A capable party of three was accidentally whittled down to one last night while playing Diablo III, an unfortunate event that predicated ten minutes of tension and anxiety unparalleled in any other game I've played.
My level 14 Barbarian, accompanied by another Barbarian, level 16, and a level 17 Witch Doctor, were just about to enter the lair of The Butcher, one of the classic Diablo villains reimagined for the third entry in the series. I had already fought the boss several times on my Demon Hunter, so I wasn't worried about taking him down with a team of three. Sure, he'd be three times as powerful, but these were experienced players; this would be a cakewalk.
As our parted descended the steps to The Butcher's lair, the Witch Doctor announced that he had to stop by home base to empty his inventory. As he did that, the slightly higher level Barbarian initiated the boss fight. Doing so brought up a pop-up, asking if I wanted to join. Figuring we'd just wait for the other guy, I declined.
This left the other Barbarian alone with The Butcher; a version of the boss tailored to a party of three, all by himself.
Did I mention we were playing Hardcore Mode?
In Diablo III's Hardcore Mode, the player's character only has one life to live. If your hit points reach zero your character dies — permanently.
Playing through Hardcore Mode normally is tense enough. At one point during the evening my screen flashed red (indicating severely low hit points) and I swear my heart started palpitating. It was only 14 levels, but the level of investment in this character — this survivor — was exponentially higher than that of a normal character with an infinite number of resurrections.
The Witch Doctor returned, but it was too late. We were locked out of the instance until either The Butcher or the Barbarian perished.
We sat there for ten minutes, watching the Barbarian's health bar emptying and then filling again in rhythmic fashion. When it dipped precariously low we held our breath. When it filled again we urged him on. We knew he couldn't see our text; he couldn't afford to look.
"This is probably worse for us," my non-engaged companion commented. I agreed. If the Barbarian fell, I would feel personally responsible for the death of another player. What would I do? Would I immediately log out in shame? Would I send the Barbarian a friend request followed by a heartfelt apology? My mind raced.
Eight minutes in the Barbarian earned a trophy, and the two of us cheered — until we realized it was the achievement for using healing wells 50 times. The Butcher's den features two conveniently placed healing wells. These are key to surviving the encounter, a fact our Barbarian friend seemed well-aware of.
The tension relaxed, but not much. Two minutes later, when the "quest complete" box flashed across all of our screens (we got credit for his kill), the feeling of relief was staggering. After congratulating my Barbarian hero for a job well done I excused myself, went outside, and lit up a cigarette.
Now my Hardcore Mode character sits idle. His sense of reckless barbaric abandon has been dampened somewhat by this experience. I'm sure it's only a temporary state of affairs. But the next time I step into those furry boots it'll be with a stronger-than-ever appreciation for my virtual life.