The Slow-Burning Story, For Once, In WoW

There have been a lot of good posts about this very topic, so rather than retreading the basics, I want to take a different tack.

Firstly, I think it is an open secret that the lore implications of Battle for Azeroth being the next expansion have left people a little deflated. The speculation before Blizzcon was huge, massive threats! What we have is…not that! We can discuss that perhaps fighting an enemy faction made up of heroes on our scale (ie players) is actually a bigger, cooler threat, or at least more believable, but it is hard to reconcile that when the core PvE content is still, largely, dungeons and raids that don’t seem to tie into that theme.

However, I think there is something well worth discussing. The theme, while sure, it is not the biggest, baddest threat, it is a threat. And the implications it has on WoW’s lackluster storytelling is actually kind of cool, in my eyes.

WoW has, to this point, hotshotted us into big conflicts. We’ve sprung forth into battles with epic enemies that have little build directly in the game, but rather rely on shorthand from the history of Warcraft. Deathwing is big and bad because he broke the world, but also all these bits of nuance that we aren’t communicating in WoW! The Lich King is huge, but much of that lore is explored in Warcraft III and TFT, and we aren’t revisiting it with the exception of having him present here and there during your quest experience!

What I like about what Battle for Azeroth, conceptually, is this – it is the first time that a storyline has been told heavily in-game, and has shifted us gradually towards a bigger bad. My notion, and read of the interviews, panels, and articles coming out of Blizzcon is that Battle for Azeroth is a ramp into an Old God expansion – one that will use the well-established faction conflict to build towards Old Gods.

Now, here’s why I like that and am not irritated that BfA might be a “filler” expansion – this is the first time in WoW that Blizzard has used a slow-burn of storytelling.

I compare WoW lore to professional wrestling quite often in storytelling – it’s often forceful, pushing towards the plot beats without a lot of nuance or care, but it is an ongoing story told constantly that can sometimes shift wildly from plans with unforeseen circumstances. But the element of pro wrestling stories I do like is the slow-burn. When it is done right, it pays off in epic fashion.

What is it? Well, it is the idea that a seed of plot is planted early. You remind people of it, sometimes often, but the goal is to keep it on the backburner, boiling, until it crashes over the pot and you have a well-formed, red-hot story. For those who are willing to dip a toe into wrestling, I recommend reading up on the slow-burn in wrestling that I enjoyed most – the Daniel Bryan ascension towards the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Sure, it was in many ways accidental, but the teases, the constant stop and start, definitely paid off.

Back to WoW though – here’s why I love it here. If we came back from Argus and it was crash-bang and here’s the Old Gods, it’d be cool – but also rushed and awful. What plot can be crammed into the game in that window? How do we rush to Old Gods right out of the gate? We can’t, really – so the compromise position is to plant the seed now. Look at Argus – we have Void, potential Old God issues, the wounding of Azeroth, and more. We can rush all of these elements together, but what would be better is to do so slowly and logically.

Especially since oh, there are multiple plot threads that need to be moved forward, paid-off, and resolved. The Windrunner sisters? Reunion hasn’t happened yet (and there is some speculation that the Burning of Teldrassil art shows a gruesome result to that…) and when it does happen, there are a lot of unresolved tensions with the three of them – more than should be crammed into the margins between expansions. Turalyon, Alleria, and Arator – at some point they’ll need to stop standing awkwardly apart on the Vindicaar and decide how their weird little family is going to work. Velen moving forward after what happened to his son and the rediscovery of his homeworld? There’s probably going to be something to tell there. Then there is the stuff we know – Azerite’s origins in Silithus won’t be fully known until 11/28 at a minimum, the fate of Illidan Stormrage and the Burning Legion – same thing. For once at this point, for all the things we do know about what comes next, there is a lot we don’t know.

And think about the logistics of trying to rapidly move all those plot elements forward to get to Old Gods and Void themes.Could Blizzard do that? Sure. Would it be wise to? No. For all the accusations (many of which fit) that Blizzard does a poor job storytelling in WoW, to me, this expansion plan speaks to a desire to fix that. Rather than hastily planting seeds for what happens next, which are then expected to immediately sprout and bear fruit, Blizzard is planning for a long harvest (it seems.) This, to me, is a welcome development. Never before has Blizzard seemed to truly plan story developments this far out. More often, we’ve had expansion dropped upon the lore with little concern for the lore implications. The Burning Crusade – just happened. A spaceship crashed and it’s people joined the Alliance. Some lithe, gaunt elves decided Orcs were cool. Illidan was somehow a bad guy, even though we quite literally didn’t see him until Black Temple. Then suddenly we had to go to Northrend, and while we got to see the Lich King with some regularity through that experience, it was also kind of out of nowhere. Cataclysm literally just happened to Azeroth and we had to kind of pick up the pieces. The only expansion or lore with any real long-term development in the game was the heel turn of Garrosh Hellscream, a process that started in Burning Crusade, came into vision during Wrath of the Lich King, was teased against in Cataclysm, before finally coming into the forefront for Mists of Pandaria and ultimately being paid-off in Warlords of Draenor.

Nothing else comes close to that lore arc, and think what you want of Garrosh as a villain or antagonist, but at least he was well-developed and commonly understood, with nuance that was layered on in Wrath and Cataclysm.

Well, there might be one exception – Jaina Proudmoore.

Here’s the other thing, another slow-burn. Jaina has been simmering as a big-time lore character forever. She is one of the few principal lore entities that existed in both Warcraft III and WoW, who has yet to realize a full character arc. She had one of the more interesting story arcs in WCIII, with a degree of nuance most characters lacked. She has maintained that until Mists of Pandaria, but even then, her conversion to vehemently anti-Horde crusader fits with the things she has been through. It was en vogue back then to shit on Jaina’s character development, that she too rapidly shifted to anti-Horde after playing mediating care bear for much of her existence as a character, but in context it makes sense. She believed in a better Horde, that which she saw through Thrall, but as Thrall passed the reigns to Garrosh during Cataclysm, leading up to the bombing of Theramore, she could see the ideal of that Horde giving way to a murderous one, no better than her father, whom she allowed to die for being much the same as Garrosh. Since then, one can see it is difficult for her to reconcile what the Horde of today even is – many of the same people, serving many of the same leaders, and while those new leaders (well, Vol’jin at least) were more trustworthy and led the Horde similarly to Thrall, perhaps the institution of the Horde itself is corrupt.

What I especially like about Jaina being brought back to the forefront is that there is a sense of mystery about what she will do once back in focus. Is she still vehemently anti-Horde? It is possible, and given the theme of the expansion, perhaps quite likely, but again – we don’t really know. With Thrall back in aiding the Horde, will Jaina relent and allow her vendetta to die? Has time at home in Kul’Tiras allowed her to make peace with the events of Theramore? Kul’Tiras seems to potentially have an Old God problem, between the Sea Priests and their wearing of the very cloth armor that was datamined to start the speculation storm in the first place – is she now a part of that problem? Is the Old God influence we are seeing in Sea Priests actually innocent and not at all a problem?

At first, I was somewhat disappointed – the sense of intrigue that Old Gods or Light or Void bring just isn’t really matched by faction wars. However, when framed in terms of the lore – an epic struggle between sides of champions all just as powerful as you are, used as set dressing to explain the uprising of Old Gods (probably) – and when you think about how much potential exists for the story to be better framed, developed, and built – it has me excited all over again.

Of course, Blizzard could screw it up…

But I think they won’t. (Hopefully!)

2 thoughts on “The Slow-Burning Story, For Once, In WoW

  1. Some, many, WoW players are at a disadvantage because they didn’t play the prior games. I could see it in WoD when guildies would burst out, “zomg, blackhand!” for example and I had no idea who that was. Some of WoW seems to have huge long story arcs that people have been following for over a decade; and, I fear, the assumption of the story designers is that we all know what is what — where would I find that Jaina let her father die, that is a big deal.
    That said, I really enjoyed the story in MoP, by the time we got into SoO, I was more than ready to kill Garrosh (and then he escaped!).
    Do you wonder if Christie Golden is now on the story-telling staff for WoW?
    Finally, I agree that slow burn is a really nice change. Legion was all “hurry hurry” from the very beginning and after a while, one is simply numb.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah – I think that at the time, it was one of WoW biggest advantages that it was setup by a great franchise of real-time strategy games, but 13 years into it’s run, it no longer makes sense to rely so heavily on the things that were communicated there. Especially with characters like Thrall and Jaina, whose full history is just not in WoW to the extent it needs to be to ensure everyone is on the same page. WoD would have arguably been slightly better received if it wasn’t so heavily dependent on the lore from Warcraft I and II.
      I agree on MoP, though – for sure. Garrosh’s story is one of the best bits of storytelling Blizzard has done in-game, some of which you can only see on the Horde side but even given that, it was very well done. I hope Jaina takes a similar degree of development but perhaps doesn’t become an out-and-out villian.
      I sure hope Christie Golden is on the WoW team now! The way she worded her Tweets about becoming a Blizzard employee led me to believe she would be taking a much more active hand in lore development, rather than just writing external novels that are woven in partially!

      Liked by 3 people

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