Diablo III and the Death of God
[WARNING: This article contains lots of spoilers regarding the Diablo series.]
A while ago, I heard that the creators of Batman had decided that Bruce Wayne is an atheist. The decision struck me as odd – Batman is after all set in a world where demons and gods are a sensed reality, and where the Judeo-Christian God is canonically a part of the universe.
Then a realization hit me – it makes a great deal more sense if we think of Wayne as being an atheist in the sense of wanting nothing to do with God (or not believing He has anything to do with him). He lacks faith in the original sense of the Hebrew term – emunah in the sense of “emun” or trust. The Death of God is for him more about His relevance to humanity’s life than any logical proofs or arguments in any direction.
I think about this when pondering Diablo III, the third installment in Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo series, a hack and slash game where the protagonist player-character goes around a fictional world trying to save humanity from evil.
The first two installments were fairly conventional – the Devil (really the Devils – Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal) wishes to enslave humanity and the hero must stop him. The End. But the third installment greatly expands this world and changes its orientation dramatically, deepening its range and complicating what seemed a simple world of black and white morality in the first two stories.
Two changes in particular stand out. The first is the player-characters – while the hero/adventurer in the first two installments was a fairly faceless hero/heroine with little dialogue or difference aside from skillsets, the protagonists to choose from in Diablo III are all fleshed out characters with their own backstory, beliefs, and outlook on life and the world at large.
There’s the stoic but staunchly believing Crusader, the jaded and bitterly cynical Demon Hunter, the almost Nietzschian Wizard, the warrior in search of a cause Barbarian, and the three managers of the spirit world – the Necromancer, the Monk, and the Witch Doctor – all of whom seek to restore balance by preventing the disruptions caused by the forces fought throughout the game. Playing the game with each is thus not just a chance to test skills and see cool effects but to reinterpret the same events through often very different eyes.
The second and even more momentous change comes with the introduction of Heaven and the angels residing there as an active participant in the game. In Diablo I and II, the angels were hidden warriors against evil, with the angel Tyrael appearing in the second installment to help fight the Devils but then held back towards the end of the game. One perhaps gets the impression that Heaven and its angels are as we might imagine – out to protect humanity but inscrutable and careful when it comes to interfering.
In Diablo III, Heaven and its angels reveal themselves to be far more complicated than that, and far from the conception of good one might think. There are good angels – Tyrael in particular, who works to save humanity as an angel and who then becomes human rather than stand aside as they are destroyed; Auriel and Ithiriel also see the good in humanity.
But there are two very powerful angels who either despise humanity or are at most indifferent to its fate. Imperius, the commander of the forces of Heaven, once voted to eliminate mankind. Malthael, the Angel of Wisdom, abstained but is no fan. Repeatedly, we see that a factor in a world threatened by monsters one would think is benevolent reveals itself to often be anything but.
This struggle come to a head in the expansion episode, Reaper of Souls. Having defeated the Devil once again and trapped him in a soulstone, Tyrael tries to hide the stone forever – and evil along with it. But Malthael now sees a chance to eliminate not only the evil of demons, but the evil of men, and he steals the stone with the aim of using it to physically remove the evil from humanity, killing them in the process. Few demons serve as the hero’s enemies in this installment; it is almost entirely deviant angels which the hero must slay.
The disillusionment which runs through this episode is different than the standard “evil corrupted us/betrayed us/surprised us/killed so many” in most of the Diablo series. The hero and the people he or she fight for must now contend with the reality that they have no-one to rely on but themselves, that there is no good or benevolent Heaven or Angels in their totality to help counteract the Devil. Angels are merely really powerful beings with no better an agenda than the Devil at times, this idea reaching its peak when Malthael literally absorbs the essence of the Devil into him rather than lose the fight to the hero he is trying to stop from ending evil (truly, the height of irony). The same Death of God occurs as did with Bruce Wayne – the death of trust in Heaven.
For a game set in a medieval setting, the questions this game raises regarding humanity, belief, and purpose are strikingly modern. Yet the answer of human purpose once this Death of God occurs are by no means uniform. True, there are some will-to-power types strewn throughout the game, characters who believe morality itself has died and all that matters is domination – Zoltun Kulle, for instance, or the commander of the Templar assistant character.
But most characters do not collapse this completely. The protagonists in particular redouble their desire to carry on the work of the cause they took up from the outset. Their strength lies thus not just in their physical powers but the moral strength of commitment to a cause, a tradition, a moral code taken seriously, Heaven or no Heaven. The Crusader is of particular interest here, retaining faith despite also becoming as disillusioned as anyone else. Other non-player characters seek solace in smaller but no less real “causes” and purpose – friendship, rebuilding life, revelry with comrades.
Still, as in the metaphorical Death of God in our world, something is lost, something precious: Trust and belief in an absolute order and purpose to things, a trust in a moral anchor above a humanity which does not exactly come out looking all that good in the game, either. The old order now having been overturned, the world of Diablo is now one in which it’s hard to tell whether any of it makes sense anymore.
It is easy to mock the above analysis; after all, great thinkers have done a much more penetrating job in investigating these questions than a simple computer game meant as much for children as adults. But this is to miss an important point, a fundamentally human point noted especially by GK Chesteron in many of his articles – most people form their way of thinking based not on abstract philosophy but on stories, on characters they identify with, on goals that inspire. So it was when tribal members sat round the campfire, and so it is today as we debate the ethics or lack thereof in Game of Thrones.
For people looking for a nuanced and surprisingly religion friendly look into the question of human purpose, faith, and morality in our own time, they could do a lot worse than playing a few rounds of Diablo III.