Welcome to our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans, nagging questions, and whatever else we feel like talking about. No matter what the topic, we invite everyone in the comments to tell us: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’m pretty sure Diablo III has a plot. I’ve been playing it again on my PlayStation 4, and the edition I have comes with a subtitle: Reaper Of Souls. That sounds serious, right? That definitely seems like something that should have a story behind it. And the game works hard to confirm these suspicions. It’s organized in a five-act structure, with impressive cutscenes punctuating the beginning of each of those acts. Those cutscenes offer up some of the game’s most gorgeous, striking visuals, and so I can only assume that, on some level, they matter. There are characters you have to talk to during every play-through, characters with names. This can’t all be nonsense, can it?
But I have to say, however beautiful those cutscenes look and however many goofy fantasy names and settings the game throws at you, I don’t think there’s really any story here at all. Oh, there’s incident, sure; something with demons trying to take over the world and angels fighting them, and I’m sure there are magical artifacts involved somehow. But the whole thing is such a mess of cliché and po-faced nonsense that it’s impossible to get invested in any of it. Your character moves from place to place, killing thousands of monsters and following the humorless commands of various forgettable NPCs. Once, you kill someone’s wife because she’s possessed; apart from that, I can’t think of a single mission that meant more than checking a box.
I love Diablo III, but it’s the sort of love that I can’t think about too much. (Which means this essay may be a mistake.) Generally the games I invest time in are games that establish an emotional relationship with the player, that offer something more than just button pressing, whether it’s in the writing or the mechanics. I love The Last Of Us and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past equally, but for completely different reasons—and yet, I would be entirely comfortable defending the quality of either. Which isn’t to say that Diablo III is a bad game, per se. The controls are fluid, and it looks nice. It’s just…
Why the hell am I playing it? After a couple of hours (at most), you’ve basically seen everything the core mechanics have to offer. Here are some attacks, here are some demons, have at. The settings change, but the changes are largely cosmetic, more a way to distract you from the familiarity than anything like actual depth. Sometimes you fight bigger demons, and occasionally you’ll find partners to help you on your quest. An obsessive could probably detail the granular differences between those partners and between the various beasts you encounter, but for more shallow players like myself, the experience is so simplistic as to border on the absurd.
I love it, though. I get burned out from time to time, but when I’m in the right mood, this is exactly the sort of experience I want: something straightforward and relatively easy, with just enough novelty to hold my attention. And there is some novelty. A big reason the game is so addictive is that it strings players along with various rewards, both in terms of character ability and equipment. Every combat presents an opportunity to gain experience and find gear, and the incremental rewards that experience and gear offer are the carrot that keeps pulling you along. It’s a loop that can be surprisingly satisfying for hours on end—go questing, get stuff, use it to make better stuff, hone your character’s skills, learn new attacks so you can kill more monsters to get better stuff and hone your character’s skills. And so on.
I can waste hours on this, and lately I have been: closed off in my room, a random episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 running on my laptop, death and destruction flashing across the TV screen. In fact, lately it seems like this is the only kind of game I can really get into—something that barely rises above the level of popping bubble wrap. It forces me to question what I really look for in video games. Escapism is one thing; this is a flow that borders on self-induced hypnosis. There’s nothing wrong with that (at times of great stress, having something mindless to drone out to can be a godsend), but as soon as I start to question just what I’m actually getting out of the experience, the pleasure is lost. So yes, writing this essay was definitely a mistake.