Story writing is an art-form in and of itself, and one area where most games falter. Personally, I always prefer great gameplay over a great story. But a game with an amazing story can turn a good game, into an excellent one. With all the time spent playing Diablo 3, I had a chance to examine the story and in my opinion it doesn't compare to Diablo 2.
Diablo 3 featured several problems that are inherent of bad story telling in general. Now, Diablo 3 isn't the only game that has made these mistakes, but it's the most recent one and a game I'm sure a lot of people have played. Of course, what follows is open season for spoilers so if you haven't played Diablo 3 yet, you may want to avoid reading this.
1. Faulty World Logic:†
One of the biggest challenges when creating a fantasy setting is defining the rules of the world. In a real world setting, the writer already has this taken care of. But a misconception is that just because the world is based in fantasy that things don't have to make sense.
If in the first 10 minutes the story declares that only Orcs can use magic, then having every single race cast spells two hours in is an example of lazy writing. One of the hallmarks of a great writer is being able to create a universe or setting that stays consistent in the rules established.
Each Harry Potter movie did a good job in showing how the world works. By taking place in Hogwarts, it allows both the main characters and the audience to see firsthand the rules of the setting. How potions work, spells are cast and the laws of the society for example.
Now, setting up world logic doesn't mean you have to explain how everything works to the audience, only the relevant parts matter. For example, I'm a huge fan of the works of Miyazaki and one area that his movies excel in, is the setting. Each movie takes place in a completely unique setting with its own rules, laws and people. The stories never truly explain how the entire world works, only the parts that fit into the narrative and character’s lives.
In Howl's Moving Castle, Howl knows a number of people from before the events of the movie, but the audience is never told just exactly how he knows these people. Instead, we find out their motivations for how they respond to Howl in the present and how it affects the world.
With that said we can turn out attention to Diablo 3 for this point. The problems with Diablo 3 are that the logic of the world is never really explained or fits with the narrative.
First off, it's never made understood why returning enemies: The Butcher, Izual, and The Skeleton King were brought back to life after being defeated in previous games. Diablo gets a pass for being reborn in Leah's body, but it's to our understanding that once a demon is killed, they're gone for good.
Speaking about the Skeleton King, his whole appearance in Diablo 3 is full of plot holes. Why is he a ghost for the first encounter? What happened to the person he cursed? And why is the crown so important to defeating him?
What was the entire point about the sin hearts, and why were there only two of them? The game throws different objects and people into the story, but they're never explained why they are important. What exactly did the catapults do that would turn back an entire army of demons for instance. Or why we needed to save the angel of hope.
The more plot elements that aren't explained, leads to plot holes and logical inconsistencies that can ruin a story. What's worse is that if the back-story of the world isn't set, it can lead to the writers adding more layers to an already shaky foundation, which takes us to the next point.
Multi- part stories can be tricky to design, as the writer needs to keep the plot moving. A common pitfall that can happen is the writer going back over previous plot points to reintroduce them into the story with a different meaning. The hero finds out that he was the chosen one all along but didn't know it until this very moment for example.
Or: the hero's best friend actually hated them the entire time and was just using the hero and now wants to back-stab them. This point reeks of bad writing and the audience can collectively groan when the writer uses this point.
Diablo 3 features a very confusing retcon in the form of the Nephalem. According to the game, these are the children of angels and demons from a long time ago. They supposedly have super human powers and are set up as the game's version of the chosen one.
This doesn't make sense, considering how the world of Diablo was set up. In previous games, the heroes have always been regular humans who were trained in supernatural professions, and they were able to save the world. Were they really Nephalem the entire time? And if so, why did no one mention this at all over the last two games?
For all the buildup around this plot point, it never goes anywhere. The player is never given any special powers to show that they are Nephalem outside of the level 60 magic find buff. All this point is used for, is to make the player's connection to the story very dry. Every character refers to the player as a Nephalem, instead of by their profession.
Another retcon has to do with Adria, who at the end of act 3 uses demonic magic to wipe the floor with an entire group of solders, Tryeal and the player. Whenever we met Adria, she has not shown any use of magical powers, nor does she show any after this event. But for the writer's sake, for one minute she is given special powers to move the plot along and it is another weak point in the game's story.
3. Loose Threads
When creating a narrative that will be developed over multiple works, writers like to leave plot points open for future development. The problem is when writers completely forget to wrap up story elements and forget that they exist.
In multi-part stories, there are two types of plot points: Meta and local. Meta points are those relating to the universe or grand plot: Sauron taking over in Lord of the Rings and the empire as a threat in Star Wars for example. Local points are those localized in the specific chapter of the story: The battle for Helm's Deep and the Rebels fighting the first death star for instance.
The important point to remember is that local plots have to be resolved in some way by the end of the plot. One of the biggest annoyances is when writers leave multiple plot points completely unresolved to be answered in future sequels.
An example of writers getting it right would be the build up to The Avengers. Each movie has the local plot of dealing with the main character's situation. But there are mentions and little remarks about the Meta plot of the continuity between the movies that led to The Avengers. All points dealing with the local plot are resolved by the end of the movie, but the points that had to do with the Avengers were left open for that movie to explain them.
Harry Potter is another great example: each movie dealt with a year of being in Hogwarts and had a plot based on it. Then there was the larger plot of the war between Voldemort and the good wizards that loomed over the entire series.
Diablo 3 is full of loose threads that the writers made no attempt to clear up: The thieves’ guild threat in act 1, Covetous Shen's mysterious objects and Adria's fate. It's obvious that Blizzard is saving those points for expansions, but it still reeks of lazy writing.
Diablo 2 ended with a more complete plot. At the end the local plot of defeating Diablo was finished, but the Meta plot of finishing off Baal and saving the world was reserved for the expansion. It worked in Diablo 2, because throughout the course of the game, the player's main task was to beat Diablo, and that's where all the plot points focused on.
But in Diablo 3, those points mentioned above, were left up in the air with no attempt to explain their purpose. If the writers would have referenced them in an attempt to wrap them up for the local point, then there wouldn't have been a problem.
4. Leah's end and the token female:†
Leah was supposed to be Blizzard's big plot point: featured in all the cut scenes and the next chapter in the world's story. But, Leah's character never grows beyond an object in the game. Her only use in game is as a key to opening up the next part of the game.
Conversations with her never develop her as a character as they deal with her talking about past events and how she didn't believe that this could happen. The big reveal at the end where we find out that she is Diablo's daughter doesn't matter by the fact that she becomes possessed by Diablo and robbed of any further character development.
All these points do is show another example of bad storytelling: introducing a female character whose only reason is to be a female character. Leah served no purpose to the game, as she could have been replaced by a magical object (such as the black soulstone) without missing a beat. Kerrigan from Starcraft was a better developed character who became a major point in the Starcraft mythos.
The other problem with how Leah turns out is that it goes against the theme of the Diablo universe: corruption. The back-story and previous games are all about good people being corrupted and turned towards evil: Leoric, Tal Rasha, the dark wanderer, the rogues from Diablo 1 etc. Having someone just flip a switch from "good" to "evil" in the form of a possession was weak storytelling.
What would have been a much deeper reveal would be if Leah over the course of the game became evil on her own and betrayed the group, instead of her mother enacting a plan, years in the making. More importantly, it would allow the designers to create a new threat instead of just reintroducing another form of Diablo.
By making the main enemy the possession by Diablo, it completely invalidates Leah as a character and any meaning she is supposed to have in the game.
All the new graphics engines and platforms available are not substitutes for story development. As mentioned above, a great story won't save a horrible game, but it can help elevate a game from being good, to a classic.
Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye†