The Shadowlands: Afterlives Series and Show, Don’t Tell in Storytelling

With the (presumably) final Shadowlands: Afterlives animated short out today, we now have the promised hype content leading us into the pre-patch, which still, as of this writing, does not have a launch date.

With these shorts out, now is a great time to discuss a quirk of modern Blizzard that I am not a big fan of at all – the habit of telling us the story rather than showing it, and how that also relates to them not placing content in the game and giving us important bits of lore outside of the game.

Before we continue, there will be Shadowlands beta spoilers in this post. You have been warned!

Starting right off the bat, the biggest pet peeve I’ve had with these shorts is that they have a sort of mixed quality. The Bastion one is cool and has huge lore implications that got everyone I know hyped up, which was followed immediately by the disappointing Maldraxxus one, the emotionally-resonant Ardenweald video, and then topped off with the campy and strange Revendreth one. I liked all of them but Maldraxxus, but they all have a huge problem:

If you haven’t played beta, a lot of the context is missing, and if you have played beta, these explain huge lore hooks the game leans on but also does not explore on its own!

Immediately with Bastion, the introduction of vengeful Kyrian Uther is great, with one problem – the game joins that story in medias res, with Uther already completing his heel turn and little or no mention of Devos, the Forsworn, or anything that has implications on this story! Uther is just already Forsworn, before the game even tells you what that means. What’s worse, is that all the context of how he’s a noted villain of the Kyrian is just not there. If you mention Uther by name (and a quest gives you a choice to do that), everyone looks shocked and is very cagey about him, but no one provides meaningful context to the change. In fact, the version in-game is inconsistent, as a memory fragment quest in-game elevates a different NPC as the right-hand of the Forsworn, with Uther being sheltered from the worst of it. But if you watch the short first, it spoils what is presented as a plot twist, with Devos being an evil Paragon!

Maldraxxus’ animatic is less impactful, but it provides a ton of important context that is narrated over via quest dialogue that plays as you run around when meeting Draka. It also adds this whole layer of Shadowlands lore that the NPCs in game DO NOT TELL YOU AT ALL, with the Nathrezim being something that the Necrolords have fought against for a while. The major emotional moment of the event is pivotal to the zone story in-game, and is also fairly poorly explained, but is explained at least, unlike the Uther arc that is just missing in-game!

Ardenweald does a better job of setting the stage, both in the cinematic and in the game, but it is also covering a lore character death that does not happen in the game. This one actually hews the closest to the game, sadly, so I liked it the most from that perspective!

And that brings us to Revendreth. The cinematic is great, and I enjoyed it, but it also attempts to put a lot of gravity into the zone and Sire Denathrius as our first tier raid boss that the game doesn’t match. Neither the cinematic nor the game build him up particularly well as a villain outside of the ending of the zone story, where his allegiance is made clear and the raid is fully set up. The Garrosh cameo? Has no bearing in the zone. The whole arc with Kael’Thas in game? Not represented in the cinematic at all.

This is something of a huge problem that Blizzard has with their writing the last several expansions, and it is starting to wear a bit thin. With the pre-launch cinematics and the game content, there is a tug of war to showcase big story hits and get the lore out in front of players, one which Blizzard has not mastered. In theory, the best route is to have major lore reveals in both modes of content – give us a teaser cinematic to whet our appetites and then deliver the lore in-game, tightly integrated with gameplay so that we can experience it firsthand and have a connection to it.

Instead, what Blizzard has done here, yet again, is tell us that cool things happened before we show up, which we have no personal connection to through our characters. Instead, we meet Uther past the worst part of his journey, see Draka after her journey has been shaped by the loss of her leader in the Shadowlands, meet the Night Queen after tough decisions in the wake of the anima drought have shaped her and her people, and enter a Revendreth in a quiet rebellion against the vile Sire Denathrius. We are just told about things that happened before we got there, being caught up on the history of these zones in a limited amount of gameplay time, and the even sadder part is that most of the history seems pretty unlikely to matter in a few months as we move on with new lore and a focus on the Azerothian characters we meet in the Shadowlands.

This is something of a trend, as the Warbringers Azshara short gave us the needed context to Azshara’s bargain with N’zoth. Likewise, the Maraad short prior to WoD gave us a similar amount of needed context to the character to give his arc a satisfying base to build to his death in Draenor.

Now, I think this isn’t inherently bad storytelling if it exists in harmony with other modes of story delivery. Sometimes, you need to meet character arcs and overall stories in medias res in order to get to the greatest interest in the plot, but if you deliver all of the stories in this way, it makes things feel bad. This is pronounced here because the lure of WoW as a mechanism for storytelling is that your character is there for the lore moments. By taking that away, it leaves the lore feeling weaker and less interesting, because the lore we are there for is past the important points of history and instead leaves us cleaning up after the cool things we are told happened off-camera.

Now, this does miss one point – the Covenant stories at level 60, which I have left largely unexplored on the beta. Similarly, this also misses anything that we are being held back from in beta, which, while there is definitely content missing, most of it seems to be frontloaded into the Maw starting experience and involved with our more familiar lore characters. The zone stories feel complete, and in places where a cinematic obviously goes but doesn’t pop up in beta, there is typically an NPC on-hand who can explain the lore delivered via the missing cinematic in text.

My hope, then? I want the Covenant stories to deliver big on lore and reveals, and to feel substantial and bring us closer to the lore. My fear, though, is that Blizzard remains committed to an opening arc of the expansion that ultimately ends up as meaningless timewasting on our way to the real story of the expansion – with Azerothian giants like Sylvanas, Tyrande, Arthas, and Anduin alongside a select few new characters like the Jailer and Arbiter.

Either way, we don’t have long before we start to find out.

4 thoughts on “The Shadowlands: Afterlives Series and Show, Don’t Tell in Storytelling

  1. It is interesting, as I personally see it on a contrary as a good point. It always itches me how in WoW villains are often on a standby mode.

    Take Kul Tiras leveling, for example. Ashvane launching a pirate attack and a kraken at Tiragarde? Execution of Lucille Waycrest? Face-heel turn of Lord Stormsong and people of the valley doing some resistance? Not a minute earlier than our heroes can come and spoil all the fun. Played a little bit better in the Horde camp, as we bring the major shit-stirrer Zul with ourselves, as long as Talanji who initiates Nazmir investigation and pushes Jakrazet to action in Vol’dun. But normally villains will cruelly destroy some fisherman village and then just lie dormant, waiting for us to arrive.

    Also, the drought had to be running at the very least since before the 4th War, so kinda long time before we arrived. It’s not something that happens in a snap, and to find zones and its inhabitants in their fragile state of body and soul we had to come in the middle of the process 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t disagree on the standby point – my critique is that I really want this stuff in-game. Better quest text explanations, voice-overs, actually showing the characters interacting with the issues the videos show. I really like the animated scenes, but far too often they tell us about something cool happening that the game does a poor job of reinforcing.

      BfA did have some good execution of individual zone or story enemies as your examples speak to – Shadowlands loses a good chunk of that, though!

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      1. Imo it’s not the issue with current cinematics. Things with Uther happened… in 2003-2010 in Earth years, and even more time passed by Azeroth timeline. Revendreth and Ardenweald show us events that led to the state where we find them, as we heroes come during some final stages of drought, and poor venthyr/Ara’lon are just emotional anchors for the problem to solve. By the time we come the decisions of authorities are already made, it’s not a momentum decision, it’s something that had to grow and develop. Can’t tell anything about Maldraxxus 🙂 I didn’t play beta, so I didn’t understand shit from this video 🙂

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  2. I think we all know why they do this, we just don’t wanna say it out loud.

    Blizz can’t write in-game worth a hoot. If they hadn’t started to drop in-game cinematics we might not have gotten as far as WoD. For whatever reason, the storytellers and the engineers / in-game lore-meisters don’t do a good job of interacting with each other, and eventually it’s gotten us these shorts.

    To really rub it in, we’re now seeing the shorts presented as cutscenes in-game.

    I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want the quality of storytelling in-game to be better. On the other hand, if they can’t do that, at least I get some of this lore without having to buy another mediocre book.

    Liked by 1 person

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