Stay awhile, and listen.

(This post is about more than just videogames - please bear with me for just a few paragraphs.)

As I write this, my computer is thrashing about madly, trying to download a gigantic, "game-changing" update for Diablo 3, by Blizzard Software. This is also the first time I've thought about Diablo 3 since June of 2012, or one month since its release.

That's actually pretty astounding to me. I'd played Diablo 2 right up until OS X removed the ability to play software designed on PowerPC processors. I thought that the newer and better sequel would be able to hold my interest for ages! But no, I forgot about it after a nice walk outdoors, a good movie, and a long contemplation on the nature of a protagonist. And that's all it took.

At first glance, a review of Diablo's "story" seems worse than pointless. Even its biggest fans will admit that the purpose is simply to fight an endless horde of monsters, enjoy the graphics, and collect treasure. Blizzard attempted to atone for this by going "epic" -- by stretching the battles across distant continents, and by creating demons of incredible power, woven into a mythology which raised the stakes of the game to a battle for creation itself.

But rather than pull the character's story up with this narrative, it only tore it apart.

Here's what Mark Waid listed as the six qualities of a hero:
  • Competent
  • Brave
  • Moral
  • Selfless
  • Relevant
  • Successful
"Relevant". That usually doesn't come up often. Usually, it's a simple matter, because the presence of a villain is almost shorthand for relevance. But once you start to think about the overpowered world of Diablo, it starts to become apparent that the player actually doesn't do a whole lot.

Act 2 is a great example. Let's ignore the charming set pieces for a moment, and look at the situation before and after the hero journeys through.

  1. City under martial law
  2. undead wizard not in any position to harm people
  3. sorceress trapped and tortured in the sewers
  1. City in anarchy, is bombarded by a meteor storm
  2. undead wizard revived and then killed again
  3. sorceress rescued, so that she can betray heaven and summon the greatest evil in existence
I love freedom and hate despotism as much as the next person, but let us put platitudes aside for a moment: had the hero never entered the city, fewer people would have died, and the entire world would have been safe for generations, until the sorceress escaped on her own.

But the hero did call out the demon, and the city burned. That's what makes it "epic", and "dark", and "badass". If innocent bystanders perish, then that makes the villain even more evil. It makes the hero look stronger, because they survive when so many others failed. Diablo takes this idea to such a ridiculous extreme that I couldn't help but feel complicit in all the deaths around me. And so, here's Denton's Corollary to the previous six rules:

The more "badass" a character is, the less relevant they are.

Such characters are defined by the system they rebel against, after all, and the more powerful they are, the more powerful the system must be to oppose them. Thus, the great "film noir" stories are intimate in scope - as their patron saint once said, the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in their world. They're not relevant, but they never tried to be. Their conflicts are within the system, but not against it.

And I think that's a problem in a lot of my own writing - my characters tend towards irrelevance as well, but because I never make them rebellious enough. Maybe now that I have a better handle on what makes "edginess" so distasteful to me, I can start to incorporate that into my writing and know where to draw the line.

Preferably before my character shatters the Worldstone which binds all realities together.

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About The Author

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.