I think at this point we all sort of know that Shadowlands has not been a good lore expansion, and it in fact took a premise and setup that could have gotten a ton of mileage and beat it into submission. It’s a clear victim of time crunch, delays, cut content, and overambitious plans. It, depending on if you believe the behind the scenes tales or not, is also a story that needed saving from a creative direction pushed by a dudebro who couldn’t keep his hands to himself and the ways that failure of personality imprinted themselves on the story almost told. The story suffered from an actually interesting and good leveling and 9.0 story that fell to ash once the attention turned from the local threats of the Shadowlands and to the Azerothian invaders and their plotlines.
The biggest avatar of these failures is our Banshee Queen, the once-mighty Ranger General of Quel’Thalas, Sylvanas Windrunner.
Her story prior to Shadowlands, leading into the expansion, had a huge logistical flaw – it had pissed off at least two segments of the playerbase with diametrically-opposed interests in said story, meaning that any resolution, no matter how good, well-written, and interesting, was going to piss off someone. Sylvanas is a bitch eating crackers to a portion of the playerbase (sometimes me, I can admit!), and she became that through very inconsistent writing, as her character arc stutter-stepped around 3 main creative leads with very different ideas on who she was as a character. Her characterization through Shadowlands has been somewhat inconsistent and baffling – in that it felt like she was at times both a moustache-twirling supervillain and an absolute moron with the kind of naivete that a scammer can only dream of.
So, a lot was riding on today’s ending, both for Shadowlands and for Sylvanas. Did they stick the landing?
In isolation, kind of, but taken as a whole, it has nits to pick, and I am here to nitpick.
But first, I need to elaborate on what I mean.
The cinematics and the story beats of the ending as its own, standalone thing, are actually enjoyable in my view and I think there’s an interesting balance in play. Sylvanas needed time on the shelf, but there is a big chunk of the WoW audience that loves her, some because they see themselves represented in portions of her tale, a fact that often causes pain as much as hope because of her inconsistent characterization, and others because they enjoy explaining why genocide is okay on social media and generally being annoying dipshits. As a character in Warcraft, Sylvanas has always been badass to a point, but she has been arguably the primary character for much of the last 6 years of the game, as her ascent to Warchief of the Horde is the pivotal moment of Legion that puts us on this journey, and she has been most-consistently the action-inciting character of the narrative.
There’s also a character done dirty in Tyrande, who has had, in my view, a lot of the worst elements of the Sylvanas issue I wrote above but dialed up to 11. She’s extremely inconsistent in writing and tone, with a story and development that has been so often shunted into novels by different writers with wildly different styles and outlooks, and so much of what makes her who she is has been told in the RTS, in novels, in questlines pre-Cataclysm, and so little of what makes her tick as a character is in the game. She’s never really been in the spotlight, until BfA (justifiably) pushed her over the edge for vengeance.
The story actually sees both elements paid off reasonably well, just on the merits of this cinematic. Sylvanas is off-screen to do right by the souls she damned, unable to erase the damage but left to reckon with the scale of her atrocity, serving in isolation in the dreadful Maw. Tyrande makes a fair and just choice by not choosing death or vengeance, and the way is paved for some form of peace between the factions as the biggest detractors to that movement have been quelled. I actually realized as I read the first spoilers that my Warcraft-addled brain had excluded the possibility of just a fine, peaceful-enough decision that weighs the consequences in a way that feels appropriate. Because of that, I was kind of surprised by the choice, and I realize it is trying to walk a tight-rope between the two sides that are out for blood with this storyline. I think it will succeed for some and fail for others, as true peace among the playerbase was never on the table for this issue.
As a story conclusion, I’m happy to a small degree with it, in truth – Sylvanas is written off-screen in a way that sees Tyrande restored slightly, it lays a foundation for storytelling to come with factional peace and tackling whatever threats come next, and we’re free at this point to move on from the expansion more or less completely, barring whatever tidbits are hiding in 9.2.5 and past the April 19th expansion reveal event.
Now, taken as a part of the whole expansion, I still kind of like it, but it has problems I want to discuss.
Tyrande for me was a key character I wanted to see have some agency through this expansion. I wanted her story to be a focus on her quest for vengeance, to see her realize that blinding rage had led her astray, and to see her come to the choice of justice of her own volition. The story let me down on that front, as the presentation of the fight sequence with Sylvanas in 9.1, the surrender of the Night Warrior powers later in that same patch, and the way in which what stopped Tyrande from enacting what seemed to be her will was Elune intervening, once by pulling her power and once by stating that taking that path would destroy her. It leads to the Night Warrior transformation and process feeling incredibly meaningless, as we end up with her basically never flexing those powers for any real challenging purpose, instead using them to put down a Horde invasion contingent in Darkshore, to kill-steal on Nathanos, and to stay toe-to-toe with Sylvanas right up until the possible killing blow. Also, Elune intervening to save Tyrande from her destruction due to Night Warrior empowerment kind of shits on the other Night Warriors who are sitting in this ceremony already dead, and I sure hope that Elune being a shitty, pernicious goddess is actually a plot development done intentionally and not an accident!
So already going into this cinematic, I had previously noted that whatever the outcome, I was going to feel like Tyrande was done dirty, because the agency of her choice and the power that would come from her making that choice completely independently of any outside influence was already off the table from early in 9.1 content and wasn’t going to come back from having her actual goddess tell her off of a path, even if Tyrande would not have ended up taking it. You can say she chose “renewal” or what have you based on the in-game presentation, but the problem remains that Tyrande had freedom to make up her own mind until the choice was laid bare by Elune, and either outcome could have been interesting and suffused with meaning if she got to make the choice unaided.
Thematically, framing Tyrande as choosing “renewal” does work in the finished product, because the Sisyphean task that she sets Sylvanas on is one that will see renewal – in the Shadowlands and through it to all life.
On the Sylvanas side, I still have qualms about the speed of her pivot to accepting of her fate. I think that a longer story would have been good here, with more details and demonstrated reckoning with her actions. As it stands, Sylvanas goes from raid boss to ally in a single patch, after around 5 patches of being built as a supervillain, and it still is a structurally unsound story as presented in the game. We still don’t know how she came to support the Jailer, what specific things he said or showed her that aligned with her vision and got her support. I am not counting the Sylvanas novel in this, because the preview bits I’ve seen and the leaked bits from readers getting copies early are…well, it’s not good folks!
Now, at the same time, I’ll acknowledge that more writing may not have solved the problem given the general quality (or lack thereof) on the technical level of storytelling with this tale. I do think it is a growth moment for Sylvanas, but at the same time, we get here through a chain of events that starts with another character forcing her hand. If the Jailer had not given Sylvanas back her soul fragment, would we have gotten here from the ending of Sanctum of Domination? I’m not so sure.
The wrap-up dialogue from other characters sets things from the cinematic a bit askew, in my opinion. Presented with this conclusion, Genn Greymane still feels anger, that Sylvanas has not been made to pay sufficiently. Anduin has opted to stay in the Shadowlands for a time (and the end of the Sylvanas novel implies that Anduin joins Sylvanas in the Maw for a time, seemingly). Baine handwaves away the possibility of meeting his father in the afterlife (what an anticlimactic way to pay off the interviews where developers had indicated Baine and his father would have some story after Baine has spent the expansion alternating between being tortured and sitting on the floor). Lor’themar seems to be headed to a meeting with Kael’Thas, and most NPCs express some measure of relief and unease over what is to come.
What is most disappointing is that we see the sisters of Sylvanas finally brought to the Shadowlands to witness the judgment, and yet they say nothing to her and stand idly by as she is sentenced, content to hope that the return of her missing soul fragment will begin a process by which she can return to them.
In closing, rather than a huge summary, I think this is my take on the Shadowlands story – wasted potential.
In the announcement’s aftermath, I was actually really excited for this expansion. There was so much story on the table for us, so many distinct and exciting possibilities. There were dozens of potential characters and cameos we could get, so many interesting plot threads and resolutions we could see, and the realms of death were presented in this infinite, incomprehensible (in a good way) way. We saw 5 realms at launch, and there were so many more in the beyond, we were told, but we are drawing to the finale of the expansion and not even all the portal spaces in Oribos have been used, much less any further expansion on the countless realms of death.
There were some bright spots as ever, because the leveling stories were all pretty interesting and most of the Covenant campaigns had interesting beats and lore to them. In fact, one story in particular, the Kyrian plot, really was exceptional to me because it defied my expectations of WoW’s storytelling. Pre-launch from the beta play I had done, I hated the Kyrian story, because it felt emblematic of my problem with WoW’s storytelling and the ideology of it – we have a system that is failing us but that system was established over time and must be inherently good. But launch and beyond, especially 9.1, subverted that and gave a lot more interest to that story for me. Most of the covenants have a moment similar to it in thought but not scale – the houses of Maldraxxus now stand together again, the groves of Ardenweald are saved and we’ve brought the Night Warriors into the fold while starting a healing process between the Winter Queen and Elune, and the Venthyr establish a lack of need for a central leader and have reclaimed Revendreth from the machination of Sire Denathrius.
What makes this story disappointing is that it ends in a state very similar to where we were at the end of 8.3. Nothing has really drastically changed systematically within the World of Warcraft, and in some ways, nothing actually has. Sylvanas is functionally out of the picture, as she was in 8.3, there’s no direct looming threat but the seeping dread of one, the story is idling waiting for the next big thing, and we’re all kind of scratching our heads and wondering aloud what happened and what comes next.
Because I’ve written a lot about the downfalls of the Shadowlands story, I won’t hit them too hard here, but the story has suffered a lot from a lack of direction. We had a villain with no clear motivation even in his dying breaths, we have a sub-villain who had a face turn out of nowhere, we have a world with many things waiting just off-camera where we can’t see them, and the character motivations we do know about have verged on nonsensical. Much of the Jailer’s actually interesting lines and behaviors are cooped up in novels and other books outside of the main game, where most players will never see them or enjoy them and instead have to be told about him as this fascinating character whose greatest flaw is still a sort of question mark event, an ambiguous betrayal where the actions taken and motivation behind them are not explained in any great detail.
At the same time, there are good elements, largely in the leveling stories and base Covenant campaigns, and that complicates things.
It would be easy to write this if Shadowlands was either unambiguously good or bad. If it was just bad, I could write a scathing rebuke and walk away, the game would make my case for me, done and dusted. If it was good, we’d all have reasons to gush about it or share our favorite plot points. Instead, so much of the main plot of the expansion feels like grey mush – in the right space and context it’s actually kind of nice, but a lot of the time, it’s just nondescript nothing. The emotion I’ve felt most in Shadowlands with the lore and story has not been joy or sorrow, but irritation. It’s turned into scuttlebutt, discussion of the behind-the-scenes process that led here, because that story is almost more interesting than the main plot of the expansion!
WoW, as it stands, is not a game to play for story for most, just on its own merits. If compared to the greater MMO ecosystem, it looks even worse in comparison. It’s not the worst storytelling in an MMO (Lost Ark would like to have a word) but it feels utilitarian and sparse – and in writing, that means that valuable subtext, detail, and showcases are missing. The story serves the purpose of the game – the raid is over there and scary because X, the zone you’re in is a place of power and significance because Y, now stop asking questions and go fight things – but it clearly wants to be more than that and fails to do so.
In the end, that’s what the legacy of Shadowlands is to me – a point where the team wanted to do more and failed at it, frankly. It’s not all bad, but it is certainly not all good, and what is ever-frustrating about things like that in WoW is that you can see the possibility space they had to play with and are left to wonder just how they constrained themselves so badly.
And based on the datamining of 9.2.5, we are due for more storytelling to come about Shadowlands than we expected, but that will come another day.