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Diablo IV’s art director on the gritty tone: ‘Darkness does not mean bleakness’

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How a dark fantasy world was inspired by romantic landscapes

When Diablo II launched in 2000, it was praised for its grittiness, injecting a sense of realism into an otherwise dark, fantastical realm. With Diablo III, things went in a more expressive direction, with a style that art director John Mueller describes as “painterly.” Now, with the upcoming Diablo IV, Mueller says the goal is to blend those two approaches. “With technology the way it is now,” he tells The Verge, “we can have the best of both worlds.”

One of the challenges with a game like this is creating a world that feels dark and foreboding, yet also one that players want to spend hours and hours exploring. Diablo games are the kind that players typically lose themselves in, scouring dungeons for the best loot and teaming up with friends to explore the more perilous regions. In Diablo IV, Mueller says one of the key features is the new open world, which lets the team create lots of different kinds of moments and feelings.

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“When you’re in the world, you come across a lot of beautiful vistas,” he explains. “The world of Diablo is a medieval world, which means you’re either going through the countryside or the desert or the mountains. And while there are harsh storms and rain and there’s this living world aspect to it, there’s still day and night. It’s beautiful in the morning — even though you may have just killed a few goatmen in that field.”

One of the main inspirations behind Diablo IV’s look is the Hudson River School of painting, a mid-19th century movement that took landscapes and infused them with a Romantic Era vibe. It’s that same mix of beauty and darkness that Mueller and his team were aiming for in the next Diablo — albeit with a few more demons and skeleton warriors thrown in.

“They had a darkness to them,” Mueller says of the Hudson River movement. “They weren’t pretty. And I don’t think anything in the world of Diablo is pretty. It’s like when you see a morning with mists in the field, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of it, but it’s not necessarily like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty, like a rainbow and sunshine.’ All of the regions in the world have a lot of natural beauty to them, and then when you go in the dungeons, that’s where we get kind of gruesome.”

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That new open world is also being used as a storytelling tool. Mueller and lead game designer Joe Shely say they’ve used this space to make Sanctuary, the setting of the Diablo franchise, into a more fully realized place. Different regions have their own unique cultures, which extends to the weapons and items you’ll collect as well as the characters you’ll talk to. “It’s great to have this persistent space where we can invest like that,” says Mueller. “It’s something that’s new to the franchise.” Shely adds, “One of the things that’s exciting about Diablo IV is being able to see more of the world than ever before.”

Diablo IV still doesn’t have a release date — Blizzard says not to expect it this year — but it’s coming during a busy period for the franchise. Diablo is expanding to mobile with the upcoming spinoff Immortal, and this year will also see the launch of the much-anticipated remaster of Diablo II. With all that going on, it’s particularly important that the flagship title has its own distinct flavor. And in the case of Diablo IV, it’s flavor built on balance. “Darkness does not mean bleakness,” says Mueller.