Diablo 3 and Super Mario 3D Land: On Pretenseless Games

March 28, 2023

I finished Diablo 3 last week. (By finished, I mean I completed the main storyline. Diablo 3 games aren't the kind of games you really 'finish'.) I had found it mildly satisfying to play - the kind of braindead enjoyment that one reaps from junk food or late night comedy shows. When I defeated the final boss, however, I was rewarded with... Nothing. Just a short cutscene - not even a 3D animated one! It was immensely disappointing. But it got me thinking of what Diablo 3 actually provides as a piece of media.

Diablo 3 is a game without pretense. By that I mean there's only the bare minimum of anything that isn't the core gameplay loop. Minimal plot, worldbuilding and general context are provided; the reason you're playing Diablo is for the core loop of grinding to improve your gear. This loop is insanely well made to keep you engaged - as I was playing, I kept thinking, 'I'll just get to the next checkpoint... Just the next one... One more...'. But when I finished the main game, all I felt was disappointment. I realised that the loop never goes anywhere. It's a circle. You kill monsters to make your number go up, and you make your number go up so you can kill monsters. Killing monsters, of course, is absurdly easy. So easy that, as a necromancer, I only had to hold down the A button. So the entire reason you're playing isn't the gameplay, it's to make a number go up. Which is pretty sad.

I also just finished the main story of Mario 3D Land today. On the face of it, these are two immensely different games. Diablo 3 is a hack-and-slash roleplaying game with gothic aesthetics. 3D land is a cartoony platformer. But I think they're actually two sides of the same coin. They're both pretenseless games. 3D land has the usual Mario story, by which I mean there is barely a story at all - you're just going to castles to save Princess Peach. The difference here, however, is that 3D Land's gameplay is the reason you play, not to make a number go up. The satisfaction derives from jumping and running around, and perfecting your skill at that to find secrets and set yourself your own goals. The only numbers you can make go up are star coins (which are strictly finite) and coins, and coins are purely there to give you more lives... so you can continue running around. It's the total opposite of Diablo 3, despite both games being both about a focus on the pure experience of games in their respective genre.

I found it pretty telling that after I finished Mario 3D Land, I was excited to hop back into worlds I had already played - but staring at Diablo 3's menu just filled me with a gross feeling like I'd been tricked. They're both games that, after the minimal storyline, have you running around in a circle, but in Mario 3D Land you're running in a circle for the pure joy of it. In Diablo 3 you're running to chase the rapidly diminishing high of making a number increase. This is probably a conclusion I could have come to without subjecting myself to Diablo 3, but I was curious about the genre. Now that I've seen it, all I can feel is that it's an inherently predatory system that preys on the same foibles of humanity that make us susceptible to gambling. How such a game is massively popular is both curious, unfortunate, and inevitable.