Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Diablo 3 and the economics of nostalgia

During the dozens of hours I've spent playing Diablo 3, I've realized three important things either about the game, or about myself.

One: Diablo 3 is a game designed for children, though it has been marketed to adults.

Two: Diablo 3 is not very much fun.

Three: I bought Diablo 3 only because I had played Diablo 2.

Thing One informs Thing Two. The narrative is the time-tested story of good vs. evil, packaged as an endless stream of inane quests in which I, the player, must kill more demons in new location X for new reason Y. The quest dialogue, which serves as the prime mover of the story, is made up of expository information dumps. That's bad enough, but any time my character speaks I can't help but be reminded that the game I'm playing is much dumber than I'd like it to be. (For instance: my witch doctor shouting "Death comes" at a group of dead monsters. Or my barbarian saying stuff like, "I will hunt the goatmen. The sword will be in their midst.")

But there is communication through the game mechanics, too. The game allocates skills as the player levels, as well as attributes. So all witch doctors of the same level have access to the same skills and have the same base hit points, mana, and damage. Mostly, I've found that the skills don't make much of a difference in the way my character performs; I simply bind one of the high damage skills to my mouse button, and click away. There is very little thought to be invested in the manner of killing monsters, who, typically, die horribly and in great numbers. (If one kills enough monsters in a row one is rewarded with text on the screen which reads "Massacre!" It's the most positive use I've ever seen for that word.)

So the game is stupid, or at least simple. The mechanics of play are simple enough for anyone, even a small child, to understand--one simply points and clicks on the ugly monsters to kill them. The moral dimension of the game--the player is good, the monsters are bad--could not possibly be simpler. And the method of communication--monologues by characters telling you either their own thoughts or motivations or the thoughts and motivations of others--is the least subtle way to communicate anything. After thinking about this, I concluded that Diablo 3 is a game designed for children.

But why should I want to play a game for kids when there are so many other more interesting things to do with my time? In short, because Diablo 3 is intended for children, I don't think it's very much fun.

However, while Thing Two can't possibly be Blizzard's desired result, I believe that Thing One is a feature, not a bug, of the game. And that is because of Thing Three. I only bought Diablo 3 because I had played Diablo 2. Had I not played Diablo 2, I doubt that I would have bought Diablo 3. In short, by buying Diablo 3, I hoped to reclaim some of the fun I had as a teenager playing Diablo 2. I bought Diablo 3 because of nostalgia. I can't have been the only one. Blizzard isn't stupid. They know that a large portion of their player base is, like me, looking to play a video game to achieve a minor return to childhood.

This is the same model used by, say, the studio behind Chris Nolan's Batman movies--in which a profoundly silly character was hemmed into an "adult" product, which intends to hark back to its consumers' adolescences and childhoods. Certainly this is part of the reason why there are so many reboots and sequels in video games and Hollywood movies.

I know that video game reviews have a lot of problems, and can rarely be trusted, but consider that an adult (writing for ign, an important gaming site) wrote the following passage about Diablo 3:
Bringing your axe down for a killing blow or blasting an enemy with a skill that rips the flesh from their bones is empowering, but the eruption of gold and treasure that spews into the air induces a rush of jubilation. Picking through the gore that was my enemies so I can pluck out the gold and choice items is like panning for precious metals. 
This passage, in (deliberately?) stunted, child-like prose, describes the appeal of Diablo 3. This is because the best way to enjoy Diablo 3 is to turn off your brain, sit back, and pretend you're 15 again.

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