When Story Doesn’t Fit – The Awkward Transition to Lore-Focused Gameplay in WoW

We all remember the murder-hobo era of WoW.

Once upon a time, the game focused on our player character as the sole lore character POV. All things done by other characters were witnessed through our eyes, seen by us. This meant that no matter how much other characters were woven into the story, the emphasis was always on us – it was our journey and the story that came out of that, while not always great, at least felt personal and real.

Starting around Warlords of Draenor, however, we started to shift away from being unknown entities to each new faction we met, instead, becoming the “champions” of our factions. Gone were the flippant introductions, meandering questlines full of chores, but with that, also, gone was the storytelling focused on us. Rather than us proving ourselves to the locals as heroes, we start as heroes, our proving ourselves is inconsequential to the events in place, and the lore is focused on the non-player characters in the story – Archimonde’s defeat in WoD is largely portrayed without the player character, and Sargeras is literally dealt with entirely without our help – we’re too busy escaping.

What I want to explore in this post is a few related tangents to this form of in-game storytelling – why I think Blizzard moved to it, why it can be good, why it can be repellent to players, and ultimately deliver my opinion on it.

Let’s dive in!

The Warrior of Light, The Hero of Tyria, and the Popular MMO Resurgance of Narrative

Around 2011, there was a second-era of “WoW Killer” MMO’s hitting the market, designed with their own flavor, but largely using the familiar action-bar and global cooldown gameplay of WoW in order to take WoW down a peg. This was during the decline of Cataclysm, and so unlike the first round of WoW-Killers in 2007-2009, this wave actually stood a chance at having some degree of impact. The leader of the early vanguard was Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game which my guild also got into at the time. It had Bioware behind it, developers known for their single-player, story-heavy games. It also had the weight of one of the world’s most iconic and beloved franchises – Star Wars. While we all live in 2018 and know how this story went, it’s worth noting that SWTOR did in fact make a dent in WoW. While SWTOR’s core, repeatable content was not up to snuff, the storyline content did keep people playing for a while. Especially as it had typical Bioware flourishes like companions (although not nearly to the carnal extent of Mass Effect) and compelling, multi-layered story campaigns, with each class having some different elements to their start experience.

The same year, Final Fantasy XIV v1.0 launched. While that game was…well, a disaster – the story elements in its core gameplay were the foundation for its relaunch. When A Realm Reborn launched in 2013, it brought with it leveling defined by the Main Scenario Quest, a winding quest chain that tells a global story with the player character at the heart of it. While the other characters do matter, unlike WoW, they are largely set dressing for the player character to be as heroic as they can be – the formula the game has ridden to success since its relaunch.

Then, in 2012, Guild Wars 2 launched. That game’s character creation combines with questing to give you the Living World story and Personal Story, two quest chains that guide your character through aspects of the world of Tyria and help to pace your journey through the game. Again, in a similar mold to FFXIV, your story is the pivotal one, and you play a key role in the game as its main protagonist.

The best diversion from WoW in the MMO space in the past decade has been these more narrative-driven games. Final Fantasy XIV encourages you, at its game director’s behest, to take breaks between patches. Come in, play the story, and leave when you get your fill. Do that, and you can get enough gear to keep up with item level inflation – or, when you come back, you’ll have catchup you can do through the story to get to do the new stuff.

So with these contenders around WoW, taking away mindshare, Blizzard, naturally, saw that the future of the MMO genre was in player-focused narrative. In these other games, the player was no longer a murder-hobo, but rather an established hero, a champion, and these games pulled it off, so surely, why couldn’t WoW?

We’ll return to that point later…

The Original “Player-Driven” Narrative of WoW – Warlords of Draenor and The Garrison Commander

When Warlords of Draenor launched in 2014, it brought with it the promotion of our characters out of nobody status. Gone were the days where we showed up in a new place, were questioned endlessly about the value we could offer, only for us to prove our worth and then some in order to rise to prominence with the locals. In place of all of that, we were now champions, and our worth was readily apparent to all. In some ways, it made sense with the weird timewarping of Warlords of Draenor – Thrall got his dad to offer the space for the garrison (although, timewarp and all, he wasn’t born yet and the whole thing was done rather coyly) and on the Alliance side, bringing our Vindicator Maraad made the debate about the space in Lunarfall easy.

There were some early successes with this mode of storytelling – it made the NPCs we interacted with like much more of an ensemble cast of which we were a part. It allowed us to play with a lot of power, building outposts across Draenor and growing our forces, an idea that tied in very well to what the game was trying to offer from a lore and story perspective. You’ll note, however, that nearly all of these are gameplay successes, which we will touch on later.

In terms of the actual story, however, I think the one major success I would call out is that it was obvious Blizzard was trying to do more storytelling in game. The zone-ending cinematics we got several times in WoD, up from a single real cinematic in Jade Forest during MoP and a small number of vignettes with in-game models in real time. The end of our quest content before would have simply been marked by us running out of quests and being pushed towards endgame, but now, we had the showdown between Thrall and Garrosh that ended with Garrosh’s demise. This model continued throughout WoD, with the coup of the Iron Horde, turning it into the Fel Horde, and the banishment of Gul’dan from alternate Draenor that led directly into Legion.

Legion continued this, with every nearly every zone having a finale cinematic, and some zones offering multiple cinematics to bring more story to the table. Likewise, every major raid in Legion had an ending cinematic to tie up the loose lore threads and (usually) introduce the next threat. Nighthold freed Illidan, who went on to help end Kil’Jaeden in Tomb of Sargeras, in the process using the Sargerite Keystone to bring Argus to us, where we then went to take on the Legion and end them, where we met Sargeras, and sealed him away, but only after he pierced Azeroth, leading directly to the current expansion. That is a lot of lore for 3 raids to cram in. I think it is good that Blizzard is putting this direct storytelling into the raids, rather than using flavor text, quest text, and the like to put the overall shape of the story into the game.

However, it is worth talking about something else this approach has led to…

In Making Us A Hero, We Also Have Way Less Involvement

Concurrent with the Warlords of Draenor change to emphasize the player character as a “champion” was a change that undermines so much of that progress – the increased emphasis on the prefab lore characters in the game.

WoW as a game has always made use of the various lore figures Blizzard has created, but think back to the first decade of the game – while these characters appear on screen and serve to force events forward, they themselves were rarely the focus. In Vanilla, while our goal was to push Ragnaros, Nefarian, C’Thun, and Kel’Thuzad back, they largely don’t appear outside of the content they are defeated in. Burning Crusade continued this but with a singular focus on Illidan, with the other expansion villians largely serving as such due to their acts of service to Illidan.

Wrath of the Lich King struck the best balance for this, I think, with 10 years of looking back. The Lich King was far more present in the world, but it did a lot of benefit to keep players focused on him throughout the leveling experience, and by mixing him in via voiceover in Naxxramas, one mind sequence on Yogg-Saron, and his reveal of the resurrected Anub’arak in Trial of the Crusader made it clear he was the threat the whole time. You were never allowed to forget the threat he posed, and while at the time it seemed a little hokey, in retrospect, I think it did a lot of service to the lore of that expansion. It made clear that he saw us as a threat and was personally invested in the outcome of our Northrend adventures.

Cataclysm pulled back on this by having Deathwing only involved in one quest chain directly, and spending the rest of his time randomly popping up and killing a whole zone at a time.

Mists of Pandaria starts the switch in narrative methodology, but it struck a fairly good balance – even if they had not pre-announced that Garrosh would be the villian of the expansion, his presence loomed over most events of the expansion, and added content brought him back constantly, using the Pandaria lore as set dressing for a story that ultimately centered on a mix of faction conflict and inter-factional implosion (which doesn’t sound familiar at all…). He was present in large and small ways in the base story and in each content patch, as the attention turned from localized Pandaren threats to the larger narrative thrust of the expansion.

And that leads us to WoD, where our heroes are…Khadgar, Thrall, and Yrel. In many ways, you can feel the shift immediately. The Tanaan Jungle introduction focuses heavily on the lore characters you are interacting with and freeing, and it never feels like you’re particularly instrumental to the mission. Khadgar does a bunch of cool stuff, while a post-stat squish v.1 you struggles to end the basic orc enemies that dot the jungles. Liadrin and Cordana tear up orcs and do heroic things while you guide them around. The scene ends with you running away from battle because the lore characters are afraid of the Warlords, who are also lore characters. Your heroism, while it ostensibly is the reason you’re here, never feels particularly strong or present. Khadgar does most of the actual work. The rest of the expansion does little to salvage this – HIghmaul and Blackrock Foundry in lore largely don’t matter, but Hellfire Citadel is a big point of victory, won by…Khadgar, Yrel, and a reformed Grommash Hellscream.

This template then continues into Legion, where the emphasis of the lore is placed largely on Khadgar, Velen, and Illidan. Our characters simply don’t matter that much – and that is a shame, because it seems oddly counter-intuitive to what should be happening. But we go through the entirety of Legion in this way – Illidan ultimately, in lore, ends Gul’dan, not us. Velen finishes Kil’jaeden, while Illidan brings us to Argus. Illidan is responsible for the imprisonment of Sargeras, along with the Titans. Our role is largely symbolic and literally unnecessary following the way things are presented in-game.

This then leads us to Battle for Azeroth, where again, we serve in symbolic roles to the evolution of the NPC lore figures – Jaina, Sylvanas, Anduin, Genn, and others have large roles carved out in-game, but our character seemingly doesn’t really factor into this. Katherine Proudmoore rescues Jaina from The Blighted Lands, and we’re not really important to the lore of the moment. Likewise, Zul is killed by Rastakhan, and our presence in breaking the rebellion isn’t held up in lore.

So Why Does It Matter So Much in Battle for Azeroth?

There are, I think, two factors in play that make this storytelling emphasis fall flat in Battle for Azeroth. Firstly, and I think most importantly, we have no sense of where the story is going, short of hints and ideas based on established lore. While we can, probably accurately, deduce that the Old Gods are the ultimate enemy this expansion, that idea leaves a lot still on the table. We still, for example, aren’t fully clear on what happens with Sylvanas, with Saurfang, with Anduin, with the Proudmoores in general, and all of these loose ends tease us with possibility that we aren’t quite sure is going to be paid off. Likewise, if those are the loose ends tied up by the end of the expansion, then we have the lingering Old God question, one that has hung in the air for two expansions and countless little hints over the last decade. At least in WoD and Legion, we knew that our ultimate destination was fights with Grommash (which, well, you know, kind of!) and the end of the Legion (which, extracted to its core, meant Sargeras). We could have fun watching these stories develop, and trying to predict the ways in which the events we were seeing unfold before us would then play into these endings. Battle for Azeroth has little of that pre-planned tension, leading every tense moment to feel like too much is being piled onto our plate.

Secondly, though, I think that the gameplay loop largely exacerbates concerns about the lore. For all of our complaints at the time that Warlords of Draenor was skimpy on content, the reality is that what was there was largely good to great. In Legion, gameplay was tight and overall strong, so while individual complaints about legitimate problems (legendaries, the original state of Artifacts, etc) came through, the discussion largely focused on the gameplay aspects of the expansion and not as much onto the story. Meanwhile, while BfA is largely built on the same foundation minus the more controversial aspects, and so we are left with the story and the new elements to contend with. If you have been following here, or nearly any other WoW fan community, you know how this story ends. Contention over Azerite armor, Island Expeditions, and Warfronts lead to people critiquing most other aspects of the expansion, and as opinion for the expansion began to sour, attention has also turned to the story.

But there is another angle, one that blogfriend Alunaria pointed to in a recent post, which I will strongly encourage you to read over here.

Are The Themes of Warcraft in 2018 Trying Too Hard to Appeal to A New Audience?

Alunaria’s post presented something I’ve often debated internally – is there a point, perhaps now or in the future, where I will be too old for the story being told in Warcraft? Has that point already been reached?

For me, I think the answer is no. There’s a lot that can be said about the nature of conflict in a fictional narrative, especially when it seems nearly meaningless, as is currently the case in BfA. But I think the idea of speaking about needless conflict led by a vicious, evil leader, is something that can speak clearly to the values of the player and can parallel real-life in some meaningful ways. The question then, of course, is this – does the authorial voice of Warcraft have important things to say about this topic? Not yet. Now, will it have said something meaningful on these ideas by the end of the expansion? That remains to be seen, and the potential that worries me, is that it may not hit the mark.

I think that speaks to a large swath of the fanbase of WoW – the concern isn’t as much that the current lore is missing the mark, as much as it can be, but is more that there is a serious concern Blizzard will miss the mark in the end, in service of moving the story forward. The other thing I think that worries me and I have seen much less conversation about, is this – BfA is the first expansion designed and developed in a fully-Metzenless Blizzard.

Now, Chris Metzen as a writer was…complicated. His ideas and stories could often disintegrate into tropes and basic moral plays, with corruption and redemption being oft-used narrative signatures of his. But it is hard to deny that the stories had a cohesiveness under Metzen’s leadership that seems to be more lacking in the modern game. Stories had his fingerprints all over them in those tropes and cliches, but they also had a degree of precision in their narrative arc. That is not to say that he was the sole force behind any of those stories – Blizzard employs historians, writers, and folks like Alex Afrasiabi, whose job is to weave that lore into gameplay to ensure the player experience is enriched by it as much as is possible. Those folks still were there when Metzen was writing, and many of them remain without him. There are insanely talented writers like Christie Golden working on the game right now, as well.

So what is missing?

I think what Warcraft needs, and has always needed, is a single, unifying vision for the plot. As easy as it is to poke fun at prior Warcraft lore, it felt complete and cohesive, even when gameplay vision shifted. We were supposed to get a full Azjol-Nerub zone instead of the dungeons of Wrath, and yet I still feel like we got some insight into the Nerubian culture – arguably not enough, but contrast that to the complete gap of Shattrath in WoD, where it was clearly going to be big and important with strong nostalgic value, and I feel its absence heavily. When the story of the game is build piecemeal, assuming the presence of certain pieces that don’t end up being there means the story falls apart, or struggles to hold itself up under the weight of the forced inconsistency. Legion at least did not have that, at least not to a meaningful degree – whatever Thal’Dranath was going to be seemingly didn’t impact the lore that much, and it seems to have been cut with adequate time to redirect the story. I don’t know for sure that BfA has any such bit of content, but it does somewhat fail to keep the tension of the battle high. 8.1 does help on this front, but again, I’m left to wonder, now that we know what 8.2 yields for the lore – where do we go from here and how is the emphasis kept on the war story?

I feel like this expansion was made by 4 different story teams – Horde, Alliance, war, and everything else, and it makes the lore feel a bit jumbled. It’s perhaps more real in that way – there isn’t one single chain of events causing EVERYTHING, but rather a chain reaction of conflict and strife, but it just feels like everything gets less time to stretch its legs and grow. The war campaign is also disjointed between the two factions – as an Alliance player, I see the Horde using a San’layn ally, which the Horde…never sees! The naga are currently only really threats to the Alliance, and we’ve already seen Azshara’s influence, setting up 8.2 nicely, while the Horde get all the worldbuilding for Uldir and the Alliance run in because Brann is off doing his own thing again. It, frankly, has me worried about what the future lore ends up looking like. If we, indeed, get Old Gods in 8.3, with N’Zoth at the forefront, will there be a crooked distribution of storytelling to get us there? If I am a single-faction player, can I count on being told the story well enough to make me feel stakes in the conflict with N’Zoth, or is it going to end up that the Horde have to really deal with him since he’s controlling Sylvanas while the Alliance just kind of knock on his door and decide to steal some epics from his house? (This is not my speculation, btw!)

I just want to feel like the lore of this game is being crafted by a team who is vetting it to keep it consistent and high quality, rather than these moments of questioning, where I feel no connection to the events on-screen.

At the end of the day, I am largely still in WoW for gameplay first – it has the most to-do of any MMO I’ve played, in that I can log in and do a wide variety of content. But increasingly, in trying to match it’s competition on storytelling, I feel like Blizzard has lost sight of what made WoW’s storytelling engaging in the first place, and that is a mistake that might be costing them more playerbase than it is gaining them.

3 thoughts on “When Story Doesn’t Fit – The Awkward Transition to Lore-Focused Gameplay in WoW

  1. Very interesting post, as always. 🙂 Thanks for putting it together!

    I have thought about that too, Bfa is indeed the first expansion with a brand new staff. Old timers remain, but the reigns have shifted. Profoundly.

    When I read your post, I worry too, that what we are seeing in the game when it comes to lore, will be hard to recover from.

    A part of me has wondered if Blizzard has decided on this path together with Classic too. If they are “moving on” on purpose, no longer able to please the old school players that grew up with the game, but instead hopes that these players will be content on Classic. And instead the focus is now stories like we see them in Bfa.

    It’s far fetched, I get that, and only a fraction of the whole picture and all of what you so well have listed here.

    I did not consider the angle you present, it’s good to keep in mind.

    For me, Bfa has taken me by suprise. I thought I would be playing it as often as possible. Yesterday I did a /played and it turns out, I played not even an hour a day since launch. I check my blog and notice, how few posts I have been inspired to make.

    I like the new systems fine, but the chaos that is the story in Bfa essentially has driven me away.

    I look around in my room. I see Shadow and Mischief and my Faerie Dragon. I see your boardgame, and our (bought used) Collectors Editions.
    I chat with dear and close friends every day that the game brought to me. I look at my wedding ring and grateful for the Lich King, because his downfall was reason for me and hubby to meet!

    And I think to myself, this can’t be it. Blizzard learns from mistakes, surely. And they want to do good.

    I have started to think of Bfa as an expansion to get through, instead of one to enjoy. And I wonder what happened to that fan girl I was just half a year ago.

    Anyway… what brought that on?!

    Thanks for another insightful post 🙂

    Ps. I just remembered. Having three zones with so little content for me as Alliance has played a role too. I don’t have time for alts. And running around on Zandalar makes it seem so alienated, if that’s the right word. Disconnected. I get we are at war, it makes sense story wise, but for me it just means that I have three zones really. Perhaps that is something to consider too.

    Though I know most probably have several alts on both sides, so I might be the minority 🙂

    All of this was written on phone so apologies for mistypes!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. As much as I thought it was hokey at the time, I find myself wanting a big bad early on – it raises the stakes clearly and puts a target on where you’re going by the end of the expansion. Right now, it’s hard to tell, since both faction conflict (but mainly Sylvanas) and Old Gods are being built up, and while 8.1 teeters more towards factions, by 8.2 it seems likely that Old Gods are the threat and that’s where we go. Narrative whiplash!

      Liked by 3 people

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