Okay, so it is time for me to come clean.
I write about lore…a lot.
I like the overall idea of lore in an MMO. Generally, establishing a history in a game is a good idea, and adds a sense of gravity and importance to the locations and characters you encounter. You start playing Final Fantasy XIV, for example, because it is a brand name, but you become attached to the locales. You start to understand what the Shifting Sands represents, what Rhalgr’s Reach is, how all of this connects into the living history of the game’s Main Scenario Quest, which does an artful job of creating a cohesive narrative that allows you to start in multiple different areas while ensuring that everyone ends up in the same story with about the same understanding. It also makes it cooler when they find fun in-universe ways to tie in other Final Fantasy game references, like how Ivalice is currently being woven into the game.
So, overall, I generally like the effort that Blizzard puts into building up the locales, history, and characters in WoW. It makes events like those in Antorus carry weight and significance, adding this sense of intrigue to things that happen through gameplay.
However, having fluffed up the large point, it is time to come truly clean, as I said earlier.
Blizzard has, through most of its games and history…sucked at implementing lore all the way.
The reality is that most lore nuts must go to absurd lengths to piece together what is ostensibly a video game-based narrative. The events of the bombing of Theramore, for example, are poorly explained in game, if at all, really – and you’d need to play both versions of the scenario to get it. Even then, big chunks are kept for the Jaina novel that came out prior to Mists of Pandaria. And while these lore hits are partially reflected in game, some of them just simply aren’t. Rhonin being dead? Well, the novel explains it well – but good luck getting any context in-game. The events of the Well of the Ancients dungeon in Cataclysm only truly make full sense if you’ve read the War of the Ancients books, in which case you get a ton of lore. Hell, there’s even a tribute to Broxigar from said books on Argus, which only truly makes sense if you know who he is, and if you play WoW alone, you won’t know.
This has been fixed a bit lately, thankfully – Legion released some audio dramas and such, but they only really add context and interesting information that serves to shade what happens in game. Seeing Xe’ra restrain Illidan and forcibly light him up is shocking, but Thousand Years of War illustrates that Xe’ra really isn’t that good. It would have served to blunt the impact of that moment, if the audio drama were released before the cinematic.
My worry is this, however. We are approaching a new expansion, with an unclear lore path forward. The content we can currently see does not illuminate a path from Antorus and the Legion to faction warfare and Battle for Azeroth. I am sure that this is at least partially by design, and we’ll be getting some additional patch or content to close the gap, but my worry is that we are also getting a novel in Before the Storm that seems pretty likely to contain a lot of the lore we need – and should also be getting in game. Will we get said lore in-game? We don’t know yet, and that is worrying.
Yes, the Illidan novel did not really contain much that we needed to get through Legion, only tidbits that enlighted us somewhat about things like the Sargerite Keystone and Illidan’s bodiless soul. Which is nice, but it is also the outlier in a release cycle that has included Warlords of Draenor, whose entire premise setup is contained in the novel War Crimes, Mists of Pandaria, for which the Jaina novel Tides of War serves as the establishment of setting, and Cataclysm, where the novels Stormrage and Wolfheart both set the scene. The last 7-8 years of WoW content has only been about half-delivered in game, which is an abysmal record.
I do appreciate that the novels can expand upon concepts and provide interesting hooks back into the story for people who read them, but at this point, they do a disservice to a large number of players. I don’t have the exact numbers for the full playerbase, but anecdotally, my friend circle has 15 WoW players and about 3 Warcraft novels total owned between that full group.
A big part of why the lore in game can be so inconsistently delivered is this dependance on novels, true, but even still, a larger part is Blizzard’s wanton abandonment of narrative arcs. Sure, I appreciate the concept of “gameplay first” for the most part, but it can be jarring to said gameplay to invest into an unresolved narrative. Stormheim had all this business with Genn and Sylvanas, business that appears to be going nowhere. Warlords quickly shelved the Iron Horde, making Grommash suddenly all friendly with everyone on Draenor because Gul’dan was worse. Mists was mostly consistent, but a lot of the investment in the legendary gear quests with Wrathion was neglected because he then failed to make any real appearances in the two following expansions! Cataclysm had large unresolved plot threads with Neptulon and Ozumat, while also introducing some cool Old God stuff in Twilight Highlands that was subsequently left alone. Every piece of in-game content has had some fragment of narrative just disappear, which, if it happened once or twice, would probably be okay, but consistently, every expansion, large chunks of plot and character development are left on the table and ignored or rushed through to reach some new thread.
So when I look at Battle For Azeroth, I think, “cool, but this had better pay off with a cohesive narrative.”
When I think of a cohesive narrative, I mean in-game too. Yes, release the novel – Christie Golden is a fantastic writer and the sample given at Blizzcon was great. But, and this is important, these are supplemental materials – not replacement materials. Before the Storm should be adding to the lore we will be seeing in the patches and content to come, not replacing the need for that lore in-game.
My fear is that not reading the novel will mean missing out on big chunks of the lore, and this is not an unfounded fear. The past of the game is littered with examples of this happening. Being a lore junkie in this game is hard when it requires playing the game, reading short stories on the WoW site, then listening to an audio drama, then reading a novel, and finally reading the comments on quests and news on Wowhead, just to finally piece together the entire story. Even then, the entire story has been, nearly throughout WoW’s history, a holy mess of ideas that looks somewhat like swiss cheese.
Here’s the thing – I like the world building, the characters, all of that in isolation works fantastically well. But when Final Fantasy XIV is walking around out there with a cohesive, fully in-game plot that ensures players don’t miss a beat and resolves the vast majority of its lore hooks, I am left wanting for that degree of cohesion from Blizzard. I cannot just play WoW and get the full picture. Even a simple example like Xe’ra, Alleria, Turalyon, and Locus Walker requires a full reading of the in-game lore and quest text, the additional interactions offered pertaining to these characters, and listening to the entirety of A Thousand Years of War – only then do these characters make complete sense in their current context. Even then – Alleria and Turalyon also have deep roots in Warcraft history, requiring brushing up on history even further to gain a complete understanding. This is the blessing and curse of this particular franchise – when WoW started, the RTS games weren’t that old and much of the lore leaned on Warcraft III, fresh as it was in player’s minds. Now, it has been 14 years since Warcraft III, almost 2 decades since Warcraft II, and damn near 3 decades since Warcraft: Orcs and Humans – and this means that the vast majority of WoW players will have not seen all of that lore. So bringing back characters like Alleria and Turalyon can work, and will spark the interest of those RTS players, but at this point in time, you probably have more of the playerbase wondering aloud just who the hell these characters are.
Going forward, I’d like to see commitments from Blizzard to complete narrative arcs, using in-game lore delivery, in a way that rewards me for playing. Right now, I feel like I have to do my homework to get the full picture, and I do so willingly, but it doesn’t always pay off, and that is not cool.