Garwulf’s Corner #47: Diablo Nostalgia Train Now Boarding, Platform Three
Originally published May 24, 2017
Of all the games I have seen and played after all these years, the one dearest to my heart is still Diablo.
It was playing Diablo on a network at the local comic shop that I met one of my closest friends, my first book contract was a Diablo e-book, and it was on a Diablo fan site that I became a video games issues columnist over a decade and a half ago. There aren’t many people who can say that they owe an entire chunk of their writing career to a single game, but I can and that game is Diablo.
So, you can imagine just how intrigued I was when I found out about the Darkening of Tristram event, which was billed as an HD remake of Diablo in Diablo III. When I found out that Loading Ready Run would be streaming it as part of their “New Day Tuesday” on January 10th, I couldn’t wait to see it. After all, a fan-made HD remake mod had been amazing, not just capturing the spirit and experience of the original for modern computers, but expanding and deepening it — just imagine what Blizzard could do!
You may also be able to imagine just how disappointed I was when the answer to “What could Blizzard do?” turned out to be “Not much.”
The Darkening of Tristram was underwhelming to say the least. The names were reproduced, but without the moments that made them. Even the graphics seemed phoned-in — after level 8 (the last level of the catacombs in the original), it felt as though the developers had just stopped caring, with the levels not bearing even the slightest resemblance to the areas players had wandered through twenty years ago.
It was an effort to evoke nostalgia, but with no apparent understanding of how nostalgia works.
To be fair, successfully evoking nostalgia is hard. You can’t just say the words “Luke Skywalker” and provoke smiles and happy memories. You need to refer to a moment or experience, but it also has to be the right moment or experience. Luke staring into the twin sunset in wonder and longing in the beginning of the first Star Wars movie provokes a sense of nostalgia — Luke whining about not being able to go to Toshi Station does not. The magic of the moment is everything.
If you are doing a tribute — as the Darkening of Tristram event was clearly meant to be, based on its execution — you can’t just reproduce the original point-for-point or beat-for-beat. You have to add something that calls back to the original while creating something new. For example, a magic portal going back in time to the original Tristram dungeon is good, and opens up the door to a time travel story where you have to fetch some item before Diablo is slain for the first time, giving the player a glance at what the dungeon was like while Diablo was still consolidating his power. It even allows Blizzard to tell a story where the time travelling PC kills some creature or acquires some item that, had it remained, would have prevented the original hero from finishing his/her quest. But having the portal go back in time to an already-destroyed Tristram where all the NPCs are dead (which, notably, only happens after Diablo has left the dungeon between the end of Diablo and the beginning of Diablo II) and then telling the PC to kill Diablo, complete with ending cinematic wherein s/he becomes the vessel for Diablo that the heroes are chasing around in Diablo II, just to have the PC immediately return to the present…is a mess. It comes across less as a tribute and more as a half-assed remake, dropping monster and place names with all of the meaning stripped away.
If you are making a remake, there’s also the issue that Diablo is a 20 year-old game — the technology today is better, and while the original was revolutionary for how it streamlined its interface away from the complexity that was the style at the time, there are still a number of innovations from Diablo II and later games that a modern player would miss. One of the best decisions by the team behind “Belzebub,” the fan-made HD Diablo remake, was not to just make the original game run on modern systems and higher resolutions, but to also incorporate these gameplay advances, along with new content. This made their HD Diablo remake arguably better than the original, and the inclusion of characters like Gheed the Trader brought in the larger world established by later games.
But, as I said, it’s all about the magic moments, and those weren’t there. Nobody who played the original Diablo two decades ago has fond memories of the screen resolution or characters walking in only eight directions (both of which, for some reason, Blizzard tried to replicate). But there are very fond memories of Gharbad the Weak begging for his life while promising to make you a special item, or Snotspill commanding the player to go kill the “big uglies,” or Ogden wondering why in the world fallen ones would steal the sign to his inn, or crossing through the caves with their rivers of lava.
I guess the big problem is that it feels like Blizzard couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to do. An official HD remake, accurately reproducing and expanding the quests and characters for modern computers, would have been a great idea, as would a tribute harkening back to the original game in some new creative way. What we got instead was a combination of the worst parts of each.
But this is an annual event, so there is a possibility of Blizzard doing better next year. So perhaps, just perhaps, January 2018 will have a really great Diablo tribute or remake that succeeds in bringing players aboard the nostalgia train in just the right way.