Before starting here, in case the title wasn’t obvious, this post will have spoilers for Shadowlands. These are based on beta, so they might change prior to launch, but for reasons I will get into here momentarily…I hope they stay in, sort of!
So let’s give it a bit of filler…
One of the most oft-criticized bits of the Battle for Azeroth writing is the idea that the story might have a morally grey-ness about it, where both factions would have a clear reasoning for doing the things they did and that would create a space in which both factions could be seen to be good and bad, with how they were judged being a point of player contention. Instead, the story struggled with this because the opening events and the sequence of things makes it impossible to see the Horde as anything but bloodthirsty and the unwillingness of their leaders to engage with this earlier than they did stands starkly as a point of problem with the core ideas Blizzard claimed to want to put forward, while the fecklessness of the Alliance during all of this made them difficult to stand behind as well.
However, in what I think is an unintended form, the story of Shadowlands has a great bit of morally gray storytelling I love. To get into it, let’s talk about Bastion and the Kyrian.
I’ve been pretty loud about my love of the Bastion zone, the Kyrian covenant aesthetic and story, and the fact that unless the balancing of covenant abilities for Demon Hunters remains skewed with the Venthyr as largely the winner, that I would pick the Kyrian because I just love so much of their kit. What really has sold me on it via the beta, however, is the surprising depth of the story, despite how much of that I think is unintentional in a way.
So, what is the story?
To summarize quickly, the entirety of the zone story for Bastion revolves around the ascension process of the Kyrian, the spirit healers and ferrypeople who bring souls to the Arbiter for judgement. By Kyrian society, the rules of ascension require a sacrifice on behalf of the ascendee – they must forfeit their past, being purged of their memories and beliefs and being calibrated to a strict moral code, intended to make them neutral agents for justice, able to judge a soul on the merits without the baggage of lived experience and their pasts. The conflict comes in via the Forsworn, a group of Kyrian who find themselves disagreeing with this mode of thought. After the experiences of Uther (the very same Lightbringer of Warcraft fame) and his ascension, the Paragon of Loyalty, Devos, swears a new path – Forsworn, that one can be Kyrian by judgment and can ascend as they are, possessed of their memories, their past, and using that experience to build a base upon.
This already is a robust base for a grey, neither side is right approach to judging souls. The Kyrian approach sort of makes sense from a pragmatic standpoint – if you see an enemy soul that must be judged, then having the memories of life would create a scenario in which it may be impossible to judge impartially – a principle that drives most of western jurisprudence in real life, in fact! However, the process is portrayed through much of leveling as creating a sort of difficult environment for Kyrian. They are purged of everything – put into Kyrian bodies devoid of the features of their life, purged of their memories and experiences, losing the experiences that made them the person who lived a life worthy of judgment as Kyrian and ascension, and left to live a new life through a rebirth that creates a new being only tangentially tied to that original life. The leveling story creates a lot of moments where there is some doubt in the process – many Kyrian fail to ascend and there is an endless process of conditioning, purging, and retrying, creating an almost endless trial of being forced to live through some of your worst moments and failing to ascend. The Kyrian themselves seem aware of this too, as the central crux of the character Pelagos relies on this – the Paragons refuse to subject him to the purging as the process is taxing and they fear what it would do to him.
Why I believe this is unintentional is that the story paints the Forsworn as barely having a point, only briefly contemplated after the Archon is saved by players in the Spires of Ascension dungeon, and then discarding the thought until the tail end of the Covenant campaign as Uther is redeemed and allowed to remain with the Kyrian without being purged any further, possessed as he is of only a single memory of his life – his death at the hands of Arthas. Throughout the rest of the story, the Forsworn are villainous – they ally with the Maw forces via Helya, they use subterfuge and violence to achieve their ends, and at points in the Covenant campaign, the Kyrian are depicted as deeply good and unflawed, with their process of purging being so good that the paragons have no manifestations of sin remaining within. Any consideration of the Forsworn viewpoint is quickly cut down and pushed under the surface, or given lip service and moved on from.
However, as I look at it, I find it hard to side with the Kyrian (despite my love of the zone, aesthetic, and desire to pick them!).
Well, the Kyrian to me resemble any number of real life organizations that present as a force for good despite being anything but – in the vein of a PETA or right-wing evangelical Christianity. The Kyrian, in a vacuum, have a just process, a reasonable cause to believe the things they do, and they present these things as ingrained tradition – this is the way things have worked and the reasons they believe that these things have worked, and their society has not questioned these things. However, it is clear that they are aware of how problematic their process is – it is painful, takes many many tries for a Kyrian chosen to ascend, and even years after the flow of souls for new Kyrian have stopped, they still have people doing the early stages of the process. They have a sympathy for Pelagos and desire to spare him the pain (of their own ascension process), and the Forsworn has representation from near-top to bottom in Kyrian society – with only the Archon at the very top being unconvinced.
I really love this storytelling and I think that the unintended nature of it makes it better. The Kyrian feel like this group that is pushing towards oblivion before we arrive – they have no contemplation of the pitfalls of their society, they haven’t had an ascension in ages, and the Archon and her leadership commits to ignoring or hiding the discussion of the evil sects of Kyrian – keeping everyone in the dark about the Forsworn and the Mawsworn until the Forsworn literally stage their attack. While it is fair to suggest that the Forsworn’s methods are questionable, their aims are actually fair in a lot of ways. Their goal isn’t to institute some violent methodology or even really change the mission of the Kyrian, outside of the very top Forsworn, who are acting on behalf of the forces of the Maw. They instead want to allow people to retain their memories and experiences, and trust that the type of person who could reach Bastion via judgment and ascend to a full Kyrian is capable of making that judgment fairly and conclusively without being colored by their pasts. This shows a compassion to the souls bound for Kyrian ascension that the Archon doesn’t have – Kyrian society is presented as almost brutal in a way, a process where individuality and character are minimized or removed. Would you like to live in such a society?
The Kyrian society seems like a depressing, sort of dark place to be in. Some of the covenant quests actually show this outside of the Forsworn/Kyrian dynamic – the early chapters at level 60 have you going to Redridge and living the last moments of life of a farmer. He has a wife and daughter and is held up by his neighbors, and spends his last moments taking care of his family and town, saving his wife and child, and dying for that choice. His soul goes to the Maw, as do all souls at the moment, and while this introduces a frustration I have with the story (none of the Kyrian seem to be aware of the Maw issue until that point!), it also adds to the Kyrian story. One of the characters you go with to Redridge rightly points out that it doesn’t seem fair that this righteous man has to lose his family in death and then lose them again by being purged of their memory as his “reward” for living a good life.
When I played that, I found myself faced with a question. If I lived a good life, would I want to lose the memories of the life I lived that got me that reward? Sure, there would be good and bad to that – I’d forget my almost-wife, my world trips, the people I’d helped, and the peaceful moments of tranquility that have defined good parts of my life, but I’d also forget nasty exes, bad situations, my personal and professional failures, my nearly-attempted suicide, and the early death of my father. I’d get a chance to start over, and live a fresh life, but at the same time, there wouldn’t really be anything outside of societal context to tell me that I had a good life the first time or that this was my reward. And you know, that kind of sucks!
When Shadowlands was announced and the zones were shown, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was how obvious it seemed that Bastion was built upon the Christian conceptualization of Heaven. Beautiful, a place for the exemplars among us, and with no pain or suffering. However, what I enjoy about Bastion the most is that it averts those expectations at every turn. There’s no pain and suffering – post-ascension, and only because any memories that might have caused you that have been purged from you. It is beautiful, but you are left a molded husk with no basis for comparison for how stunning Bastion is in comparison to anything else. You lived a great life to earn it, but nothing remains of that life here in the Shadowlands. Does an afterlife and a chance at eternal calm have any meaning if you can’t build that on a foundation of a mortal life responding to challenges in a morally righteous way, even when it creates challenge for you?
The answer Blizzard presents is that opinions vary but generally, yes. However, the story just beneath the surface makes you really engage with that idea, really question the value of that new existence, and the conclusion you come to might be different.
So, Blizzard, can I join the Forsworn instead?