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‘Forbidden Alchemy’—Diablo III as blend of Three Stories

Lolita, Pygmalion, Frankenstein, and Lost Agency

The Diablo franchise’s third outing builds to a gut-punch of a tragedy involving the ultimately innocent figure of Leah. In sussing through this seemingly senseless tragedy, we find answers in Greek mythology, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Lolita. But these sources have more in common than simple loss of agency.


The much-anticipated third entry in the Diablo series presented us with the tragic tale of Leah. A student of the occult, she was too late in discovering she was a pawn in the plot of Diablo himself, to reincarnate in her body as the Prime Evil. The tragedy of the game says a lot about duty, manipulation, male entitlement, and religion, and its influences can be traced back to the monster movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, to the infamous erotic novel Lolita, and even as far back as Greek mythology. From these vast sources, one can learn a lot about the varied messages that can be found in Diablo III, some as moral ultimatums, others as analyses of everyday problems that plague us to this day.

A Divine—or Demonic—Gift

Perhaps the most obvious comparison is to the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who created a sculpture so beautiful that he fell in love with it. Pygmalion is described in the original myth as being “not interested in women” prior to creating the statue that would be named Galatea [ 1 ]. When he created her, he found her so beautiful and realistic that he became obsessed with her, which, in Greek Mythology, can mean nothing more than true love.

Given her role as a groomed catspaw and vessel, Leah is thematically one third Lolita and one third The Bride of Frankenstein, with some leftover quirks that are uniquely her own.

So the well-known Pygmalion of Cyprus fell in love with an ivory statue; it was of Aphrodite and was naked. The man of Cyprus is captivated by its shapeliness and embraces the statue. This is related by Philostephanus [ 2 ].

Thus, when he goes to make his dutiful sacrifice to the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, he meekly asks her to introduce him to “the living likeness of my ivory girl,” although his true desire, which he is too embarrassed to admit, is for the statue itself to be brought to life. Aphrodite, in one of her few portrayals as benevolent rather than vindictive, sees right through his beating around the bush and when he arrives home, Pygmalion kisses his statue, as one does, and finds its lips warm and its skin soft. This is the birth of Galatea and she’s said to go on to live a full life, even having a child or two (depending on the version of the story). There is certainly a question of how fair this is to the statue; if she is, indeed, alive, then she is left with no choice in the matter. She is given over to Pygmalion and forced to bear his children before she can be reasonably expected to know what that entails, or even that there are other options.

The story is meant to give a sense of a happy ending, but it’s an ending that robs Galatea of any agency and, when put under a magnifying glass—or, as it were, an analytical eye—her life is actually quite horrible. Without ever having the opportunity to explore other paths, she has become the property of another person and is expected to happily give over her life to his passions.

Galatea’s lack of agency is not far off from Leah’s, as she has always been “destined” to be the vessel for the Prime Evil. The true horror here, though, is that she does pursue other things, and very explicitly has her own dreams and ambitions. But, in the eyes of the Prime Evil’s entitlement, she may as well have been the naive, born-yesterday Galatea; her desires are superfluous if they do not align with the destiny that was laid out for her since before her birth. Whether it was the development team’s intention to create a commentary on modern feminism is anyone’s guess, but that doesn’t stop the themes from shining through.

Now, Diablo III’s primary resemblance to the myth of Galatea comes in the idea of this created being, a woman (in this case Leah) who serves as the analogue for Galatea in this telling. Pygmalion, then, is her mother, Adria, the woman who created the body that would house the soul of the Prime Evil.

The main hitch in this, though, is that while Galatea was an inanimate object given life, Leah’s birth is not nearly as spectacular. She was, as far as the game tells us, a largely natural birth, and lived a normal life until an angel crashed into her temple. The last central figure of the Pygmalion story, then, is Aphrodite, who here is replaced with Diablo himself, in the form of the Dark Wanderer, or Aidan, the protagonist from Diablo II.

Inheritor of several legacies, Leah’s scholarly pursuits are the influence of “Uncle Deckard” and the moral imperative to oppose the very forces that (unbeknownst to her) were responsible for her creation.

Thus, in the story of Diablo, Leah is Galatea the statue, not the object of Pygmalion’s affections. It is the Prime Evil, contained in the Black Soulstone that Diablo puts into her body in the game’s climactic third act, as per Adria’s intent. The game presents a dark twist on the story of Galatea: what if Pygmalion appealed not to the gods, but to the devil for his wish? And what if instead of transforming into a real person, the statue took the body of someone who was already alive? It’s worth noting that Pygmalion is certainly a devout man in his own story.

Compare, if you will, to the tale of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and could not bear to tear himself away from it even to save his life. Then, in the sequel of sorts, we meet Echo, a woman who was in love with Narcissus, and so she followed him to his death by the pool until she wasted away as well, with nothing left of her but her voice.

These depictions of love in Greek tragedies consistently show the characters abandoning everything so they can obsess over the objects of their affection. Pygmalion, however, continues to adhere to his duties, which brings him to the temple of Aphrodite, who grants his wish. It’s not stated outright, but Aphrodite is rewarding Pygmalion not only for his regular sacrifice, but for the sacrifice of tearing himself away from his sculpture long enough to continue being a productive member of Greek society. (That being said, Pygmalion is also unhealthily obsessed with Galatea by normal standards, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Thus, it could be seen that Leah’s, and, consequently, the Prime Evil’s, fate is as much a punishment for being the Prime Evil as it is a punishment for Adria’s obsession and neglect of her duties as a mother, to protect her daughter from harm and possession. The sequence in which Leah dies and the Prime Evil takes her body also bears some resemblance to the myth of Pygmalion. Though there is no kiss, Leah is frozen in the air, like a statue, as the transformation happens, and the soul comes from an inanimate object, the Black Soulstone, which releases the Prime Evil into her [ 3 ]. Tragically, Leah does not survive the boss battle that ensues, as her body is destroyed when Diablo is defeated.

Manipulation and Entitlement

Diablo’s use of Leah can be connected to another tragic story of a man using a young girl; the infamous 1955 erotic novel, Lolita. The protagonist, given the false name “Humbert Humbert” in the novel, then takes the form of Diablo, the selfish, sadistic puppeteer who sees the heroine as something special, but only insofar as how he can use her for his own purposes. Leah, then, becomes Dolores “Lolita” Haze; an innocent girl who, as a child, was chosen by Diablo to be the object of his desires.

Make no mistake; Humbert’s actions in Lolita are never seen as anything but sinful; his lying to Dolores so she may have sex with him, and his callous use of her mother so that he can take full custody of the girl upon her accidental death, are seen for the horrible actions they are: the hopeless, desperate actions of a man with a ghastly addiction. This is highlighted in a passage where he describes the aftermath of one of his and Lolita’s trysts.

“[… T]he tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness, … all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again.” [ 4 ]

Humbert Humbert is a villainous protagonist who is meant to be reviled by the audience, but he is also a master manipulator, convincing Charlotte Haze to allow him to move into her house and drugging both Dolores and her mother so that he can molest the little girl in her sleep.

When Dolores’ mother discovers his lust for her daughter, it’s awfully convenient that she dies before she can tell anyone—in fact, essays upon essays have been written speculating that Humbert may be an unreliable narrator, covering up his murder of Charlotte Haze even while confessing to his pedophilic obsession with her daughter. Regardless of his guilt in the matter, Humbert’s only concern upon witnessing this woman’s death is to gather and destroy the evidence of his perversion that she was carrying.

After that, Humbert even manages to convince Dolores’ neighbors that he is fit to take custody of the girl. Manipulation is widely treated as the Devil’s most useful power, not only in the Diablo series, but also in its inspiration, the Bible. Satan can be seen as a master manipulator in sequences such as his attempted temptation of Christ before his crucifixion, as well as in Paradise Lost, where Satan is portrayed as also being the serpent that convinces Eve, and through her, Adam, to eat the forbidden fruit.

“… [L]ook on me!
Me who have touched and tasted yet both live
And life more perfect have attained than fate
Meant me, by vent'ring higher than my Lot.” [ 5 ]

In the quote above, Satan is tempting Eve into eating the Forbidden Fruit, insisting that it will only improve her life. What’s more, this revelation is not, in itself, false, as the fruit grants her, as well as Adam later on, the knowledge of Good and Evil, often interpreted by scholars as self-awareness. To quote Mark Twain, “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creatures that cannot” [ 6 ].

The tale of Adam and Eve has always existed specifically to address this peculiarity of humanity, giving it an origin story, like the stories of how leopards got their spots, or turtles cracked their shells. So the serpent, and in Paradise Lost, Satan, is, in fact being truthful, but is at the same time manipulating an ignorant creature into doing exactly what he wants of them. In Lolita, we see Humbert using his own silver tongue in order to convince Dolores to have sex with him.

“I answered I did not know what game she and Charlie had played.
“You mean you have never—?”
—her features twisted into a stare of disgusted incredulity. …
“You mean,” she persisted, now kneeling above me, “you never did it when you were a kid?”
“Never,” I answered quite truthfully.
“Okay,” said Lolita, “here is where we start.” [ 4 ]

As stated in the text, Humbert is being truthful when he says that he “did not play this game as a kid.” The fact that he’s performed the same action as an adult, and has in fact been fantasizing about it for years, is not something he shares with Lolita, and in so doing, he is able to get her to do exactly what he wants her to. In other words, the biblical version of Diablo is known for his manipulation, to the same level and beyond what Humbert proves himself capable of.

Even in the game, Diablo can be easily seen as a callous manipulator who makes use of not only Leah, but the player and the characters around her to ensure that he can reincarnate the Prime Evil within her. He starts with the burning down of Tristram Sanctuary thus leading to the banding together of heroes answering the call of “the fallen star,” who inadvertently lead his vessel directly to him.

One main difference is that Diablo has help from Leah’s mother, where Lolita’s mother stands, or at least attempts to stand, as a hindrance to the fulfillment of Humbert’s sinful desires. And, in the same way that Humbert grooms Lolita into becoming a sexual partner for him, Diablo grooms Leah through the game so that she may become a suitable host for him to enter; the parallel between possession and sexual intercourse is not new. Finally, not unlike the way that Humbert Humbert became Dolores’ stepfather, Diablo’s plot centers around him being Leah’s birth father.

Both stories also can be read as a condemnation of male entitlement, although it is arguable whether this was either author’s intention. At the start of Lolita, the narrator insists that he cannot really be blamed for his obsession, because his childhood crush moved away and died of typhus before the two of them could have sex. Given that they were 13 at the time, this assertion is fairly absurd, and while the trauma of losing a friend at that age is certainly real, it is in no way an excuse for the narrator’s obsession with little girls and his many instances of rape (statutory at the very least) of Dolores Haze.

His sense of entitlement comes through in his description of girls between the ages of 9-14 as “nymphets.” The word, which was first recorded in 1612, takes its root from the Greek nymphs, like the aforementioned Echo, and is often associated with creatures like sirens and mermaids, for their penchant for tempting sailors to their deaths with their sex appeal. If the comparison was not apparent enough, Humbert describes it himself; “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’” [ 4 ].

In Humbert’s mind, he is in no way at fault for lusting after prepubescent girls. It is their own fault, and in their own nature, to tempt otherwise innocent elder men into obsessing over them. At no point does it apparently occur to Humbert that he is alone in finding children as irresistible as he does.

By excusing his behavior, Humbert tells himself that he is not at fault for acting on his impulses, and thus he is free to go to any length to explore his pedophilia, from drugging Dolores to tricking her into having sex with him. His sense of entitlement is then mirrored by that of Diablo, who takes Leah’s body without remorse or any sort of consideration that he is taking her life in doing so. His entitlement goes beyond Leah’s body, however, as he immediately turns to his “true goal, the one that has always eluded [him]: the utter destruction of the High Heavens” [ 3 ].

The idea of a goal being something elusive implies that it is owed to its pursuer, that any possible failures are actually the goal’s fault for “playing hard to get,” creating an entitlement narrative, as if said goal had been promised to them. This is a common narrative among the less enlightened males of the real world, and it is no exaggeration to say it is also a central facet of the villain in Diablo III.

The Artificial Vessel

Speaking of women being created for the purpose of fulfilling a man’s desire, there is another artificial woman who Leah could be seen as an analogue for. We refer, of course, to the Bride of Frankenstein in her eponymous movie. Certainly, the argument could be made that the similarity extends to Frankenstein as well, with Henry Frankenstein becoming Adria, creating Leah for her own ambitions with no concern for the life that will ensue. The parallels in Frankenstein, both the 1940 Universal film version and Mary Shelley’s original novel, The Modern Prometheus, come in two flavors.

First is that of father and son; in the novel, it’s Frankenstein’s denial of his creation that leads him down the dark path into becoming a monster, as a clear analogue for parental neglect or abandonment [ 7 ]. While this theme is not absent in the 1940 film, it is not nearly as prominent as the other interpretation, a cautionary tale against “playing God.” Frankenstein’s famous line, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” is immediately followed by the less quotable but more poignant “Now I know what it feels like to be God” [ 8 ]!

The film, and the book it’s based on, are generally believed to be intended as a cautionary tale in the face of the 19th century’s exploration of the limits of science. The moral is that if one takes things too far, one may become arrogant and create an abomination. This is, of course, at odds with the theme of parental abandonment, and helps to create a sense of ambiguity as to both Frankenstein and the Monster’s fault in the events of the book.

Setting Frankenstein as Adria, the idea of parental abandonment certainly comes through in Diablo III, although it much more closely resembles the film than the novel. Like Frankenstein, Adria is accepting of her daughter through her life, and for all we know, is a good mother; it’s only when she stands in the way of her ambitions that she casts her aside and stops protecting her. Naturally, the religious influence has a very different presence in Diablo III, as it is more overt and less cautionary.

Religion, rather than science, is the way in which Adria creates the monstrosity of the Prime Evil, and so we are left with the very obvious moral of “making deals with the Prime Evil is bad.” Alternately, one could interpret Leah herself as being Henry/Victor Frankenstein. Henry commits himself to the science, particularly the study of death, disregarding the dangers of seeking knowledge about “that which should not be known,” as the moral of both the novel and the film would imply.

In so doing, he damns himself, deprived of anything resembling a normal life due to his creation. His bride is strangled to death in the novel, whereas in the film, her counterpart is attacked in what is meant to be a rape allegory, although dialogue establishes that the monster barely touched her. Both Frankensteins are cursed by their creation’s existence, with Victor, in the novel, wandering the arctic tundra to track the creature and kill it, implicitly dying before he can accomplish as much [ 7 ].

Henry, on the other hand, ends the film bedridden from the villagers’ attack, and while he recovers in the sequel, it is only through the creature’s self-destruction that he is able to attain a normal life. In a way, this aligns with Leah’s character arc, although in a much less accusatory way. She dedicates much of her youth to hunting occult artifacts with her adoptive uncle, Deckard Cain until they end up killing him, just like how Frankenstein’s obsession with science cost him his bride.

However, through Leah, Deckard’s research is able to live on. “I never believed. All your crazy tales … the work you never finished. I will finish it, Uncle. I will carry on for you” [ 3 ]. In spite of her resolve, the occult eventually also ruins, and ends, Leah’s life, although unlike Frankenstein, this isn’t meant to say that she delved into it too deeply and learned things that she should not have.

While it is the thing that she’s dedicated her life to studying that kills her, it was not her interest that led to her death; she would have become the Prime Evil’s avatar whether she studied it. Thus, her interest in the occult is framed as healthy and normal—while still unfortunate.

As mentioned above, however, there’s a much closer analogue to the game in the film version’s sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Here we see a Henry Frankenstein who is affected by the events of the previous film and is horrified and disgusted by the memory of his creation, which he does not realize is still alive. While this is definitely at odds with the game’s portrayal of Adria, there’s the added character of Doctor Pretorious, whose insidious influence convinces Frankenstein to abandon his resolve against playing God and create artificial life once more, only for it to be destroyed moments later.

In this case, Pretorious becomes Diablo himself, or the Dark Wanderer, whose union with Frankenstein leads to the creation of the Bride, or Leah, and while the Bride is not incarnated with the Prime Evil, her monstrous, inhuman movements, portrayed brilliantly by Elsa Lanchester, can certainly be interpreted as frightening, perhaps even demonic.

There is another character who can be roped back into the plot line, then; none other than Frankenstein’s Monster himself, who destroys Pretorious and the Bride almost immediately after her creation, now filling the role of the protagonist of the game. Depending on the player’s empathy, they are certainly meant to be distraught, or at least disappointed, when Leah becomes the reincarnation of the Prime Evil. We are told this by the audience surrogate, Tyrael the former angel, who mourns Leah after her death in much the same way the audience is expected to.

This is exactly how the Monster responds to the Bride’s reaction to him, leading to his solemn declaration, “We belong … dead” [ 8 ]. Indeed, this line is the final word on the Frankenstein monster’s character arc, as he declares definitively that neither he, nor his “Bride,” should ever have been created. This could be tied to a larger theme on the nature of parenthood itself.

No child ever asks to be born, but they are created against their will by the actions of their parents, thrust into a life of responsibilities and stress that they did not sign up for. Those responsibilities and stress can include being the vessel for the Prime Evil, according to Diablo III, which ties this idea of parenthood directly into its plot by having the method of giving Leah life be the natural method; birth. It’s also telling that, despite the title’s implication as well as the explicit claim made by the tagline (“The monster demands a mate!”), at no point does Frankenstein’s Monster express a desire to have sex with the Bride. In fact, he is very clear that his only desire is for a friend, and is even portrayed as being perfectly satisfied in the company of a blind old hermit, who shares cigars and a meal with him until the Monster is forced out of his company by the arrival of villagers.

Similarly, Leah is not a romantic interest for the player, but a companion throughout the adventure. It is with great pain that Tyrael aids in the defeat of the Prime Evil and its destruction of Leah, to the point that for the rest of his life, he seeks to spread her legacy, not allowing her to be forgotten. The tragedy at the climax of Diablo III has many interpretations. It could be a twist on the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, replacing the Greek gods with Judeo-Christian devils and depicting the consequences of turning to the forces of evil for your goals when contrasted with turning to the forces of, at least within the context of the Pygmalion story, good.

Alternately, it could be seen as a retelling of Nabokov’s erotic novel, Lolita, stripping the narrator of any pretense by turning him into a demon who forces himself into a girl’s body so as to satisfy his ambitions. Or it could be an adaptation of The Bride of Frankenstein, turning Doctor Pretorius into a demon and the heroes into the monsters, created without their knowledge or input. Diablo III is a rich, emotional game, and through the lens of the classics, we can find layers upon layers of messages within it.

Images

  1. “Given her role as a groomed catspaw and vessel, Leah is thematically one third Lolita and one third The Bride of Frankenstein, with some leftover quirks that are uniquely her own.”
  2. “Inheritor of several legacies, Leah’s scholarly pursuits are the influence of ‘Uncle Deckhard’ and the moral imperative to oppose the very forces that (unbeknownst to her) were responsible for her creation.” Diablo III. Activision-Blizzard, 2012. PC game.
    Source: https://blizzardwatch.com/2019/04/25/know-diablo-lore-nightmare-desert/
  3. “A pawn of Diablo and Adria, and an object of possession, not lust—Leah is Galatea the statue, not the object of Pygmalion’s desires. It could be said the scenario pencils in the divine appeal to the Devil, as opposed to Aphrodite and the Olympian gods.”
    Source: https://diablo.fandom.com/wiki/Leah Diablo III. Activision-Blizzard, 2012. PC game.

With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.

Resources

  1. Morford, Mark, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham. Classical Mythology, 11th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, chap. 13.
  2. St. Clement. The Exhortation to the Greeks. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982; London: Heinemann, 1919, Full Text.
  3. Diablo III. Windows PC Version, Blizzard Entertainment, 2012.
  4. Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated. United Kingdom, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011, pp. 16, 133, 285.
  5. “Paradise Lost, Book IX.” Penn Arts & Sciences, University of Pennsylvania. knarf.english.upenn.edu/Milton/pl9.html. Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.
  6. Zwonitzer, Mark. The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism. United States, Algonquin Books, 2016, pp. 335.
  7. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. London: The Folio Society, 2015 (originally published 1818), Full Text.
  8. MacQueen, Scott. DVD commentary, Frankenstein, The Legacy Collection. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2004 (DVD).