Admittedly, I was actually kind of excited for the first hidden patch 9.2 cinematic, in a weird way. I came prepared for today to be sort of a shitshow, and it both was and wasn’t.
The first of what is likely to be two raid cinematics came out today, with the raid open through Anduin, who is the 8th of 11 bosses in total. Here is said cinematic:
So, I have a few thoughts on this, as someone who does care about the WoW story in spite of the mounting pile of evidence that I should not.
Firstly, on a first viewing, the cinematic is…fine? Like, I think that the story content it’s trying to get at isn’t…good, or anything, but the cinematic is well-made and put-together, the machinima crew led by Terran Gregory at Blizzard do good work, the voice actors carry their performances (especially Patty Mattson as Sylvanas and Josh Keaton as Anduin), and there is a sort of coolness factor in the swelling score giving way to the Highborne Lament. There is something there that, if you just watch it once and don’t really think about it, works. I say all this up front because it is clear that the team wanted to make something cool, but there are a lot of elements in-play against that happening that aren’t the fault of much of the team. They did their best and I can respect that.
Having said that, there is a lot to unpack that ties into a central theme – writing yourself into a corner. This may get ranty – it’s 2:44 AM as I type this part and this cinematic, processed and considered, drove another nail into the coffin of my WoW fandom. So…let’s see where I end up!
One of my common rants about World of Warcraft’s recent storytelling is that it so often fails to respect its own continuity and simply does cool stuff without regard for the actual process of lore unfolding itself, which makes so much of the modern game feel like a series of back-to-back retcons. There’s a lot to unpack about Shadowlands in post-mortem, years from now, when the team will likely be able to admit how much was changed in-transit, because it is obvious now there was quite a lot.
The biggest thing that gets me with this cinematic, though, is the particulars. The overarching plot…it’s in service of a story I don’t like, so I mean, it’s not for me, but there is a story being told there about Sylvanas that is going to happen either way, and we’re likely going to be right back here next week talking about that shit too. There are a ton of little things and big things about the cinematic, though, that are problems that didn’t need to be.
The WoW lore team has a habit in Shadowlands of telling a media outlet some cool tidbit in an interview, something that adds flavor to the lore and creates a set of constraints, only for those to be ignored or modified in-game, and it begs a question – why? Why do you do this to yourselves?
If you thought that having Varian in a cinematic was a cool touch that would tie in with Anduin’s story, then you can just do that. I wanted it, a lot of people wanted it – and here it is, and you found a way to make it unsatisfying and to punish me for paying attention to the dumb shit you say! Why? Because in interviews leading up to Shadowlands patch 9.1, Steve Danuser explicitly said that Saurfang and Varian were both basically done – that they’d had their endings and they didn’t want to retread ground for the sake of it.
So…okay, why are they here, then? Are they spirits? That doesn’t mesh with Varian, who was obliterated by Fel magic that should have taken his soul, nor Saurfang, who would have been cast into the Maw and whom we never saw any hint of, short of the trinket drop in the Sanctum of Domination raid. Are they projections of Anduin’s memories? Well, both of them say new lines, so it wouldn’t seem to be the case. Why do we not see them sooner, if this was the direction? And then it irritates me more, because this should be cool and it would be interesting characterization that fits with Anduin – but you fucking said this wouldn’t happen! No one made you say that! It’s fiction, you can just…not put yourself in a corner that you can’t wiggle out of, you know? You could have set a breadcrumb trail to this point, given yourself room to expand on the themes, have Anduin leaning on the memory of their guidance but standing on his own two feet as a grown man, but instead, it’s Anduin and his two dads, one of whom was basically his enemy right up until his cliché heroic sacrifice back in the godawful story wasteland of 8.2.5, a patch so bad I wrote a rant about it and then gave up on talking about the game for like a week! No one trapped you here but you, come on!
The cinematic itself, in these moments, feels a lot like the pivotal cutscene at the end of the Nidhogg fight in Heavensward in FFXIV, back in patch 3.3. For many FFXIV fans, that was a moment that set a lot of players’ deep love for the story of that game into motion, and it leans heavily on the thematic implication of the end of a journey, with two dead characters “appearing” in spirit to aid the Warrior of Light and the Scions in freeing Estinien from the control of the evil wyrm. That cinematic was very well-supported within the lore and story of that game – the idea of a spirit manifesting in aether wasn’t altogether foreign and it mainly just exists to deliver an emotional gut-punch, to show the journey you set on at the start of the expansion with those characters fulfilled. This WoW cinematic feels like it was written by someone who has seen that moment and liked it, but didn’t understand why or what the significance was. It is cheap, in effect, because it vaguely gestures at Varian as Anduin’s father while Varian says boilerplate Alliance leader talk, and then waves at Saurfang, a character that Anduin had a surface-level alliance with for a two-patch cycle. Haurchefaunt and Ysayle, on the FFXIV side of this parallel, were characters built over dozens of hours of storytelling in-game, who forged a close bond with the player character and the Scions through tons of cutscenes, voice-acted and not, where they grow closer, share their burdens, and find true meaning.
I like Varian and Saurfang, and the idea of them being there alone isn’t altogether bad, but it just feels so fucking hollow as delivered – Varian because you might not even know he’s Anduin’s dad if you just watch this and he doesn’t say “my son,” and Saurfang is just a headscratcher when there are so many characters that could have been there – Baine (who IS IN ZERETH MORTIS, COME ON), Velen, Bolvar, his mother who is also dead, maybe even Tirion Fordring! It just feels like Horde fanservice – both factions represented (without accounting for another major piece of the story of this cutscene) even when it takes away from what could have been an impactful moment. It should have been personal, a deep cut to the bond of these characters, but it isn’t. They just say their catchphrase and their son goes Super Saiyan, and that is that.
Then there’s the core story of the patch – the idea that we need to find a cure to Domination magic. Maybe it comes in the zone story that has yet to be seen, who knows, but there was a lot of weight in press interviews (a recurring theme, oh boy!) that we’d need to figure out a way to stop Domination magic, and yet Anduin just…does it? The portrayals of these things are entirely out of alignment – with Sylvanas, she commits mass murder because “the Jailer made me do it” while also maintaining control over her presentation and consciousness such that she never seems controlled or phased by the Jailer’s influence, and yet Anduin is presented as a puppet, with much tighter control, which Zovaal uses to do…almost nothing, really, and then Anduin breaks this impossibly difficult level of control over his actions by…the inspiration of his two dads and yelling really loud? That’s it?!
What did he learn about Domination magic that made it work? Why is he, portrayed on a level below Sylvanas in pure power, somehow able to break the bonds while Sylvanas was simply freed from them by being reunited with her missing soul fragment? Could Sylvanas have done the same, thus preventing the War of Thorns and Teldrassil’s burning? Oh my god, the door this opens only has infuriating lore implications on the other side! I mean, it would be very on-the-nose for Blizzard to portray a man as highly capable and intelligent and a woman in a similar bind to be helpless and ultimately need assistance in being set free, and a paper-pusher at the California DFEH just had some hair on the back of their neck stand up.
So, okay, he seems to do it by breaking the weapon (with the power of his dads combined), and that reveals…Shalamayne, which was there all the time but just had Arthas’ soul added to it? That doesn’t fit with the cinematic we got back in 9.0, where a new weapon seemingly was forged…
So putting aside petty nerd pedantry, what is it about the weapon that makes this work? Is Arthas’ soul fragment some powerful thing that can cause domination? Will it be explained to satisfaction in any of the story content to come? I know what I am betting on, and I bet you do too.
But there are two larger issues for me with this cinematic.
The first is Sylvanas’ presence. There is precious little storytelling to suggest any meaningful bond between these characters, certainly not one as strong as Jaina’s is to Anduin (SHE’S LIKE AN AUNT TO HIM!), Baine (his old pen pal!) or even Uther (who followed a similar road in life to the one that Anduin has walked). Why is it that Sylvanas is the first to approach him and care for him? Like, if she does so after the characters with actual ties to Anduin, it makes sense – her portrayal in the final Korthia chapter shows a degree of guilt over his fate at the hands of the Jailer and her hand in that, so, like, okay, fine. She can be sad and concerned for him, great! But why is she first? I know the sad answer is that she’s the active character, the franchise lead of WoW at this point (which, boy, doesn’t that just say so much about where WoW is?), but from a storytelling perspective, it just doesn’t scan. Auntie Jaina doesn’t even trust Sylvanas, and yet just lets her run up to her nephew-of-sorts while she…stands by quietly? I know at this point I’m nitpicking, and boy I don’t wanna be here either, but fuck, there was so much that could have been done here, and it just wasn’t. By committing story to quest text, minimal voice over, and two-minute or less cinematics mid-raid, Blizzard has really shot the story in the foot…and in the head. What can you do in two minutes to establish all of these themes, to really pay off what is supposed to be years of narrative development and tension? This needed room to breathe, and I mean, it’s a mid-raid cinematic, I get it, but DBM makes the process easy – you can make a raid watch a cinematic one fucking time for like, 5 minutes, or even 3 minutes, just to give things a better pacing and more satisfying and natural conclusion to the story and character development that does actually exist in this plotline!
To close this out and to round out the Sylvanas part, we need to bring in the last character who makes a cameo here…Arthas.
Firstly, his new model is really something, eh?
On a surface level, I think that having Arthas appear in this manner suits things well enough. His soul fragment is so intrinsically tied to the conflict of these characters, to their world, and to both Anduin (crown prince becoming a king) and to Sylvanas (we’ll talk about this in a moment, don’t worry), and by not having him deliver a hamfisted line or have some additional moment, there’s a measure of respect for his story, such as it ended in Wrath of the Lich King. On that level, I think this was a good choice – he’s been invoked thanks to the Afterlives animated series, so he had to be here somewhere and this pays that off for Uther and Jaina in a way that closes that chapter for them. Uther has to grapple with what he did to Arthas for the rest of his afterlife, knowing full well that it was wrong and having reconciled that in 9.1, and Jaina gets the closure of seeing the soul of who was the love of her life flicker out into nothingness – not forgiven or redeemed, just ended. Thematically, that ending pays off for Sylvanas too – her journey of hatred which started on that fateful day in Quel’thalas can end, her prey no longer able to be hunted, left with the legacy of vile acts she committed on that hunt.
But then Sylvanas talks.
Of all the characters who could have monologued in this scene, it fucking had to be her. And, here’s the thing – if we assume that WoW is being written for a third grader, then fine – we can’t have the main thematic thrust of the story being told left to subtext. Fine.
But Sylvanas has to explain it to us and spell it out – she became him, a vengeful shell of who she once was, on a mission that was perverted to the ends of the Jailer and led to untold harm. Like, we all know that is what happened, the parallels have been the most obnoxiously obvious thing about the entirety of Shadowlands – she does a stupid Lich King-adjacent thing, makes a pouty face at the camera, and it all leads to whatever fresh hell awaits us next week and in the zone story finale. There are an infinite number of possible ways for her to be presented as realizing this that don’t involve just saying it to a camera, and yet, here we are!
In truth, I didn’t want Arthas back either – in fact, he’s the opposite of Varian and Saurfang for me here in every way – he had a satisfying ending that didn’t have any real reason to exist in Shadowlands, and I was perfectly content with him never appearing, but Afterlives had to put that seed into the world, and unlike all the dumb statements Danuser and team boxed themselves in with on Saurfang and Varian, this was the one they couldn’t renegotiate out of, for god knows what reason.
So our Arthas cameo is a fluffy wispy cloud that pops out of the weapon (with all the questions I posed above still valid), stays around long enough for Uther and Jaina to each get one sad line about him, and then Sylvanas gets to monologue at the cloud, spelling out the lore with crayons before it dissipates and Arthas goes away for good*.
So at the end of all of this, I guess I’m just baffled. I’m almost impressed, too – the cinematic has things going for it, but the team spent so much of the leadup just shooting into the story with trap statements that end up just destroying so much of the potential that is there, even without modifications. If you don’t have the lore team saying that Varian and Saurfang are done, then this is better. If you don’t have the odd presentation of Sylvanas under Domination magic versus Anduin, it’s better. If you don’t have an Arthas cameo in this form, it’s better. If Sylvanas doesn’t literally spell out the thematic implications of her bond with Arthas, it’s way better!
I’m trying to be reserved in my critique here (because I go on vacation in like a day and a half and also I don’t want my legacy to be highly-charged posts calling out Steve Danuser by name), but like, seriously, what in the actual fuck happened here? This cinematic feels like it was written by an alien who understands human emotions intellectually but not experientially – like, there are moments where I can tell the intent is that I feel something besides a seething rage at how awful this story has been executed, but it doesn’t have the range or resonance to make those things land. Jaina’s first love disappears before her eyes one last time, and she has nothing of note to say about that? Uther’s prized pupil and lieutenant (before the Bad Times) flickers out and he has almost nothing to ponder? Anduin was a child when WoW started, and he still gets written like a child – he’s an ineffectual king and ruler who needs a father-figure to pull him up – Genn, the spirit of his actual father, Thrall, Saurfang – and yet he’s not written as an incompetent young king – like, it is clear I’m supposed to think he’s great and smart and totally ready for the role that monarchy thrust him into upon his father’s death in Legion, but then literally everything else happening around him and with him is just the most bumbling, oafish trash around. At what point does Anduin’s actual portrayal match with how the writers see him?
And yet the game has, over the last nearly decade now, conditioned me to think skeptically about the story presented, because anything that resonates here can be undone in a few years time if the writers feel like it. We got the big finale for Illidan in TBC, unrepentant to the last and rightfully calling out Maiev in her pursuit of him, and yet Legion comes in and undoes all of that in a flash, for the sake of a few cameos and one-liners that degrade his character arc, alongside a decent idea (hey, how do Tyrande and his brother feel about him now?) that was executed poorly (a postscript quest from the raid, oh boy). Arthas is gone, but is he really? There’s no narrative respect or commitment in modern World of Warcraft, so I can’t even say that this is the final bit of Arthas. Hell, I can’t even be sure if he’ll remain snuffed out for longer than a week, because there’s still one more cinematic left in the raid (and likely another at the end of the zone story past even that) and oh my god, what horrors await?
And at the same time, I return to the beginning of this post, and I offer this thought in closing – I don’t want to hate this cinematic, really, truly, I do not. I think there’s actually a lot there that could have been done just very slightly differently under a more deft hand that would have made it genuinely great. Most of it is simple – just keep your mouth shut in interviews about characters that will or won’t show up! Saying Varian and Saurfang won’t be there just limited your potential and makes their inclusion here feel like a reach. It was barely a year ago when you said that! – and if Shadowlands is truly this narrative masterpiece that is delivered as intended from initial drafts a few years back, then surely you knew this was coming, right? Making Sylvanas the focal character for the Arthas cameo does him and the story a disservice – I was more interested to see, hear, and feel Jaina and Uther react to his presence – you could literally do the same shot and just not have Sylvanas talk – see her flutter her eyes, tearing up with the sad apprehension of her realization, and trust that your audience are intelligent enough to understand the thematic implications of the bond between the two characters. Gnomecore pointed out that Saurfang and Varian as the two wielders of Shalamayne makes some measure of sense, and through that lens, sure, but at the same time, I feel like Saurfang was Horde fanservice and it was unnecessary. It could have been Baine, if it needed to be a Horde character – him and Anduin have an established, long-term bond and Baine is physically in the zone! Thematically, I would have most loved if it was Varian and Tiffin Wrynn, both there in the afterlife to will their son to live, to carry on, to birth him out of the Jailer’s control and into adulthood, which could be followed by bold new characterization that would set Anduin apart from the character template he’s been for basically all of WoW’s existence.
In the end, that is the most frustrating thing of all about this cinematic and this story – it has so much that could be good, could be done better, done right, and it steps right up to being an interesting narrative before just demolishing that potential. Nitpicks and minor nuisances aside, it had the potential to be the first chapter in a new direction in WoW, and it feels like squandered potential to me. All of this, ultimately, is subjective – as ever, my blog, my opinion, my take – but I feel like on the fundamentals of writing, this was a bit of a whiff, and it just should not have been.