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The Plot Holes of Diablo 3
by Josh Bycer on 08/28/12 02:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

2. RetCon:

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.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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Jason Wilson
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I completely agree. I have nothing more to say.

Josh Bycer
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I just realized that I forgot a really good example of a designer implementing a chosen one plot point into a game. In Divine Divinity, the player discovers that they are the one chosen to save the world from evil. For the final chapter, the designers gave the player a "chosen one" skill tree, full of special powers and abilities that they could use in the final act.

I thought that was a great touch and one of the few times where a game integrated that plot point into the gameplay. It kept in pace with the plot, while still providing the player with cool toys to use at the end.

Corey Moore
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By the time I reached Inferno, I forgot that there was supposed to be a plot. Even if the story was well written, most people probably would just skip through it anyways on their many grinds to find the Ultimate Gear of Supreme Ass-kicking. Not that it excuses bad writing, of course, though my main beef with the game is the always online nature of the game.

Why bring back the Skeleton King, The Butcher and Izual? Same reason Pyramid Head is in Silent Hill: Homecoming: Fanservice.

Josh Bycer
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You beat me, by the end of normal I stopped caring about all the lore books and enemy descriptions.

I would agree about fan service, but with the Skeleton King at least, it felt like Blizzard was doing all they could to put him back into the story. You spent the entire first act visiting his stomping grounds, meet his former wife and the final area takes place underneath his mansion.

Freek Hoekstra
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I very much enjoyed seeing the butcher and the skeleton king again, and I did not have a beef with the story there, I assumed that the angels energy or spirit set things in motion.

also Adria will likely set things in motion for the expansion, as we did not kill her, so this is intentional I presume. looking back at diablo 2 there was not a huge amount of storytelling either and I actually liked the story. not everything needs to be meticulously explained imho.

again it was not the best ever but it wasn;t terrible either, it seems to me bashing diablo 3 has become a popular sport, but it is one of the few games taht kept me entertained for more then 3-4 hours (namely around 70-80) which is a very good score for a game on my account...

Tyler King
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I laughed when in the first big QA after release someone essentially asked Jay to apologize for the poor story and his only response was that "No, the story is good and our test groups agree with us." There were so many things, like the thieves guild or one of the many other flawed story elements that blew my mind when they never were addressed again. On that same note who would want to see them addressed again? In D2 the expansion brought more epic quests to wrap up everything in the main game. Facing Adria or the thieves guild is not nearly as interesting as facing off with "the prime evil". The only place they have left to go is to fight Angels in the expansion, but who knows maybe there is a rainbow soul stone that has never been mentioned that has all of the souls of the demons in it now that the black soul stone was destroyed... if it was destroyed? Maybe the expansion is taking the soul stone back to the hell forge. :D

Josh Bycer
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But you know that you can't just go straight to the hell forge. First you need to find a magical portal, that needs at minimum 3 keys to open, that are spread across the world. Then once you get to it, you find that you'll have to travel across the different plains of Hell to find the parts for the demonic propane tank that lights the forge. And at the last minute Adria shows up and steals the hammer (having not appeared at all until this point), and then they cut to expansion 2...

Joshua Sterns
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They could always invade the World of Warcraft lands.

Tyler King
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I hear Pandas created the hell forge to begin with.

Gian Dominguez
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While I do believe there is much they could have done to improve the story further I think some of your criticism are wrong/unfair.

[i]Whenever we met Adria, she has not shown any use of magical powers, nor does she show any after this event. [/i]

The very first thing we learn about Adria is she is a witch and the few times she does follow the player she helps the player by throwing fireballs.

[]Covetous Shen's mysterious objects [/i]

He talks about it during the last act. He even tells the hero "hey we still need to look for the jewel after you kill diablo".

[i]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?[/i]

It was one of things talked about during the first act of the game. The worldstone(destroyed in Diablo 2) was weakening the nephalem. Once it was destroyed the nephalem soon got back there power. As far as I can tell this was being developed long before D3 and was part of the books.

My point is, Diablo story/lore is there but it was designed in a way not to detract from the game. If you wanted more info on the game you would talk to the npcs and they will tell you the story. Which is good because after the second or third run the story does at time become an obstacle rather than something to be marveled at.

E Whiting
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The entire idea of the player characters being Nephalem is a huge retcon which is at odds with the storytelling and mood of previous games.

It absolutely does detract from the story to have this sort of retcon in Diablo 3. In previous games, your victory over demonic forces is simply and straightforwardly attributable to your persistence and skill. In Diablo 3, your victory is undercut by the story which says you're part of a special bloodline that's more powerful than both angels and demons. It's basically like playing Punch Out, except you're Mike Tyson instead of Little Mac.

Eric Schwarz
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Diablo III has far more plot holes out there (what's up with Tyrael's magic sword? how do Diablo's villains teleport all over the place? how can Maghda kill Cain so easily without her being physically present? why doesn't she just do that to the player?) but I think what's worth the real discussion isn't so much Blizzard's failings, but rather the fact that they clearly put in a huge effort to overhaul the game's presentation and give it a more cinematic nature... and misstepped at delivering a narrative that took advantage of that.

I'm a believer that games should be judged on the terms they set for themselves. If Diablo III had had a simpler, easier and less bombastic story, I wouldn't have cared - in fact, I'd probably like the game more as I wouldn't be constantly distracted by the awful writing. But it's clear that Blizzard wanted to do more than that... and so I have to interpret Diablo III's story on more serious, comprehensive terms. Next to other story-heavy RPGs, even ones with massive problems of their own, Diablo III simply cannot compare. The irony is that the first Diablo did so much more with so much less.

That said, I think good storytelling left Blizzard long ago, with World of Warcraft. Their more recent titles have hardly been impressive in this respect, even next to the relatively humble standards of their back catalogue.

Josh Bycer
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"That said, I think good storytelling left Blizzard long ago, with World of Warcraft. Their more recent titles have hardly been impressive in this respect, even next to the relatively humble standards of their back catalogue."

I hate to agree with you but I've been feeling the same way for a while. When I opened up the Starcraft 2 collector's edition and found a manual the size of a pamphlet I knew something was going on. It was a stark contrast from the days where the manual was filled with lore that the designers tried to keep consistent.

Gian Dominguez
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"I hate to agree with you but I've been feeling the same way for a while. When I opened up the Starcraft 2 collector's edition and found a manual the size of a pamphlet I knew something was going on. It was a stark contrast from the days where the manual was filled with lore that the designers tried to keep consistent."

That seems sort of unfair. While I understand you may not like the fact there wasnt a deep manual there is a reason for that, 1)most of the story was summarized during the installation process 2) the manual is now online. Unfortunately the world has changed and manuals are probable a relic of a past age.

Just look at the starcraft 2 website, they made sure to detail places, characters, unit background(they even have short stories for units now!)

I think its not that Blizzard's storytelling has deteriorated. Its that some people are expecting some sort of award winning epic. Its pretty clear Blizz has been more of pulp fiction/Avenger movie level storytelling. It will keep you engaged but at times there will be some inconsistencies.

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It's just a big confused mess. When we first learned that Diablo's real name was "Al'Diabalos and he was formed from the head of the dragon Tathamet", and they were filling out the backstory with loads of extraneous detail, I knew the story was gonna be junk. It reeked of too many cooks even then, and this was shown to be true. This carried over into the plot, but look at it this way, it could've been so much worse. I am sure at some point whatever designers were co-opted from WoW probably debated putting in more wacky elements.

Stephen Chin
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As far as The Butcher one of the notes says that butchers are simply the results of demons getting stitched together. As far as Leah... there's a trope for that ( She exists, as you said, purely so that the player has a reason for revenge. She has no other significance other than that.

Eric Schwarz
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It's funny how if you simply replaced her cute late-teen/early-twenties generic white girl appearance with, say, aging deformed hunchback man with a melted-off face, the player's entire motivation for caring about the story and characters kind of just disappears. Sympathetic writing at its "finest."

Matt Robb
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While I don't disagree with your premise, your examples don't seem terribly accurate either. (Sounds like a political discussion)

1) In most settings, and I don't recall seeing anything different in Diablo, especially given what all has to be done to actually destroy a Prime Evil, killing a demon just disperses it and banishes it back to Hell. Over time it will reform and come back to party. That's why rather than simply killing the Prime Evils, they had to be captured in a Soulstone and broken at the Anvil. Of course, to your retcon point, after saying all this, they suddenly invented the Black Soulstone and decided all the primes went there instead. So yeah, Izual and the Butcher are easily brought back, and there's nothing stopping a lurking spirit from coming back. I believe the game said Tyrael's crash caused his Justice aspect to being back the wronged dead in the area. *Why* they chose to bring back these fellows was obvious fan service, but it was explained as well as anyone does.

2) If I recall, humans *were* Nephalem, 'til the Worldstone was plopped down to suck the extra niftiness out of them, since Heaven and Hell felt threatened. Now that it is broken, that stuff is creeping back in to humanity, though it does stand to reason it would be creeping back into everyone, but hey. The idea of Adria was that in Diablo 1 she was there to manipulate the hero into going down and getting possessed, then got knocked up by him to produce the backup plan. She was always a witch, but was being low key so she could inflitrate.

3) I don't see how this incomplete side plots are any different from the examples you describe as positive. The main plot point was tied up, but little side bits were left open. They used companions to drop hints and left Adria alive for a continuing antagonist.

4) No argument here at all.

I think their real problem was putting so much of the lore in random books found all over. Even having them read to you doesn't help, because if you want to hear it, you have to stop the slaughter so the killing doesn't drown out the lore. So much of the explanation for things is in those books that if you don't read them, you hit all those holes you mention.

Josh Bycer
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My problem in regards to point 3 is how different it was compared to Diablo 2. In D2, there were no side stories that stood out, or additional characters that the game develop. The plot was focused on you taking out Diablo. At the end when Baal was revealed it was ok in my opinion, as while the game did give you an idea that he was left, it didn't harp on that point or stick out in the player's mind until the very end.

But in D3, when Diablo was revealed thanks to Adria, he basically said" thank you, now go away." The ending didn't reference her, and I think maybe one or two of the companions might have commented on her. But for such a huge reveal at the end, it went out with a whimper instead of a bang.

The ending feels rushed in this regard, considering that I think everyone knows that they'll be an expansion. By not giving us an idea of what to expect and trying to tie everything up as happily ever after feels forced instead of a satisfying conclusion.

You can end with some ambiguity and still have a satisfying conclusion which the various Marvel movies leading up The Avengers are an example of.

Jonathan Jou
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I'm still up in arms about this. Diablo 3 is not the game I expected Blizzard to ship. I don't understand what they were thinking, since the sheer amount of goodwill Blizzard has lost at this point outweighs any possible monetary gain. The reports of a 65% drop in player headcount aren't all myths, and their ideas on how to fix it have been laughable at best and profit-seeking at worst.

Seriously, Gamasutra, I think there are a lot of people who would love it if you got to sit some of the people from Blizzard down who were not directly involved in D3 (we know now that Jay Wilson will say "I'm sorry, we're trying to fix it," but might swear at you first) and ask them the hard questions:
1. Where is the pressure to release games that very, very clearly aren't at the level of "flawless execution" which Jay was talking about coming from?
2. Was it not clear from tester feedback that Diablo 3, while a fine game in and of itself, was not going to be the timeless classic its predecessors (and developers) seemed to think it would be?
3. When do they plan to actually fix the game? And by fix the game, I mean create a version of Diablo 3 that has interesting combat, interesting loot and gear decisions, and solo content that can be finished in 12 hours but is expected to last hundreds.

I imagine other people have other questions. I'm still compiling all the interesting complaints I've come across. I will be giving credit to this one if I ever write about it!

Gian Dominguez
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To be honest Diablo 3 was flawed when it was first release but I do think 1.0.4 is slowly moving D3 toward something good. In any case they have hinted they are developing some sort of new "endgame" along side pvp. We can only wait and see what happens.

The devs. have probable bought themselves some time with the new paragon system.

Jonathan Jou
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I've been keeping track of the changes, Gian, and while I think it's fair to say that the D3 team is putting honest effort into trying to figure out where they went wrong, I think most of the people on this site who have played the game would agree when I say that Diablo 3 suffers from obvious, well-understood game design issues that prevent the game from being more than a visual spectacle for people who want to enjoy games, not profit off of them.

Gian Dominguez
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"I've been keeping track of the changes, Gian, and while I think it's fair to say that the D3 team is putting honest effort into trying to figure out where they went wrong, I think most of the people on this site who have played the game would agree when I say that Diablo 3 suffers from obvious, well-understood game design issues that prevent the game from being more than a visual spectacle for people who want to enjoy games, not profit off of them."

And your probably right. It has issue and there is no guarantee Blizz will be able to fix it but I think I'll reserve judgment until maybe after the pvp patch. From what I hear D2 wasnt exactly perfect either when it was first released(I think it even took the expac before it became the classic people seem to keep comparing to D3). Only time will tell.

Jonathan Jou
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I respect and commend your optimism and passion, but my judgment has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with our different expectations for a Blizzard product.

Blizzard is, was, and seems to plan to be behind the times in game design (D3 plays like D2, except with less interesting builds and fewer interesting encounters somehow), infrastructure (games that purport to be online do *not* go down for patching, this is a solved problem that Blizzard has no business getting wrong), professionalism (let's not beat around the bush, they shipped a game that wasn't ready, which is why they're scrambling to fix it), and even community relations. As a once-Blizzard fan I felt like I'd been lied to, mistreated, and at this point I can't understand why the D3 team isn't willing to just come out and say that D3 wasn't, isn't, and may not for a while yet be the polished product Blizzard was once known for shipping.

I wasn't going to push this, but my point is pretty simple, to be honest. I bought D3, and I don't want my money back, I want my Blizzard back.