On Diablo 3: Addiction and alienation

I gave Diablo 3 a grumpy review this week, which surprises even me, considering that right after I finished writing that review I went home and played Diablo 3 deep into the night. After having already spent a week of late nights playing the game in order to write the review, you'd think that I would celebrate having finished writing the piece by getting a full night of sleep. Nope.

The biggest draw of the game is its spectacle; vibrant, glowing demons emerge from shadows to surround you in perfect number, just enough to elevate your heart rate. The next chest of loot or hidden stash of gold always lies just ahead, tantalizing you with its sparkle. You rush forward to catch your just desserts, only to be swarmed with enemies once more. And just once more, before it really is bedtime ... or perhaps one more time. Almost to the next level. Oh, just leveled up? Better try out the new skills ... Ooh, new weapon. Gotta give that a few swings. And then sleep. Maybe. Later.

But addiction does not equal emotional investment. I feel nothing for these characters and their plight. Perhaps due to the alienation that comes from playing bird's-eye-view games (Jenn Frank does a better job dissecting this in her piece "Diablo 3 is Adorable"). Or perhaps it's Diablo 3's focus on social interactions with fellow players, rather than on the interactions with in-game characters (Denis Farr's account, "Contemporary Diablo; Or, A Review Of Social Elements," provides a good summary of the changes since Diablo 2). Or perhaps it's the online-only nature of the game, as well, that makes Diablo 3 feel shallow and transient, as though Blizzard could yank it all away in a moment if we don't keep collecting and combining items and clicking. Always clicking.

As I played, I kept comparing Diablo 3 to Borderlands, a game inspired by the Diablo franchise. Borderlands suffered from a similar lack of narrative urgency and mystery, but it is first-person and it lacks the social atmosphere of Diablo 3, thus encouraging players to notice the story ... or lack thereof. And yet, Borderlands's characters still felt more memorable to me than Leah and Adria and That Guy Who Crafts Gems And Talks A Lot.

Perhaps the mechanic of picking up recordings and diaries on the ground and listening to voice actors read them has run its course - or perhaps it was never good in the first place, but no one can think of an alternative. It does seem to contradict basic fiction-writing advice ("show, don't tell" - or, in games, "do, don't tell). Both Borderlands and Diablo 3 involve many of these "journals"; at least Borderlands had Southern accents and funnier jokes. The main draw of Diablo 3's journals is that they give you experience points, so we all pick them up like lemmings, but do any of us enjoy them? And those cut-scenes - they do look incredible, don't they? If only the characters would keep their mouths shut during them. And the in-game dialogue ...oof.

Diablo 3 feels cartoonish and overwritten, but Blizzard has filled the game with pyramid schemes -- uh, I mean level trees -- and other sparkly distractions. It's got enough addictive elements and graphical wonders to keep reviewers and players alike fawning over its elegant construction. I've read many reviews that mention Diablo 3's story and dismiss it with a gentle smile, as though expecting the narrative to be even mediocre is asking too much.

So I'm sure I'm "missing the point" by dissing Diablo 3's story. The game's addictiveness has kept me coming back, so haven't the folks at Blizzard done their job? They've gotten me to "care" about the game ... but, see, they haven't gotten me to care about the game without scare quotes. I'm coming back because the programmers have been so clever, not because the writers have been. I don't want to find out what happens; I want to keep clicking on monsters. And damn it, I will give the developers all the high fives and credit they want for that - although being commended for creating the perfect storm of addictiveness may not feel like a compliment to them. Or perhaps it will. Perhaps that was the point.

But if that is the point, then why bother animating the cut-scenes? Why write so much in-game dialogue? I tend to watch every video game cut-scene, read every word of dialogue, and try my best to follow along with even the most convoluted of plotlines. I don't know why - maybe because I like to pretend that there's more to my hobby than moving a cursor over an object and pressing a button until the screen changes. But this time I found myself relieved rather than annoyed when my teammates would skip past dialogue or talk over a diary we all picked up. I would ask them, from time to time, out of some strange sense of obligation: "What is happening in the story? Does anyone know? Who is this character? Why are they asking us this?" My teammates would just laugh. And I would laugh too, because I could not get myself to care either.

The best times I've had playing this game have taken place in voice-chat with friends, and even almost-strangers and friends of friends, as we trade loot and make up our own jokes about our characters. Our own role-playing, our own stories, our own narratives. Diablo 3 doesn't even offer in-game voice chat; all of these interactions have been happening in Skype. We've had to go the extra mile to "add real dialogue" to the game, on our own.

But what of players who want to play alone, who never want to enter the auction house, who don't care about the achievements or the social network of Blizzard seems to have been ignoring them, this time around. Those folks aren't the real money-makers, anyway. They probably focus on boring stuff like "story." After all, they don't even care about the auction house -- what's wrong with those jerks?

Regardless of how Diablo 3 is "meant" to be played and whether I am "doing it wrong" (as though any game could be experienced the "wrong" way!), I'll keep playing on and off for a while yet, whether my buddy list is empty or full. But what I feel for Diablo 3 is lust, not love. And that feeling is fleeting.

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