The story of original WoW is not defined by quest text or voiceover, but rather as a journey through a new place and a struggle to find a sense of belonging.
The story of new WoW is in being told how great we are for having undertaken that journey, as we undertake new journeys through smaller locales that we are told fit into a greater world and universe that we never see whole.
This contrast came to me while thinking through the story of World of Warcraft to date, and if you look at it, I think there are two larger trends we can address through this lens.
The Desire for Classic – A Desire to Return to Normalcy
People like myself, who, admittedly, do not really have a great deal of excitement for WoW Classic, address the idea from a gameplay perspective quite often. This is because, simply, the gameplay of older WoW is not as good. This is an opinion that is, also admittedly, a dismissal of the remaining components of the gameplay experience. In truth, damn near no one is playing WoW of any iteration because it has gameplay that is so much more engaging that anything else on the market. WoW gameplay is good-great for an MMO, which is not, necessarily, a high bar. The total sum of an MMO experience is the gameplay, as nestled into the atmosphere, story and worldbuilding, progression and development systems, and sense of belonging within that world.
So I wanted to view the idea through the story lens. I’ve written before that my love of Vanilla at the time was the product of multiple factors: of the real-life surrounding me then and a need for escapism, and the sense of acheivement, progression, and belonging with the community within the game. I do hold this up as true, but what was Vanilla’s progression even like, when endgame was this far-away dreamscape I could barely imagine for almost a full year of play?
The progression was that your character’s journey in Vanilla matched that of your own journey into the game as a player. The punchline of our player characters being “murder-hobos” is often overused, but when you look at the narrative built into the game back then, it was true. We were not innately trusted by NPCs, nor lauded excessively as heroes or champions. We were simple adventurers, and our quests reflected this. Before we could build garrisons or lead class orders we were tasked with cleaning poop (quite literally in a few cases), disposing of simple menaces, and playing courier. We weren’t entrusted with much of anything, and our loyalty and kindness was often tested and abused by NPCs that would send us to far corners of the world in search of some rare item, to come back all that way and provide the NPC with that which they sought. In lore, this was a test, and in reality, this was a hook – immersing us in a massive fictional world.
The lore characters existed in almost a parallel reality to us. We could see them, interacting with Thrall, Tyrande, and others, but we were not on that level.
The original “holy trinity” of WoW releases – the base game, Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King have one thing in common – we are bystanders to an epic tale that is mostly about the big lore characters. While our stature within the canon gradually escalates through these three releases, think even about Wrath of the Lich King, and the introduction of in-game cutscenes – we are never featured in these, and in fact not even explained away in the lore of these moments. We are bystanders, watching the siege of the Wrathgate. When the Lich King falls, the entire narrative arc is about Arthas and the spirit of the father he murdered, as Bolvar makes a terrible sacrifice for the benefit of Azeroth. We are, again, bystanders in a cinematic where no effort is made to even handwave us away. We just aren’t “really” there in lore. These things happen, and would likely have happened even without us. Our quest content is filled with us proving our worth, cleaning outhouses and shit, and murdering basic enemies in service of a greater strategic imperative we are not involved with. We aren’t commanders, generals, or even recruits in the armies of our factions – we are still wandering adventurers, looked at with a degree of distrust.
The Shift of Cataclysm – From Commoner to Commander
Cataclysm marked a drastic shift to us being on-par with many lore characters. We became deeply involved with characters like Thrall, and while the quests largely still involved us doing busywork for strangers, it was at least because these strangers were also new to our factions. This has been the formula for a great amount of the quest lore in the shipping experience of every subsequent expansion. We meet new groups who do not know of us (Ramkahen, Pandaren, AU Draenei and orcs, various factions of the Broken Isles). At the same time, we have been seeing the story begin to consolidate itself into smaller and smaller physical areas. Vanilla stretched…everywhere. The Burning Crusade had zone stories, but these often interlinked, with factions present in numerous zones and interacting with each other. Wrath had a baseline faction for your main faction’s initial Northrend detail, and then used their expansion across the continent as introductions to the others, who were often contained to one or two zones, but often crossed-over. Since Cataclysm, however, factions have largely maintained their campaigns fully within the boundaries of a single zone. The Avengers of Hyjal stay right where they are at Nordrassil. The Earthen Ring mainly hang out in Deepholm. In Mists, we get some crossover between zones, but it is largely based on the level range. The Jinyu and Hozen factions stay in Jade Forest. The Shado-Pan move between Kun Lai Summit and Townlong Steppes, but they come in later in Kun Lai, in the portions right on the border of Townlong.
And that is without even addressing that Warlords faction gameplay was largely absent, reduced to blindly grinding elite mobs in some small areas in zones.
But, you can see the trend – the intense emphasis on zone stories has largely led us to fragmented, basic gameplay where the one zone boundary houses a variety of content that has almost no crossover into anything else.
And this is where we come in – while our factions served as our introduction as the wandering commoner in those first three releases, now, we are that faction. We are the champion of Azeroth, and our reputation is so well known that introductions are not needed. This tends to defy expectation, as in Draenor, we storm in, save some locals, and that act alone means that our hosts immediately forfeit a large plot of land for us to occupy, leading to the Garrisons. The problem with this as a storytelling hook is that there is no build up to a greater characterization. The base assumption of the player character since Cataclysm has seen us as the mythological hero of Azeroth – and nothing is done to further that in any meaningful way. Which would be fine if it was not so sudden. Yes, sure, we did a lot in Outland and Northrend, but in the lore of those stories, we aren’t really ascendant heroes. We remain adventurers until the end, canonically unimportant as presented at the summit of Icecrown Citadel. Tirion Fordring is the hero, and sure, he props us up as his trusted companions, but by the next bit of story in Cataclysm, we are now far more important than we were then. Maybe time has passed and our legend has multiplied, but even still – how did our story become THE story?
This is why I am excited that we could potentially be tarnished as the ultimate finale of Legion. In many ways, the game lore needs us to be reset, so that we can struggle to re-establish ourselves.
The other problem I would pose with modern WoW storytelling is that the game world, despite growing, has never felt like the discoveries of each expansion have grown the world. We step onto ships or through portals that take us to places, but I cannot fly off the coast of Eastern Kingdoms and encounter the Broken Isles. The world map says that is how it should work, but it doesn’t. And yes, I get that this is due to how the game has always been built – I need to buy Legion to go there, and so it can’t be there because it would be open for access, but maybe there are other ways around this. There are still older artifacts of this, like the portal from Eastern Plaguelands to Ghostlands. Yes, once upon a time, this was necessary to play gatekeeper to the things you had to buy Burning Crusade to see, but now I can buy a battlechest and have everything but the Broken Isles, which itself will also likely change in 6 months or so.
But outside of this, the game has made increasingly less effort to show our actions as part of a larger world. Legion has course-corrected this slightly, but think about this – our normal, daily gameplay only really uses the Broken Isles, Broken Shore, and Argus. Sure, every once in a while, we have to do something else – the paladin class hall is over in Eastern Plaguelands, and sometimes we have to go to our faction capitol, and sometimes we have to see Azuremyst Isle and the Exodar – but the vast majority of gameplay takes place in just our one new continent and the subzones. Sure, one of the “subzones” now is a planet, technically, but the overall landmass isn’t very huge, not compared to the rest of the world. Even in anticipation of Battle for Azeroth, look at what we might see – Silithus is changed, Teldrassil will burn, Lordaeron will change hands, and…that’s it. Everything else we know suggests that we’ll be playing on only two continents – Zandalar and Kul Tiras. And while yes, two continents is impressive, the two of them combined are…roughly the size of Broken Isles! We continue to have this tunnel vision of what we do, forced upon us by game design, where an expansion called “Battle for Azeroth” will utilize less than 10% of the titular world of Azeroth.
So, I guess this is one example where I have a solution in mind. We have storytelling and scope that has narrowed at the cost of the rest of the world. What would I do?
-We need a new narrative arc. There should be a betrayal that leads to us being less trustworthy as deemed by NPCs. We should have to rebuild our reputation in the face of all of this change.
-We need strong NPCs that compliment this journey. Old NPCs like Jaina, Thrall, and the like are great, and them coming back should serve to parallel our attempted redemption, but we also need stronger new NPCs. Think back over the last few expansions – what new characters have we really gained? Yrel – okay, but her development was rushed and then sealed off in Draenor and left behind. Taran Zhu – cool dude with an interesting story, but again, for almost all of us, he’s locked away in the past. What character from Legion itself is really new, interesting, and has helped drive the story?
-We need a sense that the conflict central to the story matters across the world. Azeroth is in the title of the expansion, but our brief taste of the expansion thus far suggests that precious little of the conflict will affect…Azeroth. The world is specifically a character, both figuratively from a design perspective, and literally in a lore perspective. It doesn’t have to phase in or change the content, but it would be nice to be able to go out to other places every now and then. Warfronts seem like they’ll help a bit, but these are ultimately instanced bits of content based on places in the world.
-If we are going to be the Warcraft Lore’s Jesus Christ, we better develop better in that direction. No sudden jumps in importance, no immediate shifts – we should be spending our time in lore proving that position. It might be better if we weren’t this at all, though. The faceless adventurer and hero is a good place to be, and is what worked well way back.
-I should feel like Kul Tiras and Zandalar fit. Sure, a portal from Stormwind/Orgrimmar works, but you know what is more immersive and fits that fantasy better? A ship. It serves an identical purpose. (I understand that boats in WoW have a checkered history of not working well, but maybe the boat can fly into a portal or something? I don’t have a good answer to that.)
Overall, to counter the negative tone of my post yesterday, I think it is worth saying that I think we will be happily surprised with what we see when Battle for Azeroth enters alpha. But it is also worth getting in front of potential missteps by sharing ideas and discussing the philosophy that fits all of this together into a fun play experience.