Looking over the patch 8.2 spoilers that were datamined yesterday, and I can’t help but feel a certain sort of dread at the cast of characters.
In my effort to continually, creatively bypass the text limit of the Reader previews of my posts to avoid spoilers, I’m going to state up front that this post has spoilers using as many words as possible. I don’t know anyone who actually cares at this point in time, but I don’t assume that any reader just strolling by will match my friend group or regular readers in terms of interest.
And that should do it.
The return of Thrall to the stage is something of a good thing/bad thing moment for me. On the one hand, I love Thrall. He’s been a part of some of the most pivotal moments in WoW and Warcraft overall, and his presence has traditionally made the story around him feel more significant. On the other hand, short of the beginning of Legion, this will be the first time that anyone other than Chris Metzen has written Thrall, and well…I’m worried.
To summarize why, this post is now going to pivot suddenly to a discussion of Metzen’s influence over the game lore and why I like him.
To start that discussion, I need to say something up front that will sound insulting to the man, but I will backtrack it into validation. Chris Metzen is not a great writer. He is a good storyteller, but the structure of his stories tends to be a mess, he over-relies on a common set of tropes (corruption stories, over-dramatic love tales that often end sadly, bold heroes who kick ass), and he usually has an author-insert character that can be easily identified (Thrall in Warcraft, Raynor in StarCraft II, etc). I don’t say this because I feel a need to bash the man – I’m going to share in a ton of detail why I really like him overall, but it needs to be said up front because they are common criticisms of his work. I’ll revisit these in a moment.
Metzen’s stories appeal to me because they kept Warcraft grounded in simple, relatable stories that focused on a small core cast and fleshed out their tales throughout an expansion in a strongly self-contained way. Classic was light on narrative, but the overall story of the raids was fairly self-contained with little crossover – Ragnaros and Nefarian, and their conflict, sets the stage for all of Blackrock Mountain, but doesn’t really leak out to Burning Crusade. Illidan is the main villain of TBC, and his story ends there (well, until Legion) and it remains fairly self-contained. You can give a new player the lore of Cataclysm and it doesn’t really need Wrath, TBC, or Classic to stand alone – it is its own continuity and that is what made the early model of expansions stronger, in my opinion.
The themes, while often delivered through those classic Metzen tropes, are relatable and I think that is a part of why I enjoy those older stories. The tale of Arthas is one I think we can all relate to in some way. He had a head start in life, but made good decisions and remained grounded, until one day, he tried to make a good decision under a rigid idea of what made that decision good, which led him down a wrong path and it took him too long to realize it. Sure, most of us haven’t burned down a city (hopefully…) but we’ve all encountered a situation that our method of analysis is wholly unprepared to allow us to make. Arthas should have done as Uther and Jaina willed and found another way, but he was confident and headstrong, and those attributes put him on a bad path. Illidan is a story of a lover scorned who found and focused on things that enriched him, but took it too far. However, he was ultimately redeemed, the curse of constantly being bitter over Tyrande finally receding and his love of her becoming something of a guiding light in his journey to end the Legion. Thrall, oh boy Thrall. Thrall is literally the voyage of growing up and maturing, from his humble origins in Warcraft III to becoming the leader of the Orcs, struggling with that leadership before stepping down, struggling with his new life as part of the Earthen Ring, desiring to see his ancestral homeland and understand himself better, before finally (when last we saw him) feeling disconnected from what made him whole and ultimately giving it up.
I mean, look at those events and how cleanly they map to the man behind the pen’s life. When Thrall was ascendant in the Horde, Metzen was ascending to the VP role within Blizzard most of us knew him for. When Thrall struggled with relinquishing control of the Horde, he was dealing with some anxiety over how he could continue to deliver creatively. The quests in Cataclysm that reveal Thrall would be a dad, well…I couldn’t find anything from a search, but it mirrors the sense of fear a lot of first time parents feel, I imagine. That desire to better understand oneself that led Thrall to join the Draenor excursion is something I think a lot of us feel after some time establishing ourselves as adults. And, while I am not sure that Metzen wrote it personally, Thrall’s stage exit during Legion fits almost too well to his real departure from Blizzard for me to think it was accidental.
The point I want to make through all of these stories is that they have something the current game often lacks – heart. For as much of a weird Mary Sue as Thrall often was, he’s also got a consistent narrative arc that builds over time and gets you invested so the big moments in his story matter. Most of the stories he built have that investment – not to the same level as Thrall, sure, but still there. You care about Arthas because his journey down the dark road leaves him alone and abandoned, the past glory of Prince Arthas gone, his lover in Jaina unable to trust him, his mentor in Uther disgusted with what he’s done. The Lich King is a hard character to like, but we come to see that the Arthas we knew, the shining paladin who serves the Light, is still barely in there, first through the spirit of Matthias Lehner and later through the end cinematic of Icecrown Citadel in which you see a scared, sad Arthas reconcile with the spirit of his dead father as Arthas himself dies.
The current direction of the game seems to be a creation of late Warlords of Draenor, the period after which Metzen left Blizzard. Gone were the self-contained stories, giving way to the continuous narrative that has existed since that point. Gul’dan sets up the events of Legion, and then Illidan and the Pantheon set up the events of Battle for Azeroth, and at this point, it would be wise to suspect that N’Zoth and/or Sylvanas will set in motion the events of 9.0. The game never really stops to take a breath, it just pushes on the plot endlessly. This alone isn’t bad, if written and accounted for, but the problem I’ve found myself having is that the plot rarely has those moments of narrative resolution, where a major antagonist is put away and we have a moment to bask in our victory. The end of Emerald Nightmare just meant Nighthold was looming, the end of Nighthold bringing back Illidan and setting the stage for the Tomb of Sargeras. The ending of ToS immediately introduces Argus, and the end of Antorus there immediately raises the stakes by wounding Azeroth.
The game has not, since Hellfire Citadel, given us a moment to relax and enjoy being the champions, despite the constant claims that we have won out over evil. There is always another evil, a new evil, and so we never rest. On top of that, the game has expanded the cast of characters involved with the central expansion plot in a big way since the days of Metzen. Metzen’s stories remained focused on a smaller core cast – Cataclysm was largely about Thrall, Garrosh, and Deathwing, with each patch bringing characters forward or removing them from the stage. Warlords, by contrast, had massive search parties for each faction, the huge cast of titular warlords, Gul’dan alongside, then there were the Ogres and the demons, and don’t forget Garrosh and Kairoz. Legion had a similarly large number of NPCs floating around. However, I would argue that the NPC count alone isn’t the problem, but the change in focus.
While I get the desire to increase the player’s own narrative importance in the game, the problem is that this often is done in WoW to de-emphasize the NPCs. There are few strongly built NPCs, and those that do exist are narratively defined largely because they previously existed in the game. Sylvanas turning evil as she has matters because she has almost two decades of characterization. Jaina softening and evolving matters because she has been around just as long, and it is the payoff to an interesting and good plot that Metzen planted the seeds of in Mists of Pandaria! The problem I have with this is twofold – firstly, the new characters just aren’t spotlighted enough to really matter compared to the lore juggernauts roaming around with us. Secondly, it highlights something that I think is a problem with the game – it doesn’t self-contain stories to expansions enough and when it uses callbacks, it does so in an ineffective way. Jaina’s story in the launch of BfA was poignant to me because I’ve seen the whole journey – it has resonance for me because that cinematic in the darkness of her mind flashes back to events I know the significance of. However, if I just started WoW, I would never have known about any of these things, and BfA barely waves its hands at these events and says “oh yeah, those are important.” Even the death of Daelin Proudmoore, a pivotal moment that defines the majority of the Alliance leveling story, isn’t told in WoW. It was told in Warcraft III in 2002, and BfA tries to recall it by…showing a cinematic where Jaina sees an undead version of her father looking menacingly at her. The story is not relayed with any degree of detail, and the entire recap of it is “Daelin bad, Jaina killed him and that was right for *reasons*.”
And that leads back to Thrall. I hate Thrall, because he’s often used as a Mary Sue plot device that rights all the wrongs and is infallible in his judgment and action. However, I love Thrall because for all of that, he is a vulnerable being who has dealt with a tremendous number of burdens that I can relate to, even if I’m never going to be the undisputed Warchief of a faction of weird outcasts. But I do not trust the current writing staff, good though they can be, to write this reintroduction in a good way. I want to understand what Thrall went through, why he left in the way he did, abandoning Azeroth at the moment of greatest (at that point) need, and I feel I must see his growth. Him changing from this rigidly structured shaman who always trusts the elements to a warrior or some other role where he must master new skills, and then using those to return and telling us an interesting tale of rediscovery in crisis – that is what I hope for from Thrall. At this point, though, the more likely possibility is that he simply reappears, a one-liner like “we have some catching up to do, old friend” will be said, and we will never catch up but hey, here’s Thrall! He’s back!
I want to be able to buy in to the story, but for that, it needs narrative weight. Things need to matter. The problem I have with the current game lore is that it is a conveyor belt of a story, one that never stops to let things breathe and instead continues plowing ahead constantly to the next big plot device.