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None of Diablo 4’s characters are having a good time — and I love it

Sanctuary is bleak, and I kind of dig it

A group of players tackle a world boss in Diablo 4, who is a menacing giant skeleton with ethereal death energy roiling through its ribs. Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The Diablo franchise is not exactly known for being bright and cheerful, with the exception of the occasional gag, like Whimsyshire. This is a place where everyone constantly needs skulls so they can stack them for rituals and adorn their staves with them, which is a bit of a pain. At least it’s a problem with an easy enough solution, because everyone keeps getting murdered, thus providing skulls. You might think this kind of atmosphere really harshes the vibe of a chill gaming session, but the unrelenting grimness of Diablo 4 is actually weirdly charming.

I wasn’t familiar with the first two Diablo games, and I only really dabbled in Diablo 3, but the early campaign put me off. Hanging out with Leah and her grumpy grandpa was OK, but when they started quibbling back and forth about whether magical demons are real or not, I mentally checked out. Of course they’re real; I’m filling up my experience bar by mowing through dozens of ’em. At first, I wasn’t sure if Diablo 4 would catch my interest, but since my usual group of gaming pals were all jumping in, I decided to give it a shot.

This time, I’ve found myself absolutely enchanted, and part of that is the atmosphere. Diablo 3 felt a little bit like going to a macabre theme park, but Diablo 4 really drives a sense of lived-in misery and desperation into every corner of its world. I don’t think literally anyone, at any time, is having a chill time in the world of Sanctuary. I’m sure there are a few nobles who are doing OK, but they’re inevitably skinned by demons or torn apart by cultists. Everyone else is just digging in the dirt to try and find beets to boil.

A player navigates the dried steppes, bringing their horse up to a high point to look over the bleak wasteland ahead. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

It works largely because everyone just seems to roll with it. Villagers and soldiers never seem to strive for anything greater — not because the story isn’t interested in exploring what a better world might look like, but more because these people have lost the capacity to care or try. Being a caretaker of Sanctuary is like being an aggressive heeler dog; most of the folk I find in the world just need to be rounded up and escorted to a safer place.

Diablo 4 also threads the needle between “grimdark” and legitimately depressing. Grimdark is a phrase derived from the setting of Warhammer 40,000, a massive sci-fi space opera that is described in its scene-setting text intro as the “cruelest and most bloody regime known to man.” As any 40K fan knows, “in the grim dark of the far future, there is only war.” Grimdark is a handy catch-all phrase for a setting that’s just a constant kick in the pants.

In 40K, the grimdark setting is cut through with a very British dry sense of humor and satire that applies to the historical declines of once unstoppable empires. In Diablo 4, Sanctuary is fun and intriguing to explore because nothing cuts through its dark tone — danger is embedded throughout the campaign. Meet a young scholar looking for her nice mom? You might be surprised to find the nice mom has succumbed to a blood pact. Get rescued by some friendly villagers who make sure to feed you and give you tons of mead? Oh, rats, they’re all cultists. Read a heartwarming letter from a young teen telling his dad he intends to serve faithfully as a protective knight? I probably don’t even need to tell you that I found that kid two rooms down, corrupted into a demon.

A player attacks enemies in a snowy tundra in Diablo 4, using powerful flame magic to ward off their enemies. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

For some reason, this level of treachery, torment, and terror actually goes all the way back around to being kind of pleasant and fun. I dodged The Last of Us Part 2, feeling like the game’s narrative would tug too much on my heartstrings — especially during a pandemic. Diablo 4, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily interested in surprising me or challenging me with an emotionally fraught story. The gore, ribcages, and death all around are just environmental storytelling reminding me that no, I can’t put down my bow and traps and try to negotiate my way out of this.

Everything sucks, people are all eating boiled roots and tree bark, and my character has no real way to meaningfully break this cycle of violence. Despite this, I’ve found myself charmed by Diablo 4. Sometimes, I do get to help one person, or a small group of survivors, and that’s a nice hit of dopamine. But I also love how it makes the world feel real and grounded. I’m invested in Sanctuary, even though it’s kind of a shithole, because someone has to take an interest in all these mortals.

The angels and demons clearly aren’t going to step up, and so I’ve found myself becoming the de facto stepmom to every survivor I meet. It’s a fun reminder that just because something is dark and gritty doesn’t have to mean it’s dry or dour. There’s a way to thread the needle, and while it’s not easy, the result is far more memorable than a more traditionally heroic journey.