Good versus evil
Diablo III's art team has been hounded for moving away from the series' relentlessly dark and grimy dark fantasy aesthetic and giving it a more lush, colourful look. Although the game's story is still largely under wraps, I wonder if Metzen and his writers have been faced with a similar dilemma. Somehow I can't picture the man sat across from me steering Blizzard into something so bleak again.
To begin with, he's circumspect. "I think the darkness of it, certainly the way it balances against our other two franchises, is its strength," he says. But it turns out that it's the human content of Diablo that he loves, not the inhuman horror of a world overrun with demons.
"I've always held that Diablo was by far the most interesting universe we were sitting on top of. I've always believed this. 'Cause you know, Warcraft and StarCraft have their roots in the fundamental zeitgeist of pop fantasy and science fiction. In many ways their worlds are built to substantiate almost any wacky idea. Especially Warcraft, you know, goblins with jet bikes and all that kind of s**t.
"Whereas Diablo's been so specific all these years - I think it has just the most thematic potential of any of our universes to be... I don't know, a bit more personally engaging. Diablo's more about your ticker. Why should I choose to be good or evil today? That's why I think it's potentially - potentially - a far more satisfying fiction."
It soon becomes clear that total hopelessness, or a bleak outlook on human nature, hold no interest to Metzen as a storyteller, though he admits some responsibility for introducing the theme to Diablo. "I think at the end of the first game I had written that the hero takes Diablo through the stone into himself. It was a riff on the ending of the Exorcist movie. It's so bleak and bittersweet at the end of that game. But I think the dev team had gotten this impression that Diablo stories by definition have to be bleak, always, every time, there is no hope, there is no light. And I've always contended with that. I think that that is a ridiculous conclusion."
For games to offer satisfying escapism, he argues - and he never seems to consider that games, Blizzard's games at any rate, should do anything else - completely dark stories are counter-productive. "I think if you start to lose that innate, contractual understanding that you will be achieving something and feeling good about something, we've totally lost... Not to call it out, but playing Doom 3, it was just so bleak. It was a wonderful game, it was perfectly designed and I had a blast. But I didn't get any nutrients as it ended."
He also mentions how he loved watching Band of Brothers but found the brutality of The Pacific hard to sit through; how he's watched Ken Burns' documentary TV series about the American Civil War eight times, but can't stomach his work on World War II. Chris Metzen wants to see goodness in the world, and he wants you to, too.
"There's a threshold there for the darkness that people want, and think they want. But there are subtle degrees of heroism and fighting the good fight that I think they also want, but aren't as in tune with. This whole theme is something that's very near and dear to me."
It doesn't have to be cut-and-dried - "I like deeply flawed characters, we tried to really push the Jim Raynor character in StarCraft, I almost had him as a full-blown alcoholic" - but there does have to be hope and sacrifice and an attempt to make the world a better place, even if it's for just one other person.
Blizzard is one of the most widely loved entertainment companies in the world. With so many fans, does he regard this dedication to selfless heroism as a moral imperative? "That's a weird one, I guess I'd want to be careful how I said that. But you know, we reach a lot of people around the world. Kids in China are playing. A lot. These ideas do go out and have the potential to shape young minds and young imaginations. I want to be thoughtful about that."