Diablo 3, gnostic overtones, and the plot threads

May 26, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you are not expecting  massive spoilers for Diablo 3 in this post, I should inform you they will be present.

I’m giving you time in the form of these two sentences to get away now, and if you click through, it’s on your head if you find spoilers for the game because they absolutely will be there and I have warned you in advance.

So, Diablo 3. Some have criticized the story for being predictable. To my mind, this is missing the point. Diablo 3 isn’t trying to pull any huge surprises out of nowhere at you. This is a game that takes the previous two games and ties them all together, providing a kind of end that also serves as a beginning for new things. This is a game that answers the question “How do you do a game called Diablo 3 when Diablo died in Diablo 2” by saying “By bringing him back” and does exactly that.

What really fascinated me when I was researching the lore of the Diablo setting was that they’ve added quite a cosmology to it. What really grasped me was how effectively they looked into the mythology of the Fertile Crescent region and pulled, not only from ancient Sumerian and Babylonian but also Persian myths and religions. The Zoroastrian faith’s Ahura Mazda and Angrya Mainu (Ormazhd and Ahriman) are borrowed from in the creator entity Anu and his dark half Tathemet, while both also borrow from the Enuma Elish’s Anu and Tiamat. (Oddly enough, Anu was Tiamat’s mate and not her enemy at all, but I understand why they used Anu instead of  a Marduk figure, as Anu is the more primal deity.)

By framing the creation myth of the Diablo universe as a struggle between the pure and corrupt halves of an entity that existed before time, space, angels and demons, and by making manifest that the angels and demons were created directly by the mutual destruction Anu and Tathemet visited upon each other, the cosmology of the story creates an implied gnostic struggle between the material and the spiritual, the desires of the flesh and the aspirations of the spirit. And by borrowing the Enochian idea of angels descending to mate with humans and twisting it, making humanity in the Diablo setting the result of mating between angels and demons, said humans become the heirs to the Anu who existed before creation itself. Unlike angels and demons, humans contain the potential for good and evil, just as Anu did before the division into pure and corrupt. This makes the nephalem of the game, freed of the restrictions created by Inarius and the Worldstone by Tyrael’s action in Diablo 2, the heir to Anu.

Yes. You are playing the first entity in thousands of years who can honestly say he or she is the direct heir to the creator god of all existence. This is implicate throughout the story. When Zoltan Kulle says that with your birthright, you could be a god, he is being completely honest with you. You are a god. You are not limited, as an angel or a demon, to pick a side in the cosmic war by your very nature. You can determine your own nature. The destruction of the Worldstone has removed the palsy that transformed a newborn race of possibly omnipotent beings into mere humans. This shifts the war entirely. Now, while the demons still seek to corrupt humans to use them as weapons against Heaven, by your actions you’ve show just how risky this strategy is for them.

The dark cultists are dupes, fools, weak and worse, traitors to their own potential. Serving a demon in Sanctuary is to make yourself a slave to a being that is less than half of what you could become. Adiria’s betrayal of her own daughter, conceived to be a host for Diablo’s ultimate return, is more than a maternal one. She has stolen Leah’s chance to make a choice, and in making that choice, become more than angel or demon. Neither of them can choose, their nature compels them to act as they do. Even Tyrael’s fall was prompted by the injustice of Heaven’s actions towards Sanctuary. It was only after he fell that, in his mortality, he became able to made choices. His decision to retain his mortality isn’t a demotion, it’s a promotion.

It is this element of the story that I wish to see more thoroughly explored. When Covetous Shen hints that he is a god, he’s right, because all humans have the potential to be gods. What does he mean by it, however? How is he a god? What is the entity called Dirgest, that can consume lives and souls, an entirely new kind of evil from the Primes and Lessers descended from Tathemet? Or a fragment of Tathemet that didn’t coalesce into a demon lord, much the way Anu’s essence collected into the Worldstone? With the Worldstone destroyed and the Nephalem free to grow and develop, what happens to the power of Anu once trapped within it? We see that when Anu and Tathemet were destroyed, their essences went forth and created Heaven, Hell and Pandemonium. The Worldstone was a font of Anu’s primal, universe making power, and it’s been shattered within the world of Sanctuary. Since that power cannot be destroyed, it must clearly be somewhere. Where? Is it actually within the bodies of the nephalem, heirs to Anu?

What of Adiria? After setting the events of Act IV in motion, betraying her own flesh and blood and stealing divinity from her to offer up a body for Diablo, she walks off the stage. Clearly, not only must the ultimate disposition of Leah be ascertained — she did not willingly offer herself to Diablo, so her ultimate ability to make a choice should still be intact, her spirit should still exist — but justice must be done to Adiria. To a degree, for one as power hungry as she, her ultimate punishment is that she has sold her birthright and can now never truly attain what she could have. She will always be a slave to Hell.

Furthermore, Diablo itself may well return, or something far worse. We’ve seen in the past that destroying the Prime Evils simply frees their essences to be reborn, much as how Tathemet’s destroyed essence was reborn as the Prime and Lesser Evils in the first place. By having placed all seven evils in the Black Soulstone and using it to recreate a Diablo who could command all of their might, Adiria has effectively planted a seed in the cosmos that could well allow Tathemet itself to return, the true Prime Evil, the seven headed dragon demon that contended with Anu at the beginning of time. When Diablo took the role of Prime Evil, he subsumed his fellows into his own will. Tathemet will instead integrate all seven of them into one being.

Which posits an interesting possibility — what if the destruction of the Worldstone, the release of the power of the Eye of Anu into the world of Sanctuary that was created by the Worldstone, and populated by entities that can be both good and evil, that have the same divine potential as great Anu himself, recreates Anu? All that has happened so far — the events of everything from the creation of Sanctuary on can serve as a creche allowing Anu and Tathemet to be reborn and continue their war to decide the fate of the cosmos, and the only force that can stop either of them from destroying this universe are the nephalem themselves? Only the nephalem can transcend the purity/corruption axis that both Anu and Tathemet and their direct descendants are constrained by their natures to act out. Only the nephalem can choose. The primal Anu chose, but in so choosing, his two halves lost that ability, and so they engaged in a divine war that destroyed both of them. They could not choose to not fight and live, they had no choice but to fight.

It is this essential dichotomy, this lack of choice between cosmic forces, that makes Diablo 3 so fascinating to me. The story isn’t about corruption vs purity, it’s about transcending limitations by an act of will, and being able to do so. The true divinity is n the man or woman who says yes or no. And as simplistic as it can be, the story is built around the player’s character making the choice to exert his or her will and refusing to accept the duality he or she is presented with. Told that Diablo is too powerful to confront, told that Hell has won, the nephalem denies and through her or his actions changes the outcome. Heaven does not endure through its own efforts, it is maintained by the nephalem’s choice. In the end, all creation may do so as well.

So to me, the need to see how Adiria’s fate, Leah’s fate, the stories of the companions you make along the way all plays out is part and parcel of this manifest struggle and the implicit power of choice in the setting. The true evil of the demons is that, in their evil they do all they can to make you make the wrong one.

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