Bag Full of Ears

I’m probably the only person in the world who aggressively dislikes Diablo II. That’s not to say it’s a bad game; far from it. I even beat it twice. The story was better than most you’ll find in a videogame, as was the music – and the atmosphere was dark and brooding, just how I like it. But I still hate it. And I hate it because it didn’t change my life in any discernable way.

Let’s return to the spring of 1997. I was in eighth grade, and just getting my gamer wings. Some friends turned me onto Warcraft II, which I managed to make my way through earlier in the year, and I’d discovered Civilization II in the software Radio Shack bundled with my family’s Pentium 75; but I hadn’t yet given up sleep, food or love for the siren song of digital entertainment.

But then, on a bus ride home, I overheard a few acquaintances talking about demons and dungeons and “trainers” and “PKs.” Interested, I forced my way into the conversation – they were talking about Blizzard’s Diablo, and the picture they painted of a dark, gritty fantasy world ensnared by a Satan-like Lord of Terror had me picking up a copy at my local Best Buy by the end of the day.

Based on my bus-riding friends’ suggestions, I bypassed the single-player portion of the game completely and hopped right into Blizzard’s online service, I created a Warrior and lost myself inside Tristram for the first of many nights. Before I knew it, it was 6:00 a.m. and time to get ready for school.

There was something special about the game. Everything just seemed to fit. It came at a time in my life where the world was opening up in new ways. I was 14, in the midst of puberty and thinking about girls; waiting to turn 16 so I could get a car and act on those thoughts, and figuring out what I wanted to do if I managed to survive high school. But in Tristram, there was no question about who I was or what I was supposed to do. Struggling with a nagging teenage agnosticism (one that’s yet to go away), Diablo‘s moral directive was a comforting one: I’m good, hell spawn are bad – it’s up to me to save everyone. Boy meets world. Boy saves world. Teenage escapism at its finest brought to you by the good people at Blizzard Entertainment.

And being connected to thousands of kids sharing the exact same thoughts and notions made my time with Diablo all the more special. My family was always connected to something digital; we were “online” before there was an internet. I literally grew up on the notion that when my computer made hissing sounds, I was entering a new, intangible world. But until Diablo and, that world consisted of post-graduate papers and weather reports.

Suddenly, I was in a world with a unified purpose, and it was glorious. If I wanted to kill Diablo, I’d just toss out a few lines of chat inviting people along, and I’d suddenly have three buddies willing to lend their swords. If I just felt like chatting, I could bitch about school or girlfriends to people who, by and large, were in the same boat. I expanded my circle of friends into the five-digits. The world opened up in a way similar to when I first learned to read: There was so much communication I’d previously been without, and then, something clicked, and everything imaginable was on offer. Even jerks. And my God, were they a dime a dozen.

I adopted a crusade to defend my new universe from people who seemed hell-bent on destroying it. I thought of myself as a white blood cell, fighting off “ diseases” like semi-literate pricks and people who’d spam chat rooms trying to recruit guild members. Most arguments spilled over into the game world, where my opponent and I would duke it out to see who would shut up when we got back to the chat room where the fight originated. In my early days, I’d win quite a bit more than I’d lose, but as time went on (and the duration between game patches increased), I found myself getting one-shotted by characters using spells they shouldn’t have. Something was rotten, and my lack of gaming experience meant I had to play detective to uncover what everyone else already seemed to know: Everyone was cheating. Even me, despite the fact I didn’t know it.

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As it turned out, character hacking, item manipulation and item duplication were so prevalent, the majority of “high end” items that were traded around for other in-game items and money didn’t actually exist in the game’s drop tables. My “Godly Plate of the Whale,” a piece of armor that I paid top dollar for, was dreamed up by some kid with an item editor.

I was crushed. Me, a white blood cell, tainted by the very people who I was trying to keep out of my world; I turned into a bad T-cell. But then again, that Godly Plate was some pretty swank armor. In fact, I thought, I could probably make something better; just to help me fight off more cheaters …

And so I fell. And I fell hard. I became the yin to my previous yang. If Diablo and were a world I couldn’t protect, I was going to do the next best thing: destroy them. The internet is a very black and white place, and so is the teenage psyche. In my mind, if I couldn’t have my community the way I wanted it, no one could.

By the end, if there was a way to cheat, I probably knew about it. If I couldn’t talk trash better than you, I’d chop your ear off in game. If I couldn’t beat you in game, I’d sniff your IP address and “nuke” you so your computer would spontaneously reboot.

All of this, just because the world I loved was so terribly flawed. I was in deep, foregoing the Holy Trifecta of teendom (food, sleep and girls) and it took the same guys who got me into Diablo to get me out.

It was the middle of summer, and we’d spent most of our time together on, because we lived pretty far away. One of them had a birthday coming up, so we decided we’d actually get together in person and hang out. We ended up burning a weekend at one guy’s house, playing N64 and venturing outdoors in search of girls. Much to my surprise, I was having more fun just being a normal kid than I was being an online service’s nemesis. This was my intervention, one that would snap me out of a dangerous fixation that had become all too comfortable. And all it took was a weekend of normalcy.

When I got home, I uninstalled all my cheating programs and gave Diablo one last look, waffling on whether or not to remove it from my hard drive and bury the CD in my back yard like a cursed object. Here it was, the game that stole my personality and replaced it with an internet asshole, staring me in the face, daring me to wipe it from memory. I hit the power button on my PC and went outside, leaving the game in its place. Ultimately, it didn’t turn me into anything. I did it to myself and used Diablo as a focal point. Getting rid of the game would be a dangerous catharsis, one that might let me forget what I could let happen to myself.

So, you’ll have to forgive me when, three years later, I installed Diablo II and was underwhelmed. I was expecting another experience that would intertwine itself with another personal journey. But it was just a game. Our arcs didn’t intersect like before. It might be too much to expect, but I’m waiting for another Diablo to come, no matter what form it may take, just to see what I’ll turn into next.

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for [i]The Escapist[/I]. He enjoys procrastination and thinks he’s a good listener.

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