On Narrative Arcs, Morality in Storytelling, and the Developing Plot of Battle for Azeroth

Yesterday’s post was a long endeavor that took a ton of work, and I am so grateful and glad to everyone that read and commented – it’s one of my most successful posts ever, and generated the single-most number of day 1 comments I’ve ever had – so thank you for sharing your thoughts!

I will be writing some more stuff (including a lot about the Liebster Award, thank you Alunaria!), but I wanted to revisit yesterday’s topic for a shorter post.

I find it necessary to touch on this again because while yesterday, I discussed War of the Thorns from a strictly in-game, lore-focused perspective. I found it necessary to address that much of the feedback I saw was people very mad about the character of Sylvanas going forward, and it felt worthwhile to address that, as:

A. She didn’t necessarily change characterization THAT much, but did shift
B. Even with beta and such, we don’t have any idea where this is heading

But as mentioned, I addressed this solely through the in-game perspective, and I think there is value to be derived from stepping into the real world for a moment to look at the story unfolding in WoW and the reaction to it.

So let’s begin!

Sylvanas is a Fan Favorite, For An Obvious Reason, and Changes to Her Will Agitate People

So while Sylvanas being a calculating villian-type is NOT new, her being so overtly evil is, and if you haven’t followed the game’s community on blogs, Reddit, Twitter, and the like, you may not have noticed that she has the largest fan following of any character in Warcraft.

Why? Well, my take is this – while there are good and even great characters in WoW, Sylvanas is so popular because she is well built and consistent. What defines the Banshee Queen is that her character has not really shifted course in a game lore known for characters shifting all over the place in service of a larger plot. Anduin is a dove, but also very willing to engage in conflict with the Horde where the narrative is served by it, with little, if any, pushback. Velen is peaceful and holy, but also acts in anger at points in the plot, in a way that is against much of his characterization.

Sylvanas has been, until now, very consistent. She is Ranger General of Silvermoon, until Arthas kills her while she defends Silvermoon and raises her as the Banshee Queen. She wanted to die in that moment, and in a way, she did. In that, she gained the curse of unwanted life – she never gets the release of death she wanted as the result of failing to save her people from the nascent Lich King.

And this is consistent, but inverted as time goes on. She comes to loathe the life given to her by the Lich King, but she grows more to fear death. Her early character arc is centered on evading death, even as her modern existence is surrounded by death and undeath – heroes like Horde player characters who fight against indescribable threats that could end them without the fear she has.

She is forced to reckon with how this loathing of life and fear of death locked her into an inability to avenge her people – the one goal from her original life that defined her pursuits in undeath – the death of Arthas Menethil. She laments this, but also finds her mission accomplished in a different way – Quel’Thalas and Lordaeron are rejuvenated, and her people will carry on for the time being. But a vision of her people being sacrificed, surrendering willingly rather than being killed in war, appears before her eyes. This pushes her into a dark void, in which she is forced to make a pact with the Val’kyr to bind herself to them and to continue to live. Again, she is denied death with purpose – to save her people, even with the agony of life that will mean for her.

Her “bright fate” – the death she longed for that fateful day in Silvermoon, is continually denied to her, and this eats at her – slowly driving her mad. Her actions have grown more evil over time, as the only thing that remains guiding her is her desire to secure a future for her people. In this, she seeks to secure more Val’kyr, hence her pact with Helya in Stormheim and attempted subjugation of Eyir.

Her goal to secure a safe existence for her people is at odds with her original desire to die. This is an evolution of her character – a more altruistic Sylvanas, but still bound to her original motivations – she wants her “bright fate” but can not have it at the cost of leaving loose ends. Arthas was a loose end, the fate of the Forsaken is a loose end, and until they are tied, she will not die. She cannot, and this is a source of frustration for her.

Teldrassil is so jarring because her actions are very typically measured, careful. She seethes with hatred in all directions, but until Teldrassil, she never lets loose with it in such a sharp and vile way.

Her hatred of life is beginning to consume her, and while this manner of expression is erratic as presented so far, the thing people have lost track of is this – this is NOT altogether inconsistent with her motivations as a character. She does hate life, and endeavors to end any enemies that may threaten the safe future of the Forsaken. Her quest to do this requires that she demoralize the enemies of the Forsaken, the enemies of her Horde. Before the Storm focuses on her juggling the priorities of the Horde and the Forsaken, and presents the idea that the Forsaken feels neglected in the wake of Sylvanas’ promotion to Warchief of the Horde. Through Azerite, she sees a way forward – but the easiest way forward is to communicate to her enemies that she will stop at nothing to secure that future for her people and the resources needed to see it realized.

Hence, the burning of Teldrassil – her goal is to communicate the death of hope, that she will burn the very thing she came for in order to deal decisive blows against the Alliance and any others who stand in her way. It is jarring, and the game does not necessarily present this single event as well as we might have wanted, but to me and my reading of Sylvanas as a character, it is not revolutionary.

But if you are wound up in being a fan of Sylvanas, praising her prior writing as nuanced and insightful, this can feel bad. It is difficult to empathize with someone so willing to harm so many for a goal that is somewhat cloudy in game. I get it and empathize with it a little bit – it makes it hard to like her, to be her fan. This character is bad, but…not badly written. You may not like it, and I can understand that – but while the appearance in discussions of this issue points to this being out of character, what is jarring is that this is largely in character for her, when you evaluate her motivations and reasons for acting.

War Is Ugly 

In real life and in game, war is an ugly enterprise. People act in lots of conflicting ways to serve an end that may be moral and just. Bellular’s video on the burning of Teldrassil used the example of the US atom bombing of Japan in World War II, which I find is apt – the end goal was to bring about an end to war through the suffocation of any and all hope for a victory. In that real life war, the Japanese forces staged a successful attack on US soil at Pearl Harbor, and the retaliation was an attack far larger and more deadly in scale. Saving civilians is a right cause, but history bears out that bringing about that goal via the death or injury of millions was disproportionate and unnecessary. The ends did not justify the means, and peace through the threat of escalating violence is not really peace.

Sylvanas wants to be left alone to acquire Azerite and expand her people’s territory – but this is innately a violent and evil enterprise. Taking Azerite and expanding land boundaries is an act of violence – even if you allow the Alliance to peacefully self-evict, the act of moving them is inherently violent, afflicting their lives with the removal of peace and stability. Of course, this is also not how the Horde works, and the idea of allowing the Alliance to relocate themselves and live will not hold for much of the Horde. For that matter, the Alliance would behave similarly. The world of Warcraft is one with acts like this often being carried out in black and white methods, and the grey usually enters in later or through subtext that is a part of the larger story. Individual battles and skirmishes often might have different underlying events and causes, but the events themselves very nearly always end in bloodshed.

Sylvanas burning Teldrassil adds something to the story coming in Battle for Azeroth that it needs – stakes. Unlike Mists of Pandaria, we aren’t just skirmishing in unfamiliar territory – these are battles in familiar places and they are designed to push us into a story of conflict with stakes.

But that uncomfortable feeling Horde players are getting? It is intentional – war is ugly, and sometimes, you act in a way that helps your people at a cost that is far too high and cannot be justified. Teldrassil and the murder of innocents in a moment of rage is a cost too high, and Horde players will get to see some of that via Saurfang. The Horde is meant to be uncomfortable now, and if you don’t like that, it means that Blizzard has done that well. The other side of the reaction, outside of anger about Sylvanas’ character, centers on this – and it has been done fairly well in my opinion.

The Story is Just Beginning, and the Burning of Teldrassil Is Just the Beginning

This is a simple point – judging this right now is silly. It is the start of the expansion story, not an endpoint or even a midpoint. It is the beginning. You can be unhappy with elements of this beginning, and that is fine – but know that it can and will be expanded upon in two-weeks time.

You Can Not Like the Story, But Don’t Be A Dick

Don’t threaten the developers, Christie Golden, or other Blizzard employees and people in that orbit. If you really hate the game’s direction that much, unsub and come back later or leave it in the past. I don’t say that to be aggressive – but if you feel a need to be aggressive to others over the story, its a bad idea to stay.

What Is My Opinion of it?

To this point, I’ve attempted to avoid injecting too much of my opinion into this piece.

As an Alliance player, this was an effective, gut-wrenching moment of storytelling. I want the Horde to pay.

As an author and storyteller myself, I want to see the realization of the plot, to understand the ways in which we got here and how the story unwinds from here to the end of Battle for Azeroth.

As a player, short of the poignancy of the Teldrassil rescue quest, this pre-expansion event failed to engage me short of about 35 minutes quickly firing through a short list of quests. If I hadn’t leveled through alpha for BfA, I would be full of apprehension about what comes next. This would not sell me on buying the expansion, which is a shame and disservice, because BfA’s actual content is pretty damn good and enjoyable.

As a pretentious nerd that enjoys breaking down stories and flashing knowledge, I enjoyed that there is a lot of sub-surface motivation and tensions that can be unpacked if you’ve followed the story and understand how Sylvanas has been written before. It also makes me sad that there’s not much worth to unpacking how poor Malfurion’s plan is, how weird Tyrande’s intervention and retreat is, and how these things point to a larger problem with a lack of steady characterization in WoW, save for Sylvanas and Varian Wrynn (RIP).

I’m not a Sylvanas fan in that I don’t play undead or RP about the Banshee Queen, but I like her writing. The emotional distance allows me to see something consistent even in what is presented as an erratic action – because, for all her development, ultimately, this is who Sylvanas is.

The story of Battle for Azeroth begins with a daunting question of morality – war makes monsters of us all, and at some point during the 8.x cycle of World of Warcraft, we will need to stop for a moment and lean on lessons from the past. Is this bloodshed worth it? Does this cycle of hatred actually serve any just purpose?

And the answer is likely no, and at points of this story, if told well, I think we will all need to stop and ask ourselves that question and reckon with what that means for us.

The Horde just has to do it now, devoid of context, and I can understand why that might be uncomfortable.

But don’t lash out about it.

5 thoughts on “On Narrative Arcs, Morality in Storytelling, and the Developing Plot of Battle for Azeroth

  1. It is crazy that people actually threaten individual Blizzard employees. 😦

    Blizzard seems to pump up the players willingness to go for a great faction war, but as you wrote in previous post (as I understand it) it is not very clear for what? More than anger? Which Blizzard got, ironically. There is so much going on, and they have sort of confused us.
    Is this a “Who shot J.R.?” moment of WoW? (To use a not so new reference).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There’s definitely a sort of strategic resource grab thing going on with Azerite, but it doesn’t really convey the need for war in an effective way. Sylvanas killing a ton of innocents definitely makes a need for battle clearer, but it does start to slide a bit in a more character-centered direction with that, which can backfire!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking forward to see you writing about the Liebster Award 🙂

    Thank you for this post too; I am about to watch more lore videos behind Sylvanas, so this gave me a head start and a better grasp. I find it so sad, how players will turn so vile, and “attack” the writers. I had no idea. I would never do that. As you say, we can disagree, and that’s fine, but that’s it.

    The rescue quest left an impact, thats for sure 😦 What I really miss is some way of knowing, who we saved? I see almost none of the familiar NPCs from Darnassus in Stormwind right now…What will happen to them? No more around? Did they all die? What of a new home, will they move there? So many questions…

    Liked by 2 people

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