World of Warcraft’s focus on story over lore, on character-driven drama over worldbuilding, has never been more conflicted than it is in Shadowlands.
Shadowlands is presented as the story of the afterlife, right? What happens when you die in Warcraft – you go to the Shadowlands. We get to explore the realms of death and see the ways in which things are (or are not) working.
There’s a problem, though – Shadowlands is actually, at its heart, a character-driven story about the descent and redemption of Sylvanas Windrunner and Tyrande Whisperwind – two vastly divergent stories being told in similar manner. It also, ostensibly, is a character story about Zovaal, the Jailer.
But there’s a big, huge, really apparent problem if you think about it for long enough – there’s so little focus on the characters that it doesn’t feel character-driven, and such a small amount of work done on the actual world-building that nothing really links you to the Shadowlands.
(Spoiler warning – from here on out, there are some spoilers for the story of WoW in 9.1, including the final chapter of the 9.1 Covenant campaign.)
An excellent Reddit post I saw before going to bed really contextualized the problem in a new light for me, and I want to share it as the source and then riff on it as part of my ongoing analysis of the story of Shadowlands.
Point the First – There’s No Consistent Lens or Anchor Through Shadowlands
The biggest problem I see (and agree with the poster on) is that the Shadowlands story is a mess because there’s no consistent point-of-view character for us to relate to. Each chapter of the story has a new viewpoint, new characters to pull us into the story, and it has this sort of feeling of whiplash when each new zone has to introduce new characters and a new plotline. I think each of those elements are individually pretty good – to my taste, the zone stories are the best stories in Shadowlands – but when you mash them together, it’s a big mess. Because your character doesn’t have a person to relate to, everything just feels so large-scale and incomprehensible as to be meaningless.
One commenter on that Reddit post had a great example of a way to do it right – you could tell the same story through all four zones and into the Maw, but just bring Kleia or Pelagos along from the beginning. Have them serve as your anchor while leveling, to relate how things affect the Shadowlands as a whole and to be a consistent voice and perspective in the narrative, so that each zone is individually less dependent on building your narrator character for the story because you have that already.
This becomes a bigger problem in the weekly episodes of 9.1 storytelling, where each week’s story is basically an independent story arc that only barely gets threaded back into the main story. In fact, in many of them, the current goings-on with Korthia and the Maw feel almost inconsequential – we leave to do things elsewhere from Korthia, and then at the end of each week’s questing, we go back to Korthia, the Primus goes “ah yes, this will help us in the fight against Zovaal” and curtain down. Why will these things help us? What does any of this mean to an overarching story being told? We’ll revisit this point later, because it brings up one of my most disliked things about the Shadowlands story.
Point The Second – The Difference Between a Character and a Force of Nature
Quick question, if you can answer – what are Zovaal’s character motivations?
Ah, you struggle, as did I.
You might be able to name his vaguely-coded goals (“unmake reality” and all of that) but then it just leads to a bigger question – why? What is it that drives Zovaal forward? We get these tiny little snippets of an idea – he was a part of the First Ones, he was exiled for some reason, he was once the Arbiter, and he feels betrayed. At the same time, the First Ones we are allied with only vaguely hint at what happened – he betrayed them. What did he do? We’re supposed to buy-in to Zovaal as a character, to think that his motivation matters and that we need to understand it, but the game doesn’t even give us the material to start to comprehend what happened with him. Not even the vast number of supplemental lore books released in the last year have any clues beyond “betrayal” – that the First Ones believed Zovaal betrayed them and he believes he was betrayed by them. Okay, fine – whose perspective is objectively correct, or is it that both are seeing different things in the other?
A big part of why this story is unsatisfying (at best) to me right now is simple. Zovaal is just evil – I don’t get any particular sense that he turned evil or was ever good, because the only things I have about his past are implications and innuendos. I wish I could care, because there is a good story that could be told about a falling-out, about a descent from grace – but that isn’t the story being told, and it makes things feel like shit. What’s the Jailer’s story? At this point, who even cares – he’s just a plot device that moves the story forward by doing something basic and unexplainable – and by the end of the expansion, all of his moves throughout 9.x will be brought into some sort of attempt at a cohesive whole through a big ass-pull. If we’re lucky. We may see the end of the expansion with him remaining an unknowable Dollar-store Thanos.
Also, can you stop making his nipple ever-present in cutscenes?
Point The Third – Who Is Shadowlands Actually About?
Another big problem with the character-arcs of Shadowlands is that the game’s current story is about a bunch of characters getting next-to-no screen time. You can say the Shadowlands story is about the Jailer, but he has no real motivation presented and what has been teased has so little substance as to be meaningless. Tyrande could be the focus, but she appears at the start, disappears for the main story arc, comes back (if you’re Night Fae) for a sliver of 9.0, and then disappears again until two chapters of the 9.1 story sort-of show her, and they’re also different then how she’s been written thus far!
Is it a story about Sylvanas? Well…that feels most correct, but again, the same problem exists here as it does for Tyrande. Sylvanas is present for about 30 seconds at the start of the expansion – literally. If you factor in the Torghast cinematics, Sylvanas gets about 3 minutes of appearance time prior to 9.1. Even in 9.1, a raid patch in which she is presented as the big bad, she gets around a minute of involvement in the 9.1 story up until this week, then she gets about two minutes (one of which is the raid cutscene) and that’s it for now. We’ve spent more time talking to the Primus – is the Shadowlands story about him as the focus?
The example given in the post is a hypothetical about Harry Potter not showing up until book 4 of his own franchise, and that is quite apt. Right now, no character the story could be about as a focus has been in the spotlight for long enough or consistently enough to make things flow well. Speaking of…
Point The Fourth – The Narrative Pacing and Timeline is a Mess With No Anchor
Shadowlands has differently-flowing time, ooh. Okay, great – why is that important, though? At what point in the broader Warcraft history do these events take place? There’s no sense of scale to any of the problems posed in the story – when did the anima drought start, exactly? We have some sense that it was within the last 10 years of main continuity, but how long has that been in Shadowlands, since time is wibbly-wobbly there? Once we get to Shadowlands, this does not improve at all – how do events in the split Covenant campaigns link together? How long have we been in the Shadowlands in Shadowlands-time? 9.1 is a bigger mess because it has a linked sequence of events, but then you can do the raid earlier and be ahead of the actual story in one regard while still not having the sequence of events that leads there fully expanded upon and man, that’s something isn’t it?
It’s so hard to have more than a passing interest in the story because there’s no linkage of events, no clear sequence of time being followed, and it doesn’t feel like a plot device that will pay off later – just a silly thing that isn’t being paid attention to. The obvious hook is a future one where we’ve been in the Shadowlands for a fleeting moment there that ends up being an eternity on Azeroth, but even then – that flies in the face of the way the timeline seems to have been established around the Anima draught!
But we’re just waiting on the reveal to make it make some sense.
Point The Fifth – Revelations Are Meaningless Without Context
The post on Reddit details this very succinctly – Shadowlands as an expansion is all about reveals. The Jailer pulling the strings of Azeroth is a big reveal that is supposed to provide this exciting context for how powerful he is, but because we have no sense of what his power fully is, it also doesn’t feel interesting. Like, knowing the Jailer was working with Sylvanas for over a decade sounds cool if that was always the plan and the story has been written leading to that, with these bits of intrigue sprinkled in. Instead, it was a clumsy bit of retroactive storytelling, which should, in theory, put Sylvanas’ actions from Wrath forward into a clear context, but because Sylvanas has been all over the place in terms of character, it just feels awkward and unnatural. Elune is the Winter Queen’s sister? Okay, cool – I haven’t properly met Elune yet so I have no context for that, and I’ve barely met the Winter Queen, so why do I care about that anyways?
The post’s big point for me is how the addition of the Jailer as this force in Warcraft for decades actually makes older, settled lore less cool. Warcraft III was an interesting, character-driven story – but now it has the subtext of being a story about how Zovaal has dumb idiots working for him who fought each other instead of doing any real or meaningful work towards a goal.
Point The Sixth – The Rule of Cool Stuff Makes The Story Really Stupid
Much has been made of Zovaal being Great Value Thanos, and I agree with all of it. However, perhaps the dumbest element of the entire 9.1 story is the stupid sigils. We’re supposed to be deeply concerned that Zovaal has them and that they’ll unlock the way to Zerith Mortis or the Sepulcher or whatever, and they’re these tokens of immense power.
Except, well, they aren’t.
The whole centerpiece of the back-half of 9.1’s story is that we make new Sigils. So, okay, great – we have Sigils, does that stop Zovaal? Can we just make more? If they’re keys, do the copies work to unlock whatever they’re hiding in the same way? Can LockPickingLawyer make a video about them? Do the original Sigils have microchips in them like my car key does to deter thieves? I’m presented two vastly different information sets that undermine the story – the Sigils are one-of-a-kind keys to the hidden knowledge of the First Ones, but we also just make new ones through processes that don’t even seem difficult or intentional. Like, the new Night Fae sigil is a Tear of Elune, but we don’t set out trying to get a tear at all – we set out trying to solve Tyrande’s problems as the Night Warrior and by that same process we just magically get a Sigil?!
It would be easy to say this is a classic overthinking, and well, probably, but the thing is, it doesn’t take that much thought or looking for the whole story to unravel like a poorly-wound ball of yarn. We spend the Primus chapter going “oh no, the Sigil, that irreplaceable token of power” and then we spend most of the later chapters easily…replacing the sigils? What in the actual fuck is this story?! What am I supposed to take away from the ideas presented? We’ve got new sigils, which is good…for some reason, but also Zovaal has sigils, and that’s bad because…reasons. The main reason we’re given for why Zovaal takes them makes sense enough, but everything around that story then muddies the waters.
The revelation of the Arbiter’s true nature is also such a waste. There was so much energy in the fan community with theories about what happened to her and why she stopped working, and while we still don’t fully know any of that – we do know she’s a construct made of Zovaal’s anima, since he was the Arbiter. Okay, him being the Arbiter is interesting to a point, but we have no context for why he stopped (other than a throwaway line about him being “dispassionate”) and it all ties back in to the “betrayal” story which has no real context and no stakes because it’s tied to characters we don’t have enough information about to care for! Why was the construct better? Was there a reason for the form and mode of creation? Would Zovaal’s anima imprint a similar dispassionate nature onto the construct? The Arbiter being a construct makes the whole story of Oribos and the servants of the Purpose a question – are they all aware she’s a construct?
There’s such a thin layer of lore being presented and spread out over a massive amount of story, and it makes things feel so disconnected and incomprehensible. In retrospect, the dialogue option to explain the Night Warrior hunt through the realms of the Shadowlands is a big sign of where Blizzard is at – they wrote a bad story with a poor explanation and a nearly-impossible-to-follow sequence of logical leaps, and instead of fixing that, they just make an NPC who gives you a quest and then says, “oh yeah, by the way, here’s all the explanatory text about why we’re doing this, good luck!”
So we have Zovaal, whose story seems now like it was a “good guy gets corrupted by power” story for the billionth time in WoW, the Arbiter is functionally dead (but who cares she’s a construct and we can just give the role to anyone and the Primus will figure that out), we still haven’t fixed the flow of souls or the anima draught (despite having ended Denathrius’ anima hoarding and having access to the same souls that he was draining to supply Zovaal), oh also Dreadlords are a big part of the Shadowlands story (and if you think for a few moments about Denathrius as a dreadlord also being a trusted leader of the Shadowlands who was opposed to Zovaal but then also ended up allied with him, there’s just so much there that is poorly explained to the point that I may need to lie down after writing that sentence because my head hurts), and then, as the post points out, the Shadowlands are infinite and possessed of all these souls from all of these worlds, yet we only ever meet and discuss the lives of those who came from Azeroth, as though no other world has any significance at all whatsoever.
There’s a big collection of things in the Shadowlands story that are, taken in microcosm, cool. However, when you plug them into their intended spots in the full story of the game…it makes no fucking sense and everything is just a huge blunder.
Point The Seventh – For The Love of God, Show, Don’t Tell
The end of the 9.1 story quests was this week, and the big denouement of all of that storytelling is…the raid cinematic, the Sylvanas/Anduin flashback, and a series of small conversations between NPCs. All of these conversations have great little snippets and bits of lore to them, but there’s a huge problem – all of this is simply told to us, said aloud, and nothing is substantiated or shown. Some of the character bits will likely be referenced in the future – Jaina’s professed love of Arthas, the mother and son dynamic of Thrall and Draka – but a lot of the huge lore bombs, like the name “Zereth Mortis” as a place we’ll go and the nature of the Arbiter and Zovaal is all told to us. No one shows us how things were, we get no flashbacks, no cinematics, no cutscenes – just straight up exposition without substance. In service of keeping Zovaal’s character motivations unclear and hidden, you just straight-up have denied us good storytelling, both because that idea is itself bad storytelling, but also because it necessitates other things being mysteries. How did Zovaal become the Arbiter? We can’t be sure because his mysterious “betrayal” is surely tied to it. What is the Sepulcher or Zereth Mortis and why is Zovaal so sure to go there?
I’m tired of getting a lore conveyor belt in text and dialogue. Show me something happening, please, I’m begging you. Stop tip-toeing around this betrayal, let’s get a cinematic, let’s flesh out the details, give me a reason to care about what Zovaal is doing and maybe even about him! I want to see what happened, be a witness to history – not told it aimlessly by someone who was there as an afterthought.
Some Closing Thoughts on the Lore and Story of Warcraft
There’s a case to be made that the lore of Warcraft has never really been that great, and it is an argument I am somewhat sympathetic to. However, here’s the thing – Chris Metzen, for as flawed of a writer as he was and is, had one quality that kept his stories and work grounded – character-driven storytelling. I know that Metzen’s writing has more tropes and consistent overuse of themes than an afternoon spent clicking around random articles on TVTropes, but he clearly cares about his characters and uses them as a lens and anchor for the stories. Thrall gets flack for being sort of flat and uninteresting, but at least there are things about Thrall’s journey in the early era of WoW that I can get behind and relate to. Same goes for Arthas, Illidan, Maiev, hell even someone like Deathwing – Metzen’s writing always centered a character or cast of them and kept the story rolling through their eyes, giving us a person we could project on to and take away from.
The problem with modern WoW storytelling is that the game has the facade of this kind of storytelling – there are central characters in each expansion and their stories are what drive the overall narrative of WoW forward, allegedly (that’s the nicest use of “allegedly” Blizzard is going to get for quite some time). When you scratch deeper than the basic surface layer, however, there’s nothing there but a tangled web of half-formed plots and ideas. I don’t know what drives any of these characters forward at their deepest, because I have nothing to relate to since I’m never shown the view they have that leads to the decisions they make.
At this point in time, if I am being frank, I’ve given up on the story of Warcraft (he says, 3,238 words deep into a lore post). It’s an irritant, and if I were playing WoW for the story, I would have unsubscribed ages ago. Nothing about the game’s main story for the last 5 years has really meaningfully paid off my investment in the story. The closest was Jaina in BfA, and I really did like that story, but it is also crystal-clear that it is an anomaly and not the norm. I don’t want to hate the story of the game, because I think at its best it is a value-add for the game’s appeal, and so many of my hours have been spent watching it, reading about it, and formulating opinions about it. But it’s just not good, and I won’t pretend that Blizzard is playing 5D chess or making 3,000 IQ plays to keep myself placated about its quality. It is just a bad story, poorly written, conceived, and not particularly well thought-out.
The only thing that makes me want to return to WoW at any point in the near future is the gameplay of it – doing M+, progressing raids, and watching my character power grow. The story used to be a big part of it, but trying to like the story is actively a part of why I’m not invested in playing right now, and why I might never reinvest into the game. I’ll touch on that more in an upcoming post, but for now, the takeaway is this – without a constant lens or anchor to the story, there’s no reason to invest because the lore skates all over the place haphazardly without considering how to stick the landing.
That’s a shame too, because Warcraft’s lore was once a defining part of what made it special in the MMO space.