Okay, so while I was flying home from Orlando yesterday after attending AEW Revolution 2022 (a topic I wanted to write about more and even queued up a draft on!), it happened. The raid finale cinematic came out for Sepulcher of the First Ones, and boy, here we are again, eh?
I’m going to start with some positives first, because they’re shorter and easier to address.
A Prefight Cinematic Is A Great Twist
Too often in WoW, we arrive at a bossfight in what is too perfect a scenario – the boss has been waiting idly for us and stands there monologuing on first spawn for a few seconds before becoming targetable, and then we’re off to the races. The Jailer fight having a small pre-spawn cinematic is actually cool – it shows him having done work, it conveys a sense of time passage and the idea that the Jailer has been trying to do something instead of just standing there waiting. Having that is a benefit to the story and to the sense of consistency in the game – the Jailer isn’t just waiting to be beaten, he’s actively working while we run loose in the Sepulcher, only calling his weapon forward when it becomes clear it’s needed. It probably doesn’t bode well for what’s to come that this is a thing I am gushing about, and you’re right! – but kudos to Blizzard all the same.
The Performances and Animation Are Great
We’re back to this well, but it should be said that the cinematic is well built and mechanically sound, with strong cinematography put together by Terran Gregory’s team, strong voice acting from the performers involved, and a sense that there was an artistry to it which motivated the principal creatives on the project. I rarely come away from these cutscenes thinking that these aspects underdelivered, and so while it feels like a cop-out to label it a positive, it is all the same.
Not Having The Expansion Finale In The Raid Is a Great Call
Look, here’s the thing – I am a raider at heart, and the majority of my time in WoW was spent raiding. If I ever go back to the game, it will be to raid first and foremost. However, a minority of WoW’s community, by most public stats, are raiders, and so having every major story development in the game happen in the raids is a disservice to the majority of the playerbase, who never even touch LFR, much less the higher difficulties. While the Jailer is supposed to be lore significant (and boy, we will get there), his story is not the one most players wanted to see resolved with this patch – it was the Sylvanas arc, coupled with the Tyrande arc, and those appear slated for the world content finale to come. I think that is great – the game should function as a cohesive whole for the majority of its playerbase, and the best way to tell stories in the game is not often in a raid, especially given that the majority of players never even step foot in one as current content. Even if a majority of WoW players were raiders, I think there are better ways to tell the story than a raid cutscene – because locking to a raid means you’re always in a state of action or conflict and you limit what can be done with the space – even last week’s Sylvanas cutscene needed a minute or so of tense-music post-combat action that met the Anduin fight in media res to resolve it.
And Now, The Rest
The Jailer finale cinematic is, in many ways, an encapsulation of all things that are wrong with and bad about WoW’s storytelling. With the conclusion of this cinematic, the Jailer has spoken, in total across all of Shadowlands, 429 words. Despite this, he’s labeled as the main villain, the mastermind behind not just everything bad that has happened in the Shadowlands, but also retroactively responsible for much of the core conflict of Warcraft III and subsequent tales in the Warcraft universe. His role has been said to be this substantial and heavy thing – he’s a force for evil, he’s brought over Kel’Thuzad, Sylvanas, Devos, and Sire Denathrius with his words and his grand vision for the universe. yet, we never see that, and at this point, it seems highly unlikely we ever will see it. What did he say to these characters to bring them over to his side? He’s shown or implied at least to not be actively controlling these characters as they commit to his cause – they decided to. So…why?
And in the end, what even was his cause? The cinematic tries to paint him sympathetically, as though we’re supposed to see him in this new light as we have many flawed Warcraft villains – doing the wrong things for the right cause. Yet we don’t know what his ends were, much less how he planned to get there. He dies telling us we are doomed, because he aimed to save us from a vague higher power – a larger threat that looms, some entity who is too powerful for their own good, and my god, how many times has Warcraft done this exact story already? Sargeras wanted to save us from the Void Lords, Illidan wanted to save us from Sargeras, Nozdormu was trying to save us from some other threat when he became Murozond, Azshara was working against the Old Gods – so much of WoW’s chain of events are a villainous character doing something stupid to save us from some unspecified and looming bigger threat, which almost never pays off. It creates this never-ending cycle of “wait and see” where there’s never any real narrative payoff to anything – it just continues in perpetuity as a cycle of ever-bigger threats with no real end in sight.
If the Jailer had any real storytelling behind him, any actual effort to build him as a meaningful character, he’d have some pathos to him so we could at least build a relationship with him, see his flaws through his own lens, things of that nature. Instead, we never get that – he’s a force of nature, unknowable, uncaring, seeking his own ends for who knows why and cutting a swath through the story. Him being a flawed character means nothing because we never got the Jailer as a character, we never even see so much as an expression from him until literally his dying moments. We still have zero context for what happened that pushed him from being the Arbiter, what made his brothers and sisters jail him – how was the Maw created? We end this expansion with no clear answers to any of that, at least as of yet, and while the story to come in Zereth Mortis explores Shadowlands a bit more, it only does so in service of the Azerothian character plot threads we have to come – mostly, Sylvanas. I can’t feel anything about the Jailer because there is no emotional arc to his story as presented – I’m told there’s one, but I never get to see it or have it explained, so why do I care? Oh, that’s right – I don’t. Not about this character, and not about this, frankly, garbage-tier awful story.
What makes this sting more is that by tying this absolute anchor of a story to Warcraft III, that game is retroactively worse as a story if you acknowledge the intended creative direction. Anything you saw in Warcraft III that built clear motivation for characters is trashed in service of nothing – it was the Jailer. Kel’Thuzad slimy nature and lust for power are classic villain archetypes, now undermined as he did it for the Jailer? When? Who cares, stop asking so many questions. Arthas? Well, his turn to the Lich King is still an iconic story arc, but everything past that goes from interesting villain/willing self-destruction story to blind service, doing the bidding of a villain who has no clear goal or means of obtaining that invisible, undetected motivation. It removes the personal, interesting character motivations these individual, iconic Warcraft characters had and replaces them with the most bland, generic bullshit imaginable – which is still not explained!
I would say it is anti-climactic, and to some extent it is, but the story hasn’t even built to a point where a conclusion was necessary, because we know so little about the Jailer even in the end that it just functionally doesn’t matter. Whatever, he’s dead – onto the next worthless filler villain. All of this is without touching on the myriad inconsistencies – the Forge of Souls being used for Azerite without a retrofit? The veil between worlds closing on the Jailer’s death without explanation as to how it worked, why it worked, or how we get back? Oof.
All of this, in the end, exists to setup something bigger – a new villain, nameless and waiting, that the Jailer was actually trying to save us from this whole time! Okay, cool – but you cannot keep telling us to wait and see the conclusion, because that patience is earned, and Blizzard, you have not earned the patience from a lot of the playerbase who’ve been waiting to see for something like 4 years now. And here’s where I deviate a bit from a lot of players – I like the idea of exploring the Warcraft cosmos and expanding on the universe in which Azeroth is situated. Provided the story is grounded in Azeroth, our characters, and our journey, I love the idea of expanding the domain of the story. However, this just hints that the future is more vaguely defined, cosmic bullshit – the next villain is bigger than the Jailer, who is presented as this huge force that commands a mighty army. If you were in the camp of hoping for a more grounded, realistic, down-to-earth Warcraft, it seems likely that disappointment is in your future.
Ultimately, on the one hand, this story had to conclude, and even if the conclusion is ham-fisted, bad on the merits of its writing alone (not even evaluating the interest in the actual lore and story being told), and just not want players wanted – at least this ending means a new thing can be written. A lot of players I know have comforted themselves with that – that all the stories we hear about how much Shadowlands was shaped and reshaped due to a messy rewrite away from what Alex Afrasiabi wanted are valid and that 10.0 and beyond are going to be the new, fresh start under Steve Danuser. I try not to do this, but I have to say it here – this is the rewrite by all indications, and it was really, really bad. You can argue that it might have, even must-have, been better than the original Afrasiabi ideas, and maybe it is – but that does not make it good and this ending and the tireless promotion of it by Blizzard and the writers involved tell me that what comes next won’t be much better. The team remains tone-deaf, seemingly ignorant or even defiant of the criticisms they are catching for it, and while the true finale of Shadowlands remains to be seen, this expansion just feels like a parade of bad ideas that never really saw any response to criticisms of the story, and even only minimal adjustments to gameplay on the same note.
A lot of people say that “Warcraft has never been about the story” and I mean, okay, maybe (I think that is less valid than a lot of people might) but WoW finds itself in a new market reality, where its hungriest competition have advanced on all the things that WoW has refused to improve upon. WoW could be a threadbare story where most patch content was just a raid 10 years ago, but it cannot be that anymore. In future posts I’ve planned, I want to explore that more from a few different angles – because I think the idea that WoW can remain unchanging in a sea of new, fresher games, is one that should be scrutinized, and if we are to see anything good out of 10.0, it must start with a reimagining of WoW’s place in the genre and the overall market, and how much of its perceived fall from grace relate to how little it adapts to changing tides.
To close out this post, I want to say that it gives me no joy to feel like this about WoW and its story. I want it to be better, and I want a compelling reason to not just come back to the game, but to advocate for it and speak excitedly of it again. I started this blog in 2017 as a passion project, because I just loved WoW so goddamn much that I needed an outlet to express that love for it. And now, 5 years later, so much of what I loved about the game has faded away or been worn down by a continuing lack of change in formula.
I hope, despite all evidence, that 10.0 can be more than this. Day by day, event by event, I gradually lose that hope, and that sucks in a way I’m still not sure how to deal with.