From Kubrick to Caravaggio, Diablo 4's developers reveal the secrets of its jaw-dropping art design

For nearly three decades the Diablo series has dominated the action role-playing genre it invented and this week saw its fourth mainline game hack and slash onto our screens. 

Ever since a blood-drenched reveal trailer dropped at Blizzcon in 2019, Diablo 4 promised players a 'return to darkness' and an artistic aesthetic closer to the gothic grimness of Diablo 2 than the brighter, saturated tones of Diablo 3. 

Newshub spoke to Diablo 4 Art Director John Mueller and Associate Producer Kelly Yeo and asked how they approached building Diablo 4's world in a way that both honours the series' heritage while forming a new visual identity. 

"I didn't want the team to feel burdened by the series' past because it's a blessing but also a little bit of an expectation can creep in," explains Mueller. 

"I wanted the vision for the game to really come from the team and to have it be a unique voice for Diablo and not something that feels like it's trying to rely too much on the past."  

While Diablo 4 may not be burdened by the past, it's certainly inspired by history, with Mueller's team drawing from the old masters of European art history when designing the world of Sanctuary. 

From Kubrick to Caravaggio, Diablo 4's developers reveal the secrets of its jaw-dropping art design
Photo credit: Activision Blizzard

Those classic works were grand, often gruesome and tackled themes of good and evil through a religious lens - all of which pairs well with a game primarily about heaven waging war on hell. 

"When I think of the inspiration we took, there's Rembrandt, of course, and then there's Caravaggio, who I like to go to as a touchstone because a lot of his paintings are very visceral," says Yeo. 

"I think that the art team did a really great job in translating that painterly feel to a 3D environment. So you look at pretty much any landscape of the game, I always say that you can take a screenshot and make it your background."

Mueller agrees, saying he was also inspired by a more modern maestro to have any game screenshot be worthy of graduating to screensaver.

"I love a Stanley Kubrick quote, which is that every frame is a painting' and that just means our goal was to make every frame feel like an opportunity to create something that felt like art."

But the old masters served as more than just visual inspiration. The bold contrast of light and shadow within a painting, or 'chiaroscuro', was a key focus for artists like Caravaggio and Yeo says the same is true throughout Diablo 4.  

The Calling of St Mathew, by Caravaggio
The Calling of St Mathew, by Caravaggio Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

"There's a really nice contrast between dark and light within our visuals and also in terms of subject matter," says Yeo. 

"There is that theme of struggle between humanity being caught between divine and infernal forces and there's this eternal conflict. So I think that really reflects both visually and thematically in our game."  

While the themes and visual design of Diablo 4 may use a lot of black and white, its narrative,  set 50 years after the events of Diablo 3, explores shades of gray. 

The series' backdrop is the 'eternal conflict' between heaven and hell however unlike earlier entries, Diablo 4 doesn't treat that conflict as a story of pure good versus pure evil. 

This is reflected by Lilith, the game's central antagonist, being a more morally complicated figure than previous villains like her father Mephisto, or the titular Lord of Terror, Diablo himself.

Lilith is the mother of humanity, who created humankind following a tryst with an angel, Inarius, and is the first series adversary to have motivations outside of winning the endless war. 

"So it's interesting because there's Inarius and Lilith and they both have different perspectives. Inarius is like, cleanse evil at all costs! And Lilith is about empowering, but only the strong shall survive," says Mueller. 

This duality is illustrated by Lillith's character design. 

From Kubrick to Caravaggio, Diablo 4's developers reveal the secrets of its jaw-dropping art design
Photo credit: Activision Blizzard

"If you look at her eyes, they're actually one blue and one gray. And that is like hinting at her dual nature because, you know, there's some good in her and some evil," says Yeo. 

Diablo 4's more nuanced narrative also pairs with a more grounded world design, which created unique opportunities for the art team. Building the gothic fantasy world involved navigating a delicate line between believability and realism, with every in-game object needing to feel practical while still retaining the fantastical elements which Diablo fans expect. 

"I think we always start off with a very solid foundation, making sure everything makes sense and works in a real way," says Yeo 

"Like the construction of buildings: When you're making an arch, you need a keystone etc. and then secondary comes the okay, now how can we Diablo-ify this, put it through that artistic lens."

Diablo 4 is also the first in the series to have an open world on one interconnected map, which provided an immense canvas for the artists. 

"What's great about that is you get to tell all these little stories that you would never get to tell in a linear game because you just have space as an artist and a quest designer coming up with something like a little visual kind of story or a side quest," says Mueller.

But of course an open world means nothing without a player character to explore it and Diablo 4 promises much richer and more detailed character creation than previous games. 

From Kubrick to Caravaggio, Diablo 4's developers reveal the secrets of its jaw-dropping art design
Photo credit: Activision Blizzard

Once created, your character then interacts with the world and story in a more cohesive way than earlier entries, which Mueller says was only possible because of modern hardware. 

"Having the player in the story and blurring the line between what used to be pre-rendered cinematic and then what we call real time cinematic. That means whatever is happening, whatever items you're wearing, your character will be in that scene and in the story and that's a huge advancement."

But your player's character won't be the only fresh face joining Diablo 4's cast. 

With series stalwarts like Deckard Cain long gone and new mentor figures like Lorath Nahr taking center stage, both veterans and newcomers will be starting from the same page in Diablo 4's story. 

"We wanted new players to feel welcome. You don't have to know anything about the law to enjoy the story because it's been 50 years since the events of Diablo 3," says Mueller.

"These characters that we're bringing in, we've never had these in any other of the Diablo games, so it's new to everybody. That was another nice opportunity since accessibility is a priority for the game. It's making sure everybody could feel welcome to jump in and slay."

For those ready to do just that, Diablo 4 is available on PC, Playstation and Xbox now.