So, of all the things I wanted to write post-Blizzcon, this is the one I will go deepest on (well, maybe also my Blizzard tour, a post on that is still coming!).
The lore of Battle for Azeroth has been…tricky, to say the least. The foundation of faction conflict was momentarily paused as we built relationships with our new allies, and then it was slowly reintroduced, but the majority of the 8.0 experience has focused largely on tangential plotlines. The Alliance sought to unify the orders of Kul Tiras, and reunite mother and daughter Proudmoore. The Horde has been building the relationship between father and daughter, the Zandalari royalty in a rough spot and being smoothed over by the Horde forces present in Dazar’Alor, while also fighting off the traitors of the Zandalari Empire and in particular pushing back the forces of G’Huun and the ultimate Zandalari traitor Zul. Lastly, the Horde have also been busy dealing with the fallout of the events of Legion and the War of the Thorns, with a faction on the edge of implosion due to the brazen actions of Sylvanas at both Teldrassil but especially the use of plague on Alliance and Horde alike at Undercity, leaving the Horde in disarray, with player characters tenuously allied with Sylvanas while Saurfang stews in the Stormwind Stockade, and the player characters pushing forward with other Horde leaders in an investigation with the spirit of Vol’jin.
So that brings us to 8.1, where the story ramps up sharply. We know the following based on a mix of PTR datamining, cinematics revealed at Blizzcon, and gameplay on PTR. In this list, I’ve italicized anything solely determined by datamining, as a visual aid, since these points may change and are not fully confirmed:
-The Horde is fracturing further, with player choices to ally with Saurfang or Sylvanas, a choice Blizzard is keen on emphasizing will carry weight later on
-The Alliance…trains a gorilla, who becomes a raid boss?
-The Horde under Sylvanas does a lot of Alliance character reappropriation, freeing Lady Ashvane from Tol Dagor, raising Derek Proudmoore, Sira Moonwarden, and Delaryn Summermoon from the dead as Undead, Derek Proudmoore completely unwillingly but the other two are varyingly okay with it
-The Alliance siege the seat of Zandalari power, Dazar’Alor, by using a distraction tactic in Nazmir to draw out the Horde and Zandalari forces while effectively sneaking in via the harbor, then kills King Rastakhan
-The Horde freezes High Tinker Mekkatorque and wounds Jaina Proudmoore
-Vol’jin’s spirit, alongside Talanji and Baine, speak with Bwonsamdi, the Lich King, and Eyir about how he persists and why he was compelled to select Sylvanas to take over the Horde as it’s Warchief. No one has an answer, but Vol’jin is “changed” by a “powerful force” via a round trip to the “Other Side,” while all 3 agree that Sylvanas is bad
-There is some undisclosed Naga stuff happening
-Oh, we go around empowering Xal’Atath (yes, that weapon) until the Old God imprisoned inside pops out
Now let’s look at a few of these in more detail:
The Horde Has A Choice: Players get to choose between allying with Saurfang, allowing him and Zekhan to escape and pretending that you won when presenting out the situation to Sylvanas, or you can side with Sylvanas, notifying her of Saurfang’s escape and accompaniment by Zekhan. That is where the choice ends…for now, but Blizzard has indicated that the intention behind offering this choice is that it will matter in the future. How that will come to be, given that there is likely a tidy conclusion to this story, remains to be seen. But count me as tentatively excited!
The Alliance War Campaign is Kind Of A Mess: The Alliance War Campaign thankfully pushes more conflict with the Horde, but it still doesn’t have quite the same resonance as the Horde one. While Horde are picking leaders and drawing battlelines, the Alliance is training a gorilla to be a siege weapon. It is only later in the quest chain that the Alliance becomes a force, planting the seeds for the raid to come. In all of that, however, there is nothing really exciting – nothing worth rallying for. Of course, the events setting up the Darkshore warfront are slightly better in this regard, but they are also, as seen so far on PTR, an incongruous mess that struggles to really tie together the plot and establish Tyrande, now the Night Warrior, as a large threat.
Sylvanas and the Forsaken Are Probably Just Evil Now: The events at Darkshore are questionable but probably things that can be handwaved away – the Val’kyr serving Sylvanas bringing Sira and Delaryn back as undead could be a big problem in terms of lore continuity, but the context given around their anguish over Teldrassil and the lack of action from Tyrande and Malfurion makes some sense and sort of ties that loose end up. However, in this same vein, Sylvanas, back in the battle, is making a Proudmoore undead by dredging up Jaina’s brother Derek – an act that goes against the lore established around the Forsaken and Sylvanas specifically. However, this isn’t a retcon – I’d say this is character evolution. Sylvanas is growing desperate to strike at the Alliance, to inflict lasting damage, and she is dealing with a mutiny of some scale within the Horde, the loss of an allied leader in Rastakhan, and the failure of her faction to end Jaina Proudmoore at Dazar’Alor. However, the line between an opportunist and a villian is thin and fragile, and it seems all too likely that we are seeing Sylvanas properly descend into evil at this point, as opposed to the sort of chaotic neutral role she’s had for so long now. We’re going to revisit this point momentarily, so don’t put the Banshee Queen too far out of mind yet…
The Loose Ends of the Individual Faction Stories – The Proudmoore Reunion and The Return of Vol’Jin: The remaining plot threads for now see the Proudmoore family reunion add Tandred Proudmoore, returned with the fleet at the tail end of the Alliance story of 8.0, to the dynamic of mother and daughter between Jaina and Katherine that 8.0 established. Looming over this is the return of Derek Proudmoore as an undead, although the 8.1 story largely shows Sylvanas trying to shape his mind to turn him against his family. Meanwhile, Talanji and Baine are working with Horde players and the Urn of Vol’Jin to figure out why Sylvanas was chosen to lead the Horde by Vol’jin in his last moments. The answer – nobody knows, and it seems an odd call for the entities powerful enough to make such a request to Vol’jin in the manner that the request took place. So going into the story unifying to push against the Naga, we’re left with the Horde in disarray – Sylvanas turning to darker and darker means of snuffing out the Alliance and failing, Saurfang rallying in the shadows to push her off the throne, Baine disgusted with Sylvanas, and the Zandalari mourning the loss of their king, while Talanji, the last of her bloodline, taking the throne in the process. The Zandalari seem to express some skepticism of Sylvanas’ leadership, but Talanji is a close ally of the Horde player character, and this will ensure that the bond between the Zandalari and the Horde is tightened. Were this all we had coming to us, it would be pretty good, I would say. However, there is one other element of content in the 8.1 files, which hasn’t really manifested on PTR yet, but datamining and a few other clues lead us to an interest subplot that will be bubbling up…
The Knaifu Waifu Returns for All…And Hints Towards A Darker Future: Xal’Atath, the artifact weapon that served alongside Shadow Priests for the entirety of Legion, is back, and this time, hints available in datamining show that all of us will get in on wielding everyone’s favorite dagger. Potential spoilers ahead, mixed with some speculation – all we know currently is that there are new items and spells for Xal’Atath that imply a quest where she traps you in the dagger, lets you go, agrees to support you, is empowered, and finally escapes the dagger, and a model exists that shows her as a Void Elf, with other NPC model data hidden in the files. There is also a graphic from Blizzcon that somewhat clearly shows the future beyond 8.1, which we will touch upon momentarily!
So, the idea of Xal’Atath returning as a character is an interesting twist, in that she has nothing to do with the faction conflict and is herself an Old God. Fascinating, that – I am sure that will have nothing to do with the story going forward! Jokes aside, her role in a lot of the speculation about Old Gods in Legion cannot be forgotten here. Alongside Il’gynoth, Xal’Atath set off millions of discussions about the possible future roles of the Void and Old Gods in the lore of Warcraft. From the datamining, these quests are relatively straightforward, it would seem, and may even be a simple scenario. We are forced to win over Xal’Atath to our side, and when she agrees to help us, we set about empowering her until she is able to escape the dagger, where, let me remind you, she was being held prisoner. Now, this is where what we can perceive via datamining ends, and were that it, it would be a clear teaser of a potential fate to come. There is now an Old God running loose, one who was imprisoned for ages, whom we have just empowered with Void magic. This is unsettling, but she has also sworn allegiance to us, and while Old Gods can be slippery on this front, they also largely hold their sworn bonds in lore (such is the case with Azshara, for example).
However, at Blizzcon, when discussing the major lore characters of 8.2, this graphic popped up…
While the other characters in frame have their standard, current loadouts of weapons and armor, one little dagger sticks out like a sore thumb. Yes, Sylvanas, standing there, wielding…Xal’Atath. Now, this is a bit of an oddity, as during the Windrunner comics leading up to BfA, panels where the Void whispers to Alleria would say things like this about Sylvanas…
The Void wants Sylvanas dead. More than any misdirect whisper it gives Alleria, any other attempt to claw at her mind, in the moments where the Void addresses the presence of Sylvanas, you feel…desperation. But, at the same time, with the being Xal’Atath evicted from the dagger, the weapon as it remains is likely just what it appears – a dagger with the ability to imprison an Old God, left with lingering remnants of Void power. It is likely still quite powerful, but how much power remains is hard to say.
However, this opens the amount of speculation one could do massively. So let’s dive into that now!
The Speculated Future of Sylvanas Windrunner
So to say that Sylvanas is the pre-eminent character of BfA is a mild understatement at this point. In an expansion with a large roster of characters taking focus at varying points, the overarching theme is that all of these characters are largely responding to Sylvanas. The worry many of us had during the pre-launch events of BfA was that she would go the Garrosh route, ending up being comically evil and being shut down within the course of a single expansion. While I think she may be on a similar route, it’s worth saying that I think there’s more going on here.
Firstly, between Blizzcon and a post-Blizzcon interview with Alex Afrasiabi from Eurogamer, we have a few points to consider. Firstly, and the one causing surprisingly more waves, the Eurogamer interview stated that Sylvanas was in charge of the events at the Wrathgate. Much ink has been spilled and many YouTube minutes have been spent talking about this, but here is the TL;DR – in Wrath of the Lich King, the events at the Wrath Gate were described as a mutiny against Sylvanas by Varimathras and Putress. One of the Chronicle books touches upon this by saying that Sylvanas did not tell the full story, but it leaves it somewhat open to interpretation. Basically, Sylvanas knew about and directed the creation of the plague, but did she order it at the Wrathgate? This seems to point to yes, which pushes a newer edge to Sylvanas. She is single-minded in her pursuit of a goal, and at the time, that goal was Arthas’ demise. She almost succeeded at that, too! But knowing, now, that she was responsible for those events, it also means that the Alliance and especially the Horde have to reckon with the fact that Sylvanas is, in fact, sometimes excessively reckless in pursuit of a goal and will accept the cost paid by others at her hands. With this framing, it softens some of my prior objections to the War of the Thorns events – while Sylvanas seemed to be stepping drastically out of character, framed as of a full story arc from 10 years ago to now, it actually starts to make a lot of sense. Coupled with, as Taliesin and Evitel pointed out on YouTube, the original Forsaken character beginning narration, it actually comes together as a comprehensive character – Sylvanas’ relationship to the Horde is one of convenience, borne of the fact that her allies in life abandoned her and her new people. She has no allegiance to the Horde, at least not in the sense that the other races do. And, when framed in that perspective, I actually really like the beats of that story.
This adds a lot of depth, because Sylvanas, in many ways, still sees the Horde as an ally of convenience. She still, somewhat clearly, does not bear much pride in the Horde or investment in the structure of the Horde as an entity. It is merely her support, and now, her servants. Her fear of death, of an unclear fate for her people, has now been weaponized across the Horde. The contrast and development is thus – how can someone who has no real investment in the Horde lead it? She has not really identified as a part of the Horde, and yet, now she leads it and is its pre-eminent figure, a conflict that would be interesting to watch unfold!
The problem with that angle, of course, is that the context of these events is not framed this way in-game. There’s no narrator to tell you that this is the case, or frame it as such. The events of Wrathgate aren’t referenced, nor is that original narration of the Forsaken starting zone. Another consequence of a game built with 14 years of it’s own story and nearly another decade more lore before that from 3 strategy games – all of this is somewhat implicit, that you would level through 1-120 and get the idea, but then again, the Wrathgate event is gone from the game, so the quest ends abruptly, and the narration and plot elements of the Forsaken starting experience have changed just enough to remove that initial seed of discontent. Many of the supporting character elements are in non-game media like the written stories and other games outside of WoW, and that obscures these details enough to make them incomprehensible to someone just playing the game.
And then we have to discuss the other aspect of Blizzcon news about Sylvanas’ characterization – the comment during the Q&A. When the team was asked how they would prevent the comparison of Sylvanas’ character arc and Garrosh’s, the comment made was that when looking back on the destruction Garrosh wrought, Sylvanas would think “he’s an amateur.” Now, taking all of that into perspective as we currently have it, and I think it is safe to say this: Sylvanas is, ultimately, the villian of this expansion, with almost no doubt.
She’s got opposition unifying on both sides: Saurfang is preparing to rebel, escaping the clutches of the Dark Lady with Zekhan and sowing the seeds of discontent. Saurfang represents the standard, stoic Horde leader – unified in purpose with the other races of the Horde, devoted to the ideals of the Horde – honor in battle, strength in purpose. Meanwhile, Anduin and Genn have unified in opposition to her in the wake of the pre-launch events, so much so that Anduin freed Saurfang from the Stockades to allow him to raise a rebellion to the Banshee Queen.
She’s taken her pursuit of a goal to unreasonable lengths: She used the plague on Horde and Alliance at Undercity, and raised the dead as a skeleton army. She tortured a reanimated Derek Proudmoore until it disgusted Baine and Arcanist Valtrois. In the aftermath of Dazar’Alor, she only wants to push the battle further against the Alliance, even with the losses suffered by the Horde during the raid. She is alienating everyone around her, save for her most dedicated followers, in order to secure a future for the Forsaken and to prevent any potential annihilation at the hands of the Alliance or other threats. The only Horde leader who has yet to express disgust at her actions is Lor’themar Theron, and as the only one of the racial leaders who knew Sylvanas in life and had allegiance to her, as she was his Ranger-General in life and served to bring the Blood Elves into the Horde in undeath. Oh, there was also that Teldrassil burning she did in the pre-launch, a terrible act which will be bringing a renewed Tyrande and Malfurion after her.
Her desperation is growing: It’s fairly clear from the events of 8.1 that Sylvanas expected to bring Jaina low during the Battle for Dazar’Alor, and to mentally wound the Kul Tirans and the Proudmoores specifically with the reanimation of Derek Proudmoore, and yet, none of these things has really inflicted a substantial wound. While, personally, as an Alliance player first and foremost, I find the Alliance lore content lacking, the reality is that they end their War Campaign in a position of relative strength. The Horde is melting down from inside, withering from sustained conflict among its leaders and the casualties of war, while the Alliance, while there is some strife, has only gained. The Kul Tirans have been unified and the Alliance is clearly on the offensive, and with the attack on the Zandalari seat of power, they have claimed a major casualty and also weakened the loa empowering the Zandalari royalty, after Zul ended the life of their original loa. Sylvanas’ ambition is being met with resistance at every turn, and her vision of a clean end to the war is not coming to fruition, and it is driving her mad.
So that brings us back to the image from Blizzcon, of Sylvanas wielding Xal’Atath. What does it mean, and where do we go from here? Well, it is worth looking back on everyone’s favorite tree-eye from Legion, Il’gynoth. As we showed earlier with the comic panel, the Void absolutely hates Sylvanas and wants her dead. I’ve speculated previously that the Old Gods might be sowing discontent, as each location involved in the pre-launch events was very close to an Old God manifestation, and I think there might be more to that. “At the hour of her third death, she will usher us in” – counting Sylvanas’ original death, she has had three deaths, but if you exclude that, an additional death could count as number 3 in undeath. Given that one of her Val’kyr is stricken down at Darkshore in 8.1, this seems more credible. Of course, if we expand our definition of death to include metaphor, Alleria Windrunner, the actual Void-infused Windrunner, could be considered to have had a third death upon an actual death, or a surrender to the Void. There was even a ham-fisted line to that extent added in 7.3.5….
“Her heart is a crater, and we have filled it” could also be a reference to Sylvanas. It was popular to speculate Jaina at the time, but the Alliance questing in 8.0 seems to clean up so much of that as to render that interpretation a lot harder. Not impossible, mind you – just a lot more difficult. Jaina at that point in Legion was bitter, angry, and had abandoned the fight in order to resolve her own issues. The Jaina we see in BfA so far is softer, calmer, more in control of her emotions and more powerful for it. Sylvanas, on the other hand, is reckless, careless, and uncaring in a way that suggests emptiness.
Now, here’s where I jump way into speculation. Sylvanas, I think, will be the ultimate threat of BfA. I will place my marker on that right now. I will say, however, that I don’t think this means she will be the end raid boss and ultimately need to be fought against. Rather, as the story winds forward, we will ultimately end up confronting Sylvanas, who will bring about the next threat and lead us to the future – the actual unleashing of the Void. By taking up Xal’Atath, even without its Old God prisoner, she is beginning to forge a bond with the Void. The Void, of course, may want to allow this, bringing her closer to their domain and allowing the whispers to begin to take root in her mind.
But I think that the Old Gods or the Void themselves aren’t actually who will ultimately come seeking Sylvanas first, even as she holds Xal’Atath. Alleria will have justified cause to come to seek retribution against her sister, to end the suffering caused at her hands. Alleria will face Sylvanas by the end of BfA, and I think what we will face in our end of expansion raid will be a version of Alleria, consumed by Void. The whispers of the Void to end Sylvanas will grow to be too great, especially with Sylvanas having a link to the void via her new dagger friend (I am running out of ways to reference this damn weapon, haha), and Alleria will finally give in, just a little bit, thinking she is acting as a free agent of her own will. She will come to see Sylvanas as a threat that must be ended, to end the suffering her actions have caused to all of Azeroth. The challenge for Alleria, of course, will be holding the whispers at bay in the heat of the moment, and I suspect she will fail. When she fails, we will have to clean up the mess, and this will unfortunately lead to Alleria’s death.
Her “third” death.
Now, here’s where we can go in very different branching directions.
The Part Where I Go Off Talking About 9.0
Prior to BfA, if you asked me what came next after Legion, I said Old Gods, without hesitation. In the very beginning of BfA, I still would have said that. But we find ourselves in a whole new world, one where those ideas are starting to be displaced. There has been a running theme in BfA, between the Horde quests especially, but the overall themes of the expansion – the theme of death. One of the breakout characters for the Horde has been Bwonsamdi, the loa of death. Sylvanas has been drawing ever-closer to Lich King stylings, with forced resurrections, the use of mindless skeletons as armies, and a desire to consolidate power and enforce her will for what she sees as a noble goal – the survival of the Forsaken, and to a lesser extent, the Horde. The Lich King has been brought into the lore multiple times over the past several years, and will enter again in 8.1, expressing no fondness for Sylvanas. Bolvar’s daughter has been found in Kul Tiras and served as an advocate for the Alliance player character, discovering her parentage, but yet to be informed of Bolvar’s icy fate and still-living status. On both sides, death faces us all, and thusly…I think the next expansion will actually center on the themes of death.
Now, this might seem like a stretch for now, but I think there is suitable reason to think this will be the case. Firstly, it would not be out of character for a large lore figure like N’Zoth to enter the scene in, say, patch 8.3, and to be banished within the span of the final raid of BfA. Sargeras got the same treatment, and he is absolutely the top lore baddy in all of Warcraft. Secondly, the story of death lends itself incredibly well to an expansion that would suit a full-blown Sylvanas story, as it ties her insecurities into a neat package, and gives us a cast of characters (Lich King, Bwonsamdi, Sylvanas) that can drive the lore forward. What will happen if Taelia meets her father? What it Calia Menethil as a lightforged undead comes into play? Would there be clashes between our major avatars of death? Would we get a Necromancer class (I REALLY hope so!)? We have Titans for all of these other elements, but it has always been speculated that Azeroth is the most powerful Titan, and what if she is the Titan of Death, due to the innumerable deaths that she has borne witness to?
Another major factor that leads me to believe this is that the real threat of the “Old Gods” is actually the Void, and not the Old Gods themselves. While we really want to take on N’Zoth, and I am excited for that, the reality is that the larger threat introduced by folding the Old Gods into “Void” is the Void Lords, and there will be a lot worth waiting for in that story. As it stands, we are not ready for what is waiting for us in the Shadowlands – not yet. Sylvanas will need to be dealt with to settle the score and to clear the board to deal with a new enemy, and this will be the opportunity to do that. Further, it adds to the idea of the Windrunner comic – if Sylvanas is seen as such a threat by the Void, her elimination will be a strong cue to begin attacking Azeroth more directly.
Further, from a gameplay standpoint, I could see an evolution of the Artifact/Azerite system in a death mechanic. Imagine harvesting souls from enemies, absorbing them as an offering to your preferred avatar of Death in exchange for perks. Let’s say, no more items or gear with these perks, but rather, a set of talents – similar to the old talent trees or the Path of Exile character development, held completely separate from gearing. Easy to acquire, with multiple routes but also the ability to just passively receive them from any kill that rewards experience, with a weekly cap similar to old Valor Points to keep the system from being hyper-farmable and allowing you to mix and match your gameplay however you want.
But wait, did I just say your “preferred Avatar of Death?” Yes – because I would see a system with an additional factional choice. No, Horde and Alliance aren’t going away, Blizzard loves these ideas too much and many systems in the game are built on that foundation. But imagine pledging to the Lich King – you’d get a unique series of story quests for the Lich King, similar in a way to the War Campaign. You’d explore the reunion of Bolvar and Taelia, see flashbacks to Arthas, and have world quests to hold territory and fight against the other death factions. Or you could ally with Calia Menethil, exploring the light side of undeath and forging a place in this world for light-infused undead, exploring her story and maybe even culminating in the lightforged resurrection of her brother. Perhaps you could side with Bwonsamdi, a more primal form of undeath, exploring the ritualistic side of troll lore, and continuing some aspects of the BfA story with the bloodline pledge of the Zandalari royalty to his cause. Imagine new PvP objectives built with this gameplay in mind, seeing you unify with opposite main faction characters to fight against these other interpretations of death.
To be fair, I need to say clearly that I would have some disappointment in this idea – I actually was really hyped for the Old Gods. But, at the same time, when I look at the forces in play, I can’t help but think that the death story is far more immediately available to expand upon. From a real life perspective, putting the Lich King, a reanimated Arthas Menethil, his sister, and Sylvanas all into the limelight for an announcement at Blizzcon 2019 is great timing to co-promote Warcraft III Reforged. The idea of releasing a Necromancer class (besides being THE THING I WANT THE MOST) would fit the game’s cadence of new classes every other expansion, along with strong theme-ing. The alternate faction system, while it sounds out of place, is something that has a lot of popular support in fan theory circles, and this compromise would offer a gameplay focus without shifting away from the core dynamic of the game’s lore. The souls/perks idea offers an expansion-wide empowerment system that allows you to continue to grow your character outside of leveling and just acquiring gear, and can be relinquished in some way upon the end of the expansion (everyone uses up their Death power to seal away/kill Sylvanas, etc). And an expansion with Banshee Queen Sylvanas, Death Ascendant, would be really cool and would be a chance for her to deliver the destruction hinted at by Afrasiabi during the Q&A. Would it sacrifice some of her lore? Maybe. But, in a way, it would be a full circle – she started afraid of death, afraid of who and what she had become, learned to embrace it, all the way to embracing death to secure a future for her people, only to discover that she pushed them away for a goal and vision they do not share, leading her to where she was at the end of Wrath of the Lich King.
Stripped of purpose, with her guiding light snuffed out, she will kill herself.
And the void will awaken.
And yes, that means I am also making a call for 10.0.
It’s just what I do. 🙂