I’ve had a little extra free time lately, what with losing my job and all. Thankfully, Diablo III is always there, a time-devouring Langolier to help me deal with any extra hours I might have just lying around. It’s just been released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and a nudge from a friend suggesting we could play co-op was all it took for me to return to it yet again.
I tried to gently communicate this when I reviewed the Reaper of Souls expansion for GameSpot back in March—I now wish I’d been a bit more direct about this—but I believe that Diablo III is particularly soulless, even for a major video game. Playing it, you can’t not be aware of its existence as a calculated product, one that, as surely and transparently as any much-maligned Facebook game, is ruthlessly, scientifically designed to make you addicted with a smooth and pleasing loop of rewards that you earn with just barely enough effort to make you feel like you actually did something to earn them.
The contrast between Diablo III and the other game I’ve been playing lately, Dark Souls II, is so stark that it has changed the way I think about both games, making me view one more critically and deepening my appreciation for the other. Comparing them directly is a bit odd since they have such different goals and I think they both achieve their respective goals pretty well, but the contrast does highlight for me why I think Dark Souls II’s design is so much more noble, and so much more rewarding.
Diablo III is drenched in lore. The game seems terrified of any kind of mystery or ambiguity; it bends over backwards to explain the history of every noteworthy figure in its story, every character class, every location. It never lets you forget that someone at Blizzard came up with detailed lore about pretty much everything. But the lore mistakes intricacy for quality. Lore entries have voice actors rattling off bog-standard monologues packed with names of people and artifacts and demons, and how anyone can keep it all straight or muster the enthusiasm to care about any of it is beyond me. Perhaps worst of all is the way in which you encounter lore, in books you find everywhere.
One example: On your travels, you absurdly find multiple satchels lost by the character Deckard Cain, each of which contains some of his wisdom about the world of Sanctuary or the monsters who inhabit it. The purpose of lore seems to be to reinforce my investment in the world and its history, but how can it do that when the method in which the lore is communicated is so goofy as to undermine any investment in the believability of the world that I might try to make?
Dark Souls II uses lore sparingly. There are hints of a richly developed history in the environments themselves, in things characters say to you, and in item descriptions, but the game isn’t afraid of ambiguity. It isn’t afraid to let the world stand on its own, and this makes it feel like a mysterious place full of secrets, most of which will never be divulged. Who is that great monster I just defeated? He is simply known as the last giant. There seems to me something deeply sad about that. I don’t need the game to explain to me the history of the giants, or how this one came to be the last. In fact I’d rather not have it spelled out for me in extreme detail. This mystery and ambiguity is so much more beautiful and haunting and meaningful to me than Diablo’s insistence on illuminating every shred of its world’s history through ceaseless yammering. The world of Dark Souls II can take on symbolic dimensions in my mind. The world of Diablo III, drained of all mystery, feels about as profound and symbolic to me as a gallon of milk I bought at Target.
Gender, gear, and character
In Diablo III, you pick from one of five classes. You can play each as either a woman or a man but that’s the extent of it. There are no character customization options. And that’s fine. Diablo has never been about character. It’s always been about the gear. The clothes and weapons make the hero. I can’t project myself onto the hero in anything but the most superficial sense; the hero is just an action figure with which you set out to play dress-up with an increasingly impressive assortment of armor and accessories.
Dark Souls II’s character creation process allows for a surprising amount of fluidity where gender is concerned, with sliders for masculinity and femininity of appearance regardless of gender. This, along with all the other character customization options, lets you create a character in which you might see yourself, if you wish.
I haven’t exhaustively researched this, but in my limited experience, both games seem pretty good about avoiding the common issue of gear looking significantly different when equipped by a female hero than by a male one, and letting female heroes, like their male counterparts, be defined more by their actions than by their gender.
Gameplay and meaning
In Diablo III, you are as a god. You’re a nephalem, which as far as I can tell is the Diablo version of having a lot of midi-chlorians in your bloodstream. You are inherently superior, capable of things other people just aren’t. You are special. The best. And you didn’t even have to work to become that way. You just are.
And because you are so special, you deserve special things, and you don’t have to work very hard to earn them. You can rain lightning down from the heavens, sending a dozen demons flying into oblivion in an instant without breaking a sweat. You are already near-perfect, and whatever self-improvement you do experience just happens to you. Enemies flock to you in droves, you slaughter them, and then boom, you are suddenly even better at slaughtering them. So rather than give any real thought to internal self-improvement, you just get better clothes, better weapons, better everything. This is the only real way to make yourself better. It’s a shallow and materialistic game, one that says you needn’t look at yourself and that better things make you a better person. It says that you should be rewarded constantly for minimal effort, and unless you are playing on Hardcore mode in which character death is permanent, it minimizes the impact of failure.
In Dark Souls II, the balance is reversed. Good gear is important, but the most important improvements you make over the course of the game are the improvements you make to yourself. And they do not come easily. Dark Souls II does not make me feel like I am inherently special, like I am, without even trying, simply better than any other warrior who might take up the quest. Just about any enemy I encounter must be cautiously reckoned with, and the rewards are small. I must carefully weigh the benefits of getting ever-so-slightly better in this area or that area. The path of personal growth—soul growth, spiritual growth, real, internal growth—is difficult and painful, each tiny step forward hard-earned.
Diablo III is a pleasant escape, a metaphor for life as we might want it to be—a journey in which we are special and don’t have to do much work to find great success and incredible reward. Dark Souls II is a metaphor for life as it seems to me it actually is—a grueling journey in which you will fail constantly, and only by picking yourself up and facing the challenges before you again and again will you become a better, stronger person. And because progress in Dark Souls II is so much harder to achieve and because the rewards are so much more scant, they’re also much more meaningful and genuinely rewarding. I’m going to keep playing Diablo III; especially given some of the professional challenges in my life recently, sometimes these days I want something easy. But it’s just empty calories. A well-designed product that goes down smooth and leaves me feeling pleasantly stimulated but unnourished.
Dark Souls II is, of course, a product as well, but it has poetry in its writing and its design. It is an interactive reminder that keeping a tiny flame of hope burning in the depths of the soul can make all the difference.