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Grappling with Darkness in Diablo II

“The endurance of darkness is preparation for great light.” 

– St. John of the Cross 

“So Marius, at last I find you.”  

The old man shuffles on the floor to peer up towards a darkly veiled figure who has taken a seat in his squalor of a room. He is troubled by this visitor and his salutation. 

“I’ve been searching for you for a long time … I was rather beginning to think you did not want to be found.” 

A gothic horror meets middle-age fantasy aesthetic and foreboding music frame a story fundamentally about the darkness of distance.

Overcoming his bewilderment, the old man recognizes his guest to be an angel in disguise – an angel he has had dealings with before. Calmed by this notion, he begins to offer some rationale behind his hiding. The cloaked figure listens, and we hear the elder’s recount of his harrowing journey to this desperate place.  

In Diablo II, you hasten to catch Marius and his mysterious companion introduced as the Dark Wanderer as they travel east, “always into the east.” In their wake is an ever-worsening rise in evil the player must quell. This takes the form of numerous ravenous demons and corrupt humans that, once vanquished, yield new and increasingly powerful items. With each foe smote, a new chance for treasure  to gush forth. This is the core loop: kill the devil’s horde, get the loot, grow in power and skill, repeat until satisfied. It can be truly intoxicating. Most would say it is the reason Diablo II is one of the best selling games of all time, but not I. For me, it’s Marius. I’ve always found myself enthralled by how Diablo II’s story and presentation  compliment its pioneering Action RPG gameplay. There is something ingenious about how it all congeals if you’re willing to digest beyond the incessant clicking of monsters. A gothic horror meets middle-age fantasy aesthetic and foreboding music frame a story fundamentally about the darkness of distance.

Narratively, you’re always one step behind; failing in pursuit as each of the game’s four acts opens with Marius narrating what grief and calamity the menacing Dark Wanderer has summoned. Mechanically, you’re always trying to close a gap in power by finding new gear; but every item is eventually worn down or outdone by an onslaught of sharper fangs and larruping spells. There is an inherent tension to the loop, an undulation of certain failures and near successes that in time must break. 

When the chase ends, the Dark Wanderer is revealed to be the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo, possessing a host to carry out his grim mission: to find and free his imprisoned demonic brothers, Baal and Mephisto.  By game’s end, the player has an elite arsenal powerful enough to overwhelm and cast down the cunning Lord of Terror and one of his aforementioned siblings. An illusory sense of victory sets in, and then we witness the epilogue.

Led by the world and worldly things, Marius faced the exhaustion of deserts, the quiver of hunger and cold, and the torments of his own memories. By some inborn compulsion, he decided to follow the Dark Wanderer; as a lost soul would search to fulfill desire or perhaps something greater. In the end he is left gaunt, destitute and forgotten in the filth of a sanitarium hiding from his given errand. The hooded man is by no means angelic, and is revealed to be the last remaining brother in disguise: Baal. He kills Marius unceremoniously after he has what he wants from him—a stone with the power to entrap the souls of demons already containing his brothers.  A stone Marius was meant to destroy on command of Tyrael the Archangel, but failed in his cowardice. By seeking distance from his dread and hence his duty, Death found a craven old man who left this fictitious world in a worse place by his inaction; effectively undoing all the efforts of the player. 

The peculiar thing about light is it can deceive the eyes; only when sight is absent can we distinguish with certainty between the oasis and the mirage. This is the necessity of trial.

In life sometimes we find ourselves exemplifying the tendencies that led to Marius’ demise. We seek pleasure to avoid and mask pain; most of us are content in such a cycle until the air leaves our lungs for good. We can be misguided by demons into deserts, we can be fooled into mistaking devils for angels. The reality of materialism can root us in a loop for the next thing to increase our power; be it used to numb the self or leverage the other. The great tragedy being stuck in ignorance to the cure— an inherent tension that if not escaped can render us despondent.

I’d like to believe what Marius was seeking on his venture was an end to spiritual thirst; a discovery of purpose or greater still to be fully known. Only in the wellspring of communion can we take such a satiating drink but it can be daunting to find such an oasis. Undertaking the quest makes us vulnerable for a time and inevitably we face a crisis of loneliness, much like wandering in the desert. A phenomenon coined as the dark night of the soul,  it is the point of perceived impasse in the growth of faith or the molding of identity. When the soul feels a silence it can seem like divine abandonment, especially if we have already been in dialogue. If we succumb to this form of internal suffering, we will live out what Marius embodies; a distance of infinites, a placement of faith in what cannot quench.  

We must become unencumbered in our time of anxiously grasping at the first thing that brings relief. Embrace the darkness as a proof, for something must exist to counter it should we endure. The peculiar thing about light is it can deceive the eyes; only when sight is absent can we distinguish with certainty between the oasis and the mirage. This is the necessity of trial. It hones us to discern between the ill-willed and the beneficial; grafting on us the interior armor essential to face the “Diablos” of this realm.   

One last time I’d like you to indulge for a moment a story about someone who wandered in the desert, as compelled by another. In the Old Testament Book of Exodus, Moses is guided to an encounter with a Burning Bush. As natural law would dictate, the bush should be consumed by the blaze yet it radiates unscathed. An observation I think that isn’t given enough thought. The coexistence of ember and branch in one, a marvelous harmony of essence, a melding of opposites. The fortification of the soul works in this manner as well. By persisting in the dark night we become equipped with the weapons of patience, temperance, and wisdom. Once well provisioned we can chart our own path over dry dune and red rock to find a haven of true reprieve. In clinging to comfort, in running from trial, we are damned to a shared fate with Marius. Instead I urge you to close the distance, endure, and I promise you will be akin to a Burning Bush. A flame never needing fuel; a beacon unending.

A born and raised Appalachian, Elliott is a software engineer by day and wannabe game designer by night. A WVU alumni, he co-founded Parable Game Studios in 2016 with a mission to create small and meaningful digital experiences and to use game design as a teaching mechanism for youth in his area. When not working or playing video games, he enjoys running, strumming the guitar, and reading. Elliott is also a big fan of Star Wars puns.

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