I’ll not lie: For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been caught in a temporal vortex. It came on quite suddenly, without the motion blur and solar flare that one might expect from a rift in space-time. I simply sat down at my (ingenious, incidentally) VIKA AMON and then was consumed by a not there-ness. This is to say, I took a vacation in order to look for a real job. Dear reader, my shit? It flipped. Mea culpa.
Let’s continue bouncing around. Pastiche is, like irony, a word I’ve never fully gotten my head around. I first ran across it in some ridiculous literary criticism course I took at Ohio State. Here’s how it was put to me, vis-a-vis some ridiculous something Fredric Jameson wrote:
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.
Are we talking about hipsters? No! We’re talking about Diablo 3! It’s not that Diablo 3 is a bad game. It’s actually quite fun in its nihilistic compulsion (see: Internet pornography). What I’m saying is I haven’t found a shred of anything in Diablo 3 that has the potential of conjuring up the same level of fond nostalgia as, say, a cow level, or Wirt’s Leg, or “stay awhile, and listen!” Instead I’m getting stuff like Act I (or is it Act II?) ending with a mediocre boss fight against The Butcher, one that wasn’t nearly as gratifying as its original incarnation.
Oh, oh! There’s a distinction here that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to draw. Companies like Blizzard (or Activision Blizzard, as it were) don’t owe it to the industry to innovate or push things forward. To me, it seems perfectly reasonable that these companies would follow the film-industry precedent of repurposing and repackaging everything that Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s a business. Make money. Whatever.
The issue I have here is that even when the film industry is cashing in, it still typically does so with verve. And it’s not like this concept is foreign to the game industry. BioWare certainly had it with Mass Effect 3. Hell, even Infinity Ward managed it with Modern Warfare 3. Those games had a cinematic thrill to them; a tinge of the unexpected or outrageous seamlessly integrated into the familiar. They make the player feel something.
Diablo 3, conversely, does nothing other than appropriate the clever touches of its predecessors, without contributing anything of its own. It leaves me feeling nothing, hence all that talk of pastiche.
Why is this the case? How did such a large, well-funded studio produce a game with absolutely no verve? Reflexively, I’d say it has to do with Blizzard’s iterative development style, and its tendency to tweak out anything remotely controversial. And here I’m drawing from Rob Pardo’s GDC 2010 panel on Blizzard’s design philosophy.
Near the end, and I’m paraphrasing myself here, he spoke about the company’s “culture of polish,” and how the teams will refine what they’ve got, as soon as they’ve got it, even if it’s just scribbles on a whiteboard. Creating comes from chaos, and it seems to me like this design method would too rigidly stifle chaos. There’s no room for happy accidents. Plus, it’s hard to go on a tear, to get hot with your ideas, when your head’s swiveled in reverse.
And of course the risk-aversion, shareholder appeasement, profit necessity, blah blah blah. It’s interesting, though. Can you imagine Blizzard making a game that, in an honest way, delves into the nature of morality, immorality, and amorality? That explores the enigmatic dark matter bookending both good and evil? That presents a complex character who willingly consumes an ultimate evil, contains it and confronts it within himself, instead of just hitting it with a sword until it dies? And then ultimately fail?