On the Drawing Board #10: Horror Elements?



The tenth installment of On the Drawing Board moves away from specific game features and focuses more on the intangibles. Did you play Diablo I? Did you enjoy the horror elements of it, and miss them in Diablo II? The D3 Team has talked about their desire to make Diablo III a more moody, atmospheric, creepy, horror-filled game than Diablo II was. Do you like this approach? Do you think they can pull it off? We saw a lot of good DiabloWikihorror elements in the Blizzcon Demo, but whether the team can (or should even try) keep that up throughout the whole game is a topic worth discussing. Click through to view the evidence and join the debate.

On the Drawing Board #10: Horror Elements in Diablo

One of the elements of Diablo 1 that so many fans still remember fondly, and one that Diablo II did not improve upon, was the atmosphere of horror. Diablo wasn’t marketed as a horror title, and the game wasn’t filled with cheesy shock or scare elements, but many players still felt genuinely uneasy playing it. In a good way!

The Butcher is the most cited example, and his “Ahh, fresh meat!” cry as he bursts out of his bloody cell is still a classic, even 13 years later. (Go 2:20 to hear it, or watch the whole thing for the full Butcher lore experience.) And he was scary even without his short cinematic introduction, which was not activated in the final game though it was left on the CD. (Apparently the Butcher was going to have his own sublevel, like the Skeleton King and Lazarus do in single player, and this movie would have played before a player entered it.)


The Butcher wasn’t the only scary thing in the game, of course. Various other monsters were unsettling and dangerously menacing, but it wasn’t anything specific that made Diablo I creepy. The overall atmosphere and mood of the game was much darker and more foreboding than in Diablo II. The dungeons were cramped and ominous, the famous Tristram theme was filled with despair, the NPCs seemed resigned to their fate, the monsters squealed horribly and died with real emotion, etc.

Ironically, Diablo is not thought of as a horror game. There are 174 games listed in the horror video games category on Wikipedia, and Diablo’s not among them. True, the Wikipedia list is debatable, since it’s comprised almost entirely of games that were self-assigned into the “horror” genre (whether they’re actually scary, or any good, is another question) or FPS titles with non-human enemies. Apparently any game is scary if it’s got a first person view and zombie-dinosaurs that jump out from behind crates from the side of the screen? In a strange way, being snubbed provides Diablo with an accolade. After all, look at what most “horror” games do to live up to their genre? Lots of cheap thrills, gruesome and noisy creatures rushing at the screen, gory, highly-realistic visuals, etc. That Diablo was much more memorably unsettling, with an isometric view and tiny, pixely graphics, just testifies to how effective it was at evoking an ominous tone and mood.


Diablo II was made by the same designers, it didn’t change the setting, and I doubt they tried not to be scary, yet I’ve never heard anyone refer to Diablo II as a horror game. Certainly not in comparison to Diablo I. Diablo II had a lot of the same elements, and with much better graphics it could show more gruesome scenes. Yet the game just does not have the same mood of despair and gloom, and the atmosphere never feels creepy or oppressive. Why not?

I think there are two main reasons. First, the variety of settings makes for fun gameplay, but makes it impossible to sustain a creepy mood. Open grassy surface areas in Act One with animal-like monsters, the bright desert of Act Two, the non-threatening jungle of Act Three, and the frozen tundra of Act Five were simply not very atmospheric. They were enjoyable areas, but they had zero gloom and doom. Second and more important, the gameplay was not conducive to maintaining a horrific mood. Diablo II plays so much more quickly than Diablo I, thanks to all of the multi-target skills, much faster combat, and the ability for players to run, that the horror elements are largely defused. After all, what’s scary in a horror movie? Usually it’s the hero or heroine on foot, alone, in unfamiliar territory, with unknown monsters (human or otherwise) all around. If the hero could simply outrun the enemies, or beat them up, or take numerous hits without slowing down, it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie. (It would be an action movie, or a superhero movie, which is a fairly accurate analogy to Diablo II.)

The D3 Team has talked about returning Diablo III to the horror vibe that was absent from Diablo II, and from what I saw in my play time at Blizzcon, they’re on the right track with the design, the graphics, the visuals, and more. Let’s take a moment to consider Diablo III‘s horror elements.  We’ve only seen a few areas of the game so far in gameplay movies; a generic dungeon and a generic surface area. Neither of those distinguished themselves overmuch, but the New Tristram area that Blizzcon attendees got to explore was just chock full of horror elements.  I described some of these in a gameplay report posted shortly after Blizzcon.

New players started off in a tiny encampment with just two NPCs. One of them was a talkative soldier, but the other was a silent meat wagon driver who spent his time endlessly shuffling between a wagon stacked high with bodies, from which he kept pulling corpses that he carried over and dumped onto a burning pyre. The animation was great, and the bodies were very well drawn as well. They looked like corpses, bloody and murdered ones.

The mood continued as soon as a player moved out into the ruins of Tristram. The scenery was dark and oppressive, and no, the screenshots don?t at all do it justice. The floating, partially transparent mist looks so much better in the game than in the screenshots, where it just makes things look smudged and blurry. The black, gnarled trees, clusters of crows that flew away when the player got close enough to trigger them, dozens of ruined, blasted houses you could run through, bodies lying here and there, and small bunches of zombies to rout gave the area a great, creepy, doomed atmosphere.

There were a number of nice set pieces elsewhere in Tristram that added to the mood. A human hand is seen at one point, clawing at the earth, before being yanked down into a dark cellar from which come horrible screams and a fountain of blood. Ghosts wander the streets, sobbing quietly and pathetically. Zombies are seen gnawing on corpses, and their moans and groans are very horror movie appropriate. The gruesome mood isn?t continued into the dungeon, but the design and graphics of the dungeon areas were very effective. They weren?t trying to be scary, but the monsters are so well animated and formed that they are threatening and very real. You want to destroy them, and even though the zombies you find early on are basically just walking experience pots, they?re loathsome and a little bit scary. I was again reminded of Diablo I, where even the weakest starting monsters were somewhat threatening, emotionally, if not from a survival standpoint.

So far, the horror elements of Diablo III look promising. Whether the team will be able to keep them up throughout the whole game remains to be seen. We know from the concept art that Diablo III will take players all across the world, through a wide variety of environments, as Diablo II did. Can open, surface areas be atmospheric and retain elements of horror? Or function as a palette cleanser between scary dungeon levels? We’ll have to see.

The other issue is the gameplay, and that might be more troublesome. It’s certain that Diablo III’‘s gameplay will be as (or more) action-packed and fast-paced than it was in Diablo II. Will that dispel the horror elements? Can you really find the game creepy when your Barbarian can leap across the entire screen and hit ten monsters at once? Or your Wizard can teleport, or cast spells that slow every enemy and enemy projectile to a crawl? Or is that irrelevant? Did the feeling of horror in Diablo I come more from the difficulty and pressure, rather than the ability to move quickly? After all, every character in Diablo I could teleport anywhere, instantly, just as the Sorceress can in Diablo II.

What do you guys think? Do you want a feeling of horror in Diablo III? Did you miss it in Diablo II? Do you think Diablo III can maintain an eerie, brooding atmosphere even with faster paced gameplay and wide open surface areas? Or is this irrelevant to you, and you just want a fun action game, and things like story, mood, theme, atmosphere, etc are entirely beside the point?



On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.

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