While I’m crunching on a new novel for my Patreon, and trying to warm up the creative juices this morning, I thought I’d talk about how I even got into WoW. I want to compare and contrast this with another game, that I (and really a whole lot of people) have been playing a lot the past week or so – Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
My journey with WoW started in 2004. I was fresh out of high school, living with a couple of friends, all of us working full time and hanging out in our off-hours. Well, as much as two introverts and an extrovert could hang out. One of them, Jon, bought World of Warcraft on launch day. We all kind of looked at it in curiosity – I was barely aware of it, even though I still had (and have now!) the issue of Computer Gaming World from like 2002 or 2003 where it was shown off in very early state. Joe, the other friend, was more aware of it, and seeing Jon play it made him go get it immediately, installing it to the shitty desktop we shared so that he could play. I played around with it, having brief flirtations on both of their accounts. I started with an orc warrior, which kind of started the process. I proceeded to then try a troll mage, which got me a bit more in, but I still wasn’t sold.
Then I rolled a night elf priest. When I think back to it, I knew I was going to get hooked, from the first character, which is why I felt compelled against reason to keep trying it. This was now June 2005, and I bought the game box, a time card, and stayed up overnight playing, from 8 or 9 PM until 7 AM, when I got ready and went to work for a Friday. I was level 9 when I left.
The first thing I did was set out after finishing Teldrassil, to take the journey to Ironforge and Stormwind. I died a lot passing through Wetlands, as was tradition. But I was hooked.
What captured me about the game at first, from that very first character, was the sense of scale. I hadn’t played many games with as big of a map – games that actually felt like a “world” and not a disjointed set of levels joined together at points. There was established lore, although my familiarity was shaky at best (I had only briefly played Warcraft III, and not even the whole campaign – just the first few missions). There was history etched into things. Statues, unaccompanied weapons, skeletal remains and the like, all of which served to reinforce that this was a world, one that had history and weight. It, particularly in Vanilla, did not always feel like a playground. There was danger around some corners, and some places where it might feel awkwardly designed, but that only heightened the feeling of worldliness from it. This was a world, not a game, and so sometimes there would be rough terrain, impassable boundaries, and hordes of enemies that don’t just conveniently part ways for you.
It imparted a childlike sense of wonder, in the best of ways. Chain-deathing around obstacles rarely got frustrating, because I just wanted to see things, earlier than I should have. Even with the demo stations of the blood elf starter zone at Blizzcon 2005, I logged into the real game and dinged level 40 from the show floor during the concert. That sense of wonder led me to do things like being Onyxia attuned before hitting 60 (one advantage of leveling later was that the whole chain was uncovered already). It was only natural that I would then move on to raid, and I remember applying to a raiding guild at 55. I got accepted, somehow, and when I hit 60 and got some gear, I was in. Raids were like a whole new place to explore, and I got started at the right time – we were doing Molten Core and Zul’Gurub, and soon after we had Blackwing Lair and Ruins of Ahn’Quiraj. There was always a new place to explore, some new thing to do.
Each expansion has captured that as well, although with slightly less scale. The reason I keep playing is because there is typically a new horizon to explore, a new thing to see or do.
I often think that this would explain why I don’t much care for Vanilla private servers as well. To me, the experience of Vanilla was heightened by not knowing where things were, having minimal resources with inconsistent updates to tell you where to go, and the social experiences you had around shared discovery of those new things. To me, the experience of that time was defined by being perpetually broke in game, with large gold sinks, hard grinds, and other things that were difficult or sometimes broken, but having all that be made enjoyable by being in a large group of 40, raiding late into the night, joking in our dedicated healer channel about how the raid was going, and then heading to sleep right after. So much of the experience was tied up into how new everything was, and that feeling of discovering everything together.
I know now with a fair amount of accuracy that this is the case for me at least, because I have had that same experience with Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Although single-player, there is so much to digest in that game. A large, open world you can run around at your leisure. Main quests that can be tackled in any order, done as you please, with multiple solutions and an infinite number of paths to the end. A sense of history and lore infused into every place, whether through actual lore like the Captured Memories quest, or just through the way in which everything seems so well-crafted. There are rough edges, those things which convey this is a place and not solely a playground, those same things which make navigating it more rewarding and interesting. There is very little actual combat in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and that is perhaps what makes it so much fun, and so engaging. You do fight, yes, but often your enemy is the world, which makes each discovery so interesting and engaging.
And there are some well-crafted places waiting at the end of those discoveries. The Zora village? Yes.
I think that, despite any larger concerns I might have about gameplay elements and the like, reasons like that are why I keep coming back to WoW. At the end of the day, it still, even in the modern age, is among limited company in capturing that feeling of discovery and adventure – the sense that you are exploring an actual world.
As long as they keep the “world” in Warcraft, I’ll remain in.