Betsy Brey studies game narrative at the University of Waterloo. She is the essay section head editor, incoming editor-in-chief, and a frequent podcast contributor at First Person Scholar, a pretty cool game studies publication. She spends too much time playing RPGs and obsessing over horror games, Dragon Age, rogue-likes, and TwitchPlaysPokemon.
Working with games, I am often asked an impossible question, one you have probably been asked, too.
“What game do you wish you could play again for the first time?”
My answer varies. I might smile and say Skyrim or Final Fantasy IX. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll say World of Warcraft or Diablo II. Sometimes I shrug and admit, “every single one of them.” Because there’s really nothing like that, the first triumphs and failures of a game.
This is on my mind when I hear about the January 2017 update to Diablo III, an anniversary event celebrating twenty years of Diablo. “The Darkening of Tristram” is no ordinary questline, though. It requires players to go twenty years into the past. Not twenty years in a fictional world’s past, but twenty years into our own pasts. Blizzard recreated Diablo within D3. And I’m stoked. Because, despite having spent the better part of my teens playing D2 and my 20s playing D3, I have never played the original.
Then, I feel the tiny tendrils of a familiar doubt.
I am seventeen when a well-meaning friend hands me a spare copy of Diablo in the hallway at school. Among my friends, I’m definitely the one with the most D2 hours. Juggling dozens of skills, strategies, and items, I have an endless challenge and I am blissfully obsessed.
I know all about the original, but I couldn’t find a copy until now. And I am so excited to play this game. I stash the disk sleeve into a folder of homework and bounce around anxiously until it’s finally time. I race home, boot and load up. And I feel a sinking sensation. I’m hemmed in by my lack of options in playstyle and mechanics.
Umm, I’ll try this again another time, I’d rather play D2 right now. Just for a bit. I’ll try Diablo again tomorrow. Probably.
I do not try Diablo tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next. I hang onto the disk though. Surely someday, I’ll come back to it.
Years go by, I finish high school, start and finish university, start grad school. D3 comes out. I still haven’t played Diablo. I finish my master’s degree. Teach full time. Start a PhD. Still no Diablo hours logged. I guess I’ve given up. If I had played Diablo in 1996, it would have been the greatest thing. But I didn’t play it in 1996; I missed my chance, like I’ve missed a lot of games and a lot of chances.
I didn’t have much access to videogames growing up. There’s a solid chunk of very well-loved games from those years, ones my friends speak so fondly of that I can’t help but try them out myself. And while sometimes it’s a joy to go back and play the games that I missed, more often than not, it is a tedious exercise. At best, it’s enjoyable but clunky. At worst, my incredibly well-meaning friends corner me into playing an old favourite of theirs while they watch–all of us growing frustrated as I lack the muscle memory and reflexes to know exactly how far a character can jump or the shortcuts and button combos that seem so natural to them.
I get why they do this. It’s a chance to see someone play their old favorite for the first time, vicariously playing that game for the first time again. They do it because they care about me and about the game, reaching towards their own past by springboarding off my perceived inexperience, trying to mold someone else’s experiences to reclaim their own. They want me to have something as amazing as they once had, that first playthrough. There’s an uncomfortable fetishization in gaming, one inextricably linked to escapism. This idea, somehow, that you can have a moment new and unburdened by experience. We see this reflected in thousands of problematic ways in games culture and in the games themselves, too.
But that’s the thing, when my friends chase me down to play Zelda or Doom. I’m not an inexperienced gamer. At all. I just don’t have the same background.
So in 2017, I hear about this event. This chance to play Diablo without playing Diablo. And here I am, set to play a twenty-year old game framed within a game made sixteen years later.
Entering that portal to the infamous town of Tristram, I find my D3 world pixelated 16-bit style, like it might have looked December 31st, 1996. Except that even I know this isn’t how Tristram looked in 1996—pixels or no, this still looks cleaner, more detailed. But the HUD is pared down, my wizard’s typically glitzy and glittering arcane power meter reduced to a single dull hue, the fonts shifted to the lovably ostentatious pentagrams-and-all-caps letters I remember from D2, a well-known carry-over from D1. A new quest objective leaps on-screen. It just says “Slay the Dark Lord.” Ok then.
Moving around a little, I notice my movement is limited to eight directions like D2, and I suppose like the original. I pause for a moment; why does my framerate seem off? I actually switch out of the game for a moment and then realize nothing is wrong. It’s intentional. Blizzard wouldn’t go through all the trouble of making these changes without altering the animations, mimicking the kinds of framerates I might have seen once upon a time in a past that never existed for me.
When I play “Darkening,” I feel like I’m in so many places and times at once.
Part of me is definitely here in 2017; the sound quality irks my ears, not because it’s unpleasant, but because it’s different than what I’m accustomed to with this game. It’s a kind of tinny, lower fidelity version of the classic Tristram steel guitar and oboe that I guess sounds about right for an older version of the game.
And part of me is in 2003, listening to my well-meaning friend describing Diablo with awe. “It’s only one zone, in Tristram, but there’s a huge dungeon under the town. And the bosses are tough, wait until you run into the Butcher.”
But then part of me is in 2012, beating that all-too familiar boss—at least his D3 remastered edition.
Still yet another part of me feels dislocated from time in general. This is and isn’t D3 and I can already tell, this is and isn’t Diablo. I’m not really sure what it is, it’s some kind of liminal Diablo, a between place of time and technologies and feelings. It feels disingenuous at first, like some kind of goth-kitsch exhibition. Diablo brand hipsterism.
Entering the dungeon, I’m fighting monsters from D3, exploring maps from D3, using abilities and spells from D3, using my 500+ hours of D3 experience to play D3 playing dress-up as its own not-so-ancient ancestor.
I think that sounds bitter when I write it. The words look bitter. But I am enjoying it, both writing about it now and playing it then.
Level after level, I clear monsters, check every corner, find every secret. I’m delighted at the small touches: gear types from the original drop from time to time, each new level features a sound clip that the hero of Tristram spoke for each floor, and I’m finally meeting those famous bosses I’ve heard so much about. But I recognize a few things are off. The Butcher, for example, is still on the second level—everyone knows this, even if you didn’t play the first game—but since the floor plan isn’t from the original, the room isn’t in the right place. This does not bother me or really matter, but I notice.
Before I really know what’s happening, I’m in a level of the dungeon I’ve never seen. It must be important, maybe I’m halfway done. I open a door switch and out he charges. The Dark Lord, Diablo himself. Even as my reaction is instant, my mind can’t quite grasp it. Why is Diablo here? I’m only on the…oh. The 16th level. That’s the last one, I remember as I deliver the finishing blow. The quest objective clears and I guess I beat the game.
I don’t really feel anything right now. I want to, but I don’t.
In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell writes, “For me, videogames often restore an unearned, vaguely loathsome form of innocence—an innocence derived from not knowing anything” (34). I’m not talking about spoilers. I knew Diablo would be somewhere in the large labyrinth that was hyped to me in 2003. And it wasn’t even already knowing that he would be on the 16th level that was a letdown. It was that it was so easy. It was that I knew exactly how to play my character. I knew I could do much more difficult things than this, and I knew I could do them fast. I was my own letdown: I’ve played too much D2 and D3 to not know anything enough, about Diablo games, about hack-and-slash games, about games in general.
I have experienced that, of course. I’ve played games where I enjoyed every second of not knowing anything. That “loathsome innocence” of not knowing how to operate a new game world, of discovering and failing and exploring and reaching far beyond what the game could be on its own to create something unique and amazing—those are the feelings we chase when we play games in the first place.
There’s enough of it—the nostalgia, the history, the memories—and gamers as a whole have been at this long enough to know there’s a thousand fascinating and beautiful worlds to look back on and miss and want back. But going back is hard. You can’t just step through a portal into 16-bit land and have that same innocence, that lack of knowledge. We change and grow as players and as people. We learn how to play games better each time we play, and we bring that with us to every new experience. Part of it is not knowing anything about that particular game, but part of it is not knowing anything about games yet, either.
Both are hard to get back.
A member of my D3 clan from my hometown messages me in excitement, another past colliding with a present.
“been running tristram all day,” he writes, “wish the whole game was like this, its exactly what i wanted it to be”
While still trying to run a high-level challenge, I manage to type out with one hand, “i nevr got to play d1 back in the day butyou did is it like you remember?”
“you know…i really dont remember.”
I scour message boards and articles about “Darkening.” I feel like I missed something crucial and important. Part of me is convinced this is like every other time, that I just missed my chance to have this mean something. But I really want this, I want this to mean something for me, too. I watch the developer’s reactions and feelings about the event. Some fans seem happy with the event, and some object to it. There seems to be some confusion, though. What’s a major developer like Blizzard hoping to accomplish with a tedious-to-design-and-implement free anniversary event? D3 is already five years old; more free content for a five year old game that’s only accessible for one month a year? My jaded skepticism is fueling a deep-seated confusion. When I find out that the developers had to research their own work, had to dig through fan wikis to recreate this bizarre timeless space from the memory of its fans—themselves included—I’m not sure what to think. But something somewhere in the back of my mind clicks.
It’s a very faithful rendition. Not to Diablo, but to the memory and nostalgia of Diablo. And in some ways, that’s enough for me, maybe even more important. When we’ve had 20 years of knowing this familiar place, what greater thing can we create but the version we remember, rather than the version that actually was?
So what did “The Darkening of Tristram” do for a player like me? One who has no nostalgia to look back on, no deeper context to the quest at hand? What’s the point of this experience? What was all of Blizzard’s work on this project for?
It’s January 2017. I still haven’t played Diablo. And I can’t say exactly what “Darkening” did for me as a player, but I do know this. It got me put down Final Fantasy XV and Pokémon Moon. It got me to pause my usual haunts of Crypt of the Necrodancer, Dragon Age, and Skyrim. It got me to walk over to a very cluttered bookshelf in my office, push aside half a dozen Magic the Gathering decks, containers of Dungeons and Dragons dice, and dusty promo boxes from World of Warcraft expansions that I haven’t played in years. It got me to search out a particular beat-up disk in a torn sleeve, one that survived four moves, two countries, ten years of sitting on my shelf during university, grad school, and teaching. But, hey, I think this time, I can stay awhile and listen.
Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. New York: Vintage/Random House, 2011. Print.
Diablo. Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment, 1996. Computer software.
Diablo III. Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment, 2012. Computer software.