Village of Warcraft: Small Scale Story Telling in WotLK
responded to one of
about moral choices in WoW, and how they don't really exist. He says:
In other words, Blizzard is telling the story that Blizzard wants to tell (albeit with many loose ends and very, very slowly - how long did it take us to get anywhere with the new plague storyline? Almost six years?), and the players are really just along for the ride. WoW kind of has the perspective of the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds. That movie spends its entire time focusing on characters who, in any other movie, would be extras streaming past the camera.
Of course you can tell stories about people like that. But you have to stop and focus on them, and narratively speaking, WoW doesn't.
The original link is
In some ways I think I have to disagree with Nab's point. He's right about the structure. There is this two pronged duality in WoW that insists the PC is important and special while paying a lot of attention to the NPCs that, more than merely being outside the player's control, are basically unseen by anyone until either they give you a quest, or the three minutes before you kill them. Where I think the argument may not hold up is in the intent of Blizzard to tell only the stories of its pre-ordained heroes. And that's the problem – Blizzard wants you, as a player, to feel personally involved in the massive geopolitical events of the world, and it only works some of the time.
I'm currently moving my level
through the end of
and the beginning of
and I have been surprised by some of the narrative turns that the story has taken in the new expansion.
As a human, the early game character development was dominated by the notion that you were a fixer-upper. The Alliance armies were fighting the Horde on distant shores (though I never saw them), so it was up to you to rally other dedicated militamen to kill that pesky
and deal with the oppurtunistic machinations of the
. You were a very, very concerned citizen of whatever nation you belonged to.
As the game progressed, that became less and less true. You began to hobnob with the elite:
wanted you to save his daughter,
asked you to kill the traitor
, you and your buddies were asked to go in and defeat the Old God,
, thereby ending the awakened civilization of Ahn'Qiraj and restoring order to Azeroth. You were clearly incredibly important.
But, as this is an MMO, you couldn't be
important – because EVERYONE had rescued Bronzebeard's daughter and killed C'thun and Rend Blackhand and Kel'thuzad (but not really). By the time of the Burning Crusade you were relegated once again to being a regular concerned citizen. Now you had to go through the Dark Portal and liaise (as a simple soldier) with the long forgotten Alliance Expedition, ensure that Vashj's Naga (now apparently
villains) didn't mess up the pristine ecosystem of
(again, as only one of many emissaries to the
), and help banish
back to the twisting nether (but only as a member in good standing of the recently reformed
Shattered Sun Offensive
). Consistently in the Burning Crusade you weren't important as
. You were merely the sword of greater forces:
Arch Druid Fandral Staghelm
. And, in the end, they got the glory, and you got a little title next to your name saying "Hand of A'dal".
The complaint that many seemed to have about BC (myself included) was that, as the mere instrument of greater forces, you had no real personal connection to the villains you were fighting against or the good you were doing.
was some guy that the Alliance wanted dead, and even if you were a Night Elf Druid – who might have fought alongside him in the Great Sundering 10,000 years ago – there was no recognition of that.
has previously posted on morality in the game. And while that is a fruitful and interesting subject, it's not what I am talking about here. I understand the need to keep a single storyline and set of actions in an MMO (even if that does seem to defeat the nuances of online, multi-player interaction). What I am talking about here is the recognition of what the story even
If you are a Blood Elf, the plot is one of profound tragedy. You are fighting a desperate battle against the Scourge when the game opens, slowly watching your people succumb to their magical addictions and seeing your friends transformed into the Wretched, all predicated on the shining hope that somewhere in Outland,
, golden prince of your people, has found salvation and wants to give it to all of you. When you finally make it to Outland yourself, as a pilgrim seeking greater glory, you are beset by the horrifying realization that in order to save your people, your prince has put himself in league with daemons and abominations. With sadness in your heart, you come together with fellow blood elves and plot the death of your prince. It's the right thing to do, for the survival of the world and for your new and welcoming allies (savage and simple though they may be), but its also the final nail in the coffin of your own chance for salvation. You will be doomed to suffer magical addiction and sink into wretchedness...but you will do so as a hero.
That's the plot as suggested. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes a matter of getting phat lewtz, of getting experience, and of grinding
rep. When you turn in the quest you get a pat on the back from A'dal and a scary message from Kael'thas saying "not dead yet – haha!", but nothing about how you suffered to get there.
Out With the Old, In With the New
This brings us to WotLK, which, in many ways, is a panacea to the ailments of the Burning Crusade. But not in
ways. Over the last few days I have been to Azjol-Nerub, the Old Kingdom and Drak'tharon Keep and I have been surprised by what was emotionally affecting.
love the Nerubians. I am a sucker for aesthetics, and the idea of arachnoid/insectoid Egyptians in the frozen North, now undead after losing to the Scourge, was just unbelievably cool. (Oh Ziggurats, I love you) And their former King, the ever-tragic
, enslaved and forced to destroy the kingdom he helped build, was perhaps my favorite character in the original Warcraft games. I was excited to fight him in WotLK, to see what Blizzard had done to wrap up that storyline. What I got was more of the same. While Azjol-Nerub is possibly the most beautiful instance in the game, it all came down to being some guy who goes and kills a big scarab on behalf of some spider that can't do it himself. Blizzard even changed voice actors (and the new one is far inferior).
of recognition of the momentous importance of the event. When you first attack him, Anub'arak says "I was king of this empire once, long ago. In life I stood as champion. In death I returned as conqueror. Now I protect the kingdom once more. Ironic, yes?" When he dies, he sighs with relief saying he never thought he would be rid of the Lich King. But its only a hint. Throw Anub'arak on the pile of dead villains whose stories were too big for you to be a part of them. Say hi to Illidan and Kael'thas and Kil'jaeden for us!
Scaling down the Scope, Ratcheting up the Drama
By contrast, when Blizzard is telling a
story, they excel. Case-in-point: the
. The small scope of its plot is precisely why it is so well done. This little pine forest takes a page out of the legendary past of the American Frontier (on the Alliance side at least) and has you, as an ambassador of the
, come to the local trappers and hunters to beg for their help in fighting the Scourge. The Scourge has little presence here, or at least, it doesn’t seem to. You busy yourself helping trappers defend against the Grizzlemaw Furbolg, the Drakkari Ice Trolls invading from Zul’Drak to the north, and the insidious Wolfcult, which is rapidly spreading through the little frontier villages and transforming them into Worgen.
Things get interesting, however, when a group of trappers asks you to help them capture a troll. You go to one of the nearby troll villages, lay a trap, and bring your quarry back to them. You and your captive,
, get to talking and over a series of quests, he lets you know that the troll holy city,
, has been taken over by the Scourge and is pumping out undead trolls into the region. Always an enemy of the Scourge, you follow Drakuru’s instructions, gathering up scrying artifacts – at one point you even become blood brothers. Drakuru completes the scrying ritual and tells you to go into Drak’tharon Keep, eliminate the Scourge and take whatever treasure you find. The place is overrun – purgation is the only option.
And you, ever the opportunist, do it. You go through and you kill all the Scourge and when you have pushed back the Scourge invasion you keep fighting. WoW plays to its own sense of mindless dungeoneering, here – you hardly notice when you stop seeing Scourge warriors fighting the Drakkari priests and when troll ghouls give way to living troll defenders. You fight your way through and when you end the instance, killing the Wind-Serpent Prophet
, Drakuru comes to you and congratulates you on a task well done. He then goes on to summon the Lich King and tell you that you have done the Scourge a great service by smashing the last of the resistance. What are a few liches and zombies lost, when it meant you would bring down the Devilsaur Monarch,
, or defeat the mighty prophet himself. You watch helplessly as Arthas commends Drakuru for his masterful betrayal of the Drakkari (and you), and promotes him then and there to a Death Knight in his service. Then he makes him the general of his armies on the Drakkari front and instructs him to sack
. Most maddeningly of all, after the Lich King leaves, Drakuru turns to you and says (to paraphrase), “You saw what just happened? I betrayed my people for the Lich King and he gave me responsibility and power and best of all, I still get to live. You might want to consider doing the same thing, because if you don’t, you’ll die and it won’t make any difference to the Alliance or the Horde or anyone.”
Drakuru then leaves and becomes an outdoor boss in Zul'Drak. And that’s
. Blizzard told a small story, the story of an individual betrayal, where you were made an unwilling conspirator, and gives you a character who is not only complex and interesting, but also personally linked to you, the PC. Yes, everyone who plays through the Grizzly Hills is Drakuru’s Blood Brother and everyone will be betrayed by him. But in all honesty, for once, it doesn’t matter. Drakuru fooled
, personally, into believing him. He betrayed
. And now, having realized the terrible mistake I have made, I will have to
go to Zul'drak and kill him. I’m invested in his defeat, and I care about my own complicity in the situation. Furthermore, I am given a small and personal look into the massive geopolitical problem that is the Lich King. Even if I don’t know Arthas or Ner’zhul personally, I can still understand what his evil represents because I had that one small moment where I was betrayed to him by a blood brother.
A Personal Epic
So I guess, in the end, Blizzard is not bad at telling personal stories. And they are, with each expansion, getting better. The problem, it seems, is mostly that the scope of the world is too large. You have two planets and four continents and endless factions and at least three unimaginable evils ready to destroy the planet (the Legion, the Scourge and the Old Gods). It’s too much for one simple, slightly petty Warlock form Elwynn forest to take care of.
I never ran Tempest Keep because I didn’t really care about Outland (well, that and I could never find a group). After we left the old expedition from the second war behind, I didn’t have a reason to be in Outland except visual curiosity. But the Grizzly Hills proved to me that with the right formula, and narrative techniques, you can still make a monstrously huge story personal. You can still feel real pathos for pixels as long as the writing is good and story is intimate. I think the lesson here is that the epic is only the sum total of your and everyone else’s interactions with a story. The first time you see the cutscene at the Wrath Gate, its powerful and moving, but only insofar as you helped the Royal Apothecary Society and Valiance Expedition get to where they are. Only inasmuch as you see that even Bolvar Fordragon can be betrayed by people he trusts, just like you once were.
Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings moving by giving us tight close-ups on characters' faces; he did it by showing us the very small effect of great deeds. Blizzard would do well to continue the tradition.
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