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Opinion: Battle for Azeroth and the death of nuance

Gamasutra contributor Katherine Cross examines World of Warcraft's latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, and how it may have been too quick to set fire to one of its few truly unique ideas.

It’s a cliche in pieces critically covering World of Warcraft to emphasize that the writer is aware of the “war” prefix in the storied property’s name, as if to avert the most obvious avenue of Twitter criticism.

It is far more interesting, I think, to note that there are many ways to tell a story about war, a bottomless well of moral uncertainty, than has thusfar been managed by the Warcraft series.

I extend it a great deal of leniency, of course; its colorfully cartoonish world makes fun of itself frequently, and there’s a joyous self-awareness to WoW in particular. But WoW’s latest major plot point does serious damage to one of the few things that made its otherwise cannibalistic high fantasy mish-mash unique: the Horde.

The prologue to the coming expansion, Battle for Azeroth, sees that eponymous fight being kicked off by the Horde burning down Teldrassil--the titanic World Tree that holds the Night Elf capital of Darnassus and most of their holdings.

Under the aegis of Sylvanas Windrunner, the Banshee Queen of the Forsaken and new Warchief for the entirety of the Horde faction, the greatest war crime in WoW’s recent history has been committed and it’s left many Horde players feeling ill at ease, asking in true Mitchell and Webb fashion, “are we the baddies?”

One of WoW’s few, true narrative successes lay in the fact that there was never a clear answer to that question. The Horde could be honorable and noble, while the human-led Alliance could sometimes be possessed by petty bigotry and warmongering. Sometimes the reverse was true; that back and forth lent a moral greyness to the proceedings that, while it often veered into childish “grimdark” nonsense, nevertheless gave players a fairly unique vision of a world where traditional high fantasy villains--Orcs, Trolls, Goblins, Undead, Minotaurs--were not “the bad guys.” They were civilizations in their own right with culture, dignity, and aspirations. They weren’t inherently evil: they were misfits and outcasts. Now they’re “just following orders.”

Battle for Azeroth has only just begun, but it’s hard to imagine that there’s a narrative ace up the sleeves of the game’s writers that will undo the severity of what happened at its outset. In the name of doing something explosively new, Blizzard appears to have held a fire sale on its last few claims to originality.

***

There are some who argue that the scene of Sylvanas ordering Teldrassil’s destruction works “in context” but context is precisely the problem. Even in a game as freewheeling and silly as WoW, there were a few shibboleths that held up the game’s shaky lore. One of them was the fact that the World Trees mattered. They were significant as sources of ancient power and life; their sanctity to Druids in particular is evident, and the Tauren people--allied with the Horde--revere them as much as the Night Elves do. This isn’t something that can be walked back. It’s the equivalent of nuking Jerusalem or Mecca in an act of petulance.

It’s the sort of extreme act that, in the very context of the game’s lore, paints writers into a tight corner. While some delightful contrivance is sure to be devised, it’s hard to imagine anything truly redemptive emerging from fires so vast.

The final days of the Legion expansion have been seeded with clues about where things are going to go. Sylvanas has clearly been painted as an out of control bad guy, the disapproval of her second in command Nathanos, and some other Horde leaders, has been made clear. But at best this sets up a repeat of the Garrosh Hellscream storyline--where another war-criminal became leader of the Horde and had to be overthrown in a coup by the more “honorable” members of that faction. While it has been a few years now, surely Blizzard couldn’t be reduced to repeating a whole storyline with a new coat of paint? Yet this is, perhaps, the best case scenario. It would, at least, preserve the Horde’s distinctiveness--albeit by battering it a bit.

The other options are less palatable, and would continue a trend that has made WoW’s lore even more of a joke than it already was. Could you imagine a redemption arc for Sylvanas after she’s done all this? Or some contrived scenario where only her evil could save the world, before allowing her to ride off into the sunset?

Game director Ion Hazzikostas noted recently that evil, particularly the question of whether or not the Horde is evil, is “subjective.” In so cartoonish a game that caters to, frankly, childish perspectives on the world, one despairs at the prospect of this already broken idea taking flight. But it’s especially ridiculous in light of how unambiguous the Burning of Teldrassil is. If the goal was to portray moral greyness, this was entirely the wrong way to go about it.

Such a view is also cavalier about the fact that, whatever philosophical debates we may have in real life, there has been a clear moral code established in the WoW universe; according to that code, burning a World Tree is Very Bad. And it happens on a whim.

This has been a consistent problem with WoW’s storytelling: it’s a gaggle of unearned payoffs. Story beats, twists, and reveals ripped from far better fantasy epics without any of the context, build-up, or careful narrative architecture that gave those things meaning.

In every event, this is the apotheosis of WoW’s original sin: it put storytelling in the service of gameplay. The upshot of recent events, after all, is to remove Darnassus and the Undercity from the game, cities which had been under-utilised by players and were also on opposite continents from their faction’s epicenters. Each event--the Burning of Teldrassil and the invasion of Lordaeron (the old human kingdom in which the Undercity sits)--also serves to kick off the big faction war that is meant to be the big selling point of BfA. This is a return to WoW’s roots, Orcs versus Humans, duking it out on bloodied fields of horrendous carnage. More PvP, just like some players wanted.

But it is a gimmick, and what’s left of WoW’s already tattered story has suffered perhaps irreparable damage.

A brief note must also be added here. The despoiling of Sylvanas’ already thin character hasn’t gone over well with some players, some of whom have taken to harassing Blizzard staff, including lead writer Christie Golden. In addition to being morally repugnant (forgive me, Mr. Hazzikostas, some things are not subjective), it’s also completely wrongheaded. Golden does not have free rein, and must put her considerable talents to work within the tight constraints of what she’s been given. As many writers and narrative designers alike will report, they’re often struggling to play catch-up with the gameplay demands handed down to them by other departments, trying to retroactively shoehorn a story into the fissures of that structure. I don’t blame WoW’s writers; on the contrary, I have bottomless sympathy for them.

There are so many beautiful flashes of good writing in the game’s story, so many moments where there is a happy coincidence of writing, VO, and animation. Little quests that are funny, meaningful, and interesting; bit NPCs that, against all odds, I came to care about.

But, as ever, with WoW, its spinal story is the problem and shaped by demands that seem to obviate art. That has never been truer than today with BfA.

Maybe I’ll be wrong, and the genius of WoW’s writers will outwit me, showing the world a brilliant, nuanced story that somehow ties this all off. I’ll be thrilled to be wrong about this. But for now this all serves as a clear cautionary tale: when story is so thoroughly subordinated to gameplay, both will suffer. The former from an intrinsic weakness, the latter from a crisis of meaning.

No, WoW’s not dead. It’ll plod on and perhaps even recoup subscribers; but in using Sylvanas to commit an act of unmitigated evil to drag her whole faction down with her, it seems like what was left of the game’s story has indeed become a mere toy.

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