Some time ago I posted a simple question on Reddit: why do we play Diablo 2? After all, at the beginning of the 22nd Ladder Season, the game had thousands upon thousands of players ready to face the hordes of Hell. As mentioned in my Who am I and Why do I Game post, Diablo was certainly a big part of my childhood, yet the reason for this strange affection is slippery. The game is, after all, not exactly new and pretty: it has dated combat and mechanics, retro visuals and sound, a clunky interface and community management options, and we have just played it so many times at this point that ignoring current titles in order to play this old and dusty ARPG just seems, well, irrational.
I required the help of Reddit users because I myself could not muster the exact reason. Nostalgia obviously plays a part, but it doesn’t seem to function in the same manner for other games, or at least it doesn’t seem to be enough to continuously draw me back. Much in the same fashion, the habit and comfort of playing a game one already knows are soothing to the mind, but it doesn’t seem to stop me from sampling many other titles, even those who are indirect successors to Diablo 2, such as Path of Exile or Grim Dawn.
Unsurprisingly, many users answered. What is odd is the variety of causes and individual motivations that drive people to play. This, in my opinion, reveals how multifaceted this game is and how all its different layers are crafted with care and pure passion.
Some answers were quite humoristic (“I need something to play while waiting for Diablo 2 Remastered to come out”, “Still looking for that Ber or Jah rune!”, “This game is cursed!”), while others did make a point and greatly helped me focus on individual factors.
As previously mentioned, nostalgia does play a role. Many of us were, after all, young adolescents or even children when we first created a character, came up with an awfully ridiculous name, met Akara, and ventured forth into the ghastly, cursed lands outside the Rogue Encampment. Our childish innocence, coupled with the game’s gradually unveiling design, made everything important and adventurous. To walk into the unknown is, for a child, the greatest feat and video games offered such an experience in a way in which no other facet of modern life could.
In gaming culture, the urge to re-experience something is usually defined as an “itch”, but I perceive such a term as rather reductive: there is something more profound and emotional about it.
Life goes on and gradually becomes more tedious and boring. The mind is difficult to satisfy, as it thirsts for more powerful experiences, while the dullness of mundane life oppresses the senses and the spirit. Worries, issues, money, time, performance, social relations, headaches, heartaches, and (for the less fortunate) family and children, are all elements that take shape with adulthood. Sometimes looking back to joyful, simpler days, and repeating the actions that used to make us happy, especially when as easy to access as a PC game, gives us comfort and a feeling of subtle bliss.
Furthermore, some users put into words something that was lingering in my mind: the dark, cold, and eerie tone of the game, as well as a variety of small details, reminded them somewhat of the geographical location they used to live in; while others linked their gaming experience to their childhood friends. It is, indeed, odd that I feel the same way. As if in those years, the gaming world and the real one were intertwined in some way, somehow contaminating each other. I still recall the characters of players I met during my childhood as if they were linked to their personalities.
Immersion, vibe, atmosphere. Words such as these play a pivotal role when attempting to describe the game, and inevitably pop up in every conversation regarding it. This is because they are part of the immediate attraction that Diablo exerts upon the player.
More than specific events, what players remember is what the game feels like. Its gothic fantasy setting, unnerving art style, restrictive usage of space, slow and well-written character dialogue, coupled with quests and a storyline that spells dread and ruin generate an unearthly tone that is both haunting and utterly unforgettable.
Diablo II inherits the spirit of its 1996 predecessor, Diablo. Set in the small and gloomy Tristram, Diablo was the story of a lone adventurer who would descend the dungeons beneath the town in order to discover the fate of the king’s son and face the evil that lurks beneath. While walking in the footsteps of the Horadrim, an ancient brotherhood of wizards, a claustrophobic darkness envelops the player: “Take heed and bear witness to the truths that lie herein, for they are the last legacy of the Horadrim”. Danger creeps in the shadows, while the Lord of Terror himself preys on the weak.
In the final cinematic, the hero appears as a decrepit robed figure, barely standing while resisting the demon that now resides within. “The soulstone burns with hellfire, as an eerie red glow blurs your vision. Fresh blood flows into your eyes and you begin to hear the tormented whispers of the damned.” The end is but the dawning of a new darkness.
In the second game, the player pursues the hero, who is traveling east, “always east”, while slowly succumbing to the power of the demon. The story is narrated through the eyes of the weak and pathetic Marius, enthralled by The Dark Wanderer.
Act I greets the player with a poorly lit encampment, where crackling torches struggle against the wind and rain. Grey and brown buildings blend with the nightly dark-green grass, while Matt Uelmen’s low violin and guitar notes quietly whisper a harrowing melody. From there on, Diablo slowly unveils all of its obscure beauty: the desecrated monetary of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye, the mysterious and exotic Lut Gholein, the black waters of the Kehjistan jungles, the fallen temple of the Zakarum, the hellish River of Flame, and many more.
There’s just something so authentic in finding Radament underneath Lug Gholein’s Sewers, in fighting Blood Raven for the first time on a new character, in crawling through the remains of old Kurast, in facing the spirits of the ancient barbarians on the snowy peak of Mount Arreat.
The music, the sounds, the colors, the graphics, the art style, the gameplay, the way everything moves are elements that generate emotional impact. These things don’t only bond with each other but are implicitly embedded into the experience of playing the game and convey a distinct psychological feeling that one can’t easily forget.
Gameplay, loot, and builds
For many other players, however, Diablo II’s atmosphere and story play little to no role in their enjoyment of the game, while fighting, farming, and experimenting with various items and builds is the cause for coming back.
There’s a reason why Diablo II’s combat has set the standard for all isometric action games. Going through hordes of hellspawn just feels so satisfying. Pure and simple.
The enjoyment and thrill of the combat system just come to life in hardcore mode. Items are scarce and death is behind every corner. Permadeath adds an entirely new layer to a game: it doesn’t come in effect only in the final moments of a given character, but it rather conveys an intense sense of mortality and danger to the whole gameplay. In Hell difficulty, a monster that has spawned with the right stats can one-shot a careless player, ending their character forever.
A pivotal point for many is the unique class identity. Not only did Blizzard manage to make all of the heroes look quite well, but they also give a distinct gameplay identity to each one.
Furthermore, character building is a design element know for its capability of drawing attention and personal investment. “I haven’t tried all builds”, “I haven’t reached the holy grail”. Whether one plans on experimenting with underdog builds or is looking for the best hammerdin gear, there’s just a lot of fun to be had in Diablo II, even if the game is mostly abandoned by the devs and not expanded upon.
Speaking about the loot, many Reddit users just think that the pace at which you acquire new gear and rare items is just perfect: you’re not showered with powerful artifacts, while not being forced to survive on scrubs either. Every Andariel kill is a potential Shako, while every countess run could end up in a nice rune. It just feels right.
Trading is also a big part of the endgame experience. Given Blizzard’s lack of interest in the game, trading has become very different in time, being facilitated by third-party sites and suffering from internal disbalance due to the constant botting and hacking plaguing the servers. It is, however, something that many seem to enjoy and recall fondly.
Such features give the game a high value in terms of replayability, making it just hard to “complete”: a truly obsolete term nowadays but often useful when talking about games with infinite progression.
Modern titles suffer from a plethora of issues. Gaming companies are pressured into producing more lucrative titles, employing design strategies that tend to sacrifice gameplay and atmosphere in favor of approachability and monetization. Sometimes an older game is a refuge for a mind weary of the contemporary gaming market.
- no in-game cash shop. After buying the game, by design, one can’t spend more money. There are no in-game purchasable goods, whether aesthetic or other, that are continuously being advertised. No burning crowns, no golden tigers, no comically exaggerated mounts, no transmongs. Whether one is keen to buy or not, being constantly surrounded by such elements violently brakes immersion and reminds you that the world you’re witnessing is not a world and not even a game, but a product persistently attempting to milk a gullible playerbase for more money.
- no hand-holding. A current title would have you be immortal for the first thirty hours of gameplay since the devs would be afraid that difficulty could throw you off, but Diablo doesn’t easily reveal its secrets to the uninitiated. Even the first act can be quite the challenge for those who don’t possess enough knowledge and experience of the game. Hard to learn and even harder to master, the game’s difficulty curve reflects a design ideal all but lost in today’s industry: some parts of the game can be harder than others, but your capabilities and understanding of its world should always be tested.
- not overwhelmed with features, but deep and complex. Modern games have an insane overload of features, not all of which generate interesting gameplay. That is because a game is more profitable if it offers itself to the largest crowd possible. In my The Importance of Being Vanilla series of posts, I speak at length about the gross massification of Blizzard’s most popular game, World of Warcraft. WoW is a good example of a widely spread phenomenon in modern gaming: the attempt to satisfy as large of a clientele as possible, embedding a plethora of nonsensical features in the gaming experience. Much like Vanilla WoW, Diablo holds true to an older design philosophy: constructing a complex and profound experience by starting with a simple yet engaging model.
Players, community and private servers
Diablo II’s playerbase isn’t juvenile and inexperienced. After all, it’s hard for such an old game to attract new gamers. Those who return, however, do so with a certain maturity and love for this old title that is hard to find elsewhere. Helpful, friendly, and sometimes a bit insane, the average Diablo player is a precious brick on which an entire community is built.
Diablo II’s community is just cozy and nice. After all these years of playing, most have matured a sense of enjoyment out of playing and have understood that small things, such as player interaction, are what actually makes the experience unforgettable.
Hardcore kicks in once more, as the lingering threat of death makes both interaction and adventuring feel more precious. The shadow of mortality somewhat changes the way players interact with each other.
Not to be forgotten, Diablo II’s private scene has the potential to renew the gameplay yet again. Whether it is going to be Annihillus, Slash Diablo, UsaBattle, or another to peak your interest, you can bet that there are always going to be people modding the game and offering improved vanilla experiences, or even entirely new games, built upon the solid foundation of our beloved gothic fantasy.
Whether you share such views or maybe have a unique take on why Diablo seems to be so appealing, even after 18 years from its original release, you know quite well the subtle desire, residing at the edge of your mind, to accept once again Akara’s quest to venture forth into the darkness and face the sinister undead in the Den of Evil, to carry out Atma’s revenge, to craw once again beneath the sands and enter Tal Rasha’s Tomb, where the dark brothers have imprisoned the Archangel of Justice. To venture forth in a world where darkness is sweet and mortality frail.