The last time I wrote here, it was a long, ranty affair about how Sylvanas Windrunner’s character arc in World of Warcraft is…not great! Stylistically, I’m not a big fan of angry posting on a regular basis (I find things like AVGN, Angry Joe, and Nostalgia Critic to be dreck that rarely appeals to me) but sometimes, I enjoy the flavor and it gets closer to the way I tend to speak in real life – less filtered and thought through, sometimes a little rough!
But in the drafting process of that post, it got unwieldy and long and my original plan had to be scrapped (which itself was my second plan from a combined post that would also include 9.1 lore stuff), and the thing I scrapped is…what you’re about to read. A much calmer, better-overall analysis of the journey in-story of Jaina Proudmoore.
To be clear from the last post, my beef with Sylvanas is a simple one that I definitely overexplained as means of producing the evidence and clarifying the point, and it is this: she’s been absent from the story at too many points and comes back with too many new developments or sudden shifts with minimal or no explanation, which leaves her feeling capricious and difficult to invest in.
But Jaina is sort of a different character.
Jaina in Warcraft III through Wrath of the Lich King is…kind of an inconsistent character? There is a common through-line to her tale, which is that she is the Warcraft universe’s lone pacifist. Other characters lean on that trait a little bit here and there when the story demands it, but Jaina was, through much of the formative years of WoW, the pre-eminent peacenik of the game’s lore.
Jaina served as an interesting character that filled an underserved niche in the story of WoW – a character who saw the Alliance versus Horde conflict as an artifice, something we could discard to live better. Sometimes, she’s a pacifist in a very real but dull way, and other times, she acts on that motive interestingly. Wrath, arguably, she’s not doing well at being interesting at it – she has the power and means to exert more influence than one might believe from the way the story was told in-game. Famously, she weeps at the show of compassion from Varian as the elder Saurfang comes to claim his now-dead son during the conflict at Icecrown Citadel – a moment that has some level of emotional impact given Varian’s story at the time, but also feels excessive – overly weepy dramatics.
Catalcysm served as a cooling-off period for Jaina, until the Mists of Pandaria pre-patch, and then…
The Origins of Jaina the White
Okay, LotR jokes aside, Jaina as a character was fine but largely there as the embodiment of keeping the peace – when tensions flare between the factions, she would show up to douse the flames of war and try to bring everyone to the table. Her Warcraft III arc was genuinely interesting, because it actually explains how she got there, and it’s part of why I actually like her characterization – she sees her father being abusive and downright evil to the orcs and she tries to reason with him. She meets Thrall and has a genuine connection there, launching a thousand ships. She experiences genuine heartbreak at the loss of Arthas to the power of the Lich King, and much of her story in WCIII is tragedy. Her father dies, her boyfriend is lost to evil, and she is the ruler of a new city in an unfamiliar continent, with few people who truly know her around and her allegiance to the Alliance straining at her relationship with the people on the continent who do know her – who happen to be leaders of the Horde.
In WoW, Jaina had a sort of passive, backseat role in the lore until the events of MoP, when Theramore is destroyed by the Horde. In a lot of ways, despite the fantastical nature of the specifics, Jaina’s journey as it begins in MoP is actually quite relatable, in my opinion. Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of events that have stretched and challenged my perception of things and challenged my beliefs by exposing them suddenly as bereft of the value I once found in them. I spent years in a relationship with an abusive girlfriend and got really close to getting married to that person, and the journey away from that was fraught with a ton of challenges and changed a lot of how I looked at life by upending the fundamental belief systems that had led me there and led me to stay in the first place. I’m sure similar experiences in tone and idea have been had by most people – life is full of moments like that, where closely-held beliefs are challenged and things are difficult.
Jaina’s response to this unprovoked violence from the Horde was to abandon pacifism. And for a few years, her story arc seemed like it was kind of drifting in a bad way. Without the centering on her peacefulness, her character felt a little strange, and a lot of people frequently commented and joked about the new Jaina. At one point, I was definitely one of them – the whole genre of “Jaina is a dreadlord” really picked up steam here, and ironically, it wouldn’t be hard to find examples of things said about both this Jaina arc and Sylvanas’ current arc.
At the time, it felt right to be critical – Metzen was clearly moving to focus on Overwatch before leaving Blizzard altogether, and Jaina’s arc was nearly always present in some form through MoP, before she kind of left for WoD, coming back in Legion and then promptly leaving again.
But, where I find the difference is that Jaina came back with smaller, more logical changes in tone. In MoP, she was thirsty for Horde blood, absolutely desiring the conflict and chaos of it and wanting to see the Horde brought under heel. This characterization remained consistent through until BfA – it rarely changed in more than tone. She kicked the Horde out of Dalaran as leader of the Kirin Tor, she attempted to push Varian into open conflict with the remaining Horde leaders after the Siege of Orgrimmar, and when Khadgar pushed for Dalaran to be mobilized for the conflict against the Legion, Jaina removed herself after she was overruled on allowing the Horde to return to the floating city. Whatever you might be inclined to say about her during these years, her character was consistent.
Furthering this, however, I really appreciated and still appreciate that much of the lore that defines Jaina was delivered in-game. Sure, there is a Jaina novel and there are character beats that are held up exclusively in the novels, but at the same time, you can skip all of them and still get a sense of who she is and how she’s developed over time solely through the in-game lore delivery, especially if you played at the time. The Battle of Theramore happens in WoW as a scenario, and you play through all the events of it and get to see the shift in Jaina’s character!
But, a lot of the weight of this story rests on the landing, so we go from Jaina’s white-hot rage to Battle for Azeroth, where the story gains a lot of nuance…
A Sense of Belonging and Understanding – Finding Herself, Finding Peace
Jaina was a character whose arc was essentially fully baked for Battle for Azeroth. Her character at the start of the expansion was tailored for it – angry at the Horde already, everyone else getting there, and ready to smash them. At the same time, the gameplay design and zone selection for BfA fit her even better – going to Kul Tiras during this specific story actually gives us a ton of Jaina notes to run with from all eras of Warcraft. We’ve got RTS story threads coming back with Jaina’s relationship to her family, we’ve got Thrall coming back into the fold to help the Horde find its way, and we’ve got a literal factional conflict that she’s been begging for, and yet at the same time, there’s a sense that it isn’t about Horde versus Alliance as much as it is about rooting out the venomous elements of the Horde that lead to these kind of conflicts.
The funniest part about Jaina here, though, is what she actually does – which is, in the beginning, almost nothing!
She appears, does a lot of really cool shit in the Battle for Lordaeron, brings us to Kul Tiras (if Alliance) and then…goes to jail! Jaina has a lot of character arcs to work through, and the thing I actually loved about BfA, unapologetically so, is that they actually addressed that well, in my opinion.
When you finish up questing in Kul Tiras, especially the Tiragarde Sound questing, it becomes clear that Kul Tiras is sharply divided and that Priscilla Ashvane is trying to use the wedge of Daelin’s death and Jaina’s return to force the people against the Proudmoores. And…it almost works! Jaina accepts her fate at her mother’s hands, and her mother is almost murdered by Ashvane, while Ashvane is also hatching a plot to kill Jaina. In the end, the Proudmoores prevail, but first, we get to work through a series of character developments centered on Jaina.
I am unashamed to admit that the Pride of Kul Tiras storyline and the Realm of Torment cinematic are poignant to me and I actually did cry a smidge on the first viewing, because it has everything I want a good story to be – strong characters in relatable situations who find their way forward in spite of the burdens of the life they’ve lived. Jaina has shouldered all of the pain of her life and internalized it – she feels personally responsible for, in no particular order: the death of her father, the loss to darkness and fall of Arthas, the destruction of Theramore, the loss of Rhonin (okay, we get one novel hook), and her inability to reunite with her people upon her return to her homeland. She shoulders an immense personal guilt, most of which is undeserved – many of the people involved made the choices that led to their downfalls themselves and Jaina could do little more than watch as they self-destructed, or in the case of those like Rhonin, made their own choice to sacrifice such that Jaina could live and grow.
Jaina’s character arc hit me personally very hard because again, those feelings are relatable. I mentioned the abusive girlfriend situation above because it is a situation (especially in the gender roles accepted as normal) to feel like being the man in such a situation is a personal failing – that you didn’t do the right things, try hard enough, exert control, and the like – and if you accept that framing and work within it, it becomes an impossible internal struggle. I spent years past the shelf life of that relationship trying hard to make things work, and even after it ended, it took me nearly 6 years to reach a point where I was able to assess it with a level head, without the guilt I had carried, and to resolve those feelings. To put a cap on this overly personal part of the post, shortly after that resolution, I got engaged to my now-wife and I can say that I am in a much better place!
Jaina’s story works here because it creates a space in which we return to those points, we see her torments, and then, through the rest of the core BfA story, we get to see her resolve the remaining conflicts in her character. She learns of the reanimation of her brother by Sylvanas and gets close to that enraged, anti-Horde Jaina, becoming the end boss of the Battle of Dazar’alor, but then she gets the closure she needed. Her brother is returned to her, not through some SI:7 Alliance operative, but by Baine Bloodhoof, regardless of the risks he must take. Thrall returns to the Horde due to the actions of Varok Saurfang, and he guides the leadership of the Horde against Sylvanas Windrunner, while working with Jaina and re-establishing their old bonds. Jaina finds the companionship and camaraderie she was missing, and learns to set aside her overly simplistic and broad hatred of the Horde, becoming focused on the root cause of those issues and only against those who fan the flames of war.
With this, Jaina is a much-more nuanced and fleshed out character – gone are the days of her being one note of either peace or bloodshed. She is instead a character focused on peace through means, willing to undertake difficult action if it will safeguard or bring about peace. She is neither bloodthirsty nor a pacifist – instead settling into a new middle-ground that suits her as a character and is reflective of the growth she’s been through over almost 20 years of lore.
Jaina won her battle with herself, and it is a powerful story, to me personally for the reasons I mentioned, but I do think generally it is quite powerful as well.
Could Blizzard Do It Again?
In my post about Sylvanas, I was overly impolite about the prospects of the future story for Sylvanas, largely because the company line on her story arc is defending something I personally think is indefensible and that is definitely contentious among fans – a redemption arc after the atrocities Sylvanas has committed in the story.
But at the same time, arguably Jaina’s characterization was built such that BfA could have been much worse for her story, and yet here I’ve argued passionately that I think they stuck the landing strongly. Could they do the same for Sylvanas?
In isolation, taking nothing else but this example into account, could they? Sure! The same writers that pulled together the Jaina story I loved so much are the ones working on Sylvanas right now, and hell, I’ve even noted here that there is some similarity in the arcs of the two characters, where a murky Act 2 pulls perception of the character down. Right now, arguably, we’re in Sylvanas’ act 2, and boy, is it murky in here! Sylvanas has the same advantages that Jaina did too – strong lore from Warcraft III as the foundation, focus across multiple generations of WoW, and a fanbase – but at the same time, I would hold that the severity of action is a problem.
Jaina’s struggle was largely personal, and she rarely actually acted in a way that escalated actual conflict during her middle years. She encouraged conflict and was rooting for the downfall of the Horde, but she didn’t, say, cleanse Dalaran of them violently or the like. Compared to Sylvanas, whose internal struggles have led to a lot of external violence, Jaina might as well be a saint!
However, I am dismissive of the idea that a redemption arc for Sylvanas would work. Jaina had little to redeem externally but rather had an internalized redemption – freeing herself of the guilt she carried. No character externally demanded or needed Jaina to apologize or atone – and that was the point of her story. Sylvanas doesn’t really fit that at all, and I think that is a key problem to observe here.
But, a lot of the writing others and I have done about the Sylvanas “problem” as it were, focuses on the idea that the redemption arc is a relative surety, and to be fair, while the signs point that way, it doesn’t mean that is what will happen. Part of the actual lore anticipation for 9.1 comes down to seeing which way we go – does Sylvanas actually attempt redemption, or does she simply have a change of heart and go down in battle, ashamed of her past and with a final act that maybe helps set us on a path where we can tackle the Jailer? For all the bluster and fury of my posts on the topic, I don’t know which direction she goes and I think there is an interesting story that could be told there.
As ever, the problem is simple enough to understand – a lot of players have apprehension about Blizzard threading the needle and walking the fine line needed to make Sylvanas’ story actually work, regardless of whether we get a full redemption arc or something different. This apprehension has been earned by Blizzard, who often doesn’t do a good job of telling a story and sometimes gets too encumbered by what they think is cool to deliver a coherent, well-thought out plot.
On the other hand, I just spent 2,500+ words writing about a time in very recent history where they absolutely nailed it, in my opinion.
In short, Blizzard storytelling is a land of contrasts, and we can only wait to see what form they’re on when 9.1 launches and the secrets of Sylvanas are revealed.