I spent a fair amount of time playing Diablo III over the past month – along with what I can only imagine is one sixth of the world’s population. Unfortunately, about half of those people have also taken the time to write up detailed reviews of the game. This deluge of commentary left me struggling to find some way to frame my experience with the game that seemed mildly interesting. And then I read a blog discussing death penalities in games that made me realize that Diablo III’s optional permanent-death mode, a.k.a hardcore, was so elegant that it has come to completely redefine what I expected from the game and how I played it.
First, some context: Diablo was my first online game way back over a decade ago. Nostalgia obligates me to play any title in the franchise, even if my tastes in games have moved towards those with persistent worlds. That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about the game’s release, but more to point out that I expected to play through once or twice to experience the game and then move onto something else. At best, I expected a few weeks of gameplay given that it’s largely an updated and more polished version of what is at it’s core a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. While some of my friends were keen on pushing through every single difficulty level and were happy to farm demons for gear, I knew that style of gameplay would not hold my attention forever.
Given those expectations, I surprised myself after finishing normal mode by making a new character and selecting hardcore mode. I never played hardcore mode in Diablo II because the idea of investing time in a character only to have them deleted after one death seemed pointless. This time though, the knowledge that I would eventually stop playing the game looming at the front of my mind put the loss of a character into a new context. I realized that the second I stopped playing Diablo III, any character I had invested time in might as well have been deleted anyway. Armed with this realization, I took my new hardcore character – a Wizard – into the now much more dangerous game world. I pushed past normal mode spending every coin, potion, and crafting material I came across knowing that there was no point to holding anything back. If I died, I was dead. About mid-way through Act 1 in nightmare difficulty, I was cut down by a pack of elite spiderlings who cornered me in a cave. My death happened so fast and so unexpectedly, that I was unable to process what had happened. But I experienced neither rage or disappointment; instead, I felt catharsis. The permanent death of my character was somehow more satisfying than actually beating any boss in the game on my normal mode character.
This experience in a game was so unique that I knew I had to try it again. I made several more characters, trying new classes each time to experience the game in a new way. These characters made it to various levels, though never very far due to a bit of recklessness on my part and unfamiliarity with their play styles. I started to become a little frustrated until I noticed that despite each of my characters having to start back at the beginning of the game, my account was still still getting more powerful. My bank and gold carrying over between character deaths started to let me arm and equip my new characters faster. Hardcore purists from Diablo II will argue that this negates some of the challenge, but it was just enough continuity to keep me interested. The game had changed for me.
Despite the simplicity of clicking a mouse over and over, Diablo III’s gameplay at higher difficulties comes down to solving dynamic problems. The game sends new waves of opponents with complex and random abilities and you address these challenges with a finite set of tools. The most powerful of these tools is also the one you appreciate the least until it’s gone: trial and error. If your character cannot truly die, you can brute force your way past some of the more challenging puzzles thrown at you. I love problem solving, but even trying to learn the game’s intricacies, I leaned on the crutch of trial and error when I played through normal difficulty the first time. Hardcore showed me how to get at the good stuff, the uncut version of the game. My most recent hardcore character, a level 51 Witch Doctor, is now in Act I of Hell mode and I absolutely cannot wait to come across the puzzle that finally beats me.
The Diablo III developers have said that it was never intended that hardcore characters would beat the game’s higher difficulties, so it’s unlikely that I will ever “complete” the game. But playing hardcore has artificially extended the game’s life for me. Where some of my friends are already getting bored, I feel like I am just coming into best parts of the game and I do not see an immediate end in sight because I can keep pushing the bar further. Playing hardcore has made me appreciate that sometimes even a simple design on the surface can achieve elegant results and that we gamers have probably taken our digital immortality for granted far too long.