When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was watch my father play games on our old PC. Some of my most treasured memories involve the two of us exploring games till midnight or those times when I got sick but since my bed was close to the PC anyway I could still watch him play from there. I was still terrible at playing them myself, so this was the only way I had to experience the stuff I lacked the dexterity or intelligence to handle. As a die-hard PC gamer, my dad is really into Action RPGs and RTS, and that allowed me to get a lot of second-hand experience. More specifically, I loved to watch him play StarCraft and the original Diablo. Funny enough, those two games also house two of my most ancient fears: the opening cinematic to Brood War (the one where the marine is left for the Zerg) and the entirety of Diablo. I couldn’t understand jack of what was going on in the latter and everything scared the living shit out of me, but I couldn’t look away.
It’s been 15 years since I first saw my father set foot into the world of Sanctuary. Since the world is going crazy right now, and GOG was kind enough to offer me the opportunity, I decided to finally tip my toes in that world the legitimate way. And you know what? I’m still just as impressed as I was back then.
The original Diablo hardly needs an introduction. Released in 1996, it’s pretty much the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the dungeon-crawling genre. Nowadays it’s a bit of clunky game to go back to when later entries would offer much more refined gameplay. But the original has something the other games never managed to capture: the atmosphere. There’s something about the way that Diablo wastes no time showing you its true colors that I find extremely refreshing. You select a class, give the poor soul a generic name, and after a very short loading screen, you’re greeted by that haunting guitar piece that is the theme of Tristram. The village feels small, humble, isolated, and with a problem that is way out of its league. Much like its theme, there’s a certain uncanniness to it, as if the devil could jump at you at any moment. The place never feels safe, and it shouldn’t since there’s a goddamn demonic invasion in progress. It perfectly sets the tone for what’s to follow, and perhaps this is why that feeling has stuck with me since I was a kid.
Diablo doesn't have fancy graphics. The whole isometric look of the game had to be handcrafted, and it's because of that the little details impress me. Someone cared enough to try to get across the fact that there's an ominous light coming from inside the church, the doorway to hell, the first step into a long journey. The red glow radiates from inside, casting a red shadow that creates inverted crosses from the cracks in the wall, a simple but elegant way of displaying the perversion of the church's imagery. The message is clear: "step inside, but there's no salvation to be found here". I do as I'm told, and begin my descent.
What awaits me is a procedurally generated, extremely eerie dungeon. Unlike future installments, this first game takes place entirely in this one labyrinth, whose floors take you deeper and deeper into the abyss. The environment changes every four or so floors, from "regular" dungeons infested with skeletons and zombies, to dirt caves full of venomous insects, eventually culminating in hell itself. It’s dark, you can’t see very far, and it’s impossible to know if the next door you open will lead to some much-needed potions or a horde of skeletons. There’s also the need to worry about traps. Who knows, the next chest could contain an arrow with your name in it, or the next door might hit you with magic. Even if you can detect the trap and attempt to disarm it, there’s no guarantee it will work There’s no room for recklessness here, my sorcerer isn’t an unstoppable killing machine, the game makes sure to remind me so. Diablo keeps me constantly on the edge, weighing my options, and considering the risk and reward of my every move. For a game with such a simple control scheme, that’s one hell of an accomplishment.
None of this is terrifying in itself, not graphically at least. It's the implication of it all: that you can literally walk down and reach the bowels of the underworld, where souls go to be punished. But the path there isn’t an easy one. Courage by itself won’t cut down the demon horde, you need weapons for that. Unlike its younger siblings, loot in Diablo 1 isn’t glorified. The act of getting it is still a core element of its gameplay loop, but where the sequels shower you with more gear than you'll know what to do with, getting equipment in Diablo 1 is a matter of survival, doubly so for mages, as staffs can hold charges that allow me to cast mana-free spells. Good loot is rare, and you'll often find reliable gear by exploring and interacting with "side content" and solving a puzzle or two. It gives lore and context to your reward, making that precious helm more than just a stat boost.
Death is just around the corner...
But you can't stay down there forever. Like being underwater, you'll come out to take a breath eventually. So I pop a scroll and go back to Tristram, the familiar buildings and music awaiting with open arms. There's no combat here, no demons to kill or chests to loot, but I still can’t relax. I slowly walk my character through the little village. Running isn't an option here, so I'm forced to take in the atmosphere. The simple buildings, the small fountain at the center where good old Deckard is always waiting for my return, the cows just minding their own business, blissfully unaware of the literal hell beneath their feet. I stop by Ogden’s tavern on the way. He tells me some goblins stole his tavern’s sign, and I wonder if there will be combat outside the dungeon at some point. I make my way through a small bridge and on the other side, my destination: a shack owned by the local witch, Adria.
"I sense a soul in search of answers!", she greets me every time we talk. It's a simple, noncommittal thing to say, just generic enough to apply to any person living there, but still mystical enough to make you want to hear more. Were it not for her vast knowledge and ample supply of mana potions — the blue lifeline my mage depends upon — I could easily mistake her for a scam artist trying to deprive me of my hard-earned gold. Yes, Adria, I think we're all searching for answers, and right now, I just want to know how much it will cost to stock my inventory full of potions. Well, as full as my poor pockets can afford. I never feel like I can buy everything I need in this game, at least not comfortably. Monsters don't drop gold that often, and with the limited inventory space I can't carry a lot of trash loot to sell. Repair my gear, buy a few potions, maybe a scroll if I have the change, go back to the dungeon. Rinse and repeat. It gets better towards mid-game, but this initial struggle stuck with me and is something that feels incredibly appropriate to the kind of atmosphere Diablo is going for.
The witch's shack...
Refreshed, I make my way back to the dungeon. I zoom out as much as the game will allow (I’m using the Belzebub mod that makes things look a little less dated) and gaze at what’s beyond the walls of the village. Enough time has passed now, and the 12-string guitar that sets the tone for this area is going at full force now: the unsettling arpeggios, the constantly shifting melody with so many palm mutes and slides that keeps the song in a constant flux of highs and lows, and that melancholic flute that punctuates each section, all of these elements come together to create one of the most iconic compositions in video game history. This song is Diablo, and I can’t fathom this game without it.
I haven’t finished the game yet, but I can already tell you that I’ll continue to remember and revisit it in the future. Playing Diablo just reinforced that feeling I had when I was a kid, but now that I’m way older I can put these thoughts into words, and gain a newfound appreciation for that time that means so much to me. Blizzard clearly had a vision for this game that I’m sad wasn’t the goal for future installments, but that’s okay. It just makes this title all the more special: a game that still scares the devil outta me.