Note: This essay is the result of the collaborative contribution of Alan McGreevy and Christina Fawcett.
Nostalgia gaming – appealing to players and the recent decades of gaming culture – has gained a greater foothold in the past year as the NES Classic launched in November. In addition, a Final Fantasy VII relaunch was announced for this summer, Bomberman has been announced for the Nintendo Switch, and Blizzard has just released a pixelated Diablo portal back to an earlier time in a time-limited special event entitled “The Darkening of Tristram.”
The notice-screen when the player starts the game announces the Special Event: the set-up for the player disorders time, noting both a sense of past and a sense of the fleeting:
“The past is never far in these parts…
Cultists have delved through the remnants of Adria’s belongings and discovered the secret to reviving her memories.
For a fleeting time, this town will appear as it was many years ago…”
This notice establishes the sense of history in the game, and a sense of the temporary simultaneously. The idea that the past is never far away is appropriate in a game that plays with a narrative of endless cycles and that has changed very little in its format and mechanics. While there have been many stylistic changes and a few ludic shifts (like enabling players to change their power-builds), the core elements of the loot-centric, three-quarter perspective dungeon-crawler has remained intact. That is highlighted as “The Darkening of Tristram,” as for a brief period, Diablo III includes an homage and simulacrum of Diablo.
Elsewhere in the game, cues and reminders appear to direct the player back to Tristram: Cultist letters, dropped as loot across the rest of the world, note the opening of the portal back to Tristram is a chance to recapture Adria’s memories. Yet, Adria has no place in this world – she does not appear in the return to Tristram and is left as a plot device instead of a character. The return to the space focuses on the visual cues of memory, leaving much of the story cues as secondary thoughts. The dead villagers’ stories and the references to Adria point to the stories of the past, but the exploration is focused on superficial memories of the original game.
The game space hearkens back to the original Diablo, 20 years later, fitting a stylized version of the 16-level Labyrinth into the world of Diablo III. The player can enter a portal that brings her back to a simpler, more pixelated time; she is only animated moving in 8 directions, like the original sprite-based game graphics, a pixilation filter is applied over the Diablo III graphics engine, and the animations have a slight jitter. This “throw-back” feel is brought into sharp relief whenever the player uses “Town Portal” to return to New Tristram to offload unneeded gear. New Tristram remains in its regular resolution, so returning to town to sell or salvage loot-drops means that the player can adjust to a familiar resolution for a moment or two before returning to the Dungeon. This contrast is startling each time, reminding the player how much the technology providing the experience of defeating Diablo has changed.
The game captures the core principles of nostalgia. When one has fond memories of a time or place from her past, she remembers the idealized version. Remembering things perfectly and accurately means remembering the flaws and faults, as well. Rather than recreating the limitations of Diablo, “The Darkening of Tristram” captures the sense of the past while keeping the advancements and improvements of the intervening years. For example, the inventory screen and movement maintain their modern iterations. The animations limit the character to appearing to face or move in only 8 directions, but the player’s ability to guide the character is not actually restricted. It looks like the character can turn and move in 8 directions; the joystick-guided movement says otherwise. Were the player to return to the world of Old Tristram as it originally appeared, the quality of the animation would be far more pixelated and stretched to fit on the modern wide-screen TV and monitor. The player would also face the incredibly slow movement rate and very zoomed in screen, as the game could only graphically render a small area of dungeon at a time.
Instead of accurate recreation, Blizzard has given us nostalgia: the best of the memories without all the drawbacks of reality. Little cues throughout the game result in multiple “oh, yeah!” moments. The enemies match their level from Diablo, mimicking the game-order, and many of the major threats and monsters appear at their appropriate points in the dungeon. Level 5 of the dungeon features a Magical Rock that, in this iteration, releases many gems. In Diablo, this stone was the focus of a quest and could be made into a sword. Armor pick-ups throughout the 16-level dungeon also mix between Diablo III and Diablo, as items like Godly Plate of the Whale and Arkaine’s Valour are rewards at various points. These items are not better than many of the inventory items high-level players will have access to, but they are familiar and cue fond memories – particularly as the Godly Plate of the Whale never actually existed in the game itself. Godly plate armor and equipment of the Whale were two enhancements that could not appear on the same piece of armor; only with a player hack were these able to be combined. The combining of these traits legitimizes the earlier player-hack and cues a fond memory. So, “The Darkening of Tristram” does exactly what nostalgia should: provide a reminder of things as they weren’t.
Once the player has reached Level 9 of the dungeon, she can collect a Rotten Mushroom, which is a key tool for unlocking more memories and a cheeky folding of time. The rotten mushroom can be turned into a witch’s brew, which earns you the drunkard’s debt, a wife’s letter to her husband, and blueprints for a prosthetic leg, each of which is a quest implied by a dead body in town whose spirit is bound by unfinished business. With each task completed, the spirit floats near the body, showing they are now at peace. Without knowing the original game, these references have no meaning. The brief cues are enough to remind the player, but give no significance to the modern gamer. These side-tasks give the player access to a star-map by way of a crafting plan. The map instructs the player in what order to awaken the dead cows near town, which opens a portal to an abandoned farmstead. The series of events hearkens back the fetch-questing of Diablo without quite as much back and forth between the dungeon and town. The ultimate reward in Wirt’s stash at the farm, notably, collapses time again. The player can summon a Royal Calf, who follows her back to Tristram and away from Wirt’s farm. The player familiar with the world of Diablo knows of the ill-famed cow levels, in which horrifying, homicidal cows presented unique challenge to the player. Humorously, the cows in this flashback level will not attack, even if provoked. This moment stepping back in time gives reason for those levels: the player steals their Royal Calf.
The capstone of the dungeon delve is the same as the original Diablo: The video clip shows the child that bore the soul-stone of Diablo returning to his human form as the wanderer takes the soul-stone for himself. This end scene grants the player a unique inventory item: the Red Soul Shard to socket in any helm. The specificity of the gem slot is a joking reminder of the impact of the end of Diablo, where the warrior took on the soul-stone and gave the demon an even more powerful body to use. The video clip is the most graphically simple, as most likely a direct port of the original game footage, and as such, is also the most impactful. You are drawn back to sitting in front of your computer monitor in 1996 feeling overwhelmed that you both just beat a game and lost everything all at the same time.
Unlike NES Classic or Final Fantasy VII, Diablo has not had re-releases of the game available. While it is possible to get the game running on some computers, if you can find a copy of the 20-year-old CD, Blizzard has not re-released or promoted the original game. Instead, this re-visioning of the game is the first return of the original Diablo – and as such, has been able to refine and change elements of the gameplay while still keeping iconic villains and familiar level-order.
The design of the 16-level dungeon takes a couple hours to play through: enough time to re-immerse in an old familiar game, yet not enough time to be daunting. Just as Blizzard uses the updated game mechanics to save the player from the outdated movement rate, inventory screen and combat limitations, the brevity of the dungeon gives the player just enough time to remember without feeling the “slog” of grinding through more game than is needed.
Diablo III has tapped into the appeal of the familiar past very effectively, capturing the balance of old reference and new mechanics. Blizzard has written a love letter to a very specific fan, opening up the past for a short visit to a world made better through the flaws of memory.
Video game home screen shot accessed from Google Images.