If you’ve been on WoW Twitter at all lately, a story that has been damn-near impossible to avoid is that of how Alex Afrasiabi might have “sabotaged” the story of Sylvanas. This has been played with in telephone games left and right and turned into a bigger and smaller issue all the same, so rather than playing with the additional aggrandizements, let’s look at the original tweet that started it.
So first, let’s get the speculatory part out of the way and set a framework to evaluate this idea through. I believe Michele Morrow when she says this. She is a second-hand source, yes, but she has worked with Blizzard a lot before, including voiceover on Hearthstone and being one of the hosts for a ton of Blizzcon Virtual Ticket events. She’s not a Blizzard employee, but she’s pretty closely connected to the company and I have no reason to doubt the validity of her claim given that. For this post, I’m proceeding with the understanding that while some might quibble with the claim, I believe it to be true and we’ll work with it as the framework.
So, Sylvanas. One of the biggest problems with the current lore of Warcraft is that Sylvanas’ character has been on an insane evil supervillain speedrun, going from nuanced, edgy chaotic neutral to full on genocidal maniac, and 9.0 through 9.2 story as we know them thus far have been trying to take the edge off of her in a similar reversed speedrun, with predictably bad results. Fans have been struggling to find justification for this, to figure out why she ended up like this, and into that space entered the Morrow tweet. Part of the game of telephone around it has been trying to find further connections to potential story sabotage from Afrasiabi – if he left in summer 2020, did he also write for Sylvanas in Shadowlands? Did he write the rest of BfA past the burning of Teldrassil, and if so, how does that dovetail through to today? We can see how these things become interesting questions in light of this idea.
I think for this post, I want to weave the discussion through a few key topics, as I see the issue in my head. The questions I have are basically this – at what point do the story “rescue” efforts start, what culpability does the current team and rest of the team at the time bear, and what potential leads come from it, knowing that we still have a relatively large pile of encrypted cutscenes in the bank waiting for the live launch of patch 9.2?
The Nature of Sylvanas’ Story and Why I Believe The Sabotage
Firstly, besides the sourcing I mentioned above, something I have danced around since last summer and sometimes directly said is that WoW’s story being written by a dude with a multitude of sexual harassment claims totally fits if we look at the current lore. Sylvanas and Tyrande were interesting characters under Metzen, at least in my view, and since Metzen left, they have been the characters done dirtiest under the new post-Metzen lore that was Afrasiabi’s brain child. Sylvanas was a metaphor for an assault survivor – her finding strength and moving forward after what Arthas did to her is pretty well established to have a lot of connective tissue to the very real ways in which survivors of sexual assault often deal with the things they went through. The vebiage used in the Arthas novel about Sylvanas’ fate at Arthas’ hands leaves no question – the word “violated,” the context of it – it’s fairly clear from even a skeptical reading. There’s no coincidence that her story prior to BfA resonates so deeply with so many, and whatever quibbles one might have with her prior characterization, I do think that is a good thing. Or, well, was a good thing. This Twitter thread has a lot more interesting details on the idea and I would highly suggest reading it:
Sylvanas’ pivot doesn’t really fit her character. It doesn’t really fit the person she was, the things she suffered through. Her burning of Teldrassil felt like an excessive ramp-up, not a natural progression of who she was in Legion.
So being told that this was an intentional sort of “fuck you” to people who vibed with Sylvanas as a character fits to my eyes. If the message of a character whose backstory is grounded in the language of sexual assault survival is that they can live fulfilling lives and overcome their abusers comes under the control of an abuser, well, it feels fairly obvious that the conscious and subconscious biases of that person would affect the story being told. I think this is a big part of why Sylvanas’ story is so disappointing, because there was a pretty big window in which it could have been something more, something better, and the opening of BfA closed that window, made Horde players participate in an in-universe genocide attempt without agency to opt out or choose any other path, and presents multiple framings of this event that are dissonant with each other in an attempt to paper-over the core issues with the sudden shift in Sylvanas. In the lore as presented, we see Sylvanas set apart, ostracized – and for the actions at Teldrassil and Undercity both, she deserves it – but in the broader context of the lore to that point, it is quite offputting.
How Much Did Afrasiabi Write Before Leaving Blizzard?
The big question I have, looking solely at the source from Morrow for the sabotage claim, is this – how long was Afrasiabi writing WoW before being silently ousted from the company? If he just wrote the Burning of Teldrassil, that defines the rest of BfA differently, but at the same time, we have reason to believe he was on-board for longer and writing WoW content. He was on the Q&A panel at Blizzcon 2018, where he infamously stated that Sylvanas was responsible for the Wrathgate, which seemed to upend the established lore from that event, and he was in the press interviews about the BfA story at that point.
The idea is complicated because of things we know about Blizzard and the process for story on WoW. We know that story is often written years in advance, and that Shadowlands was in production at the point he was mouthing off about Wrathgate and the scale of Sylvanas’ villainy, so it is hard to look at Shadowlands’ lackluster plot and not feel that he mucked it up somehow. Yet at the same time, the idea of redeeming Sylvanas has been fairly evident throughout Shadowlands – despite her pivotal villain role to start the expansion, after the Maw start, she kind of disappears from the lore until we get to Torghast, where she makes contemplative faces at Anduin (that alone being very different in character from her BfA writing). If you told me that Afrasiabi’s writing was redone by the story team to head into Shadowlands, and that from the start of the expansion we’ve been pivoting to a Sylvanas redemption, I’d believe it. After all, I’ve been complaining about the redemption arc as told makes no sense given the priors since the start of Shadowlands!
The question only really matters in the context of the larger lore because it can be instructive of what to expect next. A lot of BfA and Shadowlands has felt like narrative whiplash, things teetering back and forth, and Sylvanas has been a huge part of that. If our expectation is that much of the end of BfA and start of Shadowlands was narrative cleanup to break the stuff written by Afrasiabi, that gives some amount of hope that the narrative to emerge, less connected to what came before, might be better, or at the very least different in a new way. Things shifting within the team midway through BfA might explain the slapdash nature of Nazjatar and N’zoth, how these massive forces that could themselves each have anchored an expansion in their own right were instead reduced to patch villains, vanquished with minimal storytelling and a noticeable drop-off in narrative “extras” like prerendered CG cinematics (which BfA prior to that point had been packed to the gills with). It might also explain why Shadowlands has had only the one CG cutscene that was a part of the launch materials – if so much of the storytelling changed in-transit from development to live, it actually makes a lot of the various issues with the game in the last two years make more sense.
How Involved Was The Team As A Whole?
This is where I potentially enter hot take city, although I don’t think these takes are that hot.
To start this section off, I want to be crystal clear – ultimately, Afrasiabi was a story lead on the game, and the majority of the responsibility for these stories would rest on him as a result. Given what we’ve discussed so far, I think it is quite clear that only someone with the mindset to accrue the allegations we’ve heard about him would write the women of Warcraft the way he has. I want to keep him in focus as the core antagonist of this story, because it seems fairly clear that it is the case.
However, what we know about WoW story writing also leads to a follow-up question that is less exculpatory of the WoW team – who else was involved with writing the story, approving it, and setting everything into motion? We’ve been told that the writing of WoW is a team effort, with a team of writers, historians, and the game design team all working in tandem to ensure harmony on these efforts, that the game feeds the story and vice-versa. Without knowing the approval process and how that looks, it seems to me that while Afrasiabi would have had a wide berth to do whatever awful bullshit he wanted with the story, it still feels like it would have had to gone through some sort of approval process with the game director. Did Ion Hazzikostas approve the story, did he agree with it? Did the executive producer on the game at the time, whether J Allen Brack or John Hight, approve the story?
Because as tempting as it is to lay the blame at the feet of a sole ex-employee, one who by all accounts would absolutely have done this, the seeming truth is that he couldn’t have acted alone. There would have been layers of approval, teams keyed in to create cinematics, cutscenes, in-game questing content, and more. Did no one involved with the game stop and think that maybe this was a bad idea, a bridge too far? It would seem that way.
Like with the Microsoft acquisition, I think a lot of people want to distill this down to a basic interpretation that paints Afrasiabi as a sole, now-vanquished evil, that once we move past the remnants of his godawful story, something better will emerge. I’d love nothing more than to believe that myself! On the allegations front, we know that Afrasiabi had institutional support, that Brack refused to discipline him in any meaningful way, and I can’t help but think he had a similar measure of institutional support in his actual core role – that he had been Metzen’s hand-picked successor and that his writing was gospel truth for the game. The uncomfortable reality of the situation with this sabotage is that even as we take the idea at face value, it does mean that there are many more individuals who signed off on this, greenlit it, and produced it – many of whom remain at Blizzard. Maybe Danuser will be better when writing his own story arcs, and I sure hope so. But now is as good a time as any to dive into that…
The Writing Of WoW Post-Afrasiabi Has Been…Questionable
The main premise that a lot of fans have been leaning on is that with Afrasiabi gone and the Sylvanas story salvaged into…this, that we get to have a clean break after Shadowlands and move to a story that was likely not in production until after Afrasiabi left Blizzard in the summer of 2020, one that is better for it. Does that premise hold weight?
Well…we don’t know yet, but I wouldn’t build a house on that foundation right now.
I’ve been fairly harshly critical of Steve Danuser here, I won’t pretend otherwise. In at least one of my Sylvanas posts, I made a point of calling him out by name when critiquing the story. However, through the lens of this information, I have to reconsider that.
So how has writing been on the projects where Danuser has been the principal creative?
Well, they aren’t all awful. Grimoire of the Shadowlands is interesting, at least. Folk and Fairytales was a unique way to frame the Warcraft universe, something I wish we got more of in-game – the idea of how the civilizations of Azeroth discuss their world is fantastic context that adds a lot of life to the story, and while I am critical of that book for introducing the world to the Sylvanas Soul Fragment Theory, the rest of it I have seen is decent and enjoyable enough in its own right.
The next question for Danuser directly then is this – if we consider the Shadowlands great retcons his baby, how has he done? Well…I am less optimistic for the future under his hand with those. Ultimately, so much of Shadowlands has felt like missed opportunities or just strange writing. Having Jaina present to do so little in the story is not great, and the same absolutely applies to Baine! Thrall got a touching and brief moment with his mother in patch 9.1, but it was also so secondary to anything that actually happened in the story that I actually kind of forget it happened most of the time. A lot of the exploratory possibilities with Helya were dumpstered in 9.1, and some of the early interviews about Shadowlands discussed the possibilities of Baine meeting his father in Shadowlands and having a moment, which has not and seemingly will not happen at this point.
All told, I have to say that Shadowlands is fairly mixed, and while I think a fair amount of that lies at the feet of the necessary retconning, leaping away from the Sylvanas disaster left by Afrasiabi, not all of it is down to that. Some of it in-game is the responsibility of the current team, and so I find it hard to have any measure of excitement for what comes next.
In fact, one thing the current team is still responsible for is terrible, poor use of stereotypes mapped 1:1 to fantasy races and characters. Exploring Kalimdor, written primarily by Sean Copeland of the lore team, is a poorly-written, trope-filled journey that gets base details wrong and uses explicitly racist tropes mapped without modification to the races in the book. Blizzard has not made any public statement about this, but instead silently delayed the book and has not changed any of the content (which, realistically, would not have happened due to printing supplies being in short supply anyways). On the front of many elements of the story, both in-game and in supplemental lore materials, we can see failures of different biases at play.
With that context in mind, I find it tough to buy in to the idea that Afrasiabi being gone suddenly fixes everything with the storytelling in WoW. There’s a lot of ground still there to cover, and the current team has not done a great job of covering it, both in the quality of the assumed retcons and in the new and original works of writing that have come out in the time since.
Can The Story of Warcraft Be Salvaged?
This one is tough. I think the great thing about an MMO is that each expansion is a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start a new story and tell a new tale, and 10.0 is such a chance that should be taken.
In terms of the story to date, a big shift going into 10.0 is perfect, because we have spent time in the Shadowlands, away from Azeroth and with uncertain time mechanics in play – the whole board could be reset in one shot and it would generally make sense. We’re also spending 9.2 around a forge of reality, a place where things are literally built for the First Ones, so all kinds of crazy possibilities are on the table.
In many ways, I think what we will see in the raid finale is the end of Sylvanas Windrunner as an active character. Redeeming her and then keeping her around the story is picking at the scab, and I think even Blizzard knows that. To a point, having her speedrun redemption and judgment at Tyrande’s hands in 9.2 creates the opportunity to close that door, lock it away, and never look back. It is a pity, because I think Sylvanas’ character has meant so much to so many over the years in different ways, but the burning of Teldrassil and the story beats that have come since have done a lot of damage to her, to the point where I don’t think you can save her story enough to make everyone comfortable and accepting of her presence, and even her presence in 9.2 feels a bit too much with everything she’s done in the story. Quality be damned, it kind of feels like the best thing to do is wrap her story conclusively and put it away.
My brain wants to write fanfic about how the Sepulcher and Zovaal’s goals could be used to our ends – if we can “unmake reality,” then perhaps there exists a way to undo the burning of Teldrassil. In the lore, this would be an interesting moment, but I also think it feels too cheap to actually do. In many ways, the game has been shaped, both in lore and in reality among the community, by the events of BfA and the War of Thorns, and there’s not really a way to undo all of that. It would be a too-perfect retcon, the literal undoing of a major event, and even if we handwave away what the power of the Sepulcher means or it is written out of the story through that action, it would have a knock-on invalidating effect on piles of lore – is anything truly permanent in WoW going forward if we can go to the reality-unmaking machine and press the do-over button?
The difficulty at the heart of the Sylvanas tale is that she spoke at some point to a lot of different people about a lot of deeply difficult issues in a way that had potential, and so even when I think that writing her off is the best path, is it really? I can’t say with absolute certainty. The process of trauma, of recovery, is a messy one that is so often difficult to get right in media, and even if Sylvanas is flawed in many ways due to a writer who was fundamentally uninterested in telling that story, is that not how it so often goes for so many? I don’t want to say she should disappear from the story either, because I think there’s a chance to tell a powerful story that is mindful of those themes still.
Do I trust that Blizzard will do that story justice? Well…no. Not right now. Ultimately, it isn’t my trust that has to be earned on that front either – but the voices of women and survivors all over the community. For my part, Sylvanas being involved does not make the story inherently bad, and I think that there are ways forward that involve Sylvanas being used more positively, provided that the writing team can be mindful of how she embodies a lot of tropes that can be powerfully positive or negative depending on well they are executed. I have a hard time envisioning that story being told properly, but I think that the Sylvanas novel from Christie Golden and the story still to come in 9.2 will be instructive of how much trust we can (or cannot) have in Blizzard on this front.
There’s a little bit of cynicism in my mind about the whole thing, how just-so and convenient it is for people to pan the PTR datamining of the 9.2 story and for us to then have this tidbit surface, that much of Sylvanas’ current writing is attempting to dig out of a hole from Afrasiabi. Even believing it is true, it does serve the team well for this information to be out there and discussed, especially when giving an official comment seems unlikely. Yet in many ways, my cynicism is drowned out by the very reality of the situation – it fits to a tee, so even if it is exculpatory of the team, I can’t see any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim made.
In many ways, it is a tough spot for everyone. For the team at Blizzard, writing out of this situation without just memory-holing BfA is a no-win situation. For fans, knowing that this happened makes the nature of the Shadowlands story more comprehensible while not excusing the lack of quality in the main, overarching plot and the continued stumbling over bad stereotypes and discriminatory tropes in other media around the game. For those who found solace in Sylvanas as a reflection of some of their lived experiences, I can only imagine how tough it is to see her character dragged through all of this and the almost cartoonish supervillainy of knowing that some insecure manchild had to write a woman in whom survivors saw strength as what she has become, knowing at least partially the impact it would have.
it just feels bad all-around, and that is probably the best ending here (and not a cop-out either!). We all know so much more is there and could be there, but we have what we have, and until the path to what comes next in the lore is clear, all we can really do is speculate and hope for this chapter to resolve, for better things to come.