Staring at the Top Rung

    Finally able to discover the wonders of Battle.net with my USWest barbarian, aptly named Garwulf, I ventured online during a snowy New Year’s Day to stretch my character’s legs and have a look at the new ladder rankings.

    Ever since I first began playing Diablo II on Battle.net, I have paid attention to the ladder. Although I wondered at what cost the dedication to maintain a character on through level 90 came to a player’s personal life, I still looked at the rankings with some awe; after all, just think of the many months those ladder players worked on creating their uber-characters! It is a dedication and effort that is beyond me, and therefore worthy of respect.

    (My energies are more often dedicated to my writing work-in-progress, aka “the novel that is eating my life.” What do you expect? I’m a writer…I write…)

    Flashback: the date is January 1, 2001. The city of Toronto has been buried by eighty feet of snow, and those who aren’t still recovering from their New Year’s parties have nothing better to do after they shovel their driveways (well, there is collapsing from exhaustion, but I mean OTHER than that). It is around 11 hours after the ladders have been reset. The valiant author logs on, a copy of Children of Dune at his side (I am still uncertain of whether I am playing Diablo II in my free time to divert myself from reading, or vice versa). Upon entering his favorite channel, Strategy Forum, he checks the new ladders, expecting to see a bunch of characters in their low teens and early twenties.

    The top character…is…level…72.

    Five minutes later, having recovered from the combination heart-attack and stroke caused by this revelation, I looked again, certain that there must have been a mistake. Who knows? Perhaps one of my friends, knowing that I would be on Battle.net the next day, had written the number “72” on my glasses, exactly where it would need to be to fool me into seeing this incredible number.

    No mistake. Indeed, somebody had managed the improbable feat of bringing a character up to level 72 in under 12 hours. Looking down the ladder, I saw more characters, a couple in the sixties, an enormous number in the fifties, and even more in the forties. Not only had one person apparently been playing ten games of Diablo II at once with one character, but several were close behind.

    It boggles the mind. I’ve put around 20 hours into Garwulf, and he is (at the moment of writing this column), a comfortable level 23. I didn’t think it was possible to finish the game in half a day (although I’m told that it can be done if you play really hard), much less often enough to beat Hell difficulty.

    I think I’ve found a new version of the walking dead.

    Remember Garwulf’s Corner #6, that lovely little piece about people who are dead inside and how wonderful life is when you actually take time to live it? Consider this a follow-up.

    It took me a while to work out how one could get up to level 72 in that period of time. At first, I thought it isn’t something one person can do. In theory, if you got around twenty people to help you, you could zip through the first difficulty level in a couple of hours, with seven other players opening waypoints for you and knocking off monsters and quests. Then, once you’ve got that done, you could divide the players up into teams. Each team goes into their own game, clears out the underworld in a great imitation of a paramilitary operation, leaving only Diablo himself alive. Then, you go in, dispatch Diablo, and move on to the next game, leaving the team to create a new game, and clear out Hell again.

    After a bit of information gathering (okay, my editor dropped the information in my lap and threatened to make me read a never-ending fantasy series if I didn’t revise…but it really is better to think of it as “information gathering”), I discovered that it can be done on one’s own, but it involves pre-planning and gathering equipment for around six months beforehand, and then playing solely in 8-player games where you can level up at a fantastic rate (while teaching the monsters never to bring a sword to a gunfight).

    Repeat the process for Nightmare and Hell difficulties, and it can work. So there you have it: Garwulf’s theories as to how this variant of walking dead operates.

    Think I’m being cruel here? I don’t. If I could meet one of these ladder players, there is one question I would ask above all others: “Are you actually having FUN?” Granted, it was interesting and enjoyable to watch GerBARB and RussBARB vie for the top place on the European Realm, but that was only two teams. It was reasonable. Two HUNDRED teams of ultra-competitive players is just ridiculous.

    After all, the point of the game is to have fun. Furthermore, those good people at Blizzard North have made Diablo II a labor of love, and it shows. Not only does the game have an epic storyline involving a conflict between Heaven and Hell, but it works on a very mythological level. The struggle is a fundamental one between good and evil, and the souls of all of the human race are in peril.

    The heroes wander across the globe, from the western lands of Khanduras to the gates of Hell itself. From a demon-infested pass that once held a Monastery of the Sightless Eye, the heroes travel into the desert. The lands of Aranoch are filled with the desolate remains of ancient civilizations, giant Assyrian monuments buried in the shifting sands. And yet, within these sands, there is an ancient evil, and the heroes must explore secluded temples and long-forgotten tombs.

    Across the sea they travel, coming to the lands of Kehjistan. Here the heroes find themselves in the overgrown ruins of Kurast, fighting to survive in the deadly jungles. There, amongst ancient temples that reach into the sky, they must destroy one of the Prime Evils.

    From Kurast, they venture into Hell itself, past the lost souls trapped in their horrifying torments, through cities of the damned, to confront the greatest evil in the world.

    Sounds great, doesn’t it? And this is not something I’m taking from the world bible handed to me for Demonsbane, or some prosaic fantasy I am weaving for your enjoyment. This is all in the game, there for everybody to see. Yes, the gameplay may revolve around killing monsters and leveling up, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg.

    The real fun comes from losing one’s self in this incredible world, and not wanting to come out again. I can’t count the number of screenshots I have, primarily of incredible bits of the landscape that brought Sanctuary to life before my eyes. But, in order to do this, one must take one’s time, actually explore and SEE what is out there.

    How can one do this when one is on the ladder? In the all-consuming rush to reach that magic number of 99, the wondrous enchantment of Diablo II is lost. A game that should be a glorious and fun diversion, an adventure into darkness itself for the sake of light, is transformed into a mere contest of numbers.

    And what do these ladder players get once they reach the magic number? Their name on a board, for all to see. And then, in a year, or perhaps even less, the board will be cleared, and their accomplishment forgotten. They’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that they did it, but that is all.

    One of my proudest moments was the day that I held the final galleys of Demonsbane in my hands. I looked at the stack of paper, and repeated to myself: “I wrote that.” That accolade will stay with me for years, and I will always have the galleys of my little Blizzard e-book to remind me of this. I worked my tail off for weeks, and I created something that gave other people joy. THAT is an accomplishment to remember.

    But when I play Diablo II, it doesn’t matter where I play it. I always enjoy the wonderful world of Sanctuary, where I can lose myself for a couple of hours, only actually coming out for that pesky need for food and sleep. And if that means that I will never have my character recognized on a ladder, well, so be it. I won’t be missing out on anything, and I’ll be having lots of fun.

    Which is, of course, the point of the game, and the point of life in general. Harlan Ellison once told the readers of his column An Edge In My Voice to “stay angry.” I’ve got a better idea; I’ll see you next installment, my dear readers. Until then, stay ALIVE.

    Next issue: Cutting through the dung-pile, in which your valiant author deals with some of the real issues behind computer-game violence.

    Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

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