It was nearing midnight. I had been gripping my mouse for so long that a dull pain was throbbing from my knuckles up through my arm. I inched closer to the computer, my shoulders aching, willing the death of the demonic creatures who spawned in mobs around me. Meanwhile, the clicks that punctuated every kill echoed in the silence of my room.
Despite my fatigue, the dungeon’s enticing darkness encouraged me to keep on exploring, if only for a little while more. Maybe just one more demon, or one more quest, or until I filled up my inventory with enough loot to make a killing back at Tristram. And then, I promised myself, I’ll finally retreat to bed.
That didn’t happen, of course.
The beginnings of my hellish expedition
I was 10 when Diablo was released. Having been introduced to the game when my older brother bought it a few weeks later, I was soon staring in morbid fascination as he slaughtered hundreds of monsters. Watching Diablo is in no way a suitable pastime for kids, by the way; this is a game where occult happenings took place with frightening regularity in places of worship, and mangled corpses were flung onto meat hooks and metal spikes. We probably would have been grounded for a few years if our parents took a closer look at the screen.
That was why Diablo was so captivating.
I chose the auburn-haired Rogue when my brother allowed me to take a turn, and I was soon dispensing justice on the demons that rose from the depths of the cathedral. Hordes of skeletons and zombies fell before me.
I felt invincible.
My first meeting with the devil
My first encounter with the Butcher began with a dying townsman, who was sprawled next to the entrance of the unholy cathedral. He begged me to avenge his friends and slay the beast so that the souls of the tortured may finally rest in peace. I ventured back into the cathedral without a second thought.
The cathedral's oppressive gloom made the hunt both intimidating and thrilling, as if I was exploring the depths of a shadowy yet inviting hell. I heard a guttural roar as I opened the door to an ominous, foggy room.
“Aaaah, fresh meat!”
I immediately came face to face with the fleshy creature that bolted out, and my first instinct was to run.
I clicked about wildly in an attempt to move faster, but the heroine would go no faster than a brisk walk in Diablo. Making this worse was how agile the Butcher was, despite its hulking size; it soon caught up with the Rogue, wielding a cleaver.
The Butcher lunged forward and hacked at her over, and over, and over again, until she laid motionless on the floor.
I turned off the game. It was definitely time for bed.
No ground-breaking plot
Diablo wasn’t known for its ground-breaking plot or strong characters, its story just an excuse for players to slay a bunch of monsters. As a kid, I only remembered that Archbishop Lazarus was a very bad man who facilitated the rise of Diablo, a very evil demon. The rest of the details, such as the downfall of King Leoric and the kidnapping of his son Albrecht, were lost on me.
What I recall is the atmosphere of the cathedral — which was intensified by the persistent fog of war — and the compulsive moment-to-moment action of demon hunting. This was evidence of Blizzard’s mastery of atmosphere, which melded the satanic, blood-soaked aesthetic of Doom with an indistinct sense of danger. Something terrible was bound to happen, but I never knew when.
One instance of this was how a hint of dark red could be spotted seeping out of the entrance of the Butcher’s den. The ground was in stark contrast to the rest of the tiles on the level, which were dark gray but clean. It was a minor but unsettling detail, and was much more effective than hearing the final gasps of the dying townsman.
But you had to open that door. And when you did, you were offered a glimpse into his workshop, adorned with the bodies of his victims. The Butcher had an insatiable appetite for cruelty, and he was coming for you.
Claustrophobia also played a part in building my fear before this moment. Advancing in levels meant going deeper into the cathedral and down to its catacombs. The dungeon’s confined spaces, coupled with the fog of war, meant that seeing beyond the peripheral vision was impossible. Escape felt impossible. How could I run from the Butcher without attracting more demons or being cornered at a dead end?
Yet when I met Diablo III’s version of the Butcher as a battle-weary adult a little more than a decade later, he was a colorful, gaudy shell of his former self. It is not that he is merely a cartoonish caricature; in fact, in contrast to the smaller and rather dated animation of the original, this brute is rendered in such detail that his scars and scabs can be seen vividly. He is probably still capable of dismembering my corpse within seconds.
But that is precisely why he is now just a run-of-the-mill beast, instead of the childhood terror that plagued my dreams. Having played a couple other video games set in the netherworld, this Butcher is no different from the hundreds of indistinguishable demons that were trying to appear hellishly horrifying. He howled and clanged his cleaver against metal grills, like an oversized toddler begging for your attention. Gone were the dark, enclosed spaces of the original Diablo. Instead, the Butcher resides in a blazing fiery pit, with flames spitting out from the ground at regular intervals.
This Butcher was no doubt an appeal to nostalgia, but that seemed like a miscalculation on Blizzard’s part. As the first demon that scared the bejeezus out of me, facing the original Butcher still filled me with a mix of dread and palpating excitement today, even with a decade of survival horror game experiences under my belt. This effect was lost on me with the new Butcher. And I wasn't alone; a quick search reveals the similar disappointment of other fans.
The new Butcher might have done the same thing to me, had I faced him at the age of 10, but I doubt it. The games are very different, and our expectations for what they deliver have changed as well. Unfortunately, the tone of modern Diablo is just not as conducive to the feeling of deep fear and dread.
My descent back to hell
Great horror games evoke a certain atmosphere or mood, and this can be far more memorable than the plot itself.
While Diablo’s plot only played a perfunctory role in the game itself for many players, its themes of paranoia and betrayal reinforced its ghastly atmosphere. The Butcher exemplifies this point. I was terrified of the demon, and hearing about his maliciousness from the Tristram survivors was an effective way of building up to that moment. I still haven’t met another villain that has spooked me out as much as the Butcher did.
I decided to try hunting the creature again as a 10 year-old after that first fateful meeting. Gathering whatever resources I could salvage, I proceeded towards the cathedral. When the Butcher darted out for the kill, I had my health potions ready this time. I finally vanquished the monster.
Curious to see the horrors that lay within his chambers, I took my first step in.
Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer and copywriter from Singapore. She writes mostly for Unwinnable, and daydreams about being a professional Street Fighter player. You can follow her on Twitter at @crapstacular.