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Well, At Least the Gameplay is Fun: Gender and Storytelling in Diablo III

Essay

Let me say this right up front: Diablo III is a pretty great game. It’s a satisfying, decently balanced helping of hack-and-slash, and it will scratch your every dungeon crawling itch. Diablo III is one of those games that just makes you feel cool. My Barbarian hits like a truck, and she is constantly surrounded by the pyrotechnic displays of my friends’ magical abilities. It is not the best game I’ve ever played, nor did it capture me as its predecessor did, but I am looking forward to my continued adventures in Sanctuary throughout the weeks ahead.

The whole point of the Diablo franchise is much less about telling a good story than it is about killing monsters and getting loot, but with the sort of time commitment that a game like this requires (especially to justify the $60 price tag), ideally you want the setting to be a place that captures your imagination, a place that you want to hang out in. So while I had a blast cleaving demons in twain over the weekend, I was nonetheless underwhelmed by a narrative full of uninspired tropes, as well as an otherwise impressive world clinging to some of the most tired cliches concerning women in fantasy. For a game that took twelve years to make, it was disappointing to see how little has changed on those fronts.

Fair warning: Massive spoilers ahead.

Last month, I talked up the preview images of the female player character models in Diablo III, which looked awesome. And they do! In terms of body type, I still think the game deserves a pat on the back. There was a very cool moment early on in my first playthrough, shortly after a friend jumped in to fight alongside me, when I noticed that my stocky female Barbarian was towering over his slight, lanky male Demon Hunter. Male physicality is often every bit as narrowly portrayed in games as female physicality is, so it was refreshing to see heroes with body types defined by their combat roles, rather than their gender.

But while the physique of the characters is praiseworthy, I must sadly report that the armor options for female characters are hit or miss. I’ve only played through on my Barbarian thus far, and I didn’t have any complaints about what she was wearing. She starts the game in what amounts to two strips of fur wrapped around strategic areas, but the male Barbarian starts off with one strip less. I was fine with my Barbarian running around in a small breastplate and a loincloth, because it felt like an honest reflection of a particular culture. Once I started seeing my friends’ characters, though, it was obvious that Diablo III is still par for the course in the female armor department. Over the weekend, one of my friends made the comment that at level ten, his Wizard was “still running around wearing a sports bra and a flap between her legs.” My other friend replied that he had nothing to complain about unless he was playing a Witch Doctor. Sure enough, most of the armor sets for all other classes are delineated into categories of power fantasy and sexual fantasy (I’ll let you guess which gender gets which). The armor sets get more impressive as the player levels up, but I don’t see why low levels have to equate to less coverage. While this is hardly surprising for a fantasy game, I expected better than this, especially since the character models on the official website (which are the exact same ones you see when picking your class in game) give a strong sense of aesthetic equanimity. Considering how the female armor models in World of Warcraft have been steadily improving, it seems like an odd regression on Blizzard’s part. As I’ve said a million times, I’m fine with people dressing up their characters however they like to dress them up. Just give us the option of looking like a badass, too.

As with Diablo II, the player has the option to bring along an NPC companion in a single-player game. In Diablo III, there are three companions to choose from, all of whom are rather one-dimensional. There’s the pious Templar (who I didn’t play with much, simply because a melee fighter was of no help to me), the bubbly Enchantress (who was tolerable, though her decision to go monster slaying in a hot pink bikini top and a thigh-length sarong made me question her combat experience), and the Scoundrel, who is the walking embodiment of the Hey Sweetheart Scenario. I think the writers were attempting to create a playful scamp, but what they got instead was an irritating sleazebag whose penchant for womanizing was something of a pathological compulsion. Honestly, I was a little concerned for the guy’s mental stability. I first met the Scoundrel as he was lying his way out of an engagement to a farmgirl, who he seduced as a means to rob her family. Principle NPC Leah (who I will speak more on shortly) was also in my party at that point, and by the time the Scoundrel’s farmgirl fiancee had faded into the horizon, he wasted no time in aggressively chatting up Leah instead. Now, I’m all for NPCs casually flirting with me or other characters, so long as it’s respectful and adds something to the story, and I’m certainly not adverse to a party of NPCs bickering with one another if its written well. But running around the countryside with a creeper who won’t stop harassing the young woman under my protection is hardly my idea of a good time (it should be mentioned that both Leah and my character were pretty indignant about it — seriously, what about that is fun?). After Leah went back to town, the Scoundrel and I went mucking through more dungeons…and then he started in on me. And not just once. All through the damn map. We should get some wine together. We should enjoy this time while we have it. I should get to know him better. Ad infinitum. After a while, I wanted to hold him by the shoulders, look him in the eye, and say, “Dude, we are currently slaughtering our way through an honest-to-god horde of demons. I am dripping with gore, and you just saw me fish five gold pieces out of the squishy remains of a water-logged corpse. You have also, in my presence, hit on literally every woman I have met so far in this game. You have a problem. We’re going to get you some help.” Of course, the Scoundrel would have just blinked at me and said, “I like stealing money and having sex with lady people!”, so I found it much easier to send him back to town and solo it up until I unlocked the Enchantress.

As I hacked through Act III (probably my favorite act in the game, for the sheer amount of combat), demon lord Azmodan taunted my friends and I about the boss fight awaiting us up ahead. When Azmodan mentioned that the boss was a she, I realized that we hadn’t actually seen any female demons yet (the only other female boss had been the witch Maghda, who was largely forgettable). Okay, so who’s this we’re fighting then? Oh. The Mistress of Lust, you say? I’m shocked.

I don’t think I need to explain why it’s tiresome to see a token female baddie whose entire identity is based around her sexuality. The entire story of Diablo III is one long slog of old fantasy tropes, so I can hardly point to her as the sole example of unoriginal storytelling. But as I said to my friends at the time, just once I’d like to see a Mistress of Murder. Or a Mistress of Axes. Anything. All the other bosses get a plethora of gimmicks to choose from, and yeah, we’ve seen them all before, but at least they get a choice. It’s as if the developers were sitting around trying to brainstorm ideas for a female boss, and all that ended up on the whiteboard was “HAS A VAGINA.”

As the Mistress of Lust threw waves of her succubus daughters at me, I couldn’t help but notice that she was voiced by none other than Claudia Black, who not only provided the voice for the wonderfully nuanced Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins (a character who I cannot imagine playing the game without), but also played quintessential sci-fi badass Aeryn Sun in the TV series Farscape. With such examples of awesome female characters brought to mind, the lack of imagination felt all the more glaring.

Speaking of cliched female characters voiced by actors who recently lent their talents to laudable video game heroines, let’s talk about Leah (voiced by Jennifer Hale, better known as Commander Shepard). But first, we need to brush up on some lore from Blizzard’s other two franchises: StarCraft and Warcraft.

In the original StarCraft (1998), the only prominent female character is Sarah Kerrigan, a psychic soldier for the Terran military. The Terrans are fighting the Zerg Swarm, an insect-like race of creepy hive-mind bad guys. During the fall of Tarsonis, Kerrigan is captured and infested by the Swarm, effectively becoming one of their own. Against her will, Kerrigan is forced to fight for the Zerg. She becomes the Queen of Blades, leader of the Zerg and all-around force to be reckoned with. She was the Big Bad in 2010’s StarCraft II, and plays a leading role in its upcoming expansion, Heart of the Swarm.

In Warcraft III (2002), the armies of the undead Scourge tear through the world of Azeroth. Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner leads the defense of the High Elf city of Silvermoon, but is defeated in battle by the corrupted Prince Arthas. As she lies dying, Arthas ignores her pleas for “a clean death” and wrenches her soul from her body, transforming her into a banshee. Against her will, Sylvanas is forced to fight for the Scourge. She later breaks free of Arthas’ clutches, and can currently be found in World of Warcraft as the leader of the Forsaken.

Now, back to Diablo III. Leah is the adopted niece of Deckard Cain (who takes a while to explain, so let’s just say he’s one of the good guys). She is arguably the most featured character in the game, though I think the angel Tyrael gets equal screentime. After Cain’s death in Act I, Leah works tirelessly to continue his research and to fight back the demon hordes. Ultimately, Leah is betrayed by her long-lost mother, Adria, who has secretly been in league with the forces of evil. Leah becomes the human host for Diablo, thus bringing him into the world once more. Against her will, Leah is forced to fight for the Burning Hells. She is destroyed by Diablo, in both body and soul.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out just why Blizzard loves this type of character so much, and I’m coming up short. I don’t even know what kind of meaning to extrapolate from it. Every Blizzard franchise now has a female character — in the cases of StarCraft and Diablo, the only female characters of note — whose dark, spooky power was not earned or won, but forced upon her. I suppose you could read something about loss of innocence into that, or even an allegorical version of the rape-victim-turned-superhero backstory seen so often in comics and movies and everything else, but honestly, I find the lines here too murky to read between. Done once, it’s a good story. Done twice, it’s repetitive. Done three times, it’s kind of weird. If there were more women in Blizzard’s games to choose from, this probably wouldn’t bug me so much, but given that their female characters are pretty limited, the similarities are difficult to ignore.

My issues with this storyline have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with with the feeling of been there, done that. I knew before Diablo III was released that there was a likelihood of Leah becoming Diablo’s host. There had been a lot of speculation in the fan community over her prominence in the game’s advertising, and early concept art of a Diablo with suggestions of breasts and curvy hips certainly pointed toward a female host this time around. I really, really hoped they wouldn’t go that way, but it was obvious after five minutes of talking to Leah how things were going to end. Leah is the sweet, innocent girl that everyone likes. She’s fighting the good fight, just as Kerrigan and Sylvanas were. Her goodness is played up in an attempt to underscore her tragic fate, but it’s an emotional punch that Blizzard veterans (AKA the majority of people playing this game) will be expecting. I was drawing parallels between Kerrigan and Sylvanas when I was in high school. Completing the trifecta over a decade later feels lazy on Blizzard’s part. The original incarnation of Kerrigan is one of the truly great video game villains, and I can’t help but wonder if Blizzard has been trying to milk similar successes from the same formula.

By the time Leah’s big climactic moment hit at the end of Act III, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t moved. I just said, “Yup, there it is.” If they wanted to mix things up and have a female host for Diablo, there were better ways to go about it. I think it would’ve been far more interesting to see Adria sacrifice herself to be Diablo’s vessel. Think about it: You get a female villain who has toiled and schemed in order to become one with the ultimate evil, and you get an honest-to-god heroine — the villain’s daughter, no less — who helps to bring Diablo down with hard work and power of her own. And best of all, no one would be making Kerrigan comparisons. Wins all around.

As I implied at the beginning, there are few things I enjoy more than running around killing monsters with friends who live all over the world. In that sense, Diablo III was worth the cost of admission. But as a single-player experience, it’s lacking (let’s not even get started on the ongoing server debacle). None of the problems I have with the story or the environment change in the multiplayer, of course, but the fun of playing with friends makes them easy to overlook. If you’re on the fence about picking this game up, here’s my two cents: If you’ve got friends already playing and you want to join them, go for it. If you’re a fan of the previous games, go for it. If you’re new to the franchise, plan on playing solo, or are part of a group of newcomers considering trying out the game together…save yourself forty bucks and wait for Torchlight 2. I was lucky enough to take part in the beta on Monday, and I can already say that if I could only pick one of the two games, that’s the way I’d go. The gameplay is essentially the same, but the world surrounding it feels more new. They’ve added gender customization, your armor always does its job, and you can choose your skin color, too. All that good stuff. In the end, it’s a place I felt more excited to explore.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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