Theme and Why It Matters

One of the things that came out of my prior post on judging an expansion on its merit was a comment on a related post that really stood out to me.

Theme is important in delivering a good expansion, and having a cohesive narrative and theme that are interwoven is vital to delivering a great experience.

One of the things that is easy to miss about early WoW expansions, for example, is that for as different as the zones in Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King could be, they all had unifying traits. TBC zones all had elements of brokenness – floating shards of Draenor, dried up marshes in Zangarmarsh, the pointy spires of Blade’s Edge, and the bio-domes enabling plant life in Netherstorm. Every zone told a consistent story – this is a broken, lifeless planet, whose shattering affected it deeply. Likewise in Wrath of the Lich King, every zone fit a central climate and deviations made sense in lore – Sholazar Basin was icy around the edges, but much was made of how the inside was a Titan land, maintained by them.

So Cataclysm begins a trend that lies through the “bad” expansions of WoW – the zones added, while awesome, are also geographically non-contiguous, and are accessed primarily via portals for gameplay convenience. While I wouldn’t dare say “take the portals out” – it did make the zones feel very disconnected, and there isn’t really anything that would say to someone new to the game that these zones are Cataclysm zones. They are all pretty good zones – I’ve even come around on Vashj’ir as the internet’s top Cataclysm Defender – but the zones begin to dissociate from their content here. While the lore justifications make sense in some cases (Hyjal was being reconstructed and tended to after the events of Warcraft III, Uldum was masked via Titan machinery), the others are not really explained away in lore, other than some variant of “Deathwing did it,” which is not altogether compelling.

Mists of Pandaria turned this around by offering lore around the full biome of Pandaria – everything has a consistent theme and fits with the various races of Pandaria. Even better, these races have lore content and fit so well. The Mantid make sense, and their actions are consistent through the expansion. The Mogu are one of my favorite new races added to the game ever, and I hold out hope that with the Zandalari in the Horde, we could maybe some day see a Mogu splinter faction playable. The lore added does much to establish a sense of place and belonging, and it really makes the expansion a cohesive whole from start to finish, even as the main plot with Garrosh begins to pull players in different directions.

That brings us to Warlords of Draenor. While I really quite like Draenor as a place overall, a lot of it screams of being changed for the sake of being not-quite Outland. There’s a lack of visual continuity, as each zone is its own biome and lacks any real degree of belonging from zone to zone. While the zones are cool, they also lack cohesion in NPC placement – Shadowmoon Valley has a Mag’har encampment that is allowed to operate for…reasons? The Draenei have setup flight points on the outer edges of Frostfire Ridge but don’t seem to have any base of operations or encampment – so what purpose do they serve? I know these things can feel trivial when read, but they are immersion-harming – I like having a Frostfire flightpath as Alliance, but I’d like to believe that there’s at least some reason for them to be operating there besides gameplay! It also is easy to dissociate Draenor from the broader world of the game as it exists only as a fragment in time, through a portal, and our only real bond with it is through the lore characters that guide us there.

Lastly, that brings us to Battle for Azeroth. While the individual continents are fantastic and have a strong sense of continuity with the zones within each, the problem I have is that the two separate continents are self-defeating, in a way. It feels weird that one expansion is split in this way, and unlike Cataclysm zones, there are no scenic vistas overlooking other zones that give me any sense of location with them. I know from the world map I see every time I boat between the two that they are reasonably close to one another – so what would the harm be in taking a boat between them both that doesn’t have a loading screen? Okay, I can think of the harm – the amount of time spent. Still, however, I find the fact that the two major landmasses of this expansion are basically completely isolated instances a bit troubling. It also does a tremendous disservice to the theme of the expansion – by separating the factions, it limits the feeling of war that would be conveyed if they were closer, or even a single effective “continent” with some water between them to enforce the lore distinction between the two. The other thing, which remains to be seen, is the addition of zones were are about to get in 8.2. With Mechagon and Nazjatar, the question on my mind is simple: where do these zones even fit?

Mechagon could have an entry point in Tiragarde Sound, since there is already a mecha vault there, but as for Nazjatar, where and how does it fit? If it ends up being in the sea between the two continents, then do we end up portalling between it and our home continent, or will we get the ability to fly and believe in the illusion of its placement?

To further discuss the disconnect of theme and place in an expansion, BfA’s story has multiple threads pulling loose. The early story is about acquiring allies and their strengths, and fits well enough, but the war campaign effectively centers on both factions playing the strategic conflict equivalent of footsies. To the side of this, the Horde are dealing with a Zandalari power struggle, which kind of fits the main narrative, but the Alliance are helping Jaina find her place in her family and helping to alleviate the trauma of her life thus far – elements that do vaguely kind of fit the shape of the recruitment of the Kul Tirans, but are also sort of out of place in the broader narrative of the expansion. All this is happening while both factions are getting a taste of Old God corruption – the Horde with the Nazmir and Uldir questing (and parts of Vol’dun as well) and the Alliance with the Naga and those obedient to Lord Stormsong. Add Azerite on top of this with its subplot of saving the planet, and the entire scope of the lore in BfA is clearly a muddled, overcomplicated mess (at present). The possibility exists that it could pull together into a cohesive whole by 8.3.5 or thereabouts, but that will be too late for a lot of people.

Theme matters, and the best examples of WoW’s design come from content where the theme fits in all ways. TBC placed the Burning Legion as the main villain, and explored the game through the theme of brokenness – a broken planet, the broken psyche of Illidan Stormrage after his imprisonment at the hands of his own people and the rejection of his love Tyrande, picking up the pieces for the broken races of the Draenei, literally exiled to Azeroth, and the Blood Elves, left finding a way to curtail their magical addictions and thrive in a world without the Sunwell. While each patch had its own various bits of content, the theme remained constant – the broken husk of Karabor in Black Temple, the broken troll city of Zul’Aman, the broken magical tower of Karazhan, and the broken home of the Sunwell in Quel’Danas. While the emphasis of theme varied, they were all, overall, contiguous with each other and it allowed all of these disparate pieces to be joined as one cohesive package of content.

Now think of WotLK, and you see much the same – the theme of overcoming the overwhelming power of death. You fight through a frozen tundra landscape, but there are pockets of life, and you work to strengthen and protect those. You fight back against the forces working to blight the land with death – whether undead or other foes.You face the literal god of death in Yogg-Saron and the embodiment of undeath in the Lich King. As a Death Knight, you overcome the darkness of death and learn to find new life in the circumstances you have been placed into. Life overcomes death, and the full expansion focuses heavily on this theme. Even side stories like Malygos and the Mage War still fit into this, as Malygos is looking to afflict death onto the mages of Dalaran who stand against them.

Compare that to Cataclysm – the idea is to save the world from Deathwing, but only two of the zones focus on him. Most of the new zones in Cataclysm show little or no signs of the titular cataclysm, and seem pristine and nice relative to the original zones, which often do a better job showcasing that theme. This is also the beginning of each zone having its own, fairly disconnected story. Hyjal doesn’t feed into Deepholm, and Vashj’ir especially doesn’t. Deepholm doesn’t feed into Uldum, and Uldum does not offer anything needed for understanding the Twilight Highlands. Only a couple of the zones have Twilight’s Hammer cultists or anything that could resemble a connection to the main plot, and we end up pulled in the direction of elementals, Thrall’s inner turmoil and impending fatherhood(?!), all of the Firelands stuff (which at least ties back in with Deathwing, barely), before ending with Dragon Soul. While it is sometimes nice to see the sub-stories elevated to full stories, it also dilutes the theme of the expansion, reducing it to a less cohesive, more hectic package.

A Case From a Different Angle – How Final Fantasy XIV Handles Theme

To drive home the power of continuity of theme through expansions, I wanted to bring around the way in which FFXIV handles expansions, because while it is different, it does make an interesting case study, as both expansions released to date do an excellent job of adhering to a central theme in a few different ways.

Heavensward, the first expansion, takes players to Ishgard, a kingdom ravaged by the effects of the Dragonsong War, a millennia-long conflict between Ishgard and the dragons who inhabit the areas immediately around the city-state. The expansion focuses heavily on the dragons, with multiple dungeons featuring dragons, specifically Nidhogg and his brood. You fight Nidhogg in a dungeon, you kill his consort in another, his eye as an artifact is a major plot point, the treachery of the Ishgardian establishment against the dragons is revealed over the course of the level-up content, the new race added, the Au’Ra, are dragon-people, and the end result is that everything points at this central plot point. Stormblood, the current expansion for FFXIV, is focused on the theme of revolution, as the nations of Ala Mihgo and Doma rise up against the main villain of the game, the Garlean Empire, and reclaim their homelands. Characters previously introduced have deep links with both nations and serve to ferry players from the familiar Eorzea and into these new nations. While they are both fairly separate on the world map, they are unified under the banner of rebellion against the empire, and this ties the theme back into both, making them feel complete and whole. The dungeons all focus on pieces of this revolution, with later story dungeons in the level up process having you liberate the grounds of Doma Castle from the Garleans, and the concluding story dungeon of the level-up experience does the same for Ala Mihgo.

Even with the varied array of additional story content and side stories on offer, they all tie back into the conditions at play – the theme is revolution, and everyone is seeking to find their place in the world left after a largely-successful rebellion, and later in patch content fighting back against challenges to the stability and peace acheived in the initial story content. These things matter, and they help take what could have otherwise felt like a disjointed mess feel like a single, well-built piece of content.

Theme Matters, and Expansions Need that Connective Tissue

The goal of this post is not necessarily to bash on WoW, but to point out that the continuity of these elements matters. A strong theme woven throughout the gameplay and story of an MMO can amplify the perceived quality of the expansion, and looking at how simple the most successful examples of theme are, it lays out for me some of the reasons I’ve felt unsatisfied with certain pieces of content. One of the reasons I really like Battle of Dazar’Alor is because it focuses in with laser accuracy on the theme of BfA – it is about a battle between the Alliance and the Horde. The full breadth of the raid focuses on this and goes deep, where even the weird bosses make sense – Grong is an Alliance creation, where Opulence is a guardian of the Zandalari treasure and thus allied with the Horde. Overall, theme can be an easy thing to lose track of if done right, but also when done wrong – and I am hoping that the future of WoW brings us to simpler, more strongly expressed themes!


2 thoughts on “Theme and Why It Matters

  1. That is what I meant with the portal observation. Well written. And as someone who only has time for one character, this expansion is actually just a few zones to me. I would really like being able to boat ride between the two continents. (And have more Quests on Zandalar.) I get it makes no sense to the story, but that’s my personal wish.

    Despite me being low techy, I’m pretty sure, that this is how it is in game now, because it’s easier for the system to handle?

    The Island Expeditions would be so much better if I could travel there as well.

    I miss the days where I’d log on and not take a single portal. But then again, the game is far too large now, and I do appreciate being able to travel with ease.

    What you touch upon here deserves a much larger post, because I believe we see a shift in how the game is being developed too. But it’s too techy for me to grasp.

    What made Wrath so great was the build up to The Lich King. No messing around, no gotcha, no oblivion, no doubt where we were heading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! On the tech side, I can’t see a reason why they couldn’t be one “continent” from a server perspective – Legion was a base 5 zones, plus Dalaran, and then a 6th zone with Broken Shore later. In terms of total landmass, maybe there’s something to that, but it seems like there shouldn’t be a compelling tech reason to split them out. I think Blizzard did it for flavor reasons and it isn’t quite playing out how they wanted.

      Agreed on the Islands too – I hadn’t thought about it, but I really like the idea that they belong to the world too. They’re fixed size and layouts as well, so they should be perfect candidates to be on the map!

      I’m thinking of tackling the very topic of the way in which the game is developed – there has definitely been a subtle shift over the years and in some ways it makes the game more fun (a lot of content is built for quick play!) but also less interesting (repetition of reward loops, seasons that take the same content and just shuffle it forward, etc). For the purpose of story and gameplay interest, I feel like the old model of leaving launch dungeons behind was a good one, even if it kind of limited the possibility space for gameplay.

      Liked by 1 person

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