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Hack'n'Slash Fic: On Diablo III Difficulty and Dumbness

Night of the demons

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I’ve been playing Diablo III solo, in snatched time during the wee small hours of the last few days. Late to the party as always I know, but the urge to muse ‘pon what I’ve played so far was too strong to resist.

I was unlucky, and yet incredibly lucky, to be away during Diablo III launch week. That means I’ve missed the worst of the server troubles resultant from the blatantly mercenary and ill-considered always-online DRM for singleplayer. That means I’ve been able to simply login and play the thing, leaving my my mind free to consider Diablo III itself, rather than its nasty corporate trappings. Like I say: lucky.
I’m glad I don’t have to give it a score. I’m not sure I could. I’m digging it more than John did, as despite being relatively basic in the graphical department it sure knows how to present a satisfying spectacle when it wants to. The escalating character powers are the greatest treat, turning into feats of gigantic, high-speed mudersurdity once some of the mid-game Runes have been added to them. Watching my Monk summon a giant iron bell from the skies then punch it to release a wave of death, or performing a Flash-style kick that clouts seven enemies in about as many milliseconds never gets old. truly.

At the same time I’m far more conscious than I’d like to be that it’s a stupid game for stupid people (or, at least, clever people acting stupidly). I include myself among the latter without hesitation, needless to say, but that doesn’t mean that I want any game to make me feel that I am indeed stupid. Click, click, click, collect, collect, collect – we all know that song so well and outside of the rightfully divisive auction house Diablo III doesn’t do much to remix it. It is purely about the methodical eradication of everything that moves, and the methodical collection of everything that doesn’t (and isn’t architecture).

There is nothing wrong with that. There is quite a lot right with it in fact, but there have been long stretches where my self-awareness of my own stupidity became undeniable. I’ve realised since that the problem isn’t quite what it appears to be. Yes, it’s intrinsically a hollow game, but it’s not been designed to be otherwise – it’s consciously a time sink, an unapologetic communion with that strange, silent, sleepless, social-phobic lizard part of our brain that so tirelessly hungers for ever-greater intangible numbers. Frankly, my eyebrows would have popped right off my face and flown to Saturn if there had been any attempt at depth beyond the mathematically tactical. Mathemactical.

There is, one might argue, The Story and The Lore, which will doubtless attract the sort of rabid fandom that Blizzard’s narratively generic but backstory-soaked fictional universes always have done. Despite gravitas and tragedy and aggressive attempts to put Diablo’s lead characters on pedestals, I don’t truly believe there’s been a concerted effort to make it a game with depth. The character animations, acting and writing are so openly pantomime, superficial and 90s videogamey that it simply seems impossible that so many development veterans could have waved it out the door believing it to be serious, moving or nuanced.

There is, I notice, a strange but palpable disparity between the cartoonish writing and acting in the game proper, and the more polished and dramatic in the between-chapter cinematics. Those go hell for leather in terms of spectacle, as is Blizzard games’ wont, and seem to have derived from an entirely different mindset to the kids’ TV banality of the in-game toy-people.

At the very least, I suspect plot, narrative and characterisation are treated by Blizzard as merely props for the game mechanics. D3’s characters, as were Starcraft II’s, are heroic and villainous stereotypes built upon the bedrock of countless tales of myth, cinema and comicbook. They are ambulatory sign-posts for the action to follow, possessing only as much personality as is required to instantly grasp their purpose in this surely consciously shallow tale.

I digress. Diablo III is certainly stupid on many levels, but its calculating heart is anything but. It’s computer chess writ at lightning pace and with countless bolt-on new pieces. That is to say, it’s always and forever the same thing. You can change the look of the board and you can raise the challenge of the opponenents, but the game itself is reliably unchanging no matter how far through it you play, no matter how many times you play it. What can and likely will change is you – your skill. And that – finally – brings me to Diablo III’s true failing. You can’t select the difficulty until you’ve completed the game. You’re stuck on Normal.

Normal is a piece of piss. Normal is insultingly easy. Normal is, very often, incredibly tedious when tackled solo, because it can broadly be played on auto-pilot. Finish the game and you’ll unlock a harder setting. I haven’t done that yet (I’m only just approaching Act III) but between web reports and studying the skills, runes and weapons carefully it’s very clear to me that the game intends to be highly tactical. Death is intended to be a constant and pressing danger, and keeping it a bay requires near-absolute understanding of what does what in combination with what and what tools will best amplify it.

Except, for the 20-odd hours playing directly through the campaign on Normal apparently takes, that simply isn’t the case. I can’t speak for the later chapters admittedly, but I’m some ten hours in now and I’ve died once. That was because I took a phone call while some goat-men were bothering me, and my muscular grip upon the left mouse button was briefly interrupted.

Especially coming off the back of Legend of Grimlock’s unblinking cruelty, I crave the higher difficulty settings. I want to be challenged, I want to be making agonising choices about which runes to equip and which skills to quickslot. Goddamn it, I want to die. Beat me harder master, harder! But I’ll have to finish the game on the numbing Normal first. I’m enjoying myself. I feel the desperate, urgent, constant craving for better loot, the attendant transitory sense of progress and the giggly delight whenever I use a new skill or briefly overpowered weapon for the first time.

But the thought of another 10, 20, who knows how many more hours of this tedium, pleasant though it may be, makes me do what it’s so terribly important not to do with a Diablo-like.

It makes me catch sight of myself in the mirror and ask ‘why am I doing this? Why I am spending these hours like this?’ Away, away foul thoughts, nagging conscience. Just let me indulge myself. So, game, treat me mean. Please.

Salvation, I’m told, may lie in co-op. So far, I’ve been playing the game in the strange twilight hours of 10 pm to 2 am and have no companions to call on, but tomorrow I’ll change that, and hope that more players = more monsters = more challenge, and a more involved way to plough through the campaign to then unlock Nightmare mode.

Or perhaps there could simply be an official update to make difficulty selectable right from the start. Yessir, that would do it. In the good old days, before that lord of hell that is unwavering DRM seized control of PC gaming, someone would have made a mod or a hack or a trainer. Now, our destinies, our choices, our histories, our ability to choose and change, even the option of when and where we might play, is all locked securely away in that damnable cloud.

I grieve for my lost power of choice. I grieve that I can only be a masochist on this game’s puzzlingly protracted terms. Yet I can’t wait until I can. Sock it to me, baby.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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