Diablo is a straightforward dungeon crawl, in terms of its gameplay. You descend into the depths of Tristram Cathedral, the edifice built atop the original Horadrim monastery where the crystal containing Diablo, the Lord of Terror, has lain dormant since the Greater Evils were banished to Sanctuary. So far, so bad, but you can’t just have the game be nothing but ascending in difficulty loot pinatas all the way down. The game needs boss monsters, it needs more complexity to keep players engaged. Moreover, it needs personality. Killing thousands of mook skeletons and samey demons gets old after a while.
You have to give the players someone they’ll fear, because then they’ll hate him, and then they’ll take great pleasure out of destroying him. Out of that combination of fear of this monster turning into a lust for his destruction, which will require you to keep farming on the earlier levels until you’re geared enough — or clever thinking and gameplay to neutralize his advantages and kill him while still undergeared, a challenge that will bring a different but equally powerful motivation, you get a character that will stay with the players far longer than his actual appearances in game.
And that’s the Butcher in a nutshell. It all started because the game needed a gear check.
Well, no, the Butcher in a nutshell would just be him screaming Fresh meat and smashing his way out of the nutshell to wreak havoc on your face — which is, incidentally, made of meat — with a giant bloody meat cleaver. That’s just the kind of demon he is.
Start with a big room with blood and corpses everywhere and go from there
According to legend, the Butcher was originally a joke made after someone saw an early room in the dungeon and said it looked like a butcher shop with all the blood and bodies everywhere. I have no idea if that’s true, but if it isn’t, it should be.
Storyline wise, the Butcher first appeared in Diablo as the initial hint that Archbishop Lazarus might be kind of not really all of that great a guy. You find a injured man outside the Cathedral on your way in. He tells you that he was part of the party led into the Cathedral by Archbishop Lazarus, only for the Archbishop to lead them into the path of a giant demon with a meat cleaver who hacked them all to death — save this one poor soul who dragged himself outside only to give you a quest and then die. So of course, you head in and start looking for the fella.
But finding him meant having to fight him, and if you just made your way straight to the guy? Good luck, as at this point in the game, you are likely neither leveled nor geared enough to actually do much of anything to him. You can’t really kite him, as he’s crazy fast and only a Rogue can stay ahead of him. You can’t really tank him, as he hits hard and fast and likely stuns you on his first attack. People either had to outgear him — which meant going around the first and second levels killing everything you could find to try and get better gear — or cheese the encounter with tricks like lure him to a gate with bars and shoot him from the other side because he can’t open doors or drop a wall of flames and close the door to the room and let him maybe burn himself to death while you wait outside.
In the words of Fezzik from The Princess Bride, magnificently played by André René Roussimoff, my way isn’t very sportsmanlike, but then again it’s the Butcher and the guy is a freaking man-eating demon who is trying to eat you at this point, so forget sportsmanship.
The enduring legacy of fresh meat
The Butcher did his job of being an early game roadblock — forcing players to either gear up through grinding out the early dungeon or come up with a way to cheese him — so effectively that he still lingers larger in the player base’s mind much more than you’d expect for a guy who was dead by floor two of a sixteen floor dungeon. He was so, uh, beloved that they brought him back in Diablo 3 and even made him a key part of the Darkening of Tristram event, with a transmog version of the original Butcher’s Cleaver.
In a way, the Butcher was the prototype of a Dark Souls boss — a hard fight at the time, an encounter players hated until they finally got him down and then would literally never shut up about again. He wasn’t charismatic like Lazarus. He wasn’t important like Diablo. He was just a big demon with a meat cleaver who made us work for it.
That’s all he needed to be to be remembered ever since.
I mean, we had N’Zoth in Battle for Azeroth, the Burning Legion and Sargeras in Legion, Gul’dan and the Legion in Warlords of Draenor… at this point, it feels to me like maybe we need a departure of some kind from the experiences we have been having in our WoW expansions. One possibility is to simply not have a “Big Bad” at all — to have an expansion that focused on some other aspect, like exploration and seeing more places, where the threats could be less existential and more personal. We’ve talked about this a lot in terms of people wanting vacation expansions, and I think that could be a valid approach — exploring the oceans of Azeroth on a mission of diplomacy, or traveling from world to world seeking out people who fought the Legion and making peaceful first contact with them.
Another idea that comes to mind is a villain that isn’t — sure, they still have to be stopped, but they’re not evil forces out to conquer existence or commit genocide, they’re well meaning and truly want to do the right thing, but lack the perspective or ability to see the full consequences of their actions. A lot of people want to see the Lightbound from the Mag’har Allied Race quest show up with Yrel at their head, out to save Azeroth even if it means doing questionable things in the name of the Light, and that could definitely work — I often like to imagine what would happen if Mimiron just decided all the Titan Forged afflicted by the curse of flesh should be made into imperishable stone and earth elements again, whether they wanted to or not.
So now I turn to you guys — could WoW work in an expansion with no singular villain or villainous force? Could an expansion focusing on expansion or new worlds to encounter, or with a villain or villains that were more misguided than truly evil, actually work out?
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