As I write this post, the next expansion for World of Warcraft, Shadowlands, is set to launch globally in 13 hours and 16 minutes (less by the time it posts[editor’s note – 11 hours and 6 minutes…yikes]!). The game has been subject to tons of scrutiny over the contentious nature of Covenant and Soulbind systems, changes to endgame rewards systems that we’ve largely been dealing with for 4 years and change now, and a longer time in the oven from announcement at last year’s Blizzcon to the launch that is now upon us.
One thing that I think I haven’t commented on as much is the overarching lore, and I think that is for a good reason and something that Blizzard did well this time around with public testing.
In the past, short of pre-rendered cinematics, large spoilers were ripe for the picking from beta tested expansions. You had a really strong sense of the characters and actions involved, and had a clear sense of where the story was heading even just from beta testing. This time around, however, Blizzard has really carefully tamped down on major spoilers. From this point in the post, we will discuss spoilers, mixed with interview speculation and plain open speculation. Read at your own peril!
What I’d like to discuss first is something of an annoyance of mine with the level up experience and Blizzard’s typical storytelling issues with this segment of gameplay. Back in the day, Blizzard made great standalone expansion stories, with elements that paid off as you moved to the end of the expansion and were revisited in later patches. In Burning Crusade, you established the threats posed by Illidan’s lieutenants and then returned one by one to snuff them out, before getting to the head honcho and then his actual boss. In Wrath of the Lich King, the presence of the Lich King is everywhere, and supplementing that, you get the excellent Mattias Lehner quests in Icecrown. The game uses questing to neatly establish that Arthas is not really anything more than a fleshy vessel for the Lich King, and it paints the context of his actions throughout leveling up in a new light. Bolvar’s capture and Saurfang’s conversion revisit these elements and are sprinkled in both in Ulduar and then capstoned via Icecrown Citadel. All of it creates a moment of empathy when Arthas, finally freed from the Lich King’s presence, asks the spirit of his fallen father if it is over, creating one of the better moments of storytelling in the game (I am recapping this in more detail for a point later, so put a pin in it).
The modern game now has a large, singular narrative, where each expansion is akin more to a chapter in a larger book than a standalone story. The levelup content of Shadowlands, as has Legion and Battle for Azeroth, suffered for this, in that it exists in a fully standalone state that anyone could play and enjoy without knowing the major beats of the overarching tale being told but making the standalone beats unimportant in the long-term. Sure, if you thrust someone into level 50 later today and told them to go play, the whole Maw experience leans on familiarity with the lore characters present that such a theoretical player wouldn’t have, but they’d get the overall structure fairly quick, and once you leave the Maw that first time, everything else sort of falls into place (based on beta, so there may be more crunchy bits of lore mixed in). The problem comes in with the levelup zones. Shadowlands is gorgeous and interesting, but it also immediately becomes apparent which characters matter and don’t, and overwhelmingly through the course of leveling, the ones that matter are the established characters. Most of Bastion exists to set Uther out as having become a bad guy, and that theme is clear – it just lacks resonance if you’re new to Warcraft (hell, most WoW players have almost no meaningful frame of reference for the guy). Similarly, Maldraxxus has an arc with Draka in the opposite direction, Ardenweald with Ysera, and then Revendreth is about building up the endgame story and so it focuses in almost solely on the vileness barely hidden beneath the surface of Sire Denathrius and the ways in which his actions, in concert with the Jailer, have upset the order and balance of the Shadowlands.
Which is to say this – each zone focuses you on a single character, and has a loose tie-in to the overall Shadowlands plot, and if you’ve been around this block for an expansion before, then you know where this is going. Ultimately, only those focal characters and the tail end of the main expansion plot matter much going forward. What’s worse this time is that the 9.0 experience actually only reveals more about individual characters in each zone if you take that Covenant choice – so you don’t get to see the series of big Uther reveals in Bastion unless you go Kyrian. Without knowing how the future of the expansion goes, I can’t say if this ends up being like BfA’s war campaign stories (we STILL haven’t resolved that whole “San’layn in the Horde” thing Blizzard, come on!) or more like the Legion order campaigns, which were largely fluff that pushed everyone towards the Nighthold and then the Broken Shore. What I do know is that based on my next bit of speculation, this is likely going to be an expansion-wide sticking point.
Because, at this point, I think it is very clear that the 9.1 and onwards story of Shadowlands is focused mostly on lore characters we already have and that everyone knows today, prior to launch. Uther, Draka, Ysera, Kael’Thas, Tyrande, Sylvanas, Jaina, Thrall, Bolvar, Taelia, Calia, and…Arthas, all seem to have roles to play. I want to break this down further because of some bits that came out over the last few days from an interview blitz the WoW team did with friendly outfits.
Firstly, the majority of my list are characters we already know are in the Shadowlands and who end up free, redeemed, or otherwise “available” for plot developments. Distilling this big list of characters gives us a few major plot lines, which I’ll discuss in order.
Teldrassil, War of the Thorns, and the Fourth War: The most obvious (and desperately needed) story developments in Shadowlands are likely to be along this vector. We have Tyrande kill-stealing Nathanos from us and hunting Sylvanas in Shadowlands with her exponentially growing Night Warrior powers, Nathanos very heavily implying he’ll be back in Shadowlands, and Sylvanas…in Shadowlands doing very secretive things (her lore has been the most protected on beta BY FAR). The most immediate concern for many as we run into Shadowlands is freeing the leaders captured by the Mawsworn forces during the pre-patch event, but then our attention turns to bringing the forces of the Shadowlands into alignment against the Jailer actively, as our quest turns to him in order to get to Sylvanas.
One day, I’ll write more about my feelings on the story of BfA and how I turned around on Tyrande as a character, because I think she’s actually more compelling in the story of BfA given that she’s really the only Alliance leader who isn’t a feckless do-nothing and wants to actually respond to the generally awful Horde, who, in lore, let Sylvanas do her thing mostly unchecked with nothing more than whimpered resistance and whom the Alliance leadership has allowed off the hook AGAIN.
But, for now, I think this is the clear statement – the expansion-long arc of the story is going to be us working our way towards Sylvanas, with Tyrande leading that charge and Nathanos probably coming back in some capacity in service of that plot. Tyrande has her own subplot in the Night Fae Covenant campaign, in the meantime, wherein the Night Warrior powers are explored further and ultimately discussed as a possible death sentence for the wielder, so I fully expect that she’s going to continue growing her power exponentially and will either have to eventually split it (as the first Night Warrior quests in Ardenweald imply) or die for the amount of power that will overwhelm her mortal frame. My remaining question here is if she is allowed the dignity of a home in the Alliance, or if their refusal to aid her will continue with them painting her as a villain and lead to a mid-tier raid against her. (A feckless blue team striking down an ascendant leader rising within their ranks who makes a strong case for justice so they may maintain the status quo, I think I might have seen this story before somewhere…)
Uther, Arthas, The Concepts of Light and Justice: Uther being present and available in Shadowlands along with the direct reveal of Arthas’ fate post-ICC and implied presence in the Maw sets up what I think is the most logical bit of storytelling that can pull an Illidan-in-Legion manuever. Uther died serving the Light, but his afterlife has been a journey fraught with questions about the path that life has put him on. He clearly questions the Kyrian way, and is instrumental alongside Paragon Devos in bringing about the Forsworn and creating a challenge to the Kyrian status quo. His journey since this moment has been a bit more questionable and ultimately may be something he regrets – bringing Arthas into the Shadowlands with Devos and casting him into the Maw, an act of pure retribution, may create a bigger problem.
Why do I say that? Firstly, the Afterlives short makes clear that Uther has a moment of hesitation when presented with the chance to plunge Arthas into eternal darkness. Secondly, though, the lore of Wrath of the Lich King and the Arthas novel by Christie Golden (who now works directly on the lore at Blizzard) makes clear that the Lich King identity consumed Arthas, and while Arthas himself makes difficult decision poorly early on (leading to the Culling of Stratholme), it is at the point where the Lich King is taking over that Arthas kills Uther, no longer fully himself. Now, you can argue in multiple ways as to whether pre-Helm of Domination Arthas is a puppet of the Lich King or not, but I think the storytelling of WotLK, the Arthas novel, and the Warcraft III campaign paints this heel turn as being outside of Arthas’ control – first due to the honeyed words of a Dreadlord, then due to the whispered power of Frostmourne, and finally the commanding, overwhelming voice of the Lich King via the Helm of Domination.
Why does this matter, though? Arthas, outside of the time he was a servant of the Lich King, basically has this story arc – he leads his people bravely into combat alongside his friend Uther and his lover Jaina, and becomes the controlled pawn of forces beyond his comprehension. His mind is shattered and his innocence maintained as the Lich King subsumes both Arthas and Ner’zhul, becoming a singular entity in the body of Arthas, with both mortal beings in that presence losing their battle to maintain their control. Arthas is freed of this curse through the actions of mortal adventurers and Tyrion Fordring, released into death as the spirit of his father comforts him. His next sight is his old friend and mentor Uther, looking at Arthas with seething hatred in his eyes as Uther casts him into the Warcraft equivalent of Hell while calling it justice, where he has likely endured unending torment as a prized pawn of the Jailer, and that has likely increased further with Sylvanas working with the Jailer and especially with her now present in the Maw.
Arthas, in life, was a flawed soul who went too far while trying to serve his people. In death, he is cursed and scorned by everyone who gave his life meaning – Jaina is haunted by visions of him even still (Pride of Kul Tiras shows this nicely), Uther cast him away to an eternity of torment, Sylvanas wanted vengeance against him so badly she killed herself when she couldn’t get it but has the chance now, and his whole life of accomplishments and work for his people is buried under his enduring legacy of hatred, shame, and death.
Now, if this was Metzen-era Blizzard, we might see a redemption arc for Arthas, perhaps even akin to the one that Illidan got in Legion. However, I think the team today knows that Arthas as a character, while he can be made sympathetic (and I just did that above!), actually may serve the story better as a villain of his own volition. I bring up the indignity of his death because he has had time in the Maw to really let all of that sink in, and with Uther as a Kyrian in Shadowlands, his sister undead at the hands of Sylvanas and present in Shadowlands, and the champions who helped see him to his demise running loose in the Maw, he may very well be presented as a villain, this time by his own choice. In fact, if I were Sylvanas and the Jailer, looking to break Arthas and bring him the suffering that Sylvanas wanted to in life, I think an excellent way to bring that about would be to bring him to that conclusion and use him as a weapon against his lover in life, his people, and the mentor that he once looked up to more than almost anyone. He has a (perhaps even legitimate) axe to grind here.
Alongside this story, I would imagine we’d see the exploration of Bolvar and Taelia Fordragon’s relationship, and see a positive reckoning with the effects of being the Lich King alongside the negative ones with Arthas. With Calia present in beta and the hints everywhere, regardless of whether my specific head canon proves correct, I would place a substantial bet on us having a lengthy Arthas chapter of the story, and I’m sure no one paying attention would take the other side of said bet!
The Jailer’s Chains, Oribos and The Arbiter, The Purpose: The core story of the Shadowlands when we arrive is that the whole of the afterlife is fundamentally broken due to the souls being carried to the Maw. Our actions through our Covenants ultimately work to correct this by redistributing Anima from the Maw to the other four zones, allowing the processes of the afterlife to function as normal. We are sent by the servants of the Arbiter, who remains unresponsive due to the problems in the Shadowlands, in what they perceive as service of the “Purpose.” Now, what the purpose is seems largely unclear, and sort of hand-wavy as a thing you can say regardless of what you’re actually doing (“why’d you eat that cheeseburger?” “It was in service of the Purpose!”), but there could be lore there. What I do think is going to be the pivotal lore moment that allows us to break away towards Azeroth-centric lore is the awakening of the Arbiter – she isn’t gonna sit there T-posing all expansion, I would wager.
The other big focus, including something that was in the “Beyond the Veil” cinematic released recently, is the Jailer’s chains. Up until that point, the Jailer’s chains were a sort of metaphor used in-game – the Maw is his chains, he’s banished there and cannot leave, and weren’t really presented as a physical thing (short of the in-game cutscene that was shown at Blizzcon 2019, in which the silhouette of a very-different looking Jailer shape appeared to be chained) but the beta has maintained through quest text and dialogue the idea that the chains are “the Maw, as a place” rather than physical ones.
Well, the new CGI cinematic and the story in pre-patch both call these out very deliberately, and so I cannot help but wonder what happened to the chains. My theory is this – the Jailer’s chains and the Arbiter’s coma are related in some fashion, and the story of the early patches will explore this. The remaining questions are around the nature of the Arbiter. She’s presented as good and the engine via which the Shadowlands meaningfully functions, and that may make our presence less desirable to her. By the time she is likely to awaken in-lore, we’ve corrected the functioning of the Shadowlands to a large extent, and we’ve done so by pulling souls out of the Maw and bringing them back to our Covenant Sanctums without regard for the normal judgment and assignment processes that make that happen by the Arbiter’s hand. My speculative guess is that our upending of the cycle of the afterlife is going to cause the Covenants to unite and work via this new process, and that will cause us all to conflict with the Arbiter and her servants, as the idea of the “Purpose” seems very inflexible.
But, here’s my bolder prediction – we’ll probably wrap up with the Jailer and the Arbiter by 9.2 and head into 9.3 to focus on different threats. Why is that?
Well, the recent interviews basically called out the Jailer as potentially not the final boss, and here is where I go off the speculation rails. The Jailer, to me, logically, isn’t a great end of expansion boss. Why? Well, simply put, he’s not important to our journey in as many ways. The Jailer, in fact, isn’t who sets in motion any of this – but rather, Sylvanas. Sylvanas, it could be argued, is a servant of the Jailer and is here doing her part as an underling, but I think we all know better than that now. Sylvanas’ character arc since her death at Arthas’ hands has ultimately been one of self-absorption and self-empowerment. Everything she has done to this point has been in service of her own ends and in pursuit of more power for herself. Even when she has been a cog in the machine, she’s always maneuvered that to her own ends.
My thoughts are this – we normally spend until roughly x.1 or x.2 patches dealing with the threats that are local to the new continent or region we are in for the expansion. In Legion, we were dealing with the Nightborne in service of the Legion and the Tomb of Sargeras until 7.2.5, at which point we went to the bigger overarching story with Argus, Sargeras, Illidan’s redemption and the last hurrah of the Titans. In BfA, we were working on the Fourth War until 8.2.5, fixing things for our new allies until 8.2, and then attention turned to the threat of the Naga and the Old Gods, which included completely leaving behind the launch BfA zones.
In Shadowlands, I suspect that we’ll be wrapping up with the Jailer and the Arbiter in 9.2, primarily for a few reasons. Firstly, the Jailer and the Arbiter both represent a broken process and a lack of agency, which we are shaking up through our work with the Covenants. As the Covenants gain power and control, they’ll likely see to it that they work to maintain their own interests and in so doing, the larger interests of the afterlife. After all, it is through the Arbiter’s breakdown that the flow of souls and thusly Anima was broken and the Shadowlands were left bereft of resources and decaying. As for the Jailer, while I think we will be involved in his demise, it is not likely to be us who really do the work, but instead Sylvanas. Why? Sylvanas clearly has gained power under the Jailer, and has been using the resources of the Mawsworn to her own dark ends. While the Jailer rules the Maw, “no king rules forever” and the parallels to the story of Arthas are too obvious at this point. Sylvanas, like Arthas before her, will ascend to the crown of a locked-away tyrant, taking the mantle of the Jailer as the ruler of the Maw, becoming the sole ruler of undeath she has always seemed to want to be, with the resources to bring souls to heel and use their energy for her own means.
From a gameplay perspective, this opens up a drastic shift that could be possible in Torghast (imagine wings based on Azerothian locations, or reliving the horrors of Sylvanas’ life?), and from a lore perspective, it places all forces on a collision course for Sylvanas – Nathanos in her service (or perhaps punished for failure), Arthas as the object of Sylvanas’ vengeance and Uther’s, Tyrande eclipsing her power as the Night Warrior while the power threatens to tear her apart before she can have her retribution, with nearly every other major lore character present in the Shadowlands that we know of having some vested interest in dealing with Sylvanas (Kael’Thas as the ruler of Quel’Thalas while she was Ranger General of Silvermoon, Thrall and Baine as leaders of the Horde she almost destroyed, Calia as a victim of her, Bolvar to seek to right what she wronged by destroying the Helm of Domination and loosing the Scourge on Azeroth once more, Anduin for his captivity at the start of the expansion and all the Fourth War) or Arthas (Calia again, Uther as discussed above, Bolvar because of his scarring and torture, Taelia for taking her father from her, Jaina full of regret, anger, and sorrow for the life they could have had together, Kel’Thuzad as a two-time servant of the Lich King, Kael’Thas again as a competitor for Jaina’s affection and for the ravaging of Silvermoon). In terms of epic storytelling and conclusions, I feel like the stronger route is to mostly resolve the Shadowlands-specific lore prior to 9.3, and then have that last tier of content be heavily focused on resolving the myraid of loose ends all of this brings forward.
Long Shots: If I were to spitball about things we have little or no proof or reason to predict, here are some short ones:
Varian Is Around: Varian died at the point the Maw was vacuuming up all the souls, so theoretically, he’s there. Anduin is also in the Shadowlands and never got a proper goodbye from or to his father (me too, buddy) and I imagine there could be untold story there. Certainly, one of the better story aspects from Legion was the rise of Anduin, and the cinematic in 7.2 was touching and leaves room for more. After rewatching it in writing this, yeah, I want more of that story.
Daelin Proudmoore: A good portion of the Alliance leveling experience is devoted to Jaina’s relationship with her parents and her home nation, leading to a moment that I think was easy to forget in the wash of BfA but is still emotionally poignant even now – the Realm of Torment cinematic from the Pride of Kul Tiras quests and seeing Jaina’s character arc presented so dramatically and condensed in a way that it washes over you all at once. The tyranny and death of her father is an integral part of the overall Warcraft universe, and I think with Jaina in Shadowlands, dealing with that could be interesting. It might have too much BfA stink on it, or Warcraft III stink, both hot-button topics in the wake of BfA overall and the Reforged launch earlier this year.
So overall, if I had to stack rank my speculative choices for end boss of the expansion, given what we’ve explored here in this post, it’d be…
- The Jailer
- The Arbiter
- Hogger, the real undying force of the Warcraft Universe
And with that, I guess I’ll see you on the other side!
Editorial Note: As with BfA launch, I won’t commit to a lot of posts this week, because I want to see a lot of content live and in final state before I write it up, and also just to enjoy it a couple of times and see where inspiration strikes. I’ll at least have a post up prior to Season 1 starting, and likely more than just one post. In a personal note, I’ve decided to raid this expansion as a healer, trying Holy Paladin as a raid main for the first time. I won’t be changing naming here or anything (it is my brand now and changing with every raid main change wouldn’t really work, plus I already have a YouTube/Twitch/Twitter under my original raid main, for which changing branding meant rebuilding when I started this blog! I’ll still be playing Demon Hunter as my main-alt, and if our raid ranks trim down as I expect they will, I might even end up playing DH in raid again, but I enjoy healing and haven’t done it in a while, and it should make dealing with the really overeager “fix everyone even if they aren’t asking” rogue and this parse-obsessed homophobic DK we have returning from Classic easier, coupled with turning them both way down in Discord so I don’t just up and quit raiding altogether.
So expect my screenshots to have more human plate-wearing in them, I suppose!