It’s been 20 years since the first Diablo game was released, and the series has done quite well for itself since. But Diablo fans were disappointed by the lack of a Diablo 4 announcement at this year’s BlizzCon. A new character class and a recreation of the original Diablo in Diablo 3 are certainly both welcome, but D3 is nearly five years old.
That’s a long wait in video game years.
Wanting a sequel has a certain logic: after a difficult start, Diablo 3 has righted its course. Since its expansion, Reaper of Souls, was released, the game has become fantastic, taking full advantage of having the best-feeling moment-to-moment gameplay around and making that its primary focus. The lessons have been learned. It’s time for the next chapter, theoretically.
I agree with the basic idea behind that desire, but with a major caveat: I don’t want Diablo 4. It’s time to have Diablo without Diablo.
An exhausted fantasy world
Lemme explain. The setting and premise of Diablo, and Big D himself specifically, are played out. Blizzard has done just about everything they can do with this series and, really, that has been the case since Diablo 2.
Blizzard has three massive franchises: Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo (with Overwatch making a strong case that it’ll be a fourth, if it’s not already). Starcraft is a militaristic space opera set in a massive galaxy. Warcraft is a relatively generic fantasy world with a dark tinge and enough history and lore to have its own narrative momentum.
Diablo? Diablo is the story of a lone hero in a gothic fantasy world taking down the Lord of Terror.
See the difference? Blizzard’s other two universes are expansive; they can embrace a bunch of different kinds of stories. Diablo, on the other hand, only has its one story: stuff goes wrong, demons swarm, Diablo comes back, a hero beats him.
You can see the flaws with this story being repeated in Diablo 3’s plot, which stretches itself way too thin in order to make the same story seem bigger and badder than ever, and ends up with a bunch of villains cackling maniacally and, seriously, a “Prophecy of the End of Days.”
The Diablo series moving in an entirely different direction might not make its story good — there’s only so much you can get done with an action RPG where the player character has no narrative agency — but it might cut down on the cringe-worthy cliches, or at least try to do a better job of dealing with them.
The weaknesses of Diablo’s premise goes beyond its inability to tell an interesting story. It’s also part of the game’s world: gothic fantasy forces it into a world of only angels and demons. Every Diablo game has fallen, goatmen, succubi and the various other demons that have become common parts of Diablo’s lore. These ideas are tired, and there may not be a good way to freshen them up for the fourth time.
Moreover, the heroes who fight those demons are also working within a set of specific parameters. Almost every one of Diablo 3’s character classes is built on a template from previous games in the series. Only the Monk seems distinct, and even that class was kind of built in the non-canonical Diablo expansion Hellfire. Still, it says something about the creativity allowed in the series when the discourse surrounding the heroes is more “why isn’t the Diablo 2 druid/assassin represented?” and less “what cool new things can Diablo do next?”
The answer to the latter, after all, is repeating the Necromancer class.
Freeing Diablo from its rigid gothic fantasy form would also have the side benefit of allowing for a more diverse view of the world. This is especially true when it comes to women, where almost every single female character in Diablo 3 outside of the player characters fulfills some kind of stereotype. Many are victims, particularly Leah, who spends much of the game helping the player only to be corrupted and turned to evil, with no apparent recourse. Almost every other woman is some kind of deceptive temptress, who uses her feminine wiles to gain power and destroy the forces of good.
The worst example of this is Adria, once a noncommittal shopkeeper in the original Diablo, who becomes the ultimate betrayer in Diablo 3. Her final form, for a boss fight in Reaper of Souls, is that of a sexy spider. Because that’s what women do with power in medieval stereotypes: wear less and try to destroy the hero. It’s a problem for the series, and moving Diablo out of the gothic fantasy realm could allow it to portray womanhood as something other than the victim/villain dichotomy.
Likewise, moving outside the realm of the gothic will allow for all characters to have more plausible and interesting motivations. Diablo 3 suffered greatly from almost every vaguely human character being either pure good or pure evil when it mattered. And if they weren’t, then the cheesy (and problematic) explanation of “madness” gets trotted out to explain their descent into evil. There’s nothing interesting about this, it just happens. Or has happened. And is then repeated in the next game.
The potential paths forward
So here’s the problem in a nutshell: the gothic fantasy, Prime Evil-focused setting of Diablo is superficial. That was fine in Diablo 1, and still worked well in Diablo 2. But it has an expiration date. If you stick with it for too long, it seems repetitive. And if you want to make the superficial more complex, you’ll likely fail. Diablo 3 tried both, and neither worked. That it’s turned into a great game since release is something of a minor miracle.
If we remove Diablo from Diablo, then, what does the game look like? By this I mean, what does Blizzard do with a fantastic action RPG engine that isn’t part of the specific Diablo franchise?
I’d love to see them take it in a totally different direction: a science fiction action RPG that combines energy weapons and pseudo-magic to build a new set of enemies and heroes. Blizzard might be tempted to take it into the Starcraft universe, although I’m not certain it has the variety to prop up a great Diablo game. Overwatch, with its potential hordes of Omnic clones, has some potential as well. It’s interesting to think that the secret to keeping Diablo fresh may be folding its play into the story of another series entirely.
There’s another possibility, of course. If Diablo’s world can’t sustain a franchise, then change the world. Imagine, for example, a game taking place in Sanctuary still, but thousands of years after the events of the original Diablo trilogy. Something post-apocalyptic, mixing elements of fantasy, sci-fi and horror into a whole, without worrying about Deckard Cain or the barbarians of Mount Arreat. I imagine The Book of the New Sun as an action RPG and get giddy.
A Diablo 4 that tries to stick with the formula of the first three games feels unappealing, and I’m happy Blizzard hasn’t announced that attempt. There are methods of salvaging the setting, and there are options if Blizzard wants to go in another direction.
But regardless of the final decision they make, Blizzard should take its time as it inevitably always does, and figure out the best, most creative route to go with the next Diablo instead of making an easy, crowd-pleasing announcement of another sequel. I look forward to finding out what that looks like, but the words “Diablo 4” themselves aren’t enough to be exciting.
Rowan Kaiser is a role-playing and strategy-oriented freelance writer living in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter if you dare, like him on Facebook for his articles and podcasts, and if you’re really keen, support him on Patreon.