The Nature of “Retcons” And The Way World of Warcraft Tells Stories

Warning – this post has spoilers for the post-Sanctum raid cinematic in WoW, some light discussion of Grimoire of the Shadowlands, and some spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV content all over the place, for good measure.

The silliest, most pedantic argument on Earth happening right now is whether or not what happens in WoW’s storytelling and lore constitutes a “retcon.” Retcon, short for “retroactive continuity,” is when a story has a past detail revised or added to allow for a newer plotline or story change to occur without breaking the story’s existing continuity. When done well, it can still feel fine and can allow the story room to breathe, when not done well, it can create the perception of meaninglessness in following the story.

Naturally, a pedantic argument concerning WoW is extremely in my wheelhouse, so here I am now to discuss!

Much and more has been made of the recent lore releases from Blizzard for WoW. It started with the declaration that the Chronicle series was presented in-universe from a biased viewpoint, which then, naturally, means all of the lore within it is subject to interpretation. It went from being a sterling reference material to, well, a story. Since then, all of the books of lore are presented as biased interpretations from a variety of storytellers. Folk & Fairytales focuses in on the stories people of Azeroth tell, with no twist on whether or not they are true, false, or somewhere in-between. The newest release, Grimoire of the Shadowlands, does the same, presenting a Broker narrative about the story and with it, a new Cosmology chart depicted from the Shadowlands point of view.

In-game, this has crept in too, as one particular story about Sylvanas in Folk & Fairytales has seemingly been confirmed as partially true with the end cinematic of Sanctum of Domination – The Jailer did indeed seem to have a fragment of Sylvanas’ soul. Is it the “good” part? Well, we don’t know yet – and the as-yet unveiled final chapter of the Death’s Advance campaign seems likely to touch on that.

So are these retcons?

It’s…tricky, to say one way or the other with absolute surety, and I think those saying yes or no are kind of missing the forest for the trees. To me, these lore tweaks are emblematic of a bigger problem with Blizzard’s writing overall regardless of what you call them. To answer the question first, though – I think they are to an extent. Yes, presenting new information from a different perspective is not itself a “retcon” but the use in-game and in the lore and materials around Warcraft as a whole clearly serves the same purpose. To date, we’ve seen Sylvanas on something of a confusing downward trend in WoW – she’s slid at times into full-on villainy, before coming back in Legion to be strangely sort-of dignified and honorable. She seemingly bought into the Horde as a concept before breaking it to her ends as a weapon against Life, working with the Jailer. Ultimately, she vowed against serving others, but then has also been serving the Jailer.

In the context we have it, this story is a fucking wreck. If we honor the current lore in full, which is that Sylvanas’ “good” part of her soul was siphoned away back in Wrath of the Lich King, it recontextualizes her actions in an inconsistent way. Her post-Cataclysm streak makes far more sense in that context, but then her actions in Legion are quite confusing by the same logic. Yes, it is possible that she acted as such in a manipulative context, and if I was to be most generous to Blizzard, that is the tack I would take, but the problem is that it creates massive whiplash if I’m following the story contemporaneously. Whether or not it is an actual retcon is missing the point – the larger point is that even if this was the plan the whole time, the storytelling at each individual moment makes it weaker. Because there’s no great foreshadowing or ramp-up to it – you could argue individual components ramp that way, like Sylvanas even having Val’kyr, why Vol’jin made her Warchief of the Horde, or why she had a deal with Helya and what that deal even was. But as a whole story, it’s a mess – nothing hints that Sylvanas was “incomplete” as such – we’re just presented with that idea right at the end of the current raid and it’s left dangling there without explanation. If you’ve read the story in Folk & Fairytales, then sure, you might have a concept of it – but if not, the game makes no effort to even explain it (as of yet, which hopefully will change).

The thing about the lore books being presented as stories told by unreliable narrators is that it sends a sort of bad message to me as a person who wants to love the lore – that following anything or putting too much stock into understanding the game is a waste of time. What these types of behaviors do is just tell me to turn my brain off and enjoy the cool pictures and neat action scenes. Like, sure, that’s fine – I enjoy Marvel movies and I’m perfectly okay with flicking the off-switch on my brain every now and then to just enjoy things (why do I feel like this is going to be the most contentious thing I say here?). The problem is that WoW doesn’t tell me to switch my brain to the off-position – it tells me to turn it into overdrive to understand the cosmos of the entire universe of Warcraft, to wrap my brain around its myriad twists, turns, characters, and events, but then the big story moments are all things that I would best enjoy in a fugue state because they don’t explain anything or matter until a subsequent story quest or patch comes in to barely explain it. 8.2 in BfA was a good example of this – why did N’Zoth keep Azshara alive in the ending cinematic of The Eternal Palace? Wait until later – oh later comes and it still isn’t clear, other than some vague sense that she is being sapped of energy for…something. Oh, also, by the way, she’s still alive and out there, threatening to claim “the true throne of power,” and what’s that? Tune in next time!

Right now, the lesson the game has beaten into me over 16 years of play is that following the story at the time is a stupid idea for suckers, because most plotlines only attempt to make full sense in retrospect, when the moments of cool all coalesce into whatever the hell it is Blizzard is going for. It turns out that I am a sucker who loves stupid ideas, so here I am now, following this Sylvanas plotline and not liking it, but who even knows in a patch or two if what I know about it today will matter!

Lastly, I think the whole concept of multiple cosmology charts and all gets me to something I find quite vexing about WoW. The story has lost nearly all sense of grounding in favor of chasing moments via the Rule of Cool. I love Shadowlands zones in isolation, and they have zone stories that are grounded to that particularl zone and moment in the story. However, they make little sense combined, and once you move up to the story the whole expansion centers on, it makes less sense. The story of the Kyrian is great, especially as they begin to come around this patch to try to bring the Forsworn back into the fold and establish a path of choice for future Kyrian. That story isn’t super well told in the gameplay content we’ve gotten so far, but it is there and I appreciate it because that was a wart of the 9.0 experience for me. However, the 9.0 story also led me to believe that none of the leaders of the Shadowlands talked to each other to note the lack of souls, the lack of anima, and the like – and that seems, I dunno, kind of dumb? Ultimately, all of that is window dressing anyways, because the real story is us knocking over Sylvanas and then moving on to the Jailer, and other than establishing the Jailer’s role, the rest of the Shadowlands’ leaders may as well also be set dressing. All of this then, currently at least, has only a tenuous link to Azeroth at best – when does it circle back to being about the world…of Warcraft?

This will surely rankle some people, but let’s compare to FFXIV. In FFXIV, the story establishes from the outset that you are the Warrior of Light, a champion of Hydaelyn, and while it takes some time for the NPCs in the story to figure that out, it is consistently presented and grounded to the overarching story and lore of the world. Even at its largest, most crazy scales, the story of FFXIV centers on established lore and worldbuilding, defined events and ideas, and never gets that far away from them. What’s the deal with the world shards? Well, that gets explained in the Crystal Tower raid series, revisited in the Warrior of Darkness story from Heavensward, and then is centered in Shadowbringers. What about the Crystal Tower? The magic of it is explored heavily in the story content of the raid series in A Realm Reborn, and then revisited in Shadowbringers in a way that makes logical sense. Even the Warrior of Light’s nature as an Ascian soul fragment gets hinted at very early and follows quite logically so that when 5.3 in Shadowbringers finally makes that explicit, it makes sense! Sure, if you look at the story of FFXIV from the outside, it has this quality of being too much – big, over the top, excessive. However, even at its absolute excesses, it still connects back in to common elements of the story, established and refined over the last 7 years. The power of the Ascians is defined early on and remains consistent throughout, from Lahabrea to Emet-Selch to Elidibus, all of them have the same rules and the same powers.

The journey of the player character in WoW is a mess, by comparison – we start on a humble adventure and the game pushes us into a role where we are powerful champions of Azeroth, by an increasingly convoluted set of measures and externalities that always lose power eventually. On top of that, the systems of the game mean that we never get to be the starring role in most of the lore content – Sylvanas’ most recent scuffle with the Jailer being one in a string of cinematics where bespoke animation and camerawork make an awesome looking, cool cinematic – that our player character has no role in. You could argue that FFXIV’s in-game cutscenes aren’t as cool, and I’d agree to a point, but the thing I love about FFXIV in comparison is that the game absolutely makes every effort to center the story on me as the player, where WoW wants me to feel important but then cannot do that in a way that looks cool or fits well, so I’m excluded from the big lore moments. Why is my raid group not staring down the Jailer and fighting against him as he peels the sigil(?) from the Arbiter? We just let him do his thing? I’m not here to argue for fewer cinematics – I just want us in them. If that means we have to wait for a future WoW expansion and engine update to bring models further up to par with stronger facial animation and lip sync, so be it. The bespoke machinima approach is fine, but it creates a weird dissonance – my actions drive the story forward but then I’m not present at the story beats, and if it were just the cinematic, that would be fine, but then once you finish Sanctum of Domination, characters have new dialog that indicates all this other stuff happened after the cinematic and I don’t get to see that either?

The challenging thing for me is that as a person, I like rule of cool stuff – and I don’t necessarily think that WoW has to go back-to-basics or create a new expansion where the threat is low-end. Vanilla WoW gives us world-ending threats but presents them in such a way that it makes sense – Ragnaros is a shade of his full glory, Nefarian and Onyxia both are mortal and more political beasts than anything, using disguises to pull the strings of Azeroth’s races, C’Thun has been sealed in Ahn’Qiraj for a long time, and Kel’Thuzad is a powerful lich but still only recently possessed of his newfound dark magics. On the flipside, Argus is a tortured world soul with untold power, Sylvanas has been infused with the power of death and has been steeping in it for over a decade on top of being the most skillful ranger of Quel’Thalas, and I’m supposed to believe that at some point this expansion, we’ll confront and bring the Jailer low? Sure, maybe it’s borrowed power and that’s the lore – but then if the Jailer’s threat could be answered with the power of the Covenants, why are they not the vanguard against him? I’m supposed to be both a humble adventurer and a world-saving champion wielding incomparable power, and I often struggle to reconcile both. As a last point of comparison to FFXIV, this is what I think that game does much, much better – I’m the Warrior of Light, a fragmented Ascian soul with the power of the Echo, and my player allies are too – so our exploration, our fight against world-ending threats, all of it is anchored to a well-told base story that makes logical sense and doesn’t ask me to reconcile two vastly different conceptions of my character.

In a way, I almost wish WoW just went full rule of cool – stop trying to make things make sense or build a compelling backstory – establish a lore that defines the world and its threats, and then we can just move through all the cool shit that happens in that world. Instead, my biggest beef with WoW is that it uses a myriad of confusing storytelling contrivances to try and make the game follow a logical path that isn’t actually there, and creates all of these contradictions and conflicts in the story being told such that it feels worthless to actually follow at the present time.

In a way, I’m happier being a dungeon player for the time-being – each dungeon is a slice of a zone story at a moment in time and so I don’t have to concern myself with anything happening outside the swirly blue portal.

2 thoughts on “The Nature of “Retcons” And The Way World of Warcraft Tells Stories

  1. One. The majority, even myself who actually sees logic in the lore, even if it’s not executed well, is just tired of continuity that we had since Pandaria and on. Garrosh escaped, then Gul’dan escaped, then sword hit the fan, then Sylvanas escaped, then… We simply need a wrap up, so we can sit in a world of peace after defeating a current big bad – a resolution. And Blizzard tells their continuious story clumsily too since BfA – trying too hard to keep the intrigue and so telling too little at an every next step.

    Two. People do require smaller scale stories, as it feels more personal, and Blizzard frankly does not work well with cosmology. It’s most weird, it’s clumsy, the worst examples being Legion’s deus ex shitshow of Tomb/Argus and now Shadowlands.

    Blizzard kinda painted themselves in a corner by constantly raising stakes, but then it’s too easy to jump out of it. Just not raise stakes, is all. Draw a line with the Jailer defeated by the new seals or what not, Arthas’ soul, Anduin recovered, and we rejoice. Reboot Azeroth and send us back fighting the local threats – as lorewise it already has a perfect explanation. Make it a dragon, or an Azshara, or Zul empire again to finish every next expansion and sit in peace between them. Open the “other half” of the planet for exploration. Send us a planetary invasion of the evil Light which we could fight on our turf – and make priests and paladins all over the world question their beliefs.

    And only send us to other planet when there comes a final expansion to hatch Azeroth the Titan and finish the Void threat once and for all (but hey, I think balance between cosmic powers is the key).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The one big lesson I learned here is: don’t buy Blizz’ lore books. They’ll just trash them in an expansion or two.

    The only reason I bought the first three (^ sucker) is that I wanted to peer into the corners and learn the things I had overlooked, without waiting for it to be featured on some blog’s “did you know???” segment. Now it appears that nothing in them can be relied upon.

    Anyone want a set of books? Pretty books, lots of pictures.

    The elephant in the room is, as you say, not so much the lore but the extremely bad job they’ve done with it, on all fronts. It’s frustrating, to see all the anti-lore schmucks laughing.

    Liked by 1 person

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