One thing that Legion has done well is instill the sensation of the end of things, by using lore character death as a way to push fear into us – the Legion, in this way, feels threatening where the Iron Horde often did not – the characters we lost to the Iron Horde were relatively minor, and usually due to their own decision to sacrifice themselves. Right off the bat in Legion, the Alliance and Horde have leadership changes – which conveys the sense of dread that we are supposed to feel.
But this device, in and of itself, continues through the expansion. Warlords of Draenor killed off Archimonde, alongside Yrel and Ga’nar, whose name I had to look up to write. Legion has killed, in no particular order:
-Rakeesh, Velen’s heretofore unknown son
-Gul’dan from the alternate universe
-Xe’ra (who was also introduced in Legion, so…)
And then there is the matter of Illidan, Sargeras, and the rest of the Pantheon.
So a lot of characters have been ended or removed from the story – which is fine, and has made Legion feel a bit more interesting than Warlords of Draenor in terms of major plot development. But this points to a problem with Blizzard’s storytelling, one that may come to bite them in the ass soon…
Who Do We Root For (And Against) Now?
My problem with this chain of events isn’t that the characters died at all – it is that Blizzard has reduced their stockpile of major lore characters quite substantially with these events, while failing to build enough new, interesting characters to replace them. Legion itself is built on a hail-mary retcon, the very idea that Illidan can come back at all, which seemed almost like a joke back at Blizzcon 2010 when the idea was danced out there, but now it has happened. While Illidan is an interesting character in his own right, it also highlights the big problem Blizzard has had for a while now – what new characters have been added solely in WoW that really stand up to the big lore heavyweights of the past?
The stage for Battle for Azeroth is currently set almost entirely with characters whose roots are in the RTS games rather than WoW, who have, to be fair, developed since then, but still. Sylvanas was initially interesting because of her strange origins through Arthas. Jaina’s original sympathy for the Horde, the trait that made her turn interesting, was developed in Warcraft III. Thrall, well, the less said about him the better. Anduin is an interesting character that has developed primarily in WoW, as has Genn Greymane, so hooray – two characters!
This is, looking at the long-term story prospects of WoW, a problem. Sooner or later, these old standbys from the RTS games either have to die or be retired through some means to allow new perspectives and the development of fresh story arcs, alongside granting their stories closure. That means you can shift some desgree of focus to newer characters, but as the more-developed characters like Anduin, Greymane, and Wrathion rotate out of the story, who fills their place? Who can we point at and say, “yes, this character is well-built and has an interesting narrative I would like to see?”
Right now, off-hand, I can name precious few characters that fit the bill of being mainline franchise-carriers after their departure from the story. Khadgar? Sure, he’ll probably come back around at some point in BfA or after it, but even he has RTS-stink on him, and he spent two expansions being the sort of big boss of players. Wrathion has been strangely absent, so you re-introduce him and build a new plot for him, but it will reek of retcon – he was supposed to be the person tipped off about the Legion, and then when his predictions came true, where was he? Saurfang is an interesting fellow who has had minimal plot developed throughout all of WoW – he could be great. Likewise on the Alliance side with Moira – it seems with the Dark Iron she will come around and that story will start to matter.
But that is just on the hypothetical protagonist side. If we look at antagonists, the enemies that will drive us to action, what is there, really? The Old Gods and the Void, sure – and using the Void itself as an enemy is itself a retcon to allow a sort of nebulous number of threats to emanate out from that concept. There is Azshara, who will be used for this very purpose in BfA! You have, theoretically, a new Lich King, who has worked alongside the forces of Azeroth to save it, but that has a selfish potential motivation – if he wants to conquer the planet, it has to exist still.
The point is this – the roster of meaningful, developed characters in Warcraft lore is being rapidly depleted in the name of plot intrigue, and this is creating a shortage of interesting characters that can serve as center-stage roles, because the number of new characters introduced is small and the number of those that are meaningfully developed is even smaller. Who from Legion is worth carrying forward? Thalyssra, Ebonhorn, Odyn, and…who else? Two of those three are coming with us into BfA too!
The only saving grace Blizzard has had is the number of characters who have been in a relative plot stasis since the RTS days, but that has also changed. Illidan came back after defeat in TBC. Turalyon and Alleria are back after being absent since Warcraft II. Khadgar himself was barely present in TBC, and came to prominence in WoW during Warlords. On the antagonist side, bringing in Sargeras was a bold play that could have gone better – although the manner in which the Pantheon and Illidan are put away feels like a temporary state rather than a definite ending.
WoW’s lore has always been character-driven at its heart. The initial premise of the game was us noble, unknown adventurers rising up alongside bold heroes of the Alliance and Horde, which has given way to us being, in effect, the main character. While this has some upside, it has meant that the lore characters around us have withered just a bit, and that is turning into a big issue.
We need new, interesting characters, properly introduced and developed to last longer than one zone story or expansion. We need more development for those characters we do have.
And sometimes, Blizzard, you’ve got to be willing to put away a character for good.
Just make sure to build something interesting to do afterwards.