Warning – this post has some Dragonflight alpha spoilers, some of which are derived from datamining that can change prior to live launch.
Dragonflight is, for better or worse, the start of a new era on World of Warcraft.
If we are to believe the myriad accounts from anonymous and named insiders and the snippets we do get from interviews with the WoW team, the storytelling on the game has been a hot mess for the last two expansions because of some amount of turmoil – an abusive story leader taking his malformed world view and crunching the game into the contours to fit his narrative, with the rest of the content after some point early or mid Battle for Azeroth basically being attempts to salvage the work already done there and to create an escape path for a new story lead to take his place and move the franchise forward. Afrasiabi out, Danuser in.
The biggest promise coming out of these accounts is that Dragonflight’s story is the brainchild of Steve Danuser and his first real start-to-finish expansion arc as the main person in the writer’s chair. This is a claim that either fills you with hope or dread, depending on how much you might know about his history and how much you like the things he’s taken credit for in public. I think he sometimes gets an exaggerated amount of flak for his writing (a refrain I hadn’t seen until researching this was calling him a “blue skin fetishist” because of how many of the characters he writes most passionately for are, well, blue skinned in some form or fashion) but I do think that there is an uncomfortable parallel to some of his fanfiction-adjacent tweets in-character as Nathanos and the changing portrayal of Nathanos in WoW as he rose up the ranks, not to mention that a lot of the effort to carve delicately around Sylvanas’ character flaws in Shadowlands also skew towards his own expressed personal preferences for the character. My personal opinion is mostly one of dread – his writing on WoW has either been thoroughly mediocre or embarrassingly bad, with little in-between and almost no heights higher than that bar – a lot of the inconsistencies with WoW lore begin with him, and WoW under him has often felt less like a coherent world and more like a theme park, where sometimes we can see the rough-hewn painted panels instead of a consistent presentation.
However, I will give him and the larger writing team (whose work is often on smaller beats like zone stories and level-up and is often quite good) credit for something – until this week, Dragonflight’s lore has largely been inoffensive, and even been quite good in spots. One of the Waking Shore quests is a touching, reflective bit of Orc storytelling, dealing with two Dragonmaw Orcs who are trying to come to terms with the atrocities they committed at Grim Batol against the dragons, especially as the dragons of the Isles are welcoming and attempt to cure the older of the two, who dies with a whelp comforting him like a pet might. It’s an interesting moral and philosophical exploration, and it genuinely gave me hope.
Then came the datamining of the extent of what seems to be one of the main storylines of the expansion, and, well, my hope was shot.
One of the main questions of the story of Dragonflight is how the broods without their original aspect leaders will handle things. The Black Dragonflight is obviously without Neltharion, with only 4 named living dragons in the flight, the Blue have their new leader in Kalecgos (arguably not very new at this point), and then there is the Green flight left in the hands of Ysera’s daughter Merithra, the most recent power shift. Merithra’s ascent was an interesting idea for a tale, largely because we haven’t seen what the process of a power shift within a Dragonflight looks like really closely yet, despite having had it happen multiple times throughout WoW’s history.
However, in Shadowlands patch 9.2.5, a single line of dialogue changes the context sharply – telling us that Ysera could return to Azeroth, “if Elune wills it.” This single line sets up what could be quite ruinous storytelling in my opinion, and I am going to share why before getting to the newest twists in this story.
It could be argued that Ysera’s death in Legion was not that significant to the overall story or that it was somewhat out of left field, but it was impactful in some ways, at least. The cinematic was certainly beautiful and it gave a feeling of cost to the Emerald Nightmare subplot in that expansion, which made the hunt for Xavius fulfilling in a way. Ysera’s story has actually been decent since then, as her return in Shadowlands set clear stakes for the Ardenweald zone story and gave a lot of life to the idea of the Winter Queen – the adversarial relationship between her and Elune, the binding of Ysera to Ardenweald, and the renewed purpose for Ysera in her afterlife, helping the realm of nature’s rebirth function and defending it against threats from within and without. There is an actual good story arc there (in the leveling content, go figure!) about dealing with loss and finding new purpose as you rise from the ashes – fundamental good storytelling and conflict resolution. I really liked Ysera’s arc from Legion through to Shadowlands, because it felt like it respected the idea of her sacrifice – she gave of herself to see the Emerald Dream cleansed, we cleansed it (how well is still up for debate, but good enough for now!), and then we saved her spirit in death so that she can continue to be of service to the cycle. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s pretty damn good for Warcraft!
However, this one line in 9.2.5 sets us on a new path – if Elune wills it. Again, as with many of the choices Elune has been portrayed as having made, particularly in the Shadowlands, she appears to be a pernicious goddess who is playing games with the lives of her believers – sacrificing Teldrassil’s souls to the Winter Queen, neglecting to ensure that transaction was actually carried out until it became a rescue mission from the Maw, and now offering this dangling carrot to Ysera – that she can return to life, but only if Elune wills it.
Dragonflight’s most recent alpha build provides some de-contextualized answers for what would cause Elune to will such a thing – a sacrifice. Specifically, a trade – Malfurion Stormrage for Ysera.
To me, this super-sucks for a few major reasons. Firstly, it ruins a lot of the story told throughout Shadowlands with regards to Ysera – it is astonishing to see Ysera find peace in her new purpose in the Shadowlands, only to then go “lol psyche!” and come back to Azeroth afterwards, and it cheapens the narrative weight of much of Ysera’s journey through Ardenweald and the Night Fae campaign’s poignant moments of reflection with Alexstraza. It also increases the burden laid at Tyrande’s feet, as she would then have to watch her second Stormrage lover exit her life, at a moment when she is still emotionally raw from the events of Teldrassil, the War of Thorns, her experience with and relinquishing of the Night Warrior powers, and her tireless pursuit of Sylvanas through Azeroth and the afterlife, leading to some small measure of justice at the conclusion of the patch 9.2 story. It feels like a gut punch.
However, the other side of that token is that it cheapens the idea of the sacrifice in the first place. If we can barter and trade souls across the veil, then what consequence does any of this even have? Malfurion has already been gone for long patches of story, coming back in fits and starts when he’s needed as a prop to some other story, so to most WoW players, does losing him even feel important at all? We can’t preclude the possibility that at some future point, Malfurion will be the beneficiary of some other exchange of the same sort, trivializing the story told in Dragonflight because he’s an established character needed to tell some new tale that relates to his past. So it also feels like a meaningless gesture, someone making a jerking-off motion into the air – what does it even matter, who fucking cares, the story has the object permanence of a toddler and eventually Malfurion will just yell “peekaboo!” and pull his hands off his face and the story will be like “whoa, didn’t even know you were there, anyways get back in here,” and we’ll just pretend that any emotional impact the initial storytelling has is enough.
For lore-invested Night Elf players, it marks the third straight expansion where some dumb, unnecessarily tragic event is perpetrated on the Night Elves specifically to advance a main plotline that increasingly seems like it is more concerned with author-inserts and rule of cool than it is actually coherent storytelling. It has been a specific Warcraft trope that the Night Elves are basically the race upon which the story inflicts the most torture porn, tearing at their foundation in the story constantly without ever really finding a way to come back to it. Malfurion and Tyrande’s relationship is already a meme in-game, because the whole thing with Malfurion started as a stand-in for Tyrande’s affection for Illidan and then at moments where we most would want or need to see some level of emotional growth or development on the part of this relationship, it is never delivered. Fuck man, Anduin and Sylvanas have a more fleshed-out relationship in the game compared to the only Night Elf power couple in the lore at all! You feel bad for Tyrande on one hand if she does lose her husband, but then it’s also like, I have been told you are a couple but I am rarely shown signs of this at all! Across writing leads and staff, the Night Elves are one of the most consistently poorly written races in the game, and there are rumors and scuttlebutt that a good chunk of the original WoW writers’ room hated the race but it made it to WoW anyways because Metzen pushed for it. It is such a trope at this point that a Google autocomplete for “Blizzard hates” gave me this:
But analysis of the datamining aside, let’s get to the root of the issue – the mindset around it.
The WoW shills (I won’t be nice on this one) are already in high-dudgeon about the response to this datamining, hitting us all with the “wait and see” bat that has served…well, poorly, in the past. To be fair, right now, we don’t know that Ysera for sure comes back and we don’t know for sure that Malfurion is sacrificed to allow this, nor do we know the buildup and stakes that lead us to this point in the story. Such a moment in the story is likely to have more going on around it than the simple text already datamined.
Yet, here is the thing – I am so fucking tired of “waiting and seeing” what this lore team does to the game’s main plot. It wasn’t that long ago that Blizzard had the benefit of the doubt from me – even into early Shadowlands, I was holding a candle that things might snap into place. Blizzard has lost my faith in their ability to pull things together on the story front. It is a shame, because the Dragonflight alpha has, to their credit, seen them be more responsive on the gameplay front, with faster talent iteration, more gameplay design discussion and changes happening in public with the rationale explained, defended, and with room given to improvements suggested by the community.
The problem is that story stuff is obviously held in spoiler territory and the meat of the story is going to live in encrypted cinematics, cutscenes, and files for now. There’s evidence of a whole chunk of zone just withheld through encryption in the current alpha build that seems pretty spot-on for where these events would transpire – so the “wait and see” sycophants have ammo for their argument. Where the problem comes in is this – if the story we can see is pretty bad and invalidating on the surface level, what lies in those files that will save it? For years now, the refrain of a lot of this type of commenter, your Taliesin and Evitels and the like, is that there’s some grander scheme and we just need to let it play out, but here’s the snag – we are now four full years past the burning of Teldrassil, and we never really paid that off in a meaningful way. It was used cheaply to start a war, cheaply used again to present Tyrande as a stereotypical angry woman archetype with the story tripping over itself to present her as the unreasonable party instead of the genocider in the argument, cheaply used yet again to make some empty point about Elune that has yet to pay off in any real way, and then the barest restitution was made to wrap the Shadowlands plot and we move forward from it.
Like, sure, okay, I’d love to be wrong here. I want there to be some hidden data file with a cinematic that pays respect to the story that came before and gives us something new and substantive for Dragonflight’s main arc – I don’t want to be right to hold Blizzard in doubt here. But nothing of the last half-decade minimum of WoW’s story points in any direction that is good. Further, we have some small potential evidence in the Dragonflight loading screen art….
Could this art be Merithra? Maybe! Does it match her in-game art to date? Absolutely not. Does it match Ysera? Yep! Could Merithra’s in-game model change for Dragonflight? Sure. Will it? Who knows?
This gets to the heart of the problem I have with Blizzard storytelling and especially the idea that Dragonflight being Steve Danuser’s “baby” is supposed to be a positive step forward – the game has no sense of weight to its own story beats and will readily destroy the value of past storytelling for what the team perceives to be a cool story arc, which destroys my willingness to invest. In Dragonflight, they have a perfect, small-scale example of what good storytelling can do – the Dragonmaw Orcs having a presence on the Isles, trying to atone for the sins of their past – it respects what came before, gives it a new emotional heft and value, and gives us this slice of life from the rank and file of these factions that we rarely get to see. It has a punch to it, because it perfectly fits the story that came before while showing growth and development – imagine a patch with the Dragonmaw fracturing and having an existential crisis as the main story – with the writing that small sidequest chain shows, it feels possible and like this beautiful thing that I would love to see. This story arc doesn’t have any of those positive qualities – it just shits on what came before, makes me feel foolish for investing in Ysera’s arc in both Legion and Shadowlands, and is yet another example of why you don’t get value from WoW investing in the story. The investment this hook with Ysera and Malfurion wants me to feel is completely invalidated by the very story being told with it!
And then to top it off, the writing team and Danuser in particular can do the same defensive crouch they’ve done for literally years now. You don’t like the datamined snippets? Well, there’s more context! The context is bad? You see, you just haven’t seen where it goes in the next chapter. Oh, the next chapter is also bad? Have you considered the long narrative structure we’re building and how big the payoff will be in two expansions? The payoff in two expansions is bad and invalidates a big chunk of this whole arc anyways? Oh, well, players just don’t appreciate the work we’re doing here! The clapping seals of the content creator sphere will keep applauding anyways, tossing vague disapprovals on elements of it while using narrower and narrower claims to keep a perception of always being correct (god, tell two years ago me that he’s gonna loathe Taliesin and Evitel content and he wouldn’t believe it, and I can’t quite comprehend what I ever liked about them to be honest).
At the end of the day, I guess it isn’t necessarily make or break for a lot of WoW players – certainly if I were still actively playing, I’d probably excuse the story being shit if the gameplay was just right, and it quite often is pretty good for someone like myself. However, WoW continues to refuse to evolve its storytelling in a positive direction and still leans far too hard on older, established characters – and this means that when they need to break the glass on a built-up lore figure, they often contort themselves into knots like we see here. Honestly, it would fix so much about WoW’s storytelling if we just got a couple of new characters an expansion that fold in to the cast and give us new focal points and perspectives. Merithra could be that in a huge way, and a chance to tell an interesting story about the transition of leadership in a dragonflight and how they uphold the mission given by the Titans.
Instead, we’re gonna throw Ysera in the microwave and bring her back to the story, crushing the value of her last two go-rounds in the plot. Possibly, at least. So much potential for new story and new characters, but the best this creative lead can do is keep bringing back the old characters while absolutely destroying the value of the story told to get here. It fucking sucks.