This will likely be long, but I will TL/DR it at the end.
Note: This WILL contain major spoilers for Diablo 3 and Borderlands 2. You have been warned.
Essentially, while Diablo 3 is not quite the childhood-killing catastrophe that some seem to view it as, it is to me one of the biggest let-downs since Hellgate.
On the other hand, the game has a *lot* of potential and I firmly believe that it could be great. However that would mean the developers going back and cutting/editing some stuff in previous acts, rather than just adding a new one.
So...I thought I would use some of the games I've played in recent memory that I really enjoyed to illuminate aspects of Diablo 3 that I think need improment.
First up is Borderlands 2. While this game definitely wasn't perfect, it did have one of the single most engaging storylines and character sets in recent gaming. As an ARPG...it's pretty much king of the hill in this regard. And so this topic will mostly involve the storyline.
As an avid storyteller, especially in the context of games (I have been a Dungeon Master for nearly 16 years!) there are a few basic aspects of storytelling that I probably should outline first:
The 'main character'. He is the driving force of the story. In videogames, there are several types of protagonist, but the two that are relevant here are:
- The 'empty' protagonist.
Very common in videogames, especially older ones. An empty protagonist has little or no interaction with other characters in the game. They just do their thing and the world responds to them. Investment is gained from the secondary characters around them or via immersion in a very unique and atmospheric setting.
This is an extremely effective storytelling device in that it allows the player to project themselves onto the protagonist.
Good examples would be Gordon Freeman in the Half Life games, the main character in Dark/Demon's Souls and the protagonist of Diablo 2.
- The 'linear' protagonist.
Common in modern gaming. This is a fully developed character with their own goals and arc. While the player has no real control over the story, they nonetheless control the physical actions of the protagonist as the story unfolds.
This is effective in a smaller, highly character driven narrative whereby the story revolves around the protagonist almost entirely.
For example: Kratos from God of War, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.
The 'bad guy' in the story, or the primary bad guys.
There are two major types of antagonist that apply here:
- The Ominous Presence.
This is a bad guy that is never or seldom seen or even much discussed. When discussed, the emphasis is on how powerful and dangerous it is. The player is allowed to use their imagination to turn the OP into a threat through their own imagination.
For example: Sauron in LOTR, Diablo in the original games.
- The Rival.
This is a bad guy that constantly pops up and interacts with the player. Their story and actions are a primary part of the story and the player is constantly given reasons to become invested in, while wanting to defeat the Rival.
For example: Jon Irenicus in Baldurs Gate 2, Wesker in the Resident Evil games.
Non player characters.
These are the characters other than the primary antagonist(s) and the main protagonist(s). These are incredibly powerful devices in videogames and are often more memorable than the protagonist.
When used correctly they provide emotional investment, motivation for actions, exposition and a tool to expand the world.
For example: Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, Cain in Diablo,
Arcs are the character specific storylines. A character starts at point A, encounters some sort of challenge and either overcomes or fails to overcome it, arriving at point B. In 'linear' protagonist driven plots, this arc will make up most of the story. In 'empty' protagonist stories, the arcs of the secondary characters drive the game.
'Show Don't Tell' Storytelling
Thank you MovieBob and Mr. Plinkett for making this term more common use. Basically this is a hallmark of good storytelling, especially in games.
SDT storytelling doesn't mean that nobody says anything. What it means is letting the narrative unfold via events rather than exposition. Of course some exposition will always be needed, in a game as rich in Lore as Diablo...but there are ways and means to do this well.
The 'Oh Damn!' and 'Hell Yeah!' Moments.
Hard to summarize, but these are moments that take the player semi unawares and really push their buttons emotionally. These are probably going to be the parts in the game that the player remembers long after finishing it.
The key here is that this *must* be SDT storytelling or it will fail. As I will explain later, Diablo 3 is a prime example of what I mean by this.
For example: Finding Tyrael in Diablo 2, the death of your girlfriend in Prey, the 'would you kindly?' moment in Bioshock, beating Ares in God of War, Neeshka's fate in Neverwinter Nights 2. Fus Ro Dah!
Borderlands 2: Well...what made it so good?
While lacking in some ways as a game (and a lot of it's DLC sucked) BL2 had an utterly brilliant story. It would honestly take me several pages to talk about everything that was awesome about this story, but it kept me playing even when I was bored of the game itself.
I honestly cannot think of another game in recent memory that did this as well other than Baldur's Gate and Bioshock Infinite.
Borderlands 2 is the perfect example of an empty protagonist game. Our main character, aside from his class and a few one liners, has very little interaction with the characters in the game world. On the other hand, the other characters in this game are so well done that it works...we invest ourselves into the world and project ourselves onto the protagonist.
We aren't told we want to do something. We are given *reasons* to want to do it. Show don't Tell Storytelling in a nutshell.
Once again, BL2 is nearly perfect here. It has both a strong 'Rival' antagonist and an 'Ominous Presence'...both of whom are compelling and fit their roles wonderfully.
Handsome Jack is probably the coolest original video game nemesis that I can think of from modern gaming outside of Japan. He is incredibly unique, wonderfully layered, a genuine threat and really compelling once we start getting to know him...and yet we absolutely want to kill this guy more than anything ever. He is funny. He is charasmatic. He is memorable. He is evil as hell and loves being evil. He is like some bizarre combination of The Joker and Archer. And even beyond this there are moments in the game where we actually sympathize with him. So awesome.
The Warrior on the other hand is seldom discussed aside from a vague but grave threat in the future. Perfect Ominous Presence, setting up both a cool driving motivation for characters and hyping up the final boss.
Yeah, yeah, I'm still kissing up to BL2 here. But really...how good were the other characters? Even the minor throwaways like CL4P-TP and Sir Hammerhock are memorable and have at least one fist pumpingly awesome moment or incredibly funny bit.
And as for the rest...well, where do I start? Well, let me go into a bit more depth in the next section.
There are too many great arcs in this game for me to really break down. From Jack's arc involving his daughter (holy crap that was some dark stuff) to the main characters all having some sort of motivation and intertwining plotlines (and this being in an ARPG about blowing up guys in hockey masks with lightning shooting rocket launchers).
So let's choose one - which to me illustrates one of Diablo 3's worst scenes compared to one of BL2's best.
The Death Of Bloodwing.
Bloodwing is an extremely minor character. She is a pet bird belonging to Mordecai, one of the minor main NPCs.
About half of the way through the game, the player is trying to infiltrate a laboratory alongside Mordecai, when Bloodwing is captured. What follows is easily one of the most memorable bits in the game.
At the end of the level, Jack unleashes a pumped up monster which - to Mordecai's horror - is revealed to be a severely mutated and berserk Bloodwing. Eventually you and Mordecai are able to bring her down without killing her...upon which Jack, out of pure spite, causes her to self destruct.
This not only turns Mordecai into a grief stricken revenge obsessed maniac for the remainder of the game, but absolutely cements the players desire to track down and kill the bastard. I must admit...I shed a manly tear here.
As an added plus, in the final mission when fighting alongside Mordecai, he constantly screams "This is for my bird!" while blowing enemies apart. It's hard to explain just how affecting this whole bit was.
As explained above, the game is artful at allowing events and the arcs of it's characters shape the story. When exposition is required, it is given through radio transmissions and dialogues that also help to shape the characters and reinforce the plot and the world.
The 'Oh Damn!' and 'Hell Yeah!' Moments.
Again, far too many moments to go into here (Tiny Tina's sidestory, Jack's daughter, the entire final mission etc) . But my personal favorite had to be Sanctuary itself.
So...Sanctuary. Big fortified city. One of the last holdouts on the planet against Jack. Sort of like Zion in the Matrix, except above ground. And colourful.
When you first get to Sanctuary there in a mini arc that involves a secret defense plan that will allow the city to take off and fly - which seems from the get go (and turns out to be) complete rubbish. It's all quite funny and well done and definitely pokes fun at players' collective expecations in videogames.
And then...later in the game, after a major character betrays you (except she doesn't really...ugh, just play the game!) in a moment almost as awesome as seeing Goku going Super Saiyan the first time...your character is teleported outside the city and gets to watch as...they actually pull it off.
In what has to be one of the most fist pumpingly awesome and "no WAY!" inducing moments that I can remember from recent games, the entire city is teleported away from harm and becomes a massive flying base in the sky. I get goosebumps just thinking about this.
Continued in part 2.