Every Diablo fan remembers the first time they encountered The Butcher. Hearing the demon growl as he strode out of a room littered with bloody corpses gave us a terrifying glimpse at the hellish things to come in all our journeys:
At least, that's The Butcher from the original Diablo, which first came out for the PC back in 1996. There's another one in Diablo III. But he's a very different butcher. As the final boss in the first act of the game, he's much larger than his predecessor. Killing him is a much more monumental act in that game's story in turn. But I'd argue that he's a lot less scary as a result.
It's hard to appreciate this if you didn't play the original Diablo. Because looking at the to side-by-side today, this...
...obviously looks a hell of a lot more intimidating than this:
But try to imagine what it felt like to be playing Diablo for the first time in the late nineties. The dank dungeons underneath Tristram didn't look pixelated and cartoonish back then. They just looked like dank dungeons — dark and creepy places you definitely wouldn't want to find yourself in in real life. As you wander around searching for him, the game's music puts you on edge with a tense, metallic whine. You have no idea who this "Butcher" character is yet, or what he looks like — the only thing you've seen is a wounded townsperson outside Tristram's cathedral warning you that there's a genocidal maniac roving the corridors below. Opening the door to his room, you get a brief glimpse of disembodied limbs and gore before he barrels towards you.
"Ah," he sighs. "Fresh meat!" That phrase, that deep growl, is seared in many a gamers' memory.
Even though you experience Diablo from a top-down perspective, The Butcher's entrance was teased in such a delightfully creepy way that I jumped out of my seat the first time I stepped into his lair. It was shocking. It was terrifying. It's still one of my favourite moments in the entire Diablo series.
Diablo has come a long way since then. In many ways, it's changed for the better. But if there's one thing I feel like it's lost in the 18 years since it debuted, it's the genuine sense of surprise and terror that came in moments like when The Butcher.
At least, that's how I felt until last month, when I started playing the Ultimate Evil edition of Diablo III that recently came out for the PS4 and Xbox One. Most of the game felt assuringly familiar, if not better, than the PC version. But there was one thing that took me completely by surprise.
I was walking through an open field early in the first act, doing normal Diablo things — you know, just killing monsters, levelling up, collecting loot. Then I heard an ominous drum roll. Horns blew. My controller started shaking in my hands. A massive demon that looked sort of like the Xenomorph from the Alien movies appeared out of nowhere and started pummelling me. I tried to defend myself at first. But after a few hits, I saw that I was barely chipping away at his health. I tried to run. I was dead a few seconds later.
What the fuck just happened? I thought. I had no idea who, or what, this gigantic alien creature was. I'd certainly never seen anything like that back in 2012, when I first started playing Diablo III for the PC. The only hint I got was in its vague title: "Nemesis." Then, underneath his health bar: "Killer Of..." and the handle of one of my PSN friends.
After looking online and asking my fellow Diablo players, I eventually figured out that the monster who decimated me is actually a new feature called the "Nemesis System" that Blizzard brought into the console versions of Diablo III's new-ish Ultimate Evil edition. Basically, the way it works is that whenever you or one of your friends is killed by a bad guy in the game, there's a chance that your killer will turn into a gigantic super-villain like the one that took my by surprise that morning — the eponymous "Nemesis." If a Nemesis is created, the monster migrates to one of your PSN or Xbox Live friends' Diablo III games to surprise them in turn.
And the monsters doesn't just stop there, either. He keeps killing your friends until one someone manages to stop him. Or, at least a few of them. Every time the Nemesis succeeds, he grows stronger. And when he leaves one game to go hunt his next victim down, he brings a ghostly version of the character he just killed to fight along with him. Matthew Berger, a Senior Level Designer on the game and one of the key people behind the Nemesis System, told me over the phone this week that the developers ultimately decided to cut the Nemesis off at five kills because otherwise he could become far too powerful otherwise. As much as I like the idea of insanely powerful alien-like creatures wandering around the corners of the Diablo III ecosystem, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting players, I can see what he means. The Nemesis is already designed to be very difficult to kill, after all.
I've been attacked by many a Nemesis since that first one. Embarrassingly, I still haven't managed to survive a single one. I don't really mind, though, because what I really love about this new bad guy is that no matter how many times he's showed up to kill me, I still jump in my seat the moment I see him drop into my game. It's so surprising that I've never even gotten around to trying to capture footage of it — caught up as I am in just trying to make it out of the fight in one piece. But here's a good video to give you an idea of what it's like trying to take one of these guys down:
Hearing the drum rolling and feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up reminds me of everything I loved about the dark, gothic horror style of the original Diablo. As much as I love Diablo III — especially the new console versions — I also find the game's current look and feel to be cartoonish in a Warcraft-y way in comparison. Blizzard's newest instalment has gradually started to shift towards the original two Diablos again as the company has added stuff to it over the years, such as the grim final act that was introduced with the Reaper of Souls expansion. But the Nemesis was the first monster I've encountered in Diablo III that's managed to make me jump in my seat again, the same way I did when I first met The Butcher all those years ago.
I wanted to learn more about what the Nemesis might mean for the future of Diablo III, which is why I spoke to Berger in the first place. Most of what he said about the monster made it sound like something designed specifically for the new console versions of the game to make them feel a bit more socially dynamic. Scary as he may be, in other words, he's still more of a "feature" than a "character" or "boss." Though the monster bears a certain resemblance to the "Terror Demons" that've been around in Diablo III since the very beginning, the Nemesis doesn't technically even have a place in the game's lore yet.
"We haven't decided on all the implications," Berger said when I asked if the Nemesis was going to be worked into the game's lore or story in some way. I was more than a little disappointed to hear that, given how much I've been enjoying his occasional visits as I work my way through the game.
But there was one thing Berger mentioned when I asked him about the design of the monster that got me excited. He was describing the meetings the developers had when they were first toying around with the idea for The Nemesis, and how they settled on the way the the monster just drops into your game with no more warning than a drum roll.
"We wanted it to look weird," he said. "We wanted him to stand out. I said: 'It has to be like the Jaws moment.'"
I hope that Blizzard makes more like it.