Why Blizzard's surrogate ruins Diablo 3

Video games, at heart, are about us. We may be someone else, but we’ll always be ourselves, too. Whether that someone is Gordon Freeman, physicist and monster-killer, or Kratos, menacing god of punching dudes with chains, or Lara Croft, we’re learning about ourselves through them. Similarly, Diablo 3’s story is about us: a hero saving the world.

By all accounts, Diablo 3’s narrative is bad. It’s a hammy tale told in a boring world. That’s been the explanation used by most writers on the subject: it’s a bad story because its setting is boring. Its characters are boring. Its action is exciting, but narratively? Nah.

The thing is, though, Diablo 3 isn’t worse than other games, on the surface. The world of Sanctuary, while bland and listless, is no more bland and listless than Kratos’ Greece. Its characters, while bland and one dimensional, are no worse than Half Life’s characters. Its lore, while knotted and silly and told through audio logs, is told in the same knotted and silly way as narrative champion Bioshock’s.

So what’s the problem? It’s one that has become more common: the developer surrogate.

This is a problem classic to tabletop role playing games. The traditional tabletop game, for the uninitiated, features a few players who take on the roles of specific characters, while another player, the DM, tells the story. The characters have a great deal of autonomy, as much freedom as the DM allows, and they can sometimes take the story off the rails in strange, ridiculous ways. The DM may want to tell a story about warring gods, while the players might just want to raise an army of midget, mute mushroom men and use them to attack a neighboring town.

This, coupled with a strong desire to have fun with the players, leads a lot of DM’s to create recurring characters who the players meet. Unlike normal characters, who flit in and out of the players’ lives, these surrogates come with them on adventures. They talk about the plot. They’re interested in the story the DM is telling, and look at you with puppy dog eyes, asking you to be interested, too.

If you’ve played Diablo 3, this sounds familiar. It does because Leah fits this role to the letter.

Let’s go back to Diablo 2 for a second, first. This was a game that got considerable plaudits in its time for its narrative, which is notable for two reasons: for one it told a lovely parallel narrative between its cutscenes and its gameplay, and the other because it stayed the hell out of your way. The game’s video narrative gave the story of Aidan, the hero of the first game, as he, possessed, tried to revive Diablo. It was well-delivered for the time: it was attractive, had voice acting, and looked ruddy professional.

The gameplay narrative remained identical to Diablo 3’s: it was the typical video game bildungsroman, without the traditional psychological or moral development but with a lot of physical development. You begin a weakling with a strong will, you end as the one who killed the Lord of Terror. It’s not a particularly strong narrative, but it’s engaging from a gameplay perspective.

What Diablo 2 did right was it made these narratives parallel. Aidan appeared only twice in the gameplay narrative: once in a spooky scene at the beginning of Act III where he served to remind you that these two narratives were concurrent, and then again when you fought Diablo himself. Other than then, there was no overlap.

Diablo 3 tries to tell two stories, but they are not parallel: playing the game, you get the sneaking suspicion that Leah’s story of tragedy and inevitable corruption is the one Blizzard is begging us to invest in, not our own rise to power. Your character get some black and white splattered maps as cutscenes with voiceovers, but Leah gets the full motion video treatment. You’re the one wandering the countryside punching demons, but whenever something important to the plot happens, Leah’s there as an invincible companion, ready to take all the good lines, do all the important action.

Leah’s presence creates a dissonance. She’s the developer, not trusting you to care about, or create, the proper plot. She’s a character you’re supposed to care about in the same breath you over loot, over miniscule differences in your dexterity stat, and which runes to pick for your biggest punching skill. Leah is the plot, but this is a game about you. This puts your needs at odds.

She reminds me a lot of Bioware’s equally ill-advised Kai Leng. Kai Leng first starred in Mass Effect tie in novel Retribution, then went on to be an antagonist in Mass Effect 3. He’s mostly known for being an absolutely infuriating bastard who survived your best shot multiple times by skipping off in cutscenes and providing nothing worthwhile to the game besides making you focus on The Illusive Man as antagonist instead of the Reapers.

These two characters bear a striking similarity despite their differing roles: they exist as external focuses in self-obsessed games designed to direct the player’s interest to specific elements of the plot. They are manipulative entities. Neither is a character the player has any interest in interacting with, and neither of them have character traits: Leah is best defined by having awesome, uncontrollable powers and being a bit of a skeptic, and Kai Leng is a ninja. Unlike real characters, they don’t have flaws, positive traits, or any interesting history. Their only trait is that they’re both badasses, and they’re both directly related to the plot.

Each exists for one purpose: to direct your attention away from where you want it to be to where the developer wants it to be. Instead of focusing on the fight against the Reapers and on Commander Shepard’s internal struggles, Kai Leng forces you to focus on an awkward side plot. Instead of focusing on being a badass, Leah makes you have to think about the 90’s cartoon machinations of the forces of hell. They both remind me of 90’s cool: I can imagine Leah skateboarding, or Kai Leng listening to Pearl Jam.

Both characters distract your attention from the parts of their respective games that work to other segments that don’t. You get the feeling from both that they’re here because one of the writers thought they were really cool and compelling and demanded they exist in this universe. And they are both the worst kind of character: the one without flaw, the one who exists solely to remind you,The Coolest Person in the Universe, that you aren’t so great.


  1. Well written! You put your finger on something about the game’s narrative that was troubling, but that I hadn’t identified. 
    I feel like a character like Leah is there not just because the developers feel that they themselves and the character is ‘oh so cool’ but because they are writers with no idea how to write for a player character. They can’t figure out their way around the independent agent that is the player when they write their narrative, so they write it for someone else instead. The result is exactly what you identified, that the player ends up feeling somewhat lost and outside of both the game and narrative. It’s half-way to breaking the 4th wall and ends up just destroying immersion and suspension of disbelief. 
    It’s surprisingly disappointing for Blizzard, who I thought knew how to write game stories at this point. 

    • TrueAxiom

       @AramZS I certainly agree that’s the likely hypothesis as to why it happened.  It’s why it happens in tabletops, too: the players are lighting towns on fire, and someone needs to get them back to fighting some sort of ancient evil.

  2. MikeBarrett

    Whoa, dog. Whoa. This article came at Pearl Jam’s neck all of a sudden, and I can’t abide by that.*picks out his best punching runes* 

    • TrueAxiom

       @MikeBarrett I love Pearl Jam, man.  Not only that, I love the 90’s.  If there was a Mount Rushmore of 90’s lovers, I’d be on it, giving a goofy thumbs up.
      I should amend it to say Kai Leng probably listens to the mediocre late 90’s Pearl Jam albums and makes fun of people for not thinking “Do the Evolution” is their best song since Ten.

  3. So Leah and Kai Leng are Mary Sues then? That explains a lot.

  4. makensha

    I have had a recurring character in all of the campaigns I’ve run. Usually they are characters I liked so much that I came up with reasons for them to keep showing up. The most memorable one had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot and actually managed to convince my players that their whole quest was entirely meaningless. My players were really confused.

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  6. Chris Kouvopoulos

    Valid point- but doesn’t that apply to virtually all major Blizzard characters, throughout various settings?

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  10. Bob

    Which is why I skip all the cutscenes.