I'm sad to admit that I missed out on the Silicon Age of computer gaming, that nebulous timespan between 1985 and 2001 when on-line multiplayer was a tangled web of TCP/IP addresses and the concept of a graphics accelerator card was newfangled futurism. A storied time when games were launched by entering DOS mode and typing something like:
Through an unfortunate decision involving an infomercial and the common sense of an 11 year-old, my family decided to purchase a Macintosh Performa as our first home computer. My cousin was battling the villanous forces of the Luftwaffe and squashing robots across the galaxy, and what was I doing? I was stuck playing Spectre Supreme.
I suppose this is why I was so emphatically giddy when, three weeks ago, my roommates knocked on my door and said, “We're going to play Diablo II. Are you in?”
“Ah yes, I too remember 1997”, you might be saying. For someone like myself, who missed out on everyone juking the system and creating an unassailable mountain of duped gold, the invitation my roommates extended was a rare opportunity to catch up on lost time. I'd finally be able to experience the game in a multiplayer environment, with seasoned vets guiding me through the world, showing me the beauty of a game I was a decade late for.
At least, that was the theory.
For my roommates, it was nostalgia that drove them to pick the game up again; Nostalgia and the sudden announcement of Diablo III. They wanted to revisit a world into which they had poured hours and hours worth of slaying and adventuring. A magical pubescent world of Cheetos, Mountain Dew widemouth cans, and neglected physics homework. But I - lacking the rich store of cultural currency they were withdrawing memories from, and without the rose-tint of nostalgia to enhance my vision - had little connection to the universe the game presented. In other words, I had no problem being disappointed by what I saw.
You can ready the pitchforks if you choose. But don't light those torches just yet.
There are a number of things I was struck by when my merry band of D&D archetypes ventured out into the world.
- The world-map was displayed on top of the action, in a hideously dithered, sprawling mess.
- Most quests involved wandering around until, through dumb luck alone, we found the bauble that advanced the plot.
- I was limited to a whopping two combat actions bound to my two mouse buttons.
- The game relied on a lot of clicking and semi-precise pointer use.
- It relied on a surprising amount of information from the original, leaving a newbie like me relatively clueless.
- Playing a Paladin was probably not the wisest choice for me.
Despite my initial quibbles, I soldiered on, determined to protect my allies against the impure undead and to replenish their life whenever the stress of battle seemed too much to handle. My roommates chose a barbarian and a sorcerer. I was their less-useful bastard child. With feeble combat skills and moderately useful (if unspectacular) spellcraft, I could only watch as my teammates decimated armies of supernatural monstrosities. My support role consisted of hanging by the sidelines and cheering them on, basking in the glow of their supernatural brilliance. I was Ringo, in other words.
I was quite surprised to find that most of the game consisted of a complex dance between inventory management, entrepreneurial trading of discarded items, and opportunity-cost assessment. Do I keep the Ring of Shiny that gives me a +2 to Mana Regeneration and increases my light radius by +3, or do I equip the Fabulous Steel Ring of Oiled Muscle that adds +45 to my Attack Rating? Decisions, decisions. I knew that I would later find a ring that would do all of the above (likely to a more impressive degree) and imbue me with the ability to fold origami penguins. At that moment, however, it was the most important decision I would ever make.
The more we played, stumbling around caverns and mercilessly flaying demons, the more I noticed that we were not concerned with the eradication of evil, but rather with the kind of armor their knife-riddled corpses would drop. Dear lord, we were grinding for phat lootz! I was playing some kind of pre-MMOG from the antediluvian age of online gaming! A well-preserved relic from the Era of FeefDisix Cay. What had once existed only as phantom rumors from the domain of Deilap was now my reality. I found myself reverting to a pre-Columbian dialect, a pidgin shorthand of concepts and properties:
“Gldn Rng. +4 to Mana Rgn, +12 to Str, 14% to lghtn res. Ny1?”
It was Barbie Fashion Adventures, only with muddled graphics and a vaguely gothic, feudal theme.
Part of my difficulty in evaluating the game comes from the fact that I'm so far removed from the environment it had debuted in. The concept of playing with other people is downright expected in today's market, to the point that it's somewhat surprising to see something emerge only as a single-player experience [see: Bioshock]. I appreciate a good pathfinding mechanic to weed out unnecessary time spent running down corridors and fields. I like to pepper my keyboard with macros and quickbinds to keep me from running through menus to find my desired attack action. These are the conveniences I have grown accustomed to, and while I can't fault Blizzard for not having magic retroactive vision, my modern expectations did make it a little difficult to really grasp the game's more tender, limb-hacking moments.
I'm not myopic enough to discount battle.net as a huge success, though we certainly jumped through a few router hoops to get the local LAN working. And while I poke fun at the MMOG-like qualities of Diablo II, I certainly recognize that it was one of those early oddities that constructed a devoted, sizable online presence back before DSL or Cable internet were commonplace. There's a lot to say about a game whose basic monetary unit was trashed in favor of a rare ring, after all. Gripe as I may, it's evident that Diablo II laid the groundwork for many of the gaming infrastructure I know and love today.
So while I found Diablo II a bit underwhelming as a game, my Diablo II experience was genuinely fun.
The essence of good multiplayer gaming is the shared experience. Whether you're out to scam someone or trying to complete a 20 man raid, it's just not the same without a human presence. Diablo II delivered that in spades. Coordinated teamwork, complex bartering, and above all else, the pants-wetting horror of entering a room and being confronted with an eldritch creature. These are memories that pop to mind when Diablo II is mentioned. As repetitive as it may have seemed at the time, my fight with that bastard Zerg wurm Duriel became a source of humor as I listened to a housemate issue a guttural cry upon death. The gold we lost could have paid back the American national debt, but the scourge was slain. I can only imagine how thrilling that must have been 10 years ago, when the concept of the internet was so new that we'd be amazed at seeing "www.generalmills.com" appear on our Honey Nut Cheerios boxes.
I'm not going to deny my group's scavenger tendencies. We were rifling through the battlefield's scattered potions and weapons like hungry, hungry hippos. Nor will I disavow the fact that we spent a good 15 minutes chipping away at Diablo's health, only to pause for a second after the win cinematic and say “Let's do that again.” We stared the game down and in the process were forever lost to the allure of the next drop, the promise of better gear, the thrill of being ass-kicking quasigods. In that moment, I knew that Diablo III would consume our household. My roommates had come full circle, and I had glanced at the possibility of a future obsession.
For me, the fun was found in playing with friends. It wasn't a game so much as an excuse for a social experience. I can't envision loading up the game to run through a dungeon or two solo, but I can certainly see the appeal in getting a few people together to slaughter a clan of homicidal cows.
I hear they drop a bitching pair of gloves ... Sometimes.