Diablo gave rise to the entire action RPG genre, and it's basically been all downhill from there. When I was just a kid in the '90s who was definitely too young to be journeying beneath Tristram Cathedral and meeting figures like The Butcher who would haunt my nightmares for years, I remember, above all, that it was actually scary. A small part of me believed there might be some genuine essence of evil in this 480p, 256-color world. That maybe just by playing it, I was truly risking my eternal soul.
The lonely first 30 minutes of Diablo 4, an extended tutorial, almost gave me that feeling again—at least, as much as any game can when you're in your 30s. It's grimy. It's gory. It's performatively sacrilegious, with a priest getting his brains bashed out with his own holy symbol as we zoom in on his blood splattering across the stained glass of a church. Lilith bids us to be "free in sin," and I found myself strapping in for some real, dark, heavy metal shit. That's my jam.
But it's not even an hour later that I'm being reminded this game has a battle pass. Shopkeepers have a timer telling me when their inventory will reset, like so many "pay to wait" mobile games. There's a guy named "PeterGriffinhehehe" running around town in armor that has been dyed the color of a Chuck-E-Cheese automaton. To their credit, the writers and environment designers do their absolute best to gently lay me back into a pool of blood and baptize me with their dark fantasy imaginings again, but I have to tune out so much 2023, AAA, always online garbage at any given moment to even buy into it a little bit.
Even the way we experience dungeons kills the mood these days. Making the Town Portal usable anywhere, an unlimited number of times, means I could be trapped in the deepest bowels of darkness and suffering, and all I'd have to do is hit T to escape any and all danger. There's no real feeling of peril. A dungeon is just a place you go to click on skeletons and pick up some new pants. This is all in the name of convenience and efficiency, of letting us pump up our "XP per hour," a number that shouldn't matter to anyone whatsoever.
It's freakin' lame, man.
This transformation didn't start with Diablo 4. The people who really stuck with ARPGs for the long haul, even going back as far as Diablo 2, don't seem to care much about the atmosphere. It's all about the stats. The best builds. The dopamine hit of snagging a new legendary. And don't get me wrong, I'm not immune to those simple pleasures. But I've seen several people in the various Discords I'm in remark that they didn't even watch the cutscenes in their mad rush to get through Diablo 4's campaign and unlock the higher world tiers. Blizzard actually encouraged top players to "race to level 100." Meanwhile, I'm trying to make my way slowly through each dungeon, taking in every torchlit torture device and gloriously brutal enemy animation, doing my best to pretend this game actually works as the hellish, story-driven adventure so many people clearly put a lot of work into.
So, long before greedy monetization made its way into the genre, it started to break down into a quest for bigger numbers, in which you might farm the various Lords of Hell hundreds of times. Mephisto ceases to have any real menace or even meaning as a character once he simply becomes a loot pinata to be bashed ad infinitum. Even in a game like Path of Exile that sells itself on being a throwback to the genre's heyday—created very much to satisfy those who were unhappy with Diablo 3—the atmosphere takes a backseat to spreadsheets. And you know, far be it from me to tell someone else how they're allowed or not allowed to enjoy a game. What's disappointing is that the way I used to enjoy Diablo isn't really even a thing anymore.
Can I play an offline character who doesn't get ads for cosmetic mounts, doesn't see characters with mood-ruining names running around, and doesn't really care what's available in the latest paid, seasonal content? Well, no. That's the direction this franchise has gone. You're always online. You're always thrown into shared instances in hub cities and the open world. I can play through the story as a solo player, but that's clearly not what the decision-makers at Blizzard care about. They want to pull me into a Diablo ecosystem, where I'll be grinding the same content forever, having paid cosmetics paraded in front of me by my fellow denizens of purgatory to stimulate my FOMO gland.
They've drained the blood out of the delightful, smoldering, delicious evil of '90s black metal, occultcore, self-aware, Satanic Panic-embracing horror schlock that stokes childhood fears. And in its place, we have a far more boring but insidious evil: The metrics-driven, profit first, focus-group-tested, player-telemetry-based, plug-in-air-freshener-scented evil that reminds me I still need to do my quarterly taxes. And if that's the only way to enjoy my favorite series these days, I sometimes think I'd rather burn in Hell.