My favorite collection of "little things" in Diablo 3 are the "paper doll" effects. When your character equips new armor or weapons, they clearly show up on your avatar. New helm? Ooo, it's got a plume! New two-handed sword? Man, that sucker is big.
Of course, many role-playing games include paper doll effects, but I do think Blizzard does it best. I remember taking pictures of my warrior in World Of Warcraft every five levels or so, just because the visuals were so appealing. Blizzard's been doing it for a while, too. While there were only variations between light, medium, and heavy armor in the original Diablo, that was still more difference than most RPGs of the era had. Diablo 2 used a more complete set of effects, with each individual item creating a different and occasionally mismatched effect, a trend Diablo 3 continues with polygonal items and increased detail.
What makes Blizzard's visuals stand out from, say, Skyrim, or Dragon Age: Origins, is its use of color. Skyrim's clothing and armor tends to match its color palette: dark and earth-toned combined with heavy, snow-appropriate clothes. "Appropriate" is the key word here-they look good, and they fit the overall. They're not exciting and varied, because then they'd break Skyrim's consistent beauty, from which it gains so much power.
That's not Blizzard's style, though. It's always gone for clearly recognizable, brightly colored character depictions over heavily stylized or realistic looks. The characters can start to look ridiculous, yes, but it's a pleasant form of ridiculous. Because the colors and visuals are so different, the different armor becomes more visually striking. Changes in armor become more readily apparent. They're visual indicators of character progression.
Role-playing games are the only games that can really have these paper doll effects work at their best, because of that character progression tie-in. RPGs are the game genre that hinges the most on that progression. You may start at level one and end up at level 50, but those are just numbers. But when you start off wearing skimpy dark leather and end up in full, shiny plate armor, wielding a bow twice your size? That's a good feeling.
As someone who is generally skeptical of improvements in technology equating to improvements in gaming, especially in terms of RPGs, I have to say that this is one area that's an unqualified success. Digital speech can often slow things down in a negative way. Space for more cutscenes has meant a more linear, filmic approach that can be annoying.
But paper doll effects are things that I love. I loved changing the colors and look of all my party members in the Gold Box games, but those didn't progress. I loved getting the Blackrock sword in Ultima VII, and seeing my Avatar hold it as a demonstration of his success in the game. I loved changing the armor on the literal paper dolls used in the inventory screen of older first-person games like Daggerfall or Might & Magic VI. I even loved changing the armor and weapons of my medieval LEGO men – even getting upset when someone stepped on one of my three dragon shields, the rarest (and most powerful in my mind) of my shields.
But what more recent games can do is show all of those changes on your character as you're playing the game. I'm always looking at that new axe, or that old helmet. That way, I can see my character in the same way that I think about the character. And Diablo 3 may be the best game ever for demonstrating the power of paper doll effects. It's seemingly the littlest of little things, but that's part of what makes Diablo 3 work so well.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.