There is some explanation in this article for people who aren’t familiar with the story of WoW, which inevitably contains some spoilers concerning all the pre-patch events before Battle for Azeroth. Don’t read if you’ve not yet played through the Siege of Lordaeron and don’t want the surprises ruined.

Here we are at the eve of a new World of Warcraft expansion. Launch nights are always, for my guild mates and me, an exciting time. It happens once every two years or so and you really feel you’re off to discover new landscapes and races and adventures. All good. Battle for Azeroth will take us to breath-taking new lands and, having been in the Beta for it, (albeit not doing much as I don’t want to spoil the story), I can’t wait.

However, the run up to this particular expansion has been more melodramatic than usual. This is down to how the story is developing within the game. Azeroth is a huge world, with an immense amount of lore attached to it, which could give Lord of the Rings a run for its money in terms of complexity and fully realised histories of multiple nations and continents.

When you’ve played an MMO for getting on for twelve years or so, its native people feel more like friends than bunches of pixels. When I began playing WoW, back in Classic, I didn’t even notice the story and only started to become interested in it during the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The story within The Burning Crusade, the first expansion that led WoW out of Classic into a new age in a lot of respects, didn’t engage me as much, not because it wasn’t compelling but because so much of it was hidden inside raids, and at the time my guild could only access the 10-person Karazhan and Zul Aman. The bigger raids, for hardcore players only, held the meat of the story within them. But in Wrath, you occasionally ran into the Big Bad, Arthas the Lich King, as you were doing quests and levelling, as well as in the 5-person dungeons. There were dramatic cinematics to further the story – and not this time hidden in raids that were simply for the hardcore elite. Raids – often the most spectacular part of the game – also became accessible to more players, specifically for guilds with smaller teams. Our guild loved this. Everyone felt involved.

WoW has built on this type of story-telling ever since, so that players can engage with what’s going on. You feel like you’re in a book or a film, and it’s not just a case of mindlessly killing 10 of this or collecting 10 of that for quests. What you do has more purpose. You’re busy helping oppressed races or fighting enemies that threaten the whole world. Through the story, players have changed the world of Azeroth, for better or worse.

In Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard is (initially) taking the story back to the faction divide. If anyone’s reading this who isn’t a WoW devotee, I’ll just explain that when players join the game, they choose either Alliance or Horde and begin playing their first character in that faction. Eventually, we might make characters on the other faction in order to see the story from both sides, and I imagine very few players don’t do that nowadays.

In the build up to BfA, Horde and Alliance are at each other’s throats again, in a tit for tat war. For the uninitiated, here is a very simple precis of a quite complicated story: Horde Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner, nuked the World Tree Teldrassil, which was home of the Alliance Night Elves. A great many civilians perished, burned alive. In retaliation, the boy king Anduin Wrynn led Alliance forces against the Horde at the occupied city of Lordaeron. Here, Sylvanas decided to release the Blight, a hideous, fleshing-eating disease that killed both her own troops as well as Alliance soldiers, all of which she then raised gleefully as undead to fight for her. Despite this, she still didn’t win, thanks to the timely intervention of Jaina Proudmoore, a somewhat conflicted character herself (to put it mildly), and a very powerful Alliance mage. The leaders of both sides escaped the devastation, thus setting the stage for the launch of BfA.

Sylvanas’s actions at Lordaeron following the slaughter of civilians in Teldrassil has left a lot of Horde players feeling pretty angry. They disagree with their leader’s tactics and decisions – and it seems several non-player characters in the game feel the same, as shown in the movie-quality cinematic Blizzard released last week – The Old Soldier. In this, the veteran Orc general, Varok Saurfang, is so disgusted with the ways things are going – including perhaps how his world has changed since he was young – that he’s prepared to take off his armour and go to face the Alliance troops alone and unarmoured on the morning before the final battle. Sure suicide. But to Saurfang, honour is everything, and he feels the war he’s caught up in is dishonourable. He’s only dissuaded by a young Troll shaman who, as the dawn breaks over the mighty war engines of the Alliance surrounding Lordaeron, brings a degree of hope back to the grizzled old fighter. It was well-written, well-directed and beautifully depicted, and I found it profoundly moving. But the cinematic only highlighted the discord within the Horde itself.

I like the drama of this, and it makes me eager to discover how the story is going to play out. It’s clear Blizzard wants everyone to feel furious with Sylvanas and worried for the future, regardless of their faction, but I think the developers have got more story surprises up their sleeves. Some players are suggesting this plot is a precursor to doing away with faction divide completely – something I’d personally welcome, although a lot of players (perhaps even 50%?) would hate that. To me, faction divide is annoying in many ways. Story-wise, we’ve been teaming up to fight a common foe for over a decade. Everyone (player and fictional character alike) is older and wiser, yet even so, Horde and Alliance are now back to scrapping like school kids. It doesn’t make sense to me. Surely, a type of Cold War plot would be more convincing? I’m mainly an Alliance player, but I do have a lot of Horde characters I love just as much. Unfortunately, I can’t do end game group content with them, because all my friends play Alliance exclusively at top level. My Hordies are paupers in comparison to my rich Alliance characters, and because they’re on opposite sides, I can’t mail my Horde gold or resources, which is really galling when my Alliance have far more than they can use. Removing the divide, so that the factions could group for high level content, and otherwise communicate in all sorts of ways, would mean my Horde characters might even see a bit of raid and dungeon action, which I’d be really pleased about. But… if Blizzard does decide to sow permanent harmony between Horde and Alliance, a large proportion of the player base might have tantrums about it. We’ll have to see whether Blizzard wants to risk that. I have no gut feeling either way, because so much is up in the air story-wise at present.

There are many predictions about how the narrative will go and I enjoy being tantalised by this. It’s like beginning to read a novel in which anything could happen. But… I can’t help thinking that some of the narrative decisions that have been made since the beginning of the recent (brilliant) Legion expansion have their roots in what has become popular in genre fiction as a whole – whether in books, comics or film. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Game of Thrones has been a huge influence on story-telling. It was this show (and books) that popularised the idea of provoking (and perhaps displeasing) the audience by killing off major characters en masse, characters who normally readers/viewers would expect to be comfortably invested in. It seems a cold-hearted act, almost breaking the contract between writer and reader, to exterminate too many characters simply for the sake of being shocking. The Grimdark genre truly deserves its name. I hate the brutality of this story-telling fashion in fantasy fiction, the attention to gory detail, the gloating over torture and torment, and the constant soft porn, which is just boring. The way I see it, if someone wants to watch porn, they can go and watch it on a channel or DVD devoted to erotic titillation. I don’t see its place in mainstream entertainment. But there it is, and it’s probably not going to go away now. The demons are out of the bag, which means that me, and people like me, just can’t watch some shows, even if we otherwise like the story and setting. (For the record, I can stomach the soft porn, even if it’s dull and wastes screen time when some actual story-telling could be going on, but I simply cannot and will not watch drawn out torture, dismemberment, graphic executions and rape. What kind of person enjoys such scenes?)

I think WoW has been infected by this trend, which began in Legion with the slaughter of the human High King, Varian Wrynn, one of his veteran generals, Tyrion Fordring, the Horde Warchief Vol’jin (a much-loved Troll leader), and several others. The fact that WoW lead developer Ion Hazzikostas recently compared the Burning of Teldrassil with the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones speaks volumes. You can see it must’ve been an influence, however unconsciously and if only for its shock value. OK, the upsetting moments at the start of Legion moved the story along and created high impact drama. It set the scene for the amoral Sylvanas to become Warchief of the Horde and the young and inexperienced (and pleasingly pretty) Anduin to become the human High King. New stories to be told, new characters to invest in. And now we are facing its legacy in BfA. But I do think Blizzard might have gone a bit too far with the ‘realism’ in a game that’s essentially an escapist fantasy. I’m not sure I trust the creators (who are primarily game developers rather than fiction writers) to handle the story skilfully and convincingly. And the players want to be convinced by the story. The professional writers Blizzard do employ undoubtedly have to work to a predefined script, so can’t be held responsible, and certainly don’t deserve the threatening vitriol that’s been directed at them on social media, but quite honestly the current writers are not that great. I would like to read the WoW novels to discover all the story detail that doesn’t happen ‘in game’ but I can’t bear the hackneyed writing. I did try, I really did… But it just hurt my eyes, never mind my own creative sensibilities, to read it. As an editor as well as a writer, I couldn’t stop editing the prose in my head as I was reading. But anyway, those people are just employees, and it’s some committee, somewhere deep inside Blizzard, that calls the shots.

The good side of all this is that story has become very important – nowadays, people expect their entertainment, even in games, to have complex, mature themes, realistic characters and situations, and convincing dramatic tension. I’m delighted I’m sitting here writing about all this, because it means story-telling is alive and well, and that modern obsessions with technology, plus short attention spans, haven’t damaged it past repair. Quite the opposite, even if fiction has expanded far beyond the pages of books.

Part of The Old Soldier showed Saurfaung morosely removing his shoulder armour and throwing it to the ground. In an act of defiance against Sylvanas, (or solidarity with Saurfang, who is currently in the custody of the Alliance), some Horde players are currently choosing not to display their shoulder armour on their characters. I read that on some servers, (perhaps those devoted solely to role-playing, sadly I can’t remember), players congregated in the Horde capital of Orgrimmar to demonstrate, in a ‘Not in my Name’ kind of way. That shows how the story is affecting people, so Blizzard are doing something right. WoW is a game, yet its narrative touches people deeply. As a writer of fiction, I applaud this – and of course this is why WoW has held my attention for so long.

This evening, as midnight strikes in Europe, the islands of Kul’Tiras and Zandalar will open, and the conflict of the Horde and Alliance will be taken there. I’ve already seen the landscape, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The artwork has come on a long way since Classic WoW. One zone in particular – Drustvar – is a haunted land of dark witchcraft and supernatural strangeness. That’s the area I’m heading to as soon as I reach Kul’Tiras. From what I’ve seen it’s entirely my kind of place. I’m crossing my fingers that the story as it unfolds will be grand and surprising, and ultimately satisfying for all players. Sylvanas will definitely not be Warchief by the end of this expansion, I’m quite sure of that, but even though Saurfang seems the obvious replacement, I’m not so sure about that. Anduin will grow and change, perhaps pick up a wife along the way (the Wrynn dynasty needs continuance and Anduin could do with a strong partner to support him. There are several compelling female characters who’d make outstanding queens) – or… maybe the boy king won’t survive the story. Whatever happens, it begins tonight, like a two-year long movie or novel. I loved Legion, its story, its landscapes and its characters. But now we’re moving on to new horizons. I’m more than ready to be part of that.

Advertisements