you were in the crypts, what sense of time did you have? The longer you spent in that pit, the more certain you were that it was driving you mad and sapping your will to live. Diablo wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but it was a classic and well executed example of mood — it fulfilled the rogue-like sense of isolation. Your quest was against evil. The world was crumbling with this black, cancerous seed at its center. When the final scene revealed a self-imposed sentence of damnation on your character, how was it not obvious? You weren’t in it for the +10 sword. You weren’t in it to survive. There is only one logical conclusion to bravery and purity in the face of uncompromising evil, and that is death. That is why soldiers come home and smirk at your half-assed attempts to distract them, or glean some kind of personal exposition from them that doesn’t come off as matter-of-fact. Yes, my friend was killed by a piece of white hot metal that traveled so fast it left a blue line in my vision that made it hard for me to see where his head landed for several seconds; are we having burgers tonight, or what, because I’m kind of hungry.
Or else they won’t speak of it at all. It depends on how enchanted they are with survival, I suppose. Volunteer armies have more cavalier soldiers. Drafted armies are full of … well Diablo II characters. Your orders are to purge this field of muppets and report back on the status of any holes in the ground you find. A lack of enthusiasm on the part of that man is not a surprise — what’s a surprise is trying to roleplay someone unenthusiastic. This is a forum for another art form. Protein!
I suppose it might be an incredible piece of breakthrough art that was later continued by World of Warcraft. Yes. I see it now. What can be more enlightening than a game which makes you explore boredom and disinterest? A game that makes you explore reluctance. Escapism which says, “Imagine how hard it would be to escape from *this*’, and, by contrast, makes you long for your dreary-ass life, where, at least, you can choose to play games sometimes.” A game which never makes you feel remote, because no matter where you go, there you are.
The best thing about Diablo II are the cutscenes, and the cutscenes are asynchronous insanity. They track the travels of a potato following his sack through a series of strange circumstances where he tries not to betray an angel, and helps to secret one of the gems that was used to capture the spirit of Diablo, Mephisto, or Baal. I forget which. Probably Baal. The sack ultimately becomes Diablo again, and sets up shop in a cathedral (step up from a church) which, at least, is at the end of several hellish areas, but each of those areas is more like Milton wandering around in his own lost paradise than the series of squared circles which lead to the main event. There’s no trepidation when you’re crossing the final series of lava spanning bridges (with more strange dead-ends and offshoots) to the Death Star attack run that results in summoning and killing the big D.
The crazy part sets in after you do this the first time. Diablo has difficulty levels. Diablo II has repeats. You aren’t playing it on hell mode; you’re playing the game through it, and that involved playing it fully three times at least. However, the game’s level cap at 99 necessitated far more than that. It’s not that you had to do this, but that the lifespan of the game had to be the leveling system, because there was no other purpose to the game. You were listlessly wandering around, destroying piñatas in nowhere in particular. There was no context. Unless you count the secret cow level. Eventually, the SCL would be expanded to encompass a special, Super-Diablo killing process involving more farming and collecting quests. A kind of instanced, non-persistent Everquest. Like a weekend rider meetup to go sixty miles, with an all you can eat pancake breakfast and “bike blessing” to occur before hand. Or Destiny Riders, a Christian Rider’s association in which you and other likeminded individuals share your love of the open road without all that dreadful secularity. God is everywhere. Especially when you’re trying to have fun.
Remember when we said the character select screen had false advertising? That is the cruel hook sunk into your guts to get you on bored (see what we did there?) this meatwagon. Sure, killing Diablo forty times is idiotic. Why do it? Play the game and be done, right? Wrong. That character select screen shows you a character resplendent and confident. They aren’t immaculate, but they promise power. Power that you couldn’t possibly have. That only comes after playing the game for a long time. Unlike the first one, where every spell could be maxxed (and, therefore, what was the point, other than as an academic exercise), Diablo II‘s rigidly limited amount of points, and ways to improve skills beyond the cap, became a form of completism that set up the goal of the game.
Starcraft is, at its best, about the effortless moment of victory when your superior force, with virtually nothing opposing it, finishes hammering the last building into oblivion. In Diablo II, there is no moment of victory; however, there are many small moments of satisfaction, like a mild sub-orgasm that happen when something falls down. To string these mild impulses together into more satisfying circumstances, you must kill handfuls, dozens, even scores of muppets and monsters within spans of seconds. The bigger the pop of trinkets that comes out of them when they fall, the more the immediate emptiness you feel might be less of a concern, so you find yourself, eventually, utterly uninterested in cutting a swath through hordes and hordes of enemies, and focusing *only* on Diablo, or Mephisto (since he was particularly easy to reach in a matter of seconds for an experienced player).
Meanwhile, the game seems to think its own metaphors through without really caring about the implications. The first chapter starts with an endless, midwest series of fields. The kind of oppressive feeling that comes from grassland and small towns with nothing to do is no accident. In that respect, the monsters are welcome company. In this barren series of empty places, they are, at least, inhabitants. There’re caves and the final monastery too, but that’s almost like sight-seeing and revelry in comparison to the nothingness. Then there’s a desert. We know about deserts — they’re empty places where we must walk. At least there’s a city of sorts to return to, and much of the action happens in and around that city. Honestly, they could have done alot more to crush the human spirit in a completely unterrifying way in that chapter, but luckily, they make up for it in the jungles of Kurast, which have given us a bizarre window on the hellishness of being a GI in vietnam, at least in the sense that the jungle never seems to end, all looks the same, and is filled with difficult-to-see shit that’s trying to kill you. When you get to the ashen, post-apocalyptic wasteland that comprises Hell, is it any surprise? Special bonus Expansion Disc commentary: a frozen tundra is *refreshing*. Well, it’s a soothing bright blue.
They’ve learned their lesson in terms of art direction in Diablo III, though, it’s the wrong sort of lesson. III is beautiful. It’s inviting. You get all the action of Diablo, with an exceptionally well executed faux “edge”: deep black rat turds cropping up in the middle of your epic fantasy fruit loops. This is sincere; they’ve fixed the off-putting stuff in Diablo II from what we’ve seen of Diablo III so far. But what kind of statement is that? No definitive voice — just the state-of-the-art in “attract mode” for the modern arcade cabinet in your own home (via the internet). Obviously, we don’t know on the surface whether there’ll be the kind of tension that made the first game what it was, but we’ll take a stab with some syllogistic reasoning.
When we saw the adverts for Silent Hill 4, there was a scene where the character was stomping triumphantly on a dog-like thing. This was meant to be one of many gritty visions that upset you.
It shared a reel with the same-old hallways full of organs that most of us are pretty inured to, unless, for whatever reason, that was our first time seeing one, and a classic Japanese crawling ghoul with hair-over-the-face that we became acquainted with in The Ring; always far more effective in a presentation that was mostly silent. These would leave you unsettled, if it weren’t for the triumphant picture of a man beating the ever-loving shit out of a demon antagonist. What kind of message is defiance in a vision of terror? *We’ll* supply the defiance. You supply the hopeless struggle.
Which is the point, isn’t it. There’s a fine line between being Compelling (whateverthefuckthatmeans) and cordially inviting your clients into a welcoming embrace of a Blue Hawaiian, only to wake up the next morning in your hotel room wondering how they managed to blow their whole evening without remembering any of it — and why are they sore?
Diablo II doesn’t ask our consent. It puts a treadmill down in front of us, trying to entice us to stand on it and move. “Just put one foot on. See? I’ll run it slow. That’s not bad, right?” Then it starts to stack the deck. As I get caught up, it makes it move faster and faster. Eventually, I’m pounding along at a break neck pace going nowhere, and feeling no satisfaction. There isn’t the pump of struggling with a weight. There isn’t the satisfaction of traversing real distance. We suppose we could watch the heart monitor to determine if we’re in the “zone,” as determined by a provided chart that you cross index with age and weight. When we’re sweaty at the end of the twenty minute timer, and it says we’ve burnt 240 calories, well. Fine. So? Where was the fun part.
This is why people don’t go to the gym to run on those damn machines consistently. Sure, you can throw those in occasionally, but if you’re a man, you go to the gym to feel your entire body Come Alive after you’ve picked up a piece of metal that is Too Heavy. If you’re a woman, you go to feel the acceptance and mutual permission that you give a room full of other women when some way-too-exciteable jazzercise instructor tells you to try to keep your leg as high as you can — but just make sure you really *go* for it — as you determine, yourself, that you’ll be doing what *you* can do, and to hell with that psychotic bunny at the head of the room. We’re all different, but everyone is beautiful, etc. During that bracing experience, you may even go so far as to enter a mild frenzy state in which you get what the guys are getting every five minutes by lifting, but every thirty seconds, as you complete short series of exercises that burn deep in the muscle mass. Of course, the guys have a luminal period (ALWAYS I AM COMING — Yes, it is safe for work).
Your barbarian either plays hot-potato with the monsters until they fall down, or he cuisinarts through their throng until you can’t hear any screaming. If there are other players in the game with you, then it becomes a perverse uncooperative game where you pool your resources to either A) liquidate monsters together, as a unit, and fight like animals over the orgasmic fragments of the loot drops or B) diverge into smaller and smaller groups until someone finds the “goal” of the area, and everyone comes together.
You’d really have to sit on your hand, though, to get what feels like the satisfaction of a real game out of any of this, and even then, you’d be using your imagination to get all the good parts.
But why zero stars?
Because we spent hundreds of hours doing this bullshit. We’ve spent even more time playing World of Warcraft. Like it or not, we are dull animals that have come out of a jungle where, if it moves, and it makes noise, and produces a *reward*, then . . . shit. It must matter! Right? Why would a brain develop to determine the difference between empty rewards and real ones? It just spent umpteen-million years developing the capacity to recognize rewards which are above the primal level of basic needs — avoiding pain, consuming energy, and screwing as often as possible; the fact that we recognize liars is already kind of amazing.
But if we were all lie detectors, liars would have no place: and they do. In fact, most of our social interactions are based on lies with a genuine basis (restraint is the most basic form of lie — but we won’t get into this right now). Diablo II plays on our vulnerabilities to the hilt. Victory. Ease. Laziness. Suggestibility in a state of confusion. A monster? Kill it. Avast, a thing o’ th’ ground? Pick it up. A dead end? Come about and find another path. A bigger monster? Repeat previous behaviors . . . only moreso.
Atmosphere goes a long way toward making these useless escapades more enticing. For that reason, Diablo would be a one-star game. But when it is nothing but a soulless and, seemingly, cynical attempt to ensnare you, without any thought to *what* feeling “addicted” to an experience really means to a thinking being, then it is evil.
The highest compliment of a game could be considered that you must keep playing and playing endlessly. That it’s just the kind of “one more turn” experience, or “one more round,” or “one more level.” We’ve inadvertently seen that *this* is the environment. This is the selection pressure on entertainment in gaming. Games must make us play them . . . forever and ever. Those twins in The Shining are Blizzard entertainment. Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” moment is the hours of your life that go away when you could have tried so many other experiences in the time that you spent killing the same boss, in the same way, for the five-hundredth time hoping not to see Isenheart’s Case fall on the ground again.
Diablo II gets zero stars. It might as well be World of Warcraft, as well, but why say the same thing essentially twice? Besides, the formula in Diablo II is what makes WoW what it is. The fact that it is more enticing and popular is really a matter of refining the grim evil hatched in Blizzard North.
A zero star game has to kill other games. It has to not just be empty, but wither any other genuine and good things that might try to grow in its presence. If you crave personal competition, you will fight other players . . . in Diablo II. To make matters worse, you will have to play the fortune cookie monster game part to get the equipment you’ll need to compete. How about playing cooperatively? Same story. What if you meet a monster that you can’t defeat? Skip it. Walk away. You won’t come back later, because if you start a new game, it won’t be there. You’ll probably be too busy running past most of the content to get to the”‘good stuff,” anyway, that it won’t be an issue.
Diablo II took Unreal Tournament from me. It took Freedom Force. It took Dead or Alive (whichever). It took Soul Reaver, and Power Stone, and ReVolt. It took Hunter: The Reckoning. It took Ikaruga (note: It did not actually take Ikaruga).
Those discs are *still* in our collection, and, through the magic of Blizzard Online, will always be like an old needle and a shrunken balloon that we don’t want to think about. Every now and then, we’ll look at mods that have been made which adjust the dosage and high, and be tempted into reinstalling. Or at least, we might, if we weren’t already hooked on the far more debilitating World of Warcraft — the struggle against which is a daily concern. Our friends are all dead but for that addiction. Dawn of War II came out. It’s not the-most-amazing-thing-ever (in fact, it seems to be learning entirely too much from Diablo II, but it’s not nearly as shallow and evil), but will we be able to get six friends to join us? No. We have more than six friends. More than six with the money, time, and computers who might want to play games for several hours a night. But they are in the harsh claws of the wailing banshee which Blizzard has created.
Sure, it might have started in Everquest (I would argue that anyone who plays Everquest is pathological, rather than getting taken advantage of — if you can give yourself over to *that*, then you’d give yourself over to anything, and it’s not the game’s fault; still, I suppose Valium looks like a pussy drug to a heroine user), but so what? Blizzard crossed over, and they did it by applying genuine talent to the development of a sinister destroyer of worlds. You might not like a given Halo 3 or Gears of War, but at least people who play those games are capable of passing the controller to whoever’s next without having lost a relationship and endangering a career in the mean time.
Thus Spake Zarathustra.