The Long-Form Storytelling of World of Warcraft and Where it Fails – My Definitive Sylvanas Redemption Rant

WoW is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people at this point in time.

It wants to remain the pre-eminent PvE MMO, with dungeons, raids, and more world content than any other game and a high bar of PvE content design. It wants to be an interesting casual game with strong world content and robust matchmaking designed to pull people in, and a set of features that rotate in and out with each expansion to keep the game fresh and exciting. It wants to have a balanced and interesting PvP game with all sorts of interesting options regardless of what class and spec you play, so you can play duels, small-scale battles, all the way up to sprawling and epic battles, all underscored by a fantastic world PvP system. It wants to have storytelling unlike most MMOs, and keep players connected through an epic tale that spans content generations.

This blog has debated almost all of the above, pro and con (save for PvP, I don’t do it enough to have much to say there), but we haven’t really talked enough about the story.

Originally, I started writing this post as a sprawling epic that also included the 9.1 lore bombs we’ve seen so far, but then I spent nearly 3,000 words on just this topic and had more to say, so I’ll save a lot of the 9.1 lore analysis for later. Today, I want to focus in on what I see as an interesting experiment that Blizzard has been doing with the lore, and I want to analyze, in particular, the forthcoming story of Sylvanas Windrunner and why there is so much dissent over the direction that seems most obviously happening.

From this point forward, there will be spoilers for 9.0, for 9.1, and also spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV ARR through Shadowbringers. Be warned!

(Editor’s Note: After writing it, not counting this note, there are 5,810 words here. This is a long one. Grab some popcorn, get a drink, go to the bathroom first, because you’ll be here for a minute. I think it’s worth a read, but it is long. I also take a 66% rage break to be really mad and address Steve Danuser directly, so, y’know, that’s there. Enjoy!)

Long-Form Story?

When I first got into WoW, as a young man barely 19 years old, it was largely a game focused on the current time of the story. There was historical precedent, and characters talked about things that happened prior to WoW, but largely, the game was setup as a series of self-contained story arcs. Vanilla WoW was a story about the world of Azeroth resolving a way forward after the conflicts of the Third War, and while it leaned on some elements of Warcraft III to do so, it was largely a self-sufficient text. The stories of Ragnaros, Onyxia, Nefarian, and C’Thun were original tales, and while Kel’Thuzad’s history leaned on Warcraft III, the game of WoW made obvious why he was a threat. The same is largely true of TBC, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, and Mists of Pandaria – all of these were self-contained story arcs which offered maybe 5% more lore richness if you had played the Warcraft RTS series, but could stand alone as their own texts with their own plots and narrative to tell.

In 2014, with the launch of Warlords of Draenor, WoW was entering a changing MMO market. Final Fantasy XIV’s A Realm Reborn relaunch had hit in late 2013, and with it, a tweaked and improved story experience. ARR wasn’t a highpoint in FFXIV’s storytelling, but the structure of the story it did tell was so different for an MMO. It focused on the story strongly, making it the key focus. WoW had never had the lore as the primary focus – it obviously mattered to Blizzard, but their public claims were always “gameplay first.” WoD marked a different direction for WoW in storytelling – gone were the days of standalone, self-contained expansion stories. Now, everything was interconnected, and the story told in WoD mattered to the future of the game. It arguably still does – the tremors of WoD are largely what we are still dealing with. I say this not because I think Blizzard copied Square Enix or anything, but I think that the genre as a whole pushed more in this direction with time, and today we have the Living World stories of Guild Wars 2, the MSQ of FFXIV, and yes, the Campaign quests of WoW.

WoD was the first time that the quest log had chapter indicators, marked for us that each quest was not an act of isolated kindness or correction but instead part of a broader narrative with more at stake. The flow of questing still felt the same, but it was certainly not – it was clear that we were building up bases, taking back Draenor for the native populations, and dealing with world-spanning threats. It was where the use of cinematics amped up sharply, as we began seeing zone-based cinematics in nearly every zone, alongside an end of expansion cinematic at the conclusion of Hellfire Citadel.

Unlike prior expansions, however, that cinematic directly hinted at our future fate. You could argue that Garrosh being captured at the end of Mists of Pandaria had the same flavor, but I would argue that was an incomplete story at the time we saw the cinematic. WoD’s ending was clearly setting something up, with Alternate Draenor Gul’dan being flung through Archimonde’s portal, the one that stood on the same spot as the original Dark Portal to Azeroth. The expansion ends with Khadgar musing over our future threats, as the denizens of Draenor cry out in glee – free of the fel corruption, they were able to start rebuilding.

Ever since then, the game has used a formula very much like the one started in WoD. Each zone story has its own cinematics (for the most part) and its own story, but that story then feeds into a larger, ongoing narrative. Our prepatch events stopped being fun diversions and started being actual…well, lore events. The Iron Horde invading wasn’t just a fun and temporary thing – it was the starting quest for Warlords. The Broken Shore invasion wasn’t just Legion hype – it carries us into the expansion.

Since WoD, everything that happens is fed into an ongoing story arc about the fate of Azeroth. Thrall’s struggles with his identity has been an ongoing plot since WoD, where he dealt the killing blow to Garrosh and has been struggling with his connection to his heritage and the elements ever since. Legion setup multiple story arcs that are just now beginning to bloom – Sylvanas and Helya, Odyn’s history, the death of Ysera, and most importanly…Sylvanas’ arc as Warchief, from the decision to promote her to the title by Vol’jin with his dying breath onwards into BfA.

Overall, I think I’m of two minds about the change from standalone to serialized storytelling in WoW. In theory, it means there is more depth and interest to the story, as it no longer has to completely build and tell stories in a single expansion, and that should result in a higher quality story with more simultaneous narrative arcs going, starting, and being concluded. In practice, it’s a bit muddier – I think WoW’s storytelling is worse in the serial era, as characters no longer get as much immediate attention. Look at Taelia Fordragon for example – fascinating character in my mind, but on paper, she’s just kind of…there? There’s clearly more to come with her story, but at the same time, because everything is now on this elongated timetable, Blizzard hasn’t given me much to care about with her directly. She’s Bolvar’s kid, and she was shipped off to Kul Tiras by him and never filled in about the dark fate that met her father. She has some personality and Alliance players got that in questing in BfA, but there just isn’t that much there. The biggest character moment she’s had to date is when we found out her last name was Fordragon, and that…kinda sucks!

But today’s topic is going to be the longest-form character arc currently brewing in WoW – that of Sylvanas Windrunner. To discuss this in the way I would prefer to, we’re first going to visit a successful FFXIV arc that stays close to what I think we’ll see with Sylvanas, but was executed well! But first, even though I have written on this topic before, I want to explore the topic of redemption arcs in fiction.

Redemption, A Many-Layered Word

Arguably, one of the most constant themes in fiction is the idea of redemption for those who have done bad things. As a narrative device, redemption works well because it allows depth to be added to a villain character, or to create a scenario where a hero emerges in an unlikely fashion. You might have someone working on a redemption in media res when you as the reader enter the story, showing conflicts that creates and using it to create good tension to drive a plot forward. You might come in after the redemption, and have these hints dropped that your good guy wasn’t so good in the past. Most commonly, though, is a story where the redemption arc serves as the main plot device, start to finish. A villain moves the story forward through evil acts and then ultimately is led to reconsider and seek atonement, and that creates the conflict between our would-be antagonist and our protagonists.

As humans, we love redemption arcs in fiction because they create interesting thought experiments about how far someone could go while still ultimately being redeemable. A lot of human society is built on this concept – justice systems, religions and the concept of divine forgiveness, capital punishment, and forgiveness among friends or family – all of these things lean on the concept, tried and true, that we will all make mistakes and need to atone for them. In fiction, the scale of mistakes can be dialed significantly higher – generally, as a society, we accept the idea that the leader of a genocide is not particularly redeemable (some real dumbasses notwithstanding), but in fiction, you can raise those stakes and put forward an interesting analysis of such a person. Absent the historical record and burden, that question is interesting for determining the values of a society or the individual writing such a story – how low is too low for redemption?

It is tough to write a good redemption arc, however. Chief among the concerns you must tackle is this – if a character is to be redeemed, the reader must be kept up to speed with the actions that character has taken to earn the redemption. One cannot simply show up and say “I’m better now!” and expect that things will simply fall into place. The larger the scale of atrocities committed by a character, the longer and more torturous the atonement must be. Now, you could tell a story of a failed redemption – someone who wants more than anything to be redeemed but whose atonement cannot be accepted, and that might even be a good story to tell! However, that also takes an amount of nuance and development in the story that must be present in order to make good on the idea. Based on this (and my prior posts on the matter!) you might know where I land on Sylvanas being redeemed…and you’re probably right! However, first, I want to get back to the example I mentioned above.

Gaius Van Baelsar and The Road of Sorrow

In Final Fantasy XIV, one of the longest-running character arcs has been that of Gaius Van Baelsar, the Black Wolf of Garlemald. His story is typical among villains in an RPG – he’s the leader of a division of the Garlean Legion and responsible for countless atrocities. He led a force against the dragons that led to Primals being able to be summoned by the Beast Tribes of Eorzea, arguably one of the key events in the mythos of FFXIV. He worked with his nation’s forces on the plan to summon Meteor and destroy Eorzea, despite his personal objections (he later takes the role of a conscientious objector and provides Cid schematics to stop Dalamud, explaining that he will see Garlemald to victory regardless, but feared what Dalamud might contain). He is a tireless soldier for Garlemald, seeking to conquer Eorzea to reshape it in the Empire’s vision. In the past, prior to the game’s events, he led the conquest of Werlyt, an area near Garlemald, leading a horrific campaign that left thousands dead, families shattered, and the shell of Werlyt a deeply haunting and melancholic place fraught with heightened racial tensions and a beaten-down society that has given up on hope.

Over the course of FFXIV v1.0, the player meets Gaius several times, in each causing harm to the player and their allies. After the events of the Seventh Umbral Calamity (the end of v1.0 and the game’s move forward into ARR), Gaius is the main villain of the initial story, as his Ultima Weapon project is the means by which he plans to take control of all of Eorzea. He is thwarted by the player, made a puppet by the Ascians, ancient spirits who control the Empire, and is left to die at the Praetorium, the base where his Ultima Weapon project was completed. At first, he lies prone, ready to accept his death, but then, motivated by a desire to see justice for his friends by acting against the Ascians, he discards his armor and takes a new title of “Shadowhunter.” With that, he leaves the empire, no longer the Black Wolf but still bearing the burden of his actions.

His redemption is slow and personal. Off-screen, he hunts Ascians, acquiring the masks of several before players finally reacquaint with him in the patch content of Stormblood, where he reveals that he has defected from Garlemald and has begun working to right the wrongs he set into motion all those years ago. He aids the Scions of the Seventh Dawn in destroying Black Rose, a chemical weapon that snuffs out the aether of all who inhale it, ending their lives. He works with the Scions, specifically with Estinien, as the player and their allies are taken to the First for the events of Shadowbringers.

Over the course of Shadowbringers, Gaius’ redemption arc has come in the form of the Sorrow of Werlyt quest chain and trials. The Weapon project continues under a madman, Valens van Varro, who has forced the work of Gaius’ adopted children to continue their father’s ill-fated project, one he regards as a mistake. The first fight, against the Ruby Weapon, shows the power of Oversoul in the new Weapons, which kills the pilot and allows the consciousness of a great Garlean to take over combat control. The pilots, however, are Gaius’ adopted children. He must watch, Weapon by Weapon, as his adopted children are killed by the Empire, his pain growing and growing. The Black Wolf has cracked, and the sorrow in his heart grows larger by the day. He fights to reckon with his own horrific actions, seeing the smaller scale of the tragedies inflicted upon him by Valens van Varro and the Weapon project, even as it is revealed his adoptive children are trying to use the Weapons to fight against Valens!

The characters around Gaius distrust him initially and offer little solace in the face of the insurmountable horror he suffers as his children die, one by one. As time moves on, however, it becomes clear that the conqueror of Werlyt, the Black Wolf, is gone, and what is left is a husk of a man haunted by the choices he made as they come home to roost, wanting desperately to atone, desperate to save his children, and genuinely reflective on the choices he made – unwilling to write them off as acts of service to a nation he believed in, but instead buckling under the burden of accepting that he had a choice to make as well, and he made the wrong one. Of his 5 adopted children, 4 die to the Weapon project.

But his desire to make right as best as he can becomes clear, and the characters around him soften and bear witness to the new form of Gaius Baelsar, and he is able by the end, after all the horrors he personally witnessed, to begin the path of redemption. Not to complete it – just to start it. He has accepted responsibility for his atrocities, attempted to seek forgiveness from the people of Werlyt, his adopted children, and the Warrior of Light and our allies, and he worked with us to set things right for the people of Werlyt – ending the Weapon project and ensuring that they have a clean slate to start from, a clean slate his only surviving child also needs.

It is a genuinely touching, mostly well-executed form of the redemption arc – not complete and not everyone has forgiven or accepted his atonement, but the path to a better tomorrow has been paved by Gaius’ own hand and he can now walk that road.

So Then, What’s Wrong With Sylvanas Windrunner?

Sylvanas’ redemption arc is in fact the opposite of what I just put forward as an example – it is clumsy, poorly executed, and clearly heading in a bad direction based on what Blizzard has said publicly. Let’s explore that a bit deeper.

Sylvanas as a character is, for better or worse, one of the more fascinating characters in WoW, with a largely-fleshed out backstory and a clear path from Warcraft III all the way through to today. This is, in fact, a part of the problem.

My biggest beef with the story of Sylvanas is that it is wholly inconsistent and swings back and forth between moustache-twirling villain and touching tragedy that shaped the life of a military commander. In life, Sylvanas was the Ranger-General of Quel’Thalas, the leader of the ranger forces of the High Elves. She was slain by Arthas, the Lich King, and brought back into undeath as the Banshee Queen, with the tears over her failure to save her people from Arthas burned into her face, marking her forever.

From the start of WoW, Sylvanas has been sort of a sideshow for much of it, until recently. In vanilla and TBC, she famously had a Night Elf model with a hooded robe, not even significant enough to be modelled uniquely or to use the low-poly High Elf models the game already had for a greater degree of accuracy. In Wrath of the Lich King, she swung to the villainous side (sort of), with the implication that she had some involvement in the plague attack at the Wrathgate and that was part of a deeper plan. Her political ambitions led her to deny it and allow access to the Undercity for both Horde and Alliance forces, leading to the Battle for Undercity (the first time). Her quest for vengeance against Arthas for her final moments of life, led her to Northrend and to Icecrown Citadel, where she was not able to enact her twisted justice, as players defeated Arthas before she had the chance to engage. Distraught, she jumped from ICC and died.

At this point in the current, retconned past, we know that she then made her pact with the Jailer and was returned to undeath, armed with her personal Val’kyr and a way to bring forward new Forsaken, expanding her forces. In Cataclysm, Garrosh clearly does not get along with Sylvanas and is displeased with her actions throughout Lordaeron, but other than a moment of tension, does not act. Sylvanas remains in this sort of state for a long time – for most of Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, and even Legion, Sylvanas is shockingly non-present for much of it. Sure, she’s “present” in that she is around when Horde leaders are on-screen, and she has a few moments in Legion between the battle at Broken Shore, her appointment to Warchief, and her pact with Helya, but otherwise, she just isn’t really around. It is only via the retcon that her actions to expand her people and push into more of Lordaeron become ominous – at the time, all the way up until the retcon was confirmed at Blizzcon 2019, she was a fairly normal faction leader.

With BfA, Sylvanas became a full-fledged villain, and with Shadowlands, that has been cemented so much that even the Sylvanas die-hards must accept it. In BfA, she led two genocides, burning Teldrassil and enveloping Tirisfal in a massive quantity of plague, before killing Varok Saurfang and running away. Her quest with the Jailer led her to push for war as a means to entrap countless lost souls, which adds a layer to her genocides – not just barbaric, but also selfish and as a means to secure a growing amount of power. Without the retcon, this kind of…doesn’t make sense. Sylvanas as a character was popular because she was willing to take action when it was her turn on screen, and she had personal stakes for much of it – but she wasn’t purely a villain until the story of BfA. Arguably, you could have made that turn more gradually, but instead, the WoW team went for the whiplash option, and that starting whiplash was a big part of what has turned into this huge, anti-Sylvanas feeling among the playerbase.

So the first act is simple – Sylvanas goes from a sideshow with a clear cause to be in the story and motivation as a character to being sort of barely-present and lacking direction before she goes full villain, a problem which was only partially fixed with the retcon of the Jailer being added to the story. This was done so fast that it kind of pushed a schism in the community – Sylvanas fans that desperately, desperately want her story to be going in a good direction, and others who’ve been pushed from ambivalence to outright contempt (that’s me!) for her writing and characterization.

Act two, as we’ve seen it in Shadowlands so far, is her starting to consider where she is in this journey and if it is the right path. Her actions in the final Torghast cinematic with Anduin imply sorrow, that she feels she is on this journey against her free will, and that she has a desire to right that by tearing down the order of things, the veil between life and death. She has been focused on the mission she shares with the Jailer…until Anduin enters the scene. At the start of Shadowlands, Anduin is a pawn to Sylvanas, but not key. She allows us to save him and states that they can find other vessels to fulfill their goals. However, as we escape the Maw, the Jailer himself sees to it that Anduin is recaptured. With the aforementioned Torghast cinematic and the 9.1 reveal trailer, we now see two moments of implied contrition from Sylvanas as it pertains to Anduin – the doubtful gaze she casts as Anduin’s puppeted body hands over the sigil of the Archon to the Jailer.

So what’s next?

Well, in patch 9.1, we know that Sylvanas plays a crucial role in the story of the Battle for Ardenweald, the chapter 1 campaign quest that sees the Mawsworn stage an all-out ambush on the Shadowlands and swarming over Ardenweald in search of the Winter Queen’s sigil, as well as Oribos. We know from broadcast text that Sylvanas defeats Tyrande in Ardenweald and moves on to become the final boss of the Sanctum of Domination raid.

And then…we know little.

Interviews with the WoW team, most notably Lead Narrative Designer Steve Danuser, speak in measured tones about the topic, saying it “isn’t as simple as will she or won’t she be redeemed” and “a lot of people might change their point of view on some of how they see her.” The stated goal from Danuser is that the team sees their role as evolving the characters and showing new sides of them. Now, some of this is couched in a clear defensiveness – Sylvanas’ redemption arc is one of the most poorly received things I’ve personally seen witnessed in WoW, and given the last 5 years of the game, that is saying a lot. Knowing that, were I in his shoes, I would also be attempting to dodge, evade, and defend the charge that the storytelling just isn’t good on this character. However, I feel like I’ve stated my counter-case here pretty clearly – Sylvanas has been a victim of unclear narrative, absence from the story’s crucial moments going back a long way, and an unclear perspective on what she is actually supposed to be. In the moments where we all think about her death at Arthas’ hands, I feel something approaching pity and empathy for her, but the team seemingly couldn’t make up their mind about if I should feel that or a sort of gnawing unease with her. Compounding the problem, she hasn’t had a story arc so much as story leaps – she disappears from the main plot, and then bounds in with 8 new developments before pulling a classic Hunter move and disengaging from the story again for long stretches of time, repeating the cycle. Even in BfA, she was an enemy by proxy, as she was so rarely present for the major moments of that story until she jumped into frame, twirled her moustache, and then ran away again.

I hate to be down on the story, because I want to like it, I really do. I like WoW, almost love it, and I’ve put an alarming amount of time into the game, as have many people. I hate that the story sucks and I want it to be better, but I can’t pretend that Sylvanas has a subtle arc full of characterization and interesting story developments, Steve. I just can’t do it. She sucks as a character, and the things that people could like about her were stripped in an instant with BfA’s prepatch. She stopped being a character who had an interesting motivation and moral center about the future of her people and became generic corrupt villain number 87, uninteresting in form and execution. Sylvanas’ story is one of ” could have been, should have been.” She could be in exactly the same boat today in a better way if we simply got to see more of that arc on-screen. If we were shown her deal with the Jailer in 2010 and it was made explicit, if we had more context and story around her moves in the post-Cataclysm world, if we saw her…at all during Mists of Pandaria, if she was present in WoD and had some lines about things according to plan, if she had more development in Legion and we had revisited the choice to make her Warchief more with a critical gaze – it wouldn’t have taken that much. If you gave her maybe 50-80 lines of dialog in all of those prior expansions, there would be something there for us to chew on. Instead, it all just sort of…happened, and frankly? I just want it done. I want her out of the story, because what does she offer it now? We should kill her in the raid and that should be the end of it – she can say whatever she wants but she put herself in that position and by moving forward without her, there is something there to salvage.

But, we all know now with some fair amount of certainty that Blizzard isn’t budging and they don’t care what we have to say. Steve Danuser, in that same Wowhead interview, dismissed people critical of her arc by saying “Some people won’t, because they’ve already decided what they think, or what they want to be true…” and like, sure, but the thing is, that decision is based on the lore in the game. As an almost purely Alliance player, I don’t really care for Sylvanas in my gameplay, but I am more than willing to admit that she was a compelling character for a good chunk of the game. Somewhere along the way, you stopped building her with arcs and plotlines and events and instead just made things sort of happen, and she’s been capricious and bizarre ever since. You can’t retcon that out, Steve, Jesus Christ! Along the way, your team stripped what made Sylvanas interesting away such that I personally just find her awfully written. Not even a bad character, just like a 6th grader came up to the story and dropped 8 pages written in fucking crayon into the damn thing. Despite her inhumanity in the story, I found Sylvanas compelling because she was human. She had these layers of grief and anger over her death, undeath, and fate, and that made her interesting. What is there of that now? Where did all of that go? For fuck’s sake, Steve, it’s fucking gone, and there is no amount of new lore that will patch that up, no new perspective you’re going to give me that can possibly add all of that back in. You might get within a few miles of it, but you’ll never be able to restore it, because it will all be post-hoc narration telling us that “actually, Sylvanas was conflicted and had a clear morally-centered goal in mind” and you know what? Fuck off with that. Her choices, the ones that we all hate her for, were two fucking genocides, one against her own people, you know, the ones she used to care about so much and want the best for? How, oh how, do you redeem that? What is the new perspective that is supposed to make me think about her in a new light or show me a new side?

My apologies for the state of that last paragraph, but holy hell – the Sylvanas story and handling of it make me furious, because it is just such a squandering of potential. I actually did like Sylvanas’ characterization from the Metzen era – it was good, sometimes great, but usually consistent and logical, and never justified after-the-fact. Battle for Undercity was presented as her seeking out Varimathras to end his taint in the Forsaken and regain control, and there was little subtext hinting that Sylvanas might have known or tacitly approved, but that story was told in an interesting way that fit the overall story arc – Sylvanas wanted justice against Arthas at all costs.

But to the topic of the future, here’s where I get worried. The WoW team has confirmed a new novel launching in November – simply titled “Sylvanas.”

Uh oh.

Now, I won’t assume fully that it on its own has to mean the redemption arc is coming or she is living past the raid, but when I talked above about post-hoc narration to turn out the story from this directionless shitshow it is now, this is what I was thinking of. I’m sure the novel will be competently written by Christie Golden, and have interesting literary devices and a reasonably presented plot. What worries me, however, is the description.

So the novel basically aims to present the story of Sylvanas in Shadowlands in full detail up to the point of the raid in 9.1, alongside her history in full. It seems aimed at moving the story of Sylvanas’ pact with the Jailer from short-story written by the old WoW lore team to fully-detailed novel by the current team, cleaning up the retcons and whiplash of Sylvanas’ story before delivering a bridge forward and an explanation for her “choice.” Any rants about major lore in novels outside of the game aside (quick sidenote: I like the WoW novels I have read generally, but I fucking loathe how this foundational lore, which should be in the real game, is shuffled off into a product that I have to buy separately to get the real story.), this also sets up what we all are dreading – the redemption arc.

The implication of this novel is that we’re not done with Sylvanas. If it were just the novel, fine, whatever, I might doubt it. But the game lore, this novel preview, and the comments from Steve Danuser and the team about the future of Sylvanas all paint a clear picture taken in combination – the redemption arc is coming. The best outcome I can think of is one in which Sylvanas’ actions lead to positive change and pave a better path forward while stymying the Jailer, and even that feels far away from what should happen unless Sylvanas’ decision undoes all the death she caused. My worst fear is that she’ll live through some deus ex machina and we’ll spend the rest of the expansion with her working alongside us, while Tyrande becomes a supervillain for no good reason or the Jailer does some bad stuff to Azeroth and we have to stop him.

If I had to distill the previous 5,422 words into something more concise, it would be this – Sylvanas’ arc cannot be redefined in a single novel that the majority of the WoW playerbase will not read, and the direction she is on now is one that has been shoddily built and poorly defined through snap decision making and sudden presentation of new lore that feels contradictory to everything that came before. This novel can retcon and try to smooth out all of the edges, such that a historian looking at WoW in 50 years might think it was that way the whole time – that the novel’s retelling of Sylvanas’ entire life and undeath is, in-fact, what we all got as the game progressed. I think it will probably be good! – and that it will tell a good story that makes some amount of logical sense.

Sylvanas has suffered from drastic changes out of nowhere time and time again, and the game and its network of supporting lore outside of it have done little to challenge that perception or make it make sense. You can write the definitive text of Sylvanas, but we all have been through what is in game today, and it sucks. The implication, the words chosen, the body language and cues Sylvanas has presented in Shadowlands all point to someone wracked with guilt and doubt, but that also feels off given that she so willingly committed, let me remind you, not 1, but two genocides, including one against her own people, the people that defined her character arc as “I will protect them and see a path forward for them.” You simply cannot retcon and smooth over that, because the contradiction remains razor-sharp.

And my fear is that this novel will try, clumsily, to take all of that, to look at this turd through a jeweler’s lens, and to turn Sylvanas back into a heroic figure.

But she has done nothing in game, in universe to actually warrant that transformation. She’s just a villain now, and there’s not really any way out of that perception. I would hold onto some degree of hope that maybe there’s a route out – there’s some way to stick the landing, but I think that would be foolish.

Blizzard and their current lore team have not earned the luxury of my devil’s advocacy for this plotline. Given some of the things I have rationalized about this game, that should speak volumes.

11 thoughts on “The Long-Form Storytelling of World of Warcraft and Where it Fails – My Definitive Sylvanas Redemption Rant

  1. I would disagree with 5-expansion wide Sylvanas development as you requested. There is a lot going on in WoW, and characters are in-and-out of focus.

    Cataclysm has a great Sylvanas story arc for a leveling undead/Hordie in Silverpine, Hillsbrad and Arathi. It was clear immediately that she’s transfered from a revolutionary, undead-survival-caring leader to a genocidal bitch. I’m still crying about Southshore, and I hated her even when fighting under her orders. I think it’s quite enough to understand that Sylvanas of WIII, kinda likeable, was already gone.

    Mists of Pandaria had the boulder of Garrosh as a villain, and Sylvanas just couldn’t play any part on her own – two villains would have been too much. Besides, she joined the revolution, obviously, because the undead were but primary target of Garrosh’ racism and Horde purity PoV, and participated in the Siege (landing and Galakras – she gets some lines there) because, duh, the survival and benefits of the undead race were in question.

    WoD explored the origins of Draenor natives, notably orcs and draenei, so Alliance and Horde leaders were benched back home, and obviously Velen/Thrall were building bridges with the locals.

    In Legion, factions were non-present aside from the initiate disaster, and yet naming her warchief sounded pretty ominous. I do remember thinking “oh no” when Vol’jin first called her name. Anyways, class order halls were in focus, not A/H factions, with Khadgar as a battery for anti-Legion resistance. Even so, seeing her doing some clearly evil stuff instead of leading the Horde she just got under her wing was a marker that she doesn’t care if the world got burned.

    So, up to BfA, whenever she gets a spotlight, it’s all pieces of a current puzzle – and you don’t even need to retcon that. My beef with the story is exactly BfA. I’m 100% sure that they tried to keep the Shadowlands intrigue intact and avoid spoilers, but they went too far with this. Sylvanas was the war trigger, and the war fuel, so seeing her – a lot – talking about motives and in general screentime is what would make the overall expansion story and her own arc a lot more believable and valid.

    Now we’re focused on Covenants, yet we see her in multiple cutscenes from intro to the Torghast story arc, so she’s not at least forgotten. But redemption – any redemption – would be a total mess. You’re so right that the amount of atrocities she commited requires decades of atonement and suffering, not a sudden insight or a single heroic act. I believe they would throw in the raid, and let mrs. Golden fill in the character development gaps. Which would bury everything we could have had about the character.

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    1. The point about Cataclysm is fair, although I would raise this as a counterpoint – if it is critical to her development as an overall character, it should be presented to both factions and made more apparent. It’s fine if she wasn’t the focal character of the time, but while I know what she did to Southshore (and I leveled my Highmountain Tauren through it on the Horde side!) a lot of that story is told through the zone changes and quest text and not on the back of strong characterization or a concept of “show, don’t tell.” I’m told Sylvanas’ forces did this, but it doesn’t cross over to understanding.

      An example I excised from the original draft (that maybe should have gone in, in retrospect) was Jaina’s story arc from WCIII into WoW through to BfA. When I think about a strong character arc with setup and bits of lore, I think of her arc, and I still remember how genuinely emotionally affected I was by the Pride of Kul Tiras cinematic and despite the ways in which BfA was sort of a low mark for the franchise, I really had a glimmer of hope there. If Sylvanas’ arc had more of that style of storytelling – constantly visiting with her, showing the advances in her story for all to see, making each step a logical extension of the road she’s been on before – I think it would have been good, maybe even genuinely great.

      My core issue more than anything with Sylvanas is that she disappears from the main lore for too long at a stretch and comes back with a lot of development all at once, so nothing gets a chance to breathe. Jaina’s arc was slow, she came back with 1 new tidbit or character development at a time, so everything could land. THAT is what I wish we could have had for Sylvanas.

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  2. Well that was a read.

    It may just be better for your sanity to come to terms with the fact that WoW, as a storyline, ended when Legion completed. For better or worse, the Burning Crusade was the driving force behind nearly every evil deed, and that threat is gone.

    Past that point, we’re in the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and Twitter updates of material changes.

    Super tangent. Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan was an amazing series of incredible complexity. How that man’s brain was able to keep track of all the threads is a miracle. He passed before closing the series and another amazing author, Brandon Sanderson, took over the last 3 novels. 3 novels of pure epilogue, based on copious notes from Jordan. There were good books, but not great books like what came before. It’s unfair to judge him by that standard.

    Take a gander at the WoW wiki of lore… it’s super complex and intertwined. So not only does WoW have to have an amazingly strong lead writer, but it also needs to adhere and respect ALL the lore that precedes it. I can only imagine how herculean a task that is.

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    1. I’ll tackle this in reverse order – I definitely have a lot of admiration (admittedly not in this post!) for what the WoW team ultimately has to do to make the lore even sort of work, and ultimately, I know Metzen wasn’t an incredible writer – he had his tropes that he loved and stuck to which could make things feel like a single story repeating in different locations and designs. The thing I dislike with the current lore team is that I know they have the talent to do better – I genuinely like Christie Golden, and when he’s not defending the Sylvanas redemption tour, I think Steve Danuser has a decent mind for storytelling. I feel like they can do more, do better, and the game just misses too much of that potential in the juggling of character arcs.

      I haven’t read Wheel of Time (should, though!) but that is an unenviable situation to be put in regardless with a creative work, especially trying to create something close to the original based on notes. Easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the overall creative vision, or to assemble that detail into an end result that people enjoy or hold in high regard.

      And yeah, I’d like to pretend I don’t care about the story of WoW (my usual refrain here would be “I’m here for the gameplay and the lore is a speedbump on that route”) but I know that I do care, at least a bit. I put the whole case in reply to Gnomecore’s comment, but I really enjoyed the Jaina arc of BfA and how it tied together and contextualized so much of her response to the events of MoP, and when I think about that, I like that Blizzard wasn’t pushing it as hard as they do Sylvanas. It almost felt organically enjoyable! I wish we got that type of storytelling more – if Sylvanas was on the same path but had that pacing and detailing on the route to it, I think it would be objectively better.

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  3. Kinda forgot to update the title to “why I hate the Sylvanas Arc” though I can’t really disagree with the original title, but Sylvanas alone isn’t really a good support structure for the overarching theme.

    But it’s cute how you imply that Blizz has ever had good story design at any point. It’s not a new thing! Some of the stories (can we talk Jaina in Wrath?) were downright cringeworthy. A lot of the reliance on books and other media outside the game is to pad that out, to make the story coherent, because, Dear Mammon, the story team at Blizz can’t!

    I was unaware of the retcon on Sylvanas (mostly because I prefer to make them show it to me in story) but it doesn’t surprise me a bit. Had something similar but possibly less blatant with Illidan. (that WAS obvious in-game at least).

    I *personally* just kind of cringe and move on to the next disaster. Any time I want a good story, I’ll watch The Expanse or read a good book. Blizzard … can’t deliver in that area, it’s just gonna be that way.

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    1. For what it’s worth, I do think the game has had moments of stories that were good, genuinely so. I keep bringing up Jaina’s MoP to BfA arc in comments, and I think it makes the perfect counterpoint to Wrath Jaina by really fleshing out her story and putting a lot of clear motivations into it while presenting the bulk of the details in-game. A big chunk of that was even the new writing team! Obviously, that’s a subjective take on it, but I do think that there are moments of shine in the lore of the game.

      Even then, I would still admit to liking Metzen’s stories when I was younger, even knowing now they were sort of one-note things, and even when they were bad, I do think they had a constrained scope compared to modern WoW, where everything is about the cosmos and this far flung ideal of all the things in the WoW universe. Arguably, that is a big shift worth talking about in its own right – probably the shift that has introduced more quality issues to the narrative than anything.

      In the end, I’m not in WoW to get a good story, but I prefer the game most when the story it delivers is reasonably decent and fleshed out in-game, and I think that Sylvanas has missed that mark pretty widely.

      (No, not changing the title)

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      1. Oh, I do agree, Jaina’s story was pretty good in BfA (I am inclined to dispute that they did much with her before then but YMMV). Heck, you’re talking to a guy that named his cat Jaina so yeah I stan. Talk about a redemption ard 😀 😀

        The bigger line here is that the examples of lasting, extended effect in this game is pretty hard to find. In a way that gets lost in the rant here. I’m not talking about constantly featuring a character in some way, but in consistency of the character, a *respect* for the character. I mean, are we gonna look at Buff Khadgar and just ignore what he looked like in TBC? There are shenanigans afoot, I tell ya.

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      2. Hah, well, for me, Jaina’s presence in the story dwarfs Sylvanas because it is better-paced and more consistent compared to that. In isolation, is it great, consistent storytelling? Not always – but that’s where my upper bound for the WoW story is. I might visit that arc in particular in a separate post because I think that it encapsulates the counterpoint to what Blizzard is doing with Sylvanas. Although, I’m sure someone has a family pet named for Sylvanas, and boy do I not want to meet that animal!

        Khadgar feels like a heel turn is afoot, between his sudden workout regimen and willingness to drop out of the story instead of advocating fiercely for peace. When that happens, I probably won’t have 6,000ish words for it, but it’ll be a topic. And because of the current narrative structure of the game and how characters rotate in and out, I am fairly certain he’s getting a spotlight….soonish.

        Joking about Khadgar aside though, yeah, that is ultimately the point or animating idea here, even though I let the post’s flavor steer purely into rant – the story doesn’t respect characters enough to present them consistently and explain what has changed in a concise and timely manner. If I write that Jaina post (probably more likely by the minute, TBH) then I think that one will be a better vessel for the message. 🙂

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      3. The lack of linearity for Sylvanas is definitely a problem, I agree.

        It would be interesting to look at all the major characters in on a level playing field, as it were – not just Jaina and Dadghar, but also Thrall (remember him guys?), Saurfang(s), Taelia, Magni & Moira, and so forth (that latter one is just dying for a sudden reveal).

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  4. I’m not stepping into the middle of this because what I know about WoW’s storyline could fit on the back of a postage stamp. I just wanted to say that I don’t believe longform narrative has any place in mmorpgs at all. It’s become something many games seem to feel they have to have but that’s because the nature of the genre has changed to the point that it really needs a new name. It’s all but unrecognizeable as the genre I was playing fiteen years ago.

    One thing I would be interested in knowing is what percentage of players in the big, story-driven mmorpgs play through any story content at all that doesn’t gatekeep other content they’re genuinely interested in. My feeling is a large majority would ignore the whole story thing completely if it was siloed off the way other instanced content is. I would bet most people do it because it’s in the way or because it’s easier to go through it than around it, not because they care about the story being told. Which, in turn, makes me wonder why companies spend so much time and effort producing it.

    Lore, on the other hand, is integral to mmorpgs. I do think boundaries between lore and story need to be maintained much more strictly if the integrity of the form is to hold.

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