Giving Death Weight: Hardcore Mode in ‘Diablo II’

My barbarian is doomed. He is absolutely — without a doubt — going to die one day. I don’t know how or even when (though I have a few guesses as to when), but sooner or later the sword of Damocles suspended above his shaven head is going to drop and that will be that. I will not have a barbarian anymore because my barbarian will be dead.

When his end comes — and it will come — and probably before I’m finished playing with him, he will not show up in camp. He will not be able to revive his companion, run for his corpse to get his equipment back, and continue the fight. He will just be dead. This is a difficult thought for me to process, although as soon as I see my barbarian’s health start to drop I panic, start chugging potions, and scramble to open a town portal to escape the fight so I can regroup. So at least some part of me realizes that there’s a lot at stake here — nothing less than an investment of time that is slowly creeping higher and higher to an inevitable moment when it will all turn out to have been wasted as my barbarian’s corpse rots on the floor of some dungeon.

I know that my barbarian is going to die because if I’m perfectly honest, I am terrible at playing Diablo II.

Some of the armors which my barbarian will not wear — because he will be dead.

There’s a lot to be said for a game’s willingness to allow the player to make mistakes. Death is not something that gamers fear beyond the fear of having to restart a level from a checkpoint (or quick save, which is a hotkey that every FPS or CRPG player worth their salt mashes on with an almost fanatical regularity). Sometimes you have to pay to repair your armor or equipment and you might even have to do the dreaded corpse run to find your avatar’s former body, waiting patiently with all of your equipment to be picked up and strapped back on. Death is something that you work around, not something that carries any real finality.

You just know it will be one of these bastards to kill me, too. Not even something big.

Even The Graveyard, Tale of Tale’s interactive experience, in which sometimes — but not all the time — you die, doesn’t really hit you with any real finality.

This is 90% of the game. The other 10% is sitting on the bench. You should still check it out.

Sure, you’ve walked the old woman to the bench and listened to the song, but there’s been no real investment beyond the five minutes that it takes to shuffle down the graveyard path and sit down. (What do you mean you haven’t played The Graveyard? It’s totally worth it, if only for the absolutely haunting little ditty that plays. You can pay for it but only if you want the ability to die. which is a discussion for another time, along with a discussion of everything Tale of Tales have done and are doing when it comes to making strange, inaccessible, but oddly compelling works of art.). Granted, the first time that I died in The Graveyard it was a very unique and affecting experience but subsequent experiences have not lived up to that first time.

By contrast, Diablo II has me feeling every second of my mortality, and it does it simply by allowing me to roll a hardcore character (hardcore meaning: when he dies, that’s it)? As Revolver Ocelot once said, “There are no continues, my friend.” Or, as someone in some movie that I’ve never seen but remember the crappy trailer to said, “If you die in the game, you die for real.” (Incidentally, what freakin’ movie was this?. Someone fill me in so I can watch it.). I’ve noticed a definite difference in the way that I approach playing Diablo II as a result of this mode. My brother and I had never even played through the full thing until roughly four or five months ago, and this is a game that I have distinct memories of purchasing fairly close to its release date (I was carded by the guy at Staples, and the smugness that I felt pulling out my ID to show that I was indeed old enough to play the game was immense). The basic point of all this is, of course, that I always wound up getting stuck and dying a lot because I was terrible at Diablo II, a factor that was somewhat mitigated when my brother and I started to play the game exclusively online so that we could at least run around and die a lot together.

My frequent demises were in spite of the fact that I agonized over every equipment and spell choice. These were the tools that would carry me all the way to Hell itself, where I would feel pretty foolish facing down the Dark Lord of Terror without a decent helmet. Talent progression too was something that I agonized over. After all, if I had leveled the wrong spell, it could mean disaster for me and a lot of running for my corpse. Gold had to be hoarded because if you die in Diablo II, Death takes a toll of some amount.

In Hardcore mode, none of this actually matters. You could argue that talent progression and armor are just as crucial, but the immediacy of my own demise and the knowledge that once my barbarian breathes his last, it is truly his last have combined to make me a more reckless player than ever before. I don’t bother inspecting all of the loot that drops because all the gold in the world isn’t going to bring me back. I hoard potions, though not as many as I probably should. I actually buy equipment from the NPC vendors rather than waiting for something good to drop because while it is all very well and good to wait for the perfect drop when dying isn’t a problem, Hardcore mode demands that you get something halfway decent covering your fleshy exterior as soon as possible and to hell with waiting for something perfect to drop. There’s a stronger drive to survive that comes with permanent death, combined with an almost nihilistic “who the hell cares,” which is largely buoyed by the fact that nobody will ever be able to see my barbarian again once he dies. I’ll remember him dying, sure, and I’m certain that as I’ll doubtless be playing with my brother when it happens that he will remember it happening too but there won’t be any of the normal bragging rights that come from leveling a character. I won’t be able to show him off after it’s all done, to say “Hey, this is the result of all the time and effort that I put into the game, he got pretty far and here’s what he had on him and here’s what his skills were, and let me show you what a badass he was by running him around and killing some things.” You’ll just have to take my word for it that here was a barbarian who was pretty good until the moment that he wasn’t good enough and died — and that will be that.

What it comes down to is that to play with perma-death is to make the game operate on a far more personal level. Your experiences are irrevocably yours and shared only by the people who were there at the time. This in turn heightens the experience of playing because more so than any other way of playing, this is a unique experience that you’ll only be able to do once. The immediate comparison is to the rogue-like genre, which operates on the same principles of permanent death but with a key difference: you’re never going to get to the end of a rogue-like. The dungeon just keeps going on until you meet your doom. Diablo II, on the other hand, has an endpoint. You can, in fact, beat the game. Death is still a state of failure in the game — and in Hardcore mode it is the end of the game. That you can fail in Diablo II is not innovative but that you can fail completely is and to be unable to try again unless you start back at square one — now, that’s something that you could only make optional.

It is an option that I hope shows up in Diablo III, although I’ll probably play through normally first. I am, after all, rubbish at Diablo II, and it stands to reason that my skills at its sequel will not be much better.


You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.