This post will contain spoilers a bit deeper in, so be warned!
Last week, Blizzard debuted the launch date for Shadowlands, snuck in alongside the thing they pre-announced they’d be announcing, the animated short series for Shadowlands, Afterlives.
The first short also debuted, with a focused look on the Kyrian of Bastion through the lens of some familiar characters to us. Take a look:
The short introduces us to two major-ish new characters, Paragon Devos and the Archon. It also focuses on one of the most pivotal moments of Warcraft lore – the death of Uther the Lightbringer at the hands of Arthas Menethil, well on his way to becoming the full-blown Lich King.
Before continuing here, there will be spoilers for the short first without game spoilers, so watch it if you haven’t!
Devos brings Uther to Bastion, as he has been selected to live among the Kyrian for his deeds in life. However, Uther cannot relinquish his life’s memories – the price the Kyrian require for those serving among their ranks. In particular, the last moments haunt him, a feeling of disappointment, shock, and horror at what his star pupil in Arthas did to him. Devos works with Uther, training him to let go of the moment of his death. Devos, however, learns the truth of the last moments of Uther’s mortal life, first by seeing the wound of Frostmourne on his soul – a power that no mortal weapon has, but a weapon forged in the Maw would. This revelation leads Devos down a new path, first introducing the issue to the Archon and calling out the flaws in the path they follow, and then being shunned, leading her to a resoluteness in her chosen path, ascending Uther despite his lack of preparedness per the Kyrian’s path, waiting for Arthas to die so that his soul can be claimed for Uther’s vengeance.
Foreshadowing, Arthas sees Devos and claims to see only darkness, as Uther is lead by Devos to the Maw, Arthas in tow, Devos pushing Uther to banish Arthas to the Maw, for Uther to proclaim that he serves justice as Arthas is cast into the Maw, the orchestral music swelling as the short concludes.
This short does much for us in its own context. It shows the Kyrian as a noble but flawed people, introduces possible dissension among the ranks, and contextualizes Uther and Arthas as potential characters we could meet in Shadowlands – which, of them, we know Uther is there as was confirmed at the announcement of the expansion last year at Blizzcon.
From here on out, we focus on in-game spoilers based on gameplay in beta, so be warned!
In Shadowlands proper, we see the fallout of these actions much further along, a sort of recurring theme with Shadowlands. Just as Sylvanas’ path to the Jailer was laid in the fallout at Icecrown Citadel back in Wrath of the Lich King, Uther’s path to the present in Bastion and Devos’ new mission were laid out around the same time. What are those, however?
Well, in Bastion, it is revealed that Uther is a villain, at least for the first part of the story, and Devos is the leader of the Forsworn Kyrian, a force of defiant Kyrian who believe the path of the Ascended is flawed and that purging the memories and former life of Aspirants is a mistake and sin that flaws the Kyrian ranks. As I have written before, the Kyrian story is a seemingly unintentional bit of very good storytelling from Blizzard in the expansion, aligning us with the Kyrian and showing us the difficulty of their path and making us question it, while casting the Forsworn, who have an excellent point and reasonable read on the situation, as the villains. Much of this is undone during the Kyrian covenant questing at 60, casting the remaining Forsworn as Maw-aligned villains and erasing the gray from the story.
Devos, however, is interesting, because Afterlives provides the context that is missing in-game, at least during beta (which is something that could very well be intentional for story purposes, so I am not dumping on Blizzard for this bit!). In beta, Devos simply goes bad and is revealed as the architect of the Forsworn during the Bastion level-up quests, before becoming the final boss of the Spires of Ascension dungeon. However, this context is interesting given the beginning part of the Bastion level-up questing – in the Afterlives short, the Archon clearly dismisses the charge that any evil could exist outside the Maw and rejects all challenges to the Kyrian and their sacred path. In the beginning of the Bastion level-up questing, much of the dialogue follows a similar track. You come from Oribos, fresh out of the Maw, warning that there are Kyrian in the Maw in service of the Jailer, a charge which the Kyrian refuse to see and will grant you and your aspirant allies no audience with the Archon to present. Even as the Kyrian rituals reveal the struggle you fought in the Maw, showing the Mawsworn Kyrian clearly, many refuse to believe it. It is not until the Forsworn stage their entrance that the tide begins to turn, as revelations come in quickly – Devos, the Paragon of Loyalty, is now the Paragon of Doubt, Uther, a servant working with the Forsworn to bring a new order to Bastion, and the aspirants sent to Devos’ Temple of Loyalty being turned against the Kyrian, exposed to how flawed the mission and goals of the Kyrian truly are.
However, Blizzard struggles to stick the landing here, and where the Kyrian being exposed for the inherent flaws of their path and their dogged insistence upon it should make them morally lesser, forcing them to reconcile, instead, the Covenant experience at 60 largely reinforces the Kyrian point of view, by villifying the Forsworn further and only introducing tepid concessions of potential guilt from the Archon and the Kyrian as a whole, as Uther returns to the fold, allowed to keep his memories for the time being.
Uther’s arc is an interesting one, and something I want to see firsthand, because his role in Warcraft lore cannot be understated, and by turning him into something of a villain, there is an interesting inversion of the story that can be told. Just like with Light during the Argus and and Mag’har Allied Race questing, the inversion of the trope is an interesting one. Paladins are presented as good in all things, upholding the order of the world and serving the Light, but just as the Light can be a corrupting, evil force, so too can a paladin’s sense of justice be itself a perversion of the concept in service of vengeance and self-interest. It is a very interesting space to play in that Blizzard has very rarely touched, and one with a lot of real life and historical parallels.
However, that brings me into a bit of apprehension about Shadowlands…
Arthas, My Son
Arthas’ role in the Shadowlands is something that Blizzard has remained incredibly cagey about, hinting that he has a role to play but refusing to acknowledge much more than that. This animated short makes clear that Arthas is present in Shadowlands, banished to the Maw. That is, at this point, all we know.
The challenge with Arthas for me is that his character arc in Warcraft III through to Wrath of the Lich King was actually pretty decent. It served the role of introducing the Lich King as a persona unto itself, acting through the body of the person acting out the title’s duties at that point in time. Arthas has a touching moment upon death that doesn’t redeem his actions, but serves to punctuate the difference between Arthas and the Lich King. The last moments of his life at ICC were cathartic in a lot of ways and did a good job to bring a close to the major plot threads of Warcraft III and the buildup of the Lich King during Wrath, while leaving a future opening via Bolvar.
Having Arthas in Shadowlands isn’t unexpected, to be clear. Given what we’ve been told about the place so far, it absolutely makes sense and thematically, he is one of the most important NPCs relating to death. However, my chief concern is where the story goes with him. Illidan returning in Legion gave me similar apprehension, but I liked where his story went. It did ultimately hew a little close to a redemption arc, but by recasting the events of Black Temple as the Demon Hunter starting experience did, it created an effective retcon in which Illidan was acting to bring about positive change, even if it ultimately is still a retcon. The problem I see with Arthas is that he, well, doesn’t really have that angle. No one can effectively argue that his actions at Stratholme were good, or that his path of carnage through Northrend was morally defensible. His actions during Wrath of the Lich King certainly are not something that can be positioned as for a greater good. The writing could lean into the idea of the Lich King persona as having committed many of those atrocities, but at the same time, Arthas was himself during Stratholme, for example.
My fear is that Arthas is being set up for a face turn, re-introduced to the story in order to be a good guy, be redeemed, and ultimately take his place in his people’s lore as a hero in the end. I won’t say there isn’t an interesting story that could be told in that space, because there certainly is, but I don’t believe that Blizzard can make that particular story interesting. What I fear more though, is that they will attempt to execute the story I would like to see and botch it, which is this: Arthas is irredeemable and he ultimately comes to realize this through attempting to make amends with those he harmed, to whom his very presence would be disturbing, and he accepts his fate in the Maw.
And make no mistake about it, Arthas has a laundry list of characters already in the Shadowlands during beta who have beef with him. In no particular order, there is: Jaina, Sylvanas, Uther, Bolvar, Darion Mograine, Alexandros Mograine, Kael’Thas, and Kel’Thuzad. Should we go back to Azeroth during questing or bring in additional NPCs, there is also Calia Menethil and Genn Graymane, both of whom have strong existing bonds with Arthas. This leads me to another dilemma – I really want to see some of these stories, but I feel like you could never get them all in a single expansion story. Jaina would be incredibly interesting given their romantic status prior to Arthas’ descent into madness, and Sylvanas has Arthas to “thank” for her undeath and setting her on the path she is on now. Uther’s angle has, seemingly, played out via Afterlives, which was interesting but also devoid of a lot of the ramp up and character exploration you might want from such a thing. Many of the other named characters in Shadowlands have less strong ties to Arthas and I could see a case for excluding them from the main story, but man, there are a lot of powerful story arcs you can revitalize with Arthas in the scene, and my apprehension comes from a sense of mystery about what Blizzard will do.
The thing is, right now, we don’t know for sure. It seems like, based on the available content on Beta, that Arthas is not a 9.0 character we’ll see and interact with. Instead, it seems like he’ll be off in the future somewhere, 9.1 or later, and with that, it means less storytelling time, less build and payoff. Now, of course, Blizzard could build Arthas offscreen via hints, namedrops, and other characters having fulfilling story arcs all their own. Uther has an arc coming – fulfilling, perhaps not, but it is there. Kael’Thas has a decent story arc in Revendreth via the Venthyr covenant. Kel’Thuzad is a chief shit-stirrer in Maldraxxus, with Alexandros Mograine there helping lead resistance to the Houses he is manipulating. All of the mentioned NPCs from Azeroth that are still alive come to Shadowlands with us in the opening or events of the prepatch (from Beta, it seems like Jaina, Thrall, Baine, Anduin, and perhaps others arrive ahead of us, likely from the Mawsworn invasion that Highlord Mograine talks about when sending us to ICC.)
My hope is that if Arthas must be involved, it serves to offer interesting continuations of his existing connections to the cast of characters present in the Shadowlands, and to close out his involvement in the lore in an interesting way, while giving us fresh and original lore content around the other NPCs and factions of Shadowlands – beta and 9.0 still seem to offer incredibly little detail on Oribos, the Jailer, the Arbiter, how the cycle of the Shadowlands was built and established, and other key details. When Shadowlands was announced, I discussed having a fear that Shadowlands could be “WoW All-Stars” as a story, and that I wasn’t confident that it could be done well if that was the direction. That sentiment was rooted not just in an anti-Blizzard feeling that has grown after seeing the last several years of lore direction, but also my own abilities as a writer – I have no fucking idea how you could write that story in a logically consistent, coherent, and satisfying manner. Short of discussing lore ideas here, I wouldn’t dare recommend an actual plot line outside of that, because who even knows how you would link things together. Arthas has a huge role in many pivotal character’s lives here, but he’s also fighting for screentime against the Covenants, the world itself, and the characters we definitely need more information on that are brand new to the setting and world.
This, then, summarizes my fear – Arthas is a hard-to-write character with no clear redemption or damnation path that is fully satisfying, effects on lots of characters who are currently integral to the plot of Shadowlands, and efforts made to center his story will carry a cost of de-emphasizing elements of the Shadowlands world and new characters (an effect which, in microcosm, is already happening in the covenant stories as seen on beta). There is no easy line to walk and a lot of bad choices, and I am deeply concerned that Blizzard is going to fall into a trap they’ve set for themselves here.