I’ve spent a lot of this week fairly bothered by what I feel is a sort of lackluster story direction for Battle for Azeroth, most emblematic in the way Sylvanas Windrunner has been undone from any sense of progression she had in Legion and the reveal cinematic for BfA.
However, as I said in my most recent and comprehensive post on the topic, I won’t pretend to be a hyper lore expert or to have an opinion that represents any broader constituency. My take on these cinematics is just one voice of millions, shouting into the void.
So when I had the chance to, I had to sit down and watch Taliesin and Evitel’s analysis of the 8.2.5 war campaign.
I personally think the whole video is worth a watch, but the key theme I want to focus in on today is a comparison that Taliesin draws nearly immediately which I didn’t – the 8.2.5 cinematic has a lot in common with the Wrathgate. A LOT. A Saurfang approaches the gate between him and the highest-ranking commander of Undead forces, calls out to summon that leader, engages in battle with said leader, is easily cut down, and then that undead leader retreats. It is, to almost every minor detail, a nearly perfect recreation of the same basic scenario and even a lot of the tertiary details.
This is something that I think enhances my opinion of the cinematic, at least slightly. My immediate reaction remains, in that it really strongly evokes Garrosh Hellscream in Mists of Pandaria, but this new perspective adds a bit to the story.
The connection between Sylvanas and Arthas is well-documented – I’ve written about it before – and the WoW team has been eager to ensure we keep that in our mind during BfA. The Warbringers cinematics all have a layer of additional detail that I think was easy to miss in their shiny-ness during the launch window of BfA. Each one shows a threat or danger to the main warbringer from another character, one that challenges the warbringer. Jaina’s cinematic makes heavy reference to her father, Daelin Proudmoore, one of the Alliance’s few inexcusably awful leaders, and the struggle she has to reconcile her desire to return home with the understanding that her people will likely reject her for her role in Daelin’s death. And reject her they do! Jaina spends most of the Alliance 8.0 story in jail off-screen, and one of the best plot moments of the whole expansion (not a huge list to pick from, to be fair) is the cutscene that shows her reconciling all of the horrors of her past, from Daelin to Arthas to Varian, and coming out of them with the understanding of her mother and acceptance back into her family and her homeland.
Azshara’s Warbringers short likewise depicts Azshara’s struggle with N’Zoth, choosing to serve him as Queen to save her people, but that choice damning them to their new existence as Naga. Sylvanas is pleased with the choice, but the weight of this is clear to us after 8.2 – the game these two are playing is in trying to figure out who rules the partnership, and N’Zoth can end Azshara’s sense of control at will – provided he is free, which she saw to at the Eternal Palace.
So what about Sylvanas? Well, the biggest and most obvious element outside of the burning of Teldrassil is the central role Arthas as a nascent Lich King plays. Sylvanas is powerful, exceedingly so, a Ranger-General of Silvermoon but one just as adept at close-quarters combat as she is at archery. When Arthas enters the scene, well, we already know since this is the past, but she seems to have a strategy, a way out, and yet Arthas redefines her entire existence in a few short moments and with a single stab of Frostmourne. Sylvanas watches the people she swore to protect die as she is unable to act, and she is cursed with undeath as they all lay dead around her.
The thing with Sylvanas’ arc throughout Warcraft is that undeath has made her detached and cynical in a way, seeking power above all else. When she wants to lead, she seeks power to protect those under her watch. When she finds herself afraid of banishment to the Shadowlands, she seeks power to avoid death. She is constantly moving between motivations, never stuck on one for too long. However, the long years of undeath have given her something that Taliesin points out in that video – a sense of enjoyment in cruelty. Sylvanas has evolved to be exceptionally cruel and often seeks to inflict anguish more than physical pain. Delaryn Summermoon is forced to watch Teldrassil burn before she can die, she cuts into Saurfang before blowing him away and then faces him at the inter-factional rebellion so he can reckon with his failures.
This is a weakness for Sylvanas as well, because for as much as the cruelty suits her, it also blinds her. Her existence is not one born of hope and does not contain that feeling. The world Sylvanas lives in after her undeath is one of perpetual dread – fear of a final death, the pain of separation from those known and loved in life. Sylvanas often underestimates the power of hope and it costs her in ways both small and large. Her goal at Darkshore was to kill hope, to extinguish it and force the world into the cycle of hatred in perpetuity, constant war and death. However, Teldrassil’s burning didn’t do that. The Alliance came for Darkshore, and have pushed the Horde mostly out of it if you believe the Warfront map. Tyrande has empowered herself with Elune’s wrath as the Night Warrior, and is hunting Sylvanas with the hope of vengeance. Saurfang’s rebellion is an act of hope, an acceptance of death as the means to prevent more death and to give rise to a new Horde, one far better than the one he helped to build all those years ago.
Sylvanas’ arc leaning to the Lich King moreso than Garrosh can mean a few different things from a story perspective. The future core antagonist of WoW is Sylvanas, let’s make no mistake about that. I don’t buy any of the Sylvanas stans ridiculous notions that she is acting in the best interests of everyone as some sort of master plan – she clearly doesn’t have the forethought or the will for that. She has different goals in mind that are fundamentally incompatible with the rest of Azeroth. My problem with her character is that it is compatible with Sylvanas from Warcraft III through Warlords of Draenor, but Legion Sylvanas was a fair bit different, somewhat kinder and gentler and one that took interest in leading the Horde. BfA Sylvanas has discarded that all, and gone back to the original state of her as Banshee Queen – capricious, cruel, cunning, and all around an asshole.
Her having a sudden face turn to have been acting in the best interests of anyone other than herself wouldn’t make any sense and would be just as lazy – narrative whiplash serves no one well. Her going full evil is at least continuous with the story they’ve been telling in BfA – it overrides her better characterization from Legion, but at least there is a degree of consistency in it to what came before.
Sylvanas angling at a Lich King-styled plot is something that I’ve often thought Blizzard wouldn’t do with her just because she’s been so tied to the Horde, but cutting her loose from them allows that to happen more readily. Ultimately, I now think this is the direction that takes us to 9.0. Why?
It Makes the Most Sense: When Alex Afrasiabi said that Sylvanas would be on a scale Garrosh could only dream of, I think this is the angle. Sylvanas realizes the only way to end her fear of death is to take control of Death, capital-D, the idea. At this point, there’s no graceful build to a reluctant partners faction team-up similar to MoP. The factions are partnered already in the events of 8.2.5, so we have no slow burn like Garrosh. Furthermore, Sylvanas has a weird kinship with the Lich King – he gave her undeath, and when Arthas died, Sylvanas had a crisis of character, committing suicide and ultimately putting her on the path she has been on since, with the Val’kyr at her side.
The Likely 8.3 Content Will Involve Her as a Less-Focal Character: The war campaign is over, but 8.3 will roll us into the more literal Battle for Azeroth, as expected. N’Zoth will need to be dealt with, as will Azshara, and in that, we’re likely going to run into Sylvanas. My hunch is that all the various Sylvanas-Hunters out there now are being led into a trap by Sylvanas, pushing us all towards Ny’alotha and what she hopes will be mass graves in the Sleeping City. I expect that all of our content here will focus on being led to N’Zoth’s door by Sylvanas and our hunt for her, with Sylvanas’ main goal being to get all of us in front of N’Zoth to suffer and die. There are a lot of questions to ask from here – what of the Heart of Azeroth, what of Azshara, what of the sleeping titan Azeroth, what roles do Magni, MOTHER, Wrathion, Ebonhorn, and the like all play, and there is still Tyrande. Speaking of other characters…
Sylvanas Has a Ton of Deals in Lore That Push at Death: Helya’s most interesting line in Legion was one of the first we see her say – indicating she has struck a deal with Sylvanas. What is that deal? We don’t know. We know that Sylvanas has a lantern that she seems to try using to corrupt an uncorrupted Val’kyr in Stormheim, but it is unclear if that is the substance of the deal or if there is something more. Likewise, we know she has a deal with Azshara, but Sylvanas herself addresses this as a puppet situation, indicating she is trying to leverage Azshara for some ends related to untold amounts of death – probably not particularly critical right now as Azshara’s most recent plot element has her a little occupied, to say the least. Sylvanas has more deals than a store going out of business, and we know precious little about the terms of any of them other than the parties entered into the agreements. What else we know is that they involve either a means to cause death (Azshara) or deals with a death-aligned being (Helya). And, there was some confirmation that Helya is alive in BfA, so it is not farfetched to believe that she will play a role once more.
Both Horde and Alliance Have Plots Pushing on Death as a Theme: The Horde have the abruptly-dropped Vol’jin chain, which has a lot of reveals about the nature of Death as a force in WoW’s universe, and also a lot of meaty plot hooks waiting to be used. The core concept is trying to unravel who gave Vol’jin the vision of Sylvanas as Warchief of the Horde, as the Loa certainly did not, the Lich King, Bwonsamdi, and Eyir all deny any culpability and have interesting statements regarding their disdain for Sylvanas. The Alliance death themes are far less pronounced, but more personal. Our main companion in 8.0 questing, Talia, is in fact Talia Fordragon, daughter of Bolvar Fordragon, the current bearer of the helm of the Lich King. When last we saw Talia, the topic of her father seemed to be one that Anduin and Jaina were determined to dance around, but it is my suspicion that she will know the truth soon enough.
Speaking of the Vol’Jin Quests, The Dialogue There Takes New Meaning: Something in particular that Bwonsamdi said during the 8.1 Vol’jin quests stands out sorely now. At the time, it seemed simple – “Besides, dat one got a nasty habit of keepin’ what she kills” – she raises undead as Forsaken, or in attempts to get slaves as she did with Derek Proudmoore. So she “keeps souls” by restoring a form of life to them. However, in light of what Sylvanas says at Windrunner Spire, it no longer seems quite that simple. Sylvanas does seem to be keeping souls, and mentions a mass of souls – but in terms of plot, the Val’kyr have been engaged with Nathanos and Sylvanas during the Fourth War, not back in Tirisfal raising new undead. Is Sylvanas holding souls as a morbid form of energy, or for some other purpose?
Then, there’s the matter of Bwonsamdi’s boss. It seemed a sort of throwaway line, but also said in a way that imbued meaning. Who would be the boss of death? If this entity made Sylvanas warchief through it’s machinations, then it remains to be seen why that was done. Certainly, once Sylvanas has served her plot purpose here, that would be our true villain for 9.0.
But, these are just some late night thoughts that the T&E video sparked in me. I do find Shadowlands more and more likely for 9.0, and I suspect whatever gets us there is going to be grand in scope. Will it be good? I have my reservations, and I’m not holding my breath. Either way, I imagine come November 1st, we’ll have a lot more to talk about on this one!