(This is the second in a series of three posts looking at WoW’s current state before speculating on the expansion announcement to come on April 19th. The prior post deals with the current state of a portion of WoW’s community and the discussions they have outside the game, which can be found here. The post tomorrow will focus in on gameplay and systems.)
For all of the things that have been said and will be said about WoW’s storytelling, it took me until about a month ago, really reflecting on it, to determine what it was about the story that I found off-putting at the core of it. More than character analysis, the way things are presented, but rather, the raw, beating heart of the story.
To wit – what do the writers on World of Warcraft believe in?
Today, as the second part of a three-part series breaking down where the franchise stands before the April 19th announcement of the next expansion, I want to examine the root of the story and what it says about the worldview held by its creators, its caretakers, and what that says about the possibility (or lack thereof) for the future of the story.
But first, I need to contextualize things, and to do that, I need to make a broader statement on media.
All Media Is Political (Yes, Really)
A common refrain from a certain type of person is that media should remain “apolitical.” What that means, as they so often say, is that media should not “take a side” or express a viewpoint that might be “alienating” to a portion of the fanbase.
However, I think any astute media literacy type would say that the idea of removing politics from media is bullshit, for a few reasons.
Firstly, the incendiary thing – the people who so often cry out for “apolitical” media do not actually want that – they want their views reinforced or at least unchallenged. Because the people asking for such are not devoid of their own viewpoint – they’d just rather not face it or have to consider it, especially if it ends up as the viewpoint shared by a villain, or as the cause of bad things in a fictional plot. Far from being an “enlightened” ideal, it is actually cowardice – refusal to engage with the perception others might have about those ideas. This type is usually easy to spot, because to them, “politics” is any minority representation – black people, LGBTQIA+ people, and women, and never as anything more than the mere presence of such people in their movies or games.
Secondly, however, is the more interesting point and the one I want to get across for the topic to come. People who create media are innately influenced by politics, as are we all, because politics are not some alien or separate thing that exists parallel to our daily lives, but as an intrinsic part of them. Politics define the parameters by which we live – what systems of governance, what economic systems are in use, who is given a voice and means to influence change, how the process of change is carried out and perceived, and what the acceptable limits by which we all live are. No one is capable of creating a work of media that does not bear the indelible mark of the politics by which they live, and that extends beyond the boundaries of a creator’s own personally held beliefs. As an American, I can never write a work of fiction on my own that truly engages with the experience of someone who has lived in a warzone. As someone who grew up in a lower-middle class area of the US, I can’t write fully accurately what the lived experience of a person who grew up impoverished was like, nor can I do the same for someone who was born with a silver spoon. On my own, the actual contours of those lived experiences are out of my reach, and anything I write from those viewpoints, no matter how well-researched and articulated, will never match the full experience that would authentically come from someone who has experienced that.
A lot of people perceive this, wrongly, to be an attack, but I think it is a good thing. The idea that every person has their own story to tell is true, and we all have a lived experience that represents something unique and special to us. I could write the story of someone who is unlike me, but it would never resonate the same to someone who lived with it and that is always going to make it a hollow substitute for someone’s story who has been through the subject matter in question. It’s an encouragement to find someone who has that experience to collaborate with, to broaden your horizons further and to make sure that the story you tell has meaning and significance far beyond what you alone could offer it. Or, for a solo effort, to tell a story that represents the authentic you.
If I wanted to write my life’s story (and I tried a portion of that once in a novel that hides in my shame closet and on Amazon to this day), it would be affected by all the ways in which my world has been defined politically – by what is deemed possible, impossible, normal, and by the ways in which I live my life within those guidelines. Even were I to try, there would be no way to completely expunge the mark of the political parameters under which I live. That is the lesson I need to convey here – try as you might, politics are always a part of fiction because they are indeed a part of nearly everything, and while we don’t always consider that in daily life, it is worth thinking about – nearly everything about the world we live in has been defined by politics.
So to set the scene, Blizzard’s writers cannot remove politics or political influence from their work – it will always be ingrained as a part of the canon, because the writers who write it live in systems and countries defined by political systems that influence their viewpoint. As a franchise, Warcraft is distinctly influenced by this, because at its core, Warcraft (and politics) is about power – who gets to enact the rules and define the society by their will? Regardless of what effort they may take (or not take) to do so, such ideas cannot be stripped from the story being told. Any effort to do so would only weaken the material and render it unable to properly tell the actual beats of the story present in the game.
And to be clear, this is not just my opinion, but an academic topic that has been explored in media studies for ages. This short video from Extra Credits is a good basic primer on the topic as well!
And so, now we are equipped to dive into the core idea in this post.
What Does WoW Have To Say About The World (Of Warcraft)?
Warcraft’s story is one that is defined by a very real and yes, political, struggle. It is about the struggle of its myriad races against the various issues they face locally, how facing those issues rolls up into the larger factions of Horde and Alliance, and how the interwoven fates of these factions – standing against each other and yet aligned for the sake of Azeroth – influences the events unfolding. Most of our expansions see the factions split but fighting against a shared threat, and the others start as faction wars before turning the combined might of the factions against a shared enemy – the dueling lords of Blackrock in Vanilla, the Sha and Garrosh in Mists of Pandaria, and Sylvanas in Battle for Azeroth before attention was fully moved to the Old Gods and N’Zoth.
At the core of both factions are a number of issues that are systemic in nature, from how the Kalimdor-hailing races of the Alliance are often underserved by a faction leadership that does not understand or properly account for their struggles to how the Horde often has a similar problem with the races of the Eastern Kingdoms. The Horde also has a very real systemic issue in that it often has leadership that sees violence as the solution to problems and sees their personal problems as those of the Horde, leading to vicious campaigns of reckless bloodthirst. Meanwhile, the Alliance is feckless to a severe degree, with leadership that seldom acts to prevent larger issues but instead reacts to things at a point where irreversible damage has been done, and sees their role as conciliatory towards the Horde, a policy that constantly costs them life, territory, and standing within the world.
If you squint enough, you might notice something rather humorous in all of this – a vicious red team that does what it pleases regardless of the consequences (even as it harms large swathes of the population including their own citizens) while a feckless and unmoving blue team lets them, only moving to restore the status quo after irreversible harm has been done? I think I’ve seen this one before…
Warcraft, as a franchise, is a story built on systemic issues – the idea that the Horde struggles to deal with the warrior spirit at the heart of the Orcs that is the beating heart of the Horde as a faction and has, to date, failed, rendering a Horde that remains eagerly bloodthirsty and, while chastened slightly in Shadowlands, has yet to fully account for their history with this, from Thrall to Garrosh to Sylvanas, with only the most perfunctory of movements (the placement of a leadership council) in place. The Alliance is a society built by the immiserated underclass that is mistreated even still, and a leadership that claims to represent all the people under its banner while routinely failing many of them (most commonly the Night Elves). When those failed peoples have their own leadership that rises up to handle the situation, they are quickly tamped down and if the situation escalates further, mobilization to stop them occurs – a big part of the early Alliance mission in Shadowlands is trying to find and stop Tyrande, rather than giving her a fair hearing or treating her as an equal in leadership within the Alliance. (A clear leader that advocates for a direct and challenging approach to the Horde is refreshing compared to an Alliance leadership that is the embodiment of “nothing will fundamentally change” and that is a big part of why Tyrande is one of my favorite Warcraft characters, and if you’re familiar with that quote then you might make the connection as to why that partially is).
Yet the problem with Warcraft is simple – much like real life, the story here refuses to treat systemic issues with any gravity or meaningful advancement. In fact, the very nature of WoW’s story has, for a long time, been simple – a return to status quo.
Think about the story for the last few expansions at a very macro level – a big thing happens that changes our perceptions of the reality within the universe and our world by enacting a negative change, we reverse the negative change, and on we go. The Horde recognizes a real problem with leadership, but stops shy of actual institutional change from the bottom up designed to change the outlook of the average Horde citizen and how they see their role in the world and against the Alliance. The Alliance is too busy trying to keep Tyrande in check (oh no, she’s rightfully furious with the Horde and wants to enact meaningful change through the direct punishment of one of their leaders!) and misses the plot, really – we ended BfA with no meaningful pursuit of justice for Teldrassil, killed the Zandalari leader (which should be a war crime, no?), and basically revert to doing fuck-all until Anduin is kidnapped (mannapped?) by the Mawsworn.
The changes made are surface-level and serve only to return us to the status quo of Azeroth. The Horde has no interest in questioning the structures and ideology of the Horde that has frequently led to the bloodthirsty leader and a bloodthirsty population, and the Alliance has no interest in questioning their role in assessing damages against the Horde and ensuring justice, an attitude that is alienating to the Night Elves, nor does the Alliance make much of any effort to take a leading role in the world they share. Even back to something like Legion, where the story is far less about the factions, what does banishing the Legion serve to change for us on Azeroth? Nothing, really – it gets rid of the big bad thing looming over us so we can go right back to square one.
It’s intensely frustrating because WoW as a setting has stories it can tell that would be so deeply interesting if it would only look inwards at the systemic issues of the setting. The Horde being a group of bloodthirsty warmongers would be interesting or mean something if we’d actually do something about that – analyze through a storyline what causes that, what the sentiment of the average citizen is, use the storyline of the leadership to tell a meaningful tale about change to a system and modality of thought. Likewise for the Alliance, it is hard to feel any real faction sentimentality because I don’t have a clue what the Alliance stands for – what is their ideal Azeroth, how do they see that being enacted, and what roads are they willing to take to that goal? We know how they feel at moments in time – they want the Legion gone, they want N’Zoth gone, etc, but what makes them tick in the interim?
It’s more frustrating than that though, because Warcraft so often tiptoes right up to the line of doing something very interesting and then completely scraps it from the lore or whiffs on it. Pelagos is a trans character who was a woman in life and then chose to be a man in Bastion – did you know that? Well, it would be hard to, because you’d have to ask him in game through a set of specific dialogue prompts only available with certain instances of his character, and while they were proud enough to write a forum post about it, Blizzard were also giant cowards and deleted said post. Try the link to said post in this Wowhead article if you don’t believe me! Sylvanas’ moment of clarity at the Broken Shore with Varian could have led to an interesting Sylvanas character who takes her role seriously and sees a kinship with the defenders of Azeroth – except within the space of an expansion, she becomes a villain instead! Tyrande as the Night Warrior was such an interesting concept, channeling the power of her god in service of her ends – she settles on vengeance, and you could tell such an interesting story about the choice of vengeance over justice and when the line is crossed in that regard, having Tyrande empowered to make that choice and to then have to deal with the consequences in either direction – but Elune pulls the power at the 11th hour, in a way that paints Tyrande as wrong for having wanted vengeance and denies us a meaningful moment where she was allowed to come to that conclusion of her own volition as Elune de-powers her at the moment when she has made the choice. Even if she does make the choice for justice over vengeance in the finale of Shadowlands to come, it will be cheapened compared to what could have been – a Tyrande who stands for what is right fully on her own judgment with no external influence would have been such a great way to tell that story, but it’s off the table now because faceless Elune told her to calm down instead.
WoW’s guiding star through so many stories of its modern era has been to turn away from positive change, to represent a world where returning to normal is the highest value, and nothing can ever change for the better with the systems in charge of the world. In effect, the world that the story paints is fundamentally bleak, one that we are told directly is broken and one that also refuses to engage with that brokenness. What is the value in returning to “normal” if normal is still killing us?
WoW actually uses an interesting slight of hand to turn our attention away from this fact as well – it simply never has a peaceful moment. At any point where we as players have won a victory we have no moment of reflection before the next conflict. This has been foundational to the story since the beginning – we end a conflict and roll into the start of the next one ad infinitum until the game ends or we leave it behind. Part of my irritation with the story conclusions of BfA is exactly this – we are told that the Horde has changed, that the leadership change represents a meaningful shift to a more peaceful and cooperative Horde, but we are never shown this change. And yes, before you say it, it is World of Warcraft and not Peacecraft, hurr hurr. However, war has no meaning if we do not understand why it is fought and what makes people want to partake of it. Because we do not know what true peace looks like in Warcraft, there is no clear indication of what anyone is actually fighting for. If you stop and think about it for a minute, what does a state of true peace even look like in Azeroth? We’ve never seen it, and I’m not sure the thought has ever occurred to Blizzard to show us that either, so they probably don’t know themselves!
The depressing reality at the heart of WoW is that the world has never seen what Azeroth could be in a state of non-conflict, or with its systemic issues addressed and worked on. In an RTS series, this is fine enough – obviously the story will ebb and flow and Warcraft III ends with at least a sense of nascent peace, but then we launch into WoW and there is this tension – directly (Horde in Ashenvale and Azshara, Alliance camp in Durotar, etc) and indirectly (factions unwilling to work together to accomplish a shared goal, few cross-faction organizations), and that tension never goes away. BfA makes the bold statement that the “cycle” of violence between the two forces must end, and it just…doesn’t? There’s been no narrative effort to move that plotline forward or elaborate in any way, short of the faction leaders standing in a tentative truce atop Icecrown to send us into the Shadowlands. When we are presented with interesting characters who challenge the status quo (the Defias are kind of right about the Alliance, you know? Tyrande is right about the Horde as well, in many ways!), we are told they are wrong, we receive minimal if any elaboration on why that is, and we turn against them in some way – we kill the Defias, and we chase Tyrande until the Winter Queen and spirit of Elune finally manage to convince her how totally crazy she sounds and ply her into compliance. The story never addresses the contradictions with the status quo that these entities present, because doing so would be political and would expose the underlying systemic tension that creates most of the in-universe problems in Warcraft. Just as in the modern American society, the story turns away from those problems or attempts to pin them on other, incorrect causes.
Warcraft’s universe is an incredibly narrow and dull way of thinking about the systems of power – things got there for some reason surely, so we cannot propose to do better, to make changes for the common good, because doing so accepts the idea that the foundations of society have rot in them that needs to be handled. It accepts that the defined parameters of society are inherently good or at least correct and thus unchangeable – we can do work around the edges, but nothing that goes deeper than surface level. It is, foundationally, a depressing world view, one in which we must pretend that the surface-level changes and small, marginal wins are enough to undo ages of systemic rot, despite knowing that they are not. It is a hopeless world view, and in a real world where very real and sometimes similar systemic issues threaten the future of the world, it is depressing and bleak.
What I want most out of the future of Warcraft’s storytelling is a progression of characters and the world fighting for meaningful change. I want to see the Horde bring real reform and justice for their atrocities and a way to prevent future ones by addressing the core issues and telling interesting stories from that. I want the Alliance to play a more active role in the world’s story, by being more willing to engage before the bad things happen and taking the lead, even if that sometimes leads them to misdeeds on the scale of the old Horde (lord knows the Horde have been villains enough). I want our player characters to have agency, to not be beholden to their faction but rather able to act with autonomy for the good of Azeroth. More than any of that, though, I want to see us answer a very simple question asked way back in Mists of Pandaria – what is worth fighting for? For a full decade now since that expansion, we’ve never actually answered it, never seen a representation of what that conflict brought us. I would love, yes love, to see a peaceful patch, where the story content is defined by a relationship-building with some new people on a far-flung island of Azeroth never seen before, where the conflicts are small-scale, local, and easily understood and where these conflicts do not undermine the peace of the factions or the world as a whole. Mists of Pandaria, in the beats between faction conflict, actually told a really compelling story about a peaceful people and their local threats, until it became about the link of the Sha to the Old Gods, and we’ve never visited such a concept since then, as even the moments where it seemed close in BfA were still in service of a faction war and two continents very much not at peace with themselves, much less the wider world.
One of the things I have most come to love over time in FFXIV about that game’s story is that it often grapples with many of the same themes, and yet its guiding star is always hopeful. Our player character is not a disinterested observer but rather an active participant in Eorzean politics, working with the Scions to enact meaningful change in service of a better tomorrow. With each story beat, we topple corrupt and rotten structures and systems and build new ones, and the new ones don’t always work correctly, so we spend time rebuilding and revising until we get it as close to right as we can. FFXIV’s story is built on a foundation of hope, and it shows us the fruits of our labor with multiple patches of peacetime storytelling, directly telling the player that the way of things ought to be questioned and changed if it no longer serves the given purpose. The biggest reason from a narrative perspective that I prefer FFXIV over WoW is simply that word – hope. FFXIV has it – hope for a better tomorrow, hope for reform, hope for positive change and a world free of old systemic issues, and we are the avatar of positive change as our player character. WoW has none of that – it presents a world where the best we can hope for is to remove the existential threats while maintaining everything else, and the everything else is rife with problems that we could solve too and yet the story point-blank refuses that option!
One thing I hold out hope for is that the gameplay-centered idea of cross-faction gameplay brings some of this to the story, that by 10.0, we are discussing a true peace and unity and that whatever fate comes next, whether it is dragons or void lords or the very world soul itself, we stand together against it. WoW’s story has clumsily dealt with the war concept for ages now, and it has not turned over any new plot threads that haven’t already been thoroughly explored in that space. Seeing Warcraft tackle peace, with a real truce, unity between the factions, and even a near-complete removal of the gameplay implications of the faction divide, would be a fascinating approach, and it would be genuinely new ground for Blizzard to walk on, with a large number of new plots that could emerge.
More than anything, though, I want to see an Azeroth that has hope. I want to see the idea put forward that our conflicts mean something, that we aren’t just senselessly divided against one another because “that’s how it has always been.” I’d like us to look at the problems that plague both factions and to see both deal with their historical debts within the story – the Alliance’s Orc slaving, their real problem with the working class that led to the Defias Brotherhood, the Horde’s consistent theme of bloodletting and conflict, the ways in which the Horde leadership has often stoked that behavior for their own ends, and to see both factions work harder to embrace their fringe races – Night Elves and Draenei brought closer to Alliance leadership and given more sway, while the Horde works to bring the Forsaken and Blood Elves into the fold more solidly. (also more lore for fringe races as well, like Gnomes in cinematics, Dwarves being more present, on top of the already-mentioned races!)
WoW in 10.0 and beyond, for me, needs to grapple with the worldview and vision it has for Azeroth. In truth, I don’t care that much where the next expansion is, what our enemy ends up being, or how we get there – I want to see World of Warcraft examine the fundamental in-universe issues with society on Azeroth and present a hopeful tale where peace can happen – not the banishment of some outside foe, but a real look at the prejudice between factions and the still-sore scars of decades of conflict.