Trapped on Level 7 – A Diablo Story

I’ve been playing Diablo 1 for the first time recently and it’s a remarkable piece of work. It was its reputation as the progenitor of the entire action RPG (ARPG) genre that made me curious to play it. But even though it’s over 28 years old it also holds up perfectly well on its own merits without thinking about its legacy. It has gorgeous music and art, a haunting and captivating atmosphere which gels perfectly with trudging around its hostile, procedurally generated labyrinths. But as I approached roughly the half way mark in my journey through its 16 layered dungeon my interest was waning. The repetitive and clunky combat was losing its charm and I felt like I’d seen most of what the game was likely to offer. 

That was until an encounter on floor 6 that completely disrupted this repetition and led to one of the most tense and exciting hours of play that I’ve ever had with a game. 

I was in a rhythm very familiar to ARPG players: killing monsters (by clicking on them), collecting loot (by clicking on it), and chugging health potions (by clicking on them, or using the number keys if I was feeling fancy). As soon as my bags got too full of loot or I ran out of health potions I’d teleport back to town on the surface to sell my latest collection, repair my gear and buy another large round of health potions. So far, so standard.

I’d opted to play a melee only character who could only deal with monsters up close with a sword, which was simple and enjoyable but meant that avoiding taking damage was impossible and a steady supply of health potions was a must. I was on an excursion which felt like any other when everything went sideways. The only notable thing about this time into the depths was that I’d run out of town portal scrolls.

Town portals or some equivalent way to quickly return to a safe haven are a staple of ARPGs to allow the player to quickly restock and return immediately to the action without a tedious walk in between. In Diablo they are a relatively common drop so I’d always had a couple spare before this point (and I hadn’t realised yet there was a vendor for them in town). However as I got deeper into Diablo’s dungeon and the enemies got more threatening I had to return more frequently for supplies until I had no scrolls left. I hoped I’d find one during this trip but I wasn’t too concerned. Enemies in Diablo stay dead forever so there was always the option of walking to the surface back the way I came in. Worst case if no scrolls dropped I’d have to go on foot, meaning only a few minutes of minor annoyance, or so I thought….

I entered a large hallway when an absolute torrent of missiles poured out of the darkness from off screen. I recognised the projectiles as being those of the acid beasts that I’d fought loads of on the past couple of floors, but the frequency of the fire was so intense that I at first thought it was a bug in the game. In all previous encounters the acid beasts had spat at me once or twice before charging at me but not only were there so many packed in here, but they seemed perfectly content to sit at range and spit at me endlessly. 

Eventually I got a glimpse of the boss monster sitting in the middle of a pack of them and figured they were directing the action but that did not help me deal with them. I could dance around at the limits of their range but if I even tried to approach them to pick off one or two with my sword I’d be killed so quickly by the barrage that I would not even have time to heal. What was worse is the pack of them was sitting directly in front of the door which had the rest of the game behind it. 

Then I had a terrible idea

There was a loop of corridor near the pack that I thought I could try luring the pack down before running around and dashing through the door I needed to get through to progress before shutting it behind me. It took several attempts as the pack were perfectly happy sitting at range and needed quite a lot of encouragement but eventually I pulled it off just as I planned and I slammed the door in their face feeling quite victorious. I hit save, ensuring I never had to do that dance again…

And very nearly doomed myself.

I can’t recall exactly when it dawned on me what I had done, but I had effectively locked myself in the bottom half of the dungeon with no current way to escape. Diablo 1 only keeps a single save game per character, so by hitting save on this side of the door I had fully committed myself to this plan. Back through that door was a near instantaneous death so my only hopes of returning to the surface were either A) to find a town portal scroll as a piece of random loot or B) to make it through the rest of floor 6, all of floors 7 and 8 and enough of floor 9 without resupplying to find the shortcut to the surface that I knew appeared every four floors, but this second option I immediately discounted impossible. My only realistic hope was finding a portal scroll.

But at least at first I was still perfectly hopeful. I had plenty of health potions and town portal scrolls were not exactly a rare drop. All I had to do was explore conservatively, hit save a lot and eventually I’d be able to escape. And that’s exactly what I did. I started to explore the rest of floor 6 taking as little damage as I could. However even with as much caution as possible taking damage was inevitable, and with each fight and each following game save, no matter how well I’d played, I inched closer to death. Eventually my health potions ran out, and still there was no scroll. I made my last health bar last as long as possible, enough to just barely clear the rest of floor 6 but still found no scroll.

I don’t think it was until I was standing at the entrance to floor 7 with 0 potions and 4hp of my health remaining (enough that any hit from anything at this level would kill me) that I fully realised how doomed I was. Modern games simply do not allow for this level of self sabotage so I don’t think the possibility of soft locking and effectively permanently losing this character had hit me until it was unignorable. My bags were now full of fabulous loot, enough that I’d actually left several intriguing magical items all over floor 6 but it did not matter at all because I could not get home.

I thought there was a slim chance that I could find a scroll on floor 7 with no enemies between me and it. My heart jolted a bit when I saw two chests right by the entrance when I descended but one was empty and the other only contained more gold coins to make my corpse look pretty. I checked all of the corridors available to me and only death waited down each one. Each subsequent floor contains different and more lethal types of enemy so I didn’t even recognise most of the monsters that appeared out of the darkness down each one, but that was not even that relevant because at this point a stiff breeze could have killed me.

I’d been starting to mentally surrender for the past few minutes but the apparent hopelessness of floor 7 really sealed it. I rationalised that I had already been slightly losing interest in the game so maybe it was no bad thing that this character was doomed to sit on floor 7’s stairs for eternity. A sad ending, but at least it would make for a half decent story. But then, I saw a slight ray of hope.

I realised, I was agonisingly close to a level up. 

Level ups in Diablo 1 fully restore your health and mana, so if I could kill enough monsters to get one I’d not only have a full health bar but I’d also be able to cast my only spell, heal, exactly once to give myself even more health. I’d almost entirely committed to being a melee fighter but a few floors ago I’d found a book to teach me the heal spell and it required a really minimal investment of attribute points into magic to have enough mana to have a single use of it in an emergency so I’d gone for it. It looked like it was going to take around 6 more enemy kills to level up, but given that I’d almost certainly lose a duel with even a single enemy and they were almost only ever found in packs, was there even a chance?

After a bit of probing and a lot of dying and reloading I identified the corridor that seemed the least immediately lethal. The one to the north had a pack of a dozen or so of my old friend the acid beast as occupiers. As a group I stood 0 chance but individually I stood a slim chance of killing them before they got in a hit. It took a good amount of experimentation but eventually I found the exact tiles I needed to stand on to lure individual beasts to me. My odds still weren’t great and I only had around a 1 in 5 chance of stun-locking them with blows before they would get off an attack that would kill me, but it was doable. 

After many fatal duels, and much panicked saving I finally did it. The last beast exploded in a shower of gore (well, acid actually, but gore sounds cooler), the last vital bit of XP came in and my health and mana bars filled to the brim.

But the relief was only temporary. I was still truly stuck, and while a full health bar to play with gave me some options, a typical fight with a single group of enemies would see me using a health potion or two to stay alive, so a full health bar would only see me through a few encounters even if I was lucky and played it safe. But it was then that I saw it just a couple of rooms away, a library!

Libraries are special rooms in Diablo that spawn with multiple random books and scrolls. As an almost entirely non-magic user the books were only good for selling but the scrolls could be my salvation. The odds were really decent that one of the scrolls spawned in there would be the town portal scroll that would save my character. I opened the door and an absolute hoard of enemies rushed out to meet me. 

Now before this whole experience I’d have said there were far too many to beat with only a heal spell left in the tank, but I certainly was not going to give up now. I used all I’d learned about luring and positioning over the last hour of play to whittle down the hoard. It took several attempts and my heal spell but eventually the last foe dropped and I stood victorious in the library. I checked all of the library’s contents and…disaster. No town portal scrolls appeared, only some other assorted scrolls and a couple of spell books.

Then though, I noticed that one of the books taught a spell that I didn’t know even existed. It was a book for teaching the player to summon town portals without the use of scrolls. I was even more shocked to see I actually had the stats to learn it but I still did not let myself believe that there was a hope. My mana bar was comparatively tiny as I’d only increased it just barely enough to cast my low level heal spell which locked me out of casting most spells. I checked the casting requirement and as if I’d planned it this way from the start, it was identical to that of my heal spell. Meaning that with a full mana bar I’d have exactly enough mana to summon a portal with not a single point going to waste. 

I was actually going to make it out!

Well, first I had to do the library fight all over again except this time without even using my heal spell (and thank goodness I hadn’t saved after doing it the first time). Again, a brutally hard prospect, but with the light at the end of the tunnel now a blinding glare rather than a distant glow it was almost a formality at this point. A victory lap, letting me flex my new relative skill at the game before a glorious return home. After many more attempts I collected the book I knew would be my salvation, summoned my portal and returned to the town of Tristram, grinning from ear to ear.

I feel like there might be a lesson or two about good game design buried in this story, but if there is I’m not insightful enough to fully see it. It’s certainly hard to imagine anything like this happening in a modern, more polished title, and there is something aesthetically appealing in the indifference to the player that the world of Diablo felt like it had during this saga. But it was also just as possible for this indifference to have led to the loss of my character, my progress and probably the last of my interest in actually playing Diablo 1. And this whole experience was only possible because of poor decision making and lack of game knowledge on my part.

All I really know is that this was absolutely thrilling. Every now and again games remind me of why I’ve spent so many 10s of thousands of hours playing them. Sometimes these reminders are in the form of new stories, or new mechanical experiences that completely absorb me in ways fully intended by their designers. But sometimes the stars simply align, and the perfect mixture of incompetence, luck, game design and a bit of skill come together to produce an absolutely singular experience. This was one of them, and I am oh so grateful to have got to experience it and live to tell the tale.







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