Something I’ve thought about a lot, especially after some interesting comments from Shintar on a recent post, is the story of Sylvanas Windrunner.
I’ve spilled a lot of (virtual) ink here expressing my thoughts on why the story of Sylvanas just hasn’t clicked for me, and I think that as the pieces of the story fall into place from the 9.2 PTR, there’s enough idea of where things are heading to make more of a definitive statement on why I think that is.
So before I start, a few things I want to get out of the way. This post is my opinion and analysis, and while I think the structural analysis is sound and well-reasoned, my take as a whole has some elements of bias in it. I do dislike Sylvanas in part because I was mostly an Alliance player – so there’s an element of factional pride in that but also an element of not having as much exposure to her as an NPC leader of my faction. I’ve played the Horde content in the game a fair bit, so my position isn’t based in zero knowledge of how she interacts with the Horde, but I haven’t seen every quest on either side of the game and so there could be some amazing Sylvanas interaction I’m missing, but I doubt it.
Secondly, this analysis is based in-part upon PTR content for 9.2. That content is subject to change and further revelations – things my discussion will attempt to prepare for, but cannot fully accommodate.
Lastly, I’m going to be invoking a specific comparison to a character in the current era of Final Fantasy XIV, which will involve spoilers for both Shadowbringers and Endwalker’s full main scenario quests. That will be at the bottom and I will re-spoiler tag before getting into it so that you can dodge effectively if you are playing that content and still working through it.
Motivation Makes The World Go Round
One of the cornerstone elements of any fictional narrative is a clear sense of motivation for your characters. Understanding why a character does something makes what they do more comprehensible and relatable, pulls things into focus, and allows a writer to set expectations that can be met or subverted in the service of storytelling. A character who is at risk of not meeting their goal, of realizing their motivation, will act either more desperately or give up hope, and knowing the path that led to that fork in the road adds a lot of vital friction to a story. It creates stakes, allows those stakes to be raised or lowered, and puts a clear focal point on the journey that allows us to feel when a story is drawing to a conclusion.
The key problem I have with Sylvanas’ story is that her whole arc with the Jailer is mostly inexplicable, and even the things you can pull out from prior story beats to rationalize a motivation are undercut by her behavior in the current arc. The easiest question is to ask, right now, “when Sylvanas burned Teldrassil, what was her goal?”
The biggest problem in her story is that there is no clear answer to that question. You might reasonably say, based on the old Undead starter zone story and the Before the Storm novel (or at least parts of it) that she seeks a way to preserve the Forsaken – to ensure that more of them can be raised and given the choice of undeath, to protect her people by growing their numbers via giving that choice to more dead people, and to carve out a place in the world for them. This would be a great motivation – if it was consistent. Sylvanas harms countless Forsaken and other Horde forces at Lordaeron, resurrecting them as mindless undead who were not given any choice but service to her.
Sylvanas talks a lot in Shadowlands about wanting to create a choice, to ensure that no one must be forced down a path towards service – it’s rooted in her trauma from Arthas and honestly, on the surface, this is a decent motivation. It is, however, undercut, both because she is not above raising others into service unwillingly (see the Battle for Lordaeron as mentioned above) and she did the same as a major plot point in Battle for Azeroth with Derek Proudmoore. She also appears to have been partially responsible for Anduin’s forced service to the Jailer, as she brings Kingsmourne to him and our last sight of an un-dominated Anduin is a cinematic featuring threats from Sylvanas. This is also problematic because there’s not a specific goal in mind – you can make a lot of guesses about what Sylvanas means to “tear down the veil” or what ensuring everyone is free to choose even means, and who even knows what guess is correct? Blizzard hasn’t told us and we have no real context within the game or related out-of-game story content to even begin to narrow down what she could mean.
So the patch 9.2 content, in light of all of this, feels like a bitter pill to swallow. Sylvanas is walking a path towards redemption – perhaps not forgiveness, but to be redeemed in the eyes of the story. There’s talk about consequences (and a possible judgment at the hands of Tyrande Whisperwind), and so there’s not a lot that can be said about the contours of this story until we know more about that, but the cinematics we get from PTR paint Sylvanas quite sympathetically, presenting her sundered soul as horrified of her actions and the whole of Sylvanas tortured by reliving them, and her telling her story of suffering at Arthas’ hands to a captive, cross-faction audience. We seem to have moved beyond the defining events of her arc, the fact that she literally attempted a genocide of the Night Elves and prompted the Fourth War which led to countless lost lives.
Making matters worse, there are two lore drops in the span of less than a year of real time that contradict each other on the nature of sundered souls. In the recent Folk and Fairy Tales of Azeroth book, we are told a story about Sylvanas’ soul fragment being her good characteristics – that without that fragment, it only makes sense that Sylvanas would be on a dark path. Yet in game, in the 9.2 cinematic implies quite the opposite – that pieces of a soul do not divide so simply into good or evil, but are fragments of a whole. My perception of it in this way is grounded in the presence and explanation of Uther, who suffered a similar fate to Sylvanas at the hands of Arthas and yet retained a sense of who he was through it – warped for the experience, yes, but not wholly corrupted. There’s a chance still that this may be recontextualized further – the wording of Uther in explaining that Sylvanas’ soul wound is deeper leaves room open to explore it more, at least. Do I think that Blizzard will square this one up? Not really, no – and that is just my extrapolation based on being immensely disappointed in them for literal years at this point. As I said in my comment thread with Shintar that was the genesis of this post, I’d rather be wrong and be happy to be wrong than be wrong and disappointed for having had that faith misplaced once more.
So without even having to touch the Jailer, the Horde, most of the rest of Shadowlands, I can state my clear dissatisfaction with Sylvanas’ story – that her motivations are unsatisfyingly unclear, any leads towards them have been undercut, and so it makes the whole thing a mess when I am asked to have even a shred of empathy for her when her incredibly awful and evil villainous acts have no clear rationale yet. The clearest reasoning, based on the subtext I picked up from the Shattered Legacies cinematic, is that Sylvanas was a pawn of the Jailer, and like, okay, but that leaves us in a recursive loop, because we don’t know why the Jailer is doing what he is either, short of innuendo that the game hasn’t bothered to try explaining beyond the most shallow and surface-level of it, even with the context of the 9.2 PTR we have today. No one in that chain of plot has any real explained motivations, and it makes their actions and fervent desires to see their plans to fruition messy and hard to care about – there’s nothing for me to latch onto in that!
And even if the actual text-level plot of 9.2 is that we don’t forgive or redeem Sylvanas, we’re still made to feel bad for her, as her soul fragment is anguished by what the rest has done with her existence. I have no reason to empathize with Sylvanas, because her action is incomprehensibly evil and her rationale is currently non-existent. Ouch.
But I have seen there is a better way to tell a similar story, a comparison that is likely about to make two fandoms very, very mad at me.
So let’s revisit earlier and throw up a Spoiler Warning here, because I am about to discuss Final Fantasy XIV plot points that originate in the patch MSQ of Stormblood and run through the end of the current Endwalker MSQ.
Sylvanas’ story has a lot of parallels to that of one Emet-Selch. With a handful of differences, and thus I would argue that Emet-Selch’s story has qualities about it that would make Sylvanas’ story better were they present there.
For the non-FFXIV reader who isn’t terribly concerned about spoilers, here’s the brief (for real I swear) synopsis: Emet-Selch is an ancient being known in FFXIV lore as an Ascian. His soul, unlike ours and those of other humans, is unsundered, meaning it was not split into fragments when the world of FFXIV was sundered into shards in ancient times. He was a principal architect of the Ascian’s plan to survive the Final Days in their time, and his solution was Zodiark, a summoned primal entity who would stabilize the aether of the planet, preventing the Final Days from worsening. Summoning Zodiark required a sacrifice of half of the people alive at that time, a sacrifice which Emet-Selch and the other rulers of that era accepted to restore order. Some disagreed and went down a different path, that’s not important yet.
The plan was at some point, after another halving of their society, to use the lives of new people born into the world as a sacrifice to Zodiark to return those they sacrificed originally, thus undoing the original issues and restoring the world, in their mind. Because of the actions of the other splintered group, the world was sundered into 13 reflections and the Source, the main world, and the aether needed to empower Zodiark would require time and rejoining of the reflections to the Source, a violent act that ends the reflection and all life on it and causes a Calamity on the Source, which also brings about further destruction and death. Because Zodiark was now imprisoned and weakened (by the doings of the disagreeable group), this would take ages of patient waiting and scheming to orchestrate – effectively, multiple world-ending genocides would be needed in order to facilitate enough aether entering the Source to allow for the plan Emet-Selch was working towards to see fruition.
Shadowbringers and Endwalker brings Emet-Selch into focus, after various other unsundered Ascians working towards the same goal were shown and featured in prior content. While the Acians to that point were presented purely as villainous entities (often to eye-rollingly comical degrees), Emet-Selch gives them life in a way that we hadn’t seen before. This is done through the simple presentation of motivation – Emet-Selch is a sorrowful figure whom has carried the burden of the hopes and dreams of those sacrificed when the world was whole, and he seeks to honor their sacrifice in a way he and they understood it – by restoring the world to perfect, unsundered paradise. His means are not sympathetic, obviously – enacting multiple extinction events to get back your old pals is not an equivalent exchange, but we are given his perspective and why that matters to him, and it makes it relatable. He has a desire to get back that which was lost, but he has lost sight of the value of the life that exists today and has not reconciled how they might feel or if his goal is misguided. We can feel his pain and understand his motivation, and he shows us plainly – we get to see an aetheric recreation of the ancient capitol city of Amaurot and live through the joyous moments prior to the Final Days before then seeing the city through the lens of those Final Days. We get it, on some level, and there is a lot of fan debate I’m not going to touch here about if Emet-Selch is truly sympathetic as a character, but you can see his motivation and thought process and the game gives you room to interpret those actions from your own vantage point before the final act of Shadowbringers, where you fight him to the death, and, in those last moments of clarity, he simply asks that we remember the society of the ancients and that they lived, that we honor the sacrifice of those lives lost in our remembrance.
If the story ends there, it’s pretty good – you have a clear motivation, an understanding of Emet-Selch as a character and just what it was he was trying to preserve, and know what his path to getting it back was – a wrong-headed extermination campaign that would leave countless lost lives in favor of those who died thousands of years ago.
Endwalker turns this around a little bit through the time-travel zone story of Elpis, where we get to see another aspect of ancient civilization, but this time not a recreation. We get to meet Emet-Selch, prior to Zodiark and the fervent faith of “tempering” that summoning puts on a person, and we see a testy but level-headed and caring person. We get even more of his story, content that even further fleshes him out and adds a layer of sympathetic interest to him – and through that lens, we can see how traumatic the events of the Final Days were on him and how that long, awful road he put himself on weathered what was a kind, caring soul. We even, through an element of story magic that would take too long to type here, get to bring his soul to us in modern times, where he caps the story off so well by admitting his errors and entrusting the legacy of the ancients to us, the players.
So much of what makes the story of Emet-Selch genuinely great is that it isn’t ambiguous or unnecessarily vague. Within Shadowbringers, we get a self-contained, neat story arc that gives us full context for him as a character and places him with a specific set of motivations, goals, and ways of achieving those that set him in conflict with us. In death he is not redeemed, saved, or forgiven, but understood and acknowledged, his suffering at an end. In Endwalker, we get that story enriched through additional context – taking what is there and adding depth and emotion to it, expanding his character in thoughtful ways that do not change his prior actions or conflict with them, but instead contextualize them to our current journey and see us do what he could not – save the world from the Final Days and ensure a brighter tomorrow. Even as he helps us in Endwalker, he is neither redeemed nor forgiven, but instead his mission to secure the fate of the planet is placed into our hands and our means, and he comes to acknowledge that we pursued his ideals better than he did, and his soul can drift into the Aetherial Sea comforted by that knowledge.
In the end, Sylvanas’ story is different in many ways from Emet-Selch’s, and yet the similarities make clearer that the difference in approach and motivation separate the two in quality. If we had literally the same story in WoW today but Sylvanas had a clearly-stated motivation for her actions, it might not fix the story for everyone, and then there’s still the Jailer and the related plot threads and boy, all of that is a fucking mess, but it would make the core Sylvanas narrative so much clearer and easier to unambiguously discuss. Sometimes, sure, mystery serves a story, but we’ve been sitting with the aftermath of Teldrassil for 3 years now and nothing in the game since then has made things clearer on that front – why Sylvanas did it, what she or the Jailer stood to gain (yes, the souls, but to what ends?), and how she expects to be able to atone for it at all.
On that level, I think that critique of the nature of Sylvanas’ story is absolutely valid and necessary. We could quibble about the relative quality or elements involved, but my core beef with the Sylvanas story upon reflection is that regardless of much of that, the fundamental writing basics at the heart of the Sylvanas story are missing – that, on a technical level, it fails because it is simply not well written or mindful of how to tell the story. If there was a core there that gave us something to nibble on, a peek of motivation that wasn’t undercut or slaughtered by other elements of the same story, discussions around Sylvanas and the story would be a lot more nuanced – at least, speaking for myself. But I can’t really give the benefit of nuance to a story that is missing something so fundamental, that has made a character unlikeable for so long without a clear raison d’etre in the lore.
It is easy to simply say “Sylvanas story bad” but there is truth in that statement, on a fundamental, basic writing skills level. Sylvanas is a character that is damn near impossible to relate to, because I have no real context within the story that ties her current plot to her past to give me a point of relation with her. I can’t say her plan is good or bad, because I don’t actually know from the lore as presented what she’s even trying to accomplish. All I can say is that if her goal is in service of the survival of the Forsaken, plague bombing the Undercity and starting a baseless war is a pretty shitty way to get there. If her goal is the survival of the Horde, the same applies. If her goal is offering a “choice” in the embrace of death, then forcing thousands to die and be pushed into the Warcraft Hell is very contradictory of that ideal.
If Sylvanas had a clear, understood motivation presented to us, it wouldn’t alone be a magical panacea that would fix everything about the story, but it would go a long, long way towards fixing things.