Shadowlands – On The Theme of Death and The Story Leads We Have Going In

(A quick warning – the early part of this post contains some philosophical monologuing about the nature of death and the ways we picture the afterlife – it’s not super heavy, but hey. Secondly though, once we dig into the WoW meat here, there is a link to a leaked image of the Jailer’s unshadowed appearance and discussion of said leak. I want to put the warning up now because of a few things – it’s a spoiler, obviously, but also because the leak itself was highly contentious online and while I’m not sure where I fall in that debate, the information is out there now, and it does introduce some interesting discussion. I will rewarn about that leaked info before putting in the link – and it will be a link, so if you don’t want to see it but don’t mind the conversation about it’s appearance, then you can choose to avoid it!)

Shadowlands has something of an interesting theme to it that bears visiting.

A recent comment from Marathal discussed how, given the closeness of that theme to home (sorry for what you are going through), the expansion doesn’t seem that appealing, especially coupled with the apathy that Battle for Azeroth has inspired.

It got me thinking, though, about the possible thematic impact of a game into both real life and what the focus on death means for WoW specifically.

Firstly, the easier part to address – I am generally a fan of media reflecting lived experiences to me in new and interesting ways. Death is such a powerful thematic touch in media because it is something no one really wants to think about, and few really seriously contemplate what it means until that time approaches and grows far too close for comfort. The idea that we can build a foundation in life, have decades of experiences, and then it all simply disappears – it is an overwhelming thought to have. Many turn to religion or other explanations for what happens past that point – a comforting notion that works on earth are not worthless and carry value past your own life. In truth, regardless of what you believe, a life well lived leaves a mark on those around you and those around the people close to you.

For me, death as a theme is both a well-trod trope in popular culture but also an endlessly fascinating well to explore, as everyone looks at the topic just askew from everyone else, and a vision of what comes next, like the one central to Shadowlands, is a fascinating idea.

But, I can also say that themes can cut too close to home, and I definitely see a possible negative for the expansion being that it will dwell on what is an often downer thought – on death and what happens beyond.

However, it is worth saying that the idea of death in World of Warcraft is perhaps not as well developed as it could be. There is, firstly, an obvious disconnect for gameplay purposes between players dying and lore characters doing the same. I don’t fault the game for this – it is exceedingly tough to develop lore strong enough to explain that notion, and even efforts to do so I like (the way the Warrior of Light works in FFXIV, for example) are still very iffy and not particularly thought-provoking.

However, thematically, there is a lot to chew on with the possible story of Shadowlands. To this point, we’ve been ending the lives of countless foes under a sort of binary understanding of good/evil or with us/against us. It logically tracks that the expansion following the supposed Fourth War would be one that reckons with one of the most common issues of war – what happens to the dead.

To this point though, WoW has remained remarkably light on context of its actual afterlife – Shadowlands as a term is not a new idea or concept, but the idea of new landmasses, cultures, and practices all living behind the veil of death is new. What’s more, it shows at least some attempt by Blizzard’s writing staff to unify the varied concepts of death we’ve seen to date. Spirit Healers are interesting, but where do they come from? Bastion attempts to answer this. We can see the San’layn and WoW’s vampire concept in Revendreth, and Maldraxxus and Ardenweald both tread on the familiar-enough concepts of undeath and the reincarnation of nature.

It adds a sort of comforting notion to our fiction – that something exists beyond the mortal world and the NPCs we’ve lost along the way aren’t just in a black void of nothing – under the normal ordering of WoW cosmology, they are sent to the Arbiter, judged, and either sent to the Maw or to one of the main zones of the Shadowlands to participate in a new society best suited for their deeds in life. We’ll revisit this idea momentarily, so keep it in the back of your mind!

Thematically, this gives the game a powerful tool to build out a ton of new lore and connective tissue to the things we already do know about death. As many of us suspected in the beginning of BfA, the focus on Sylvanas and the abundance of dead, dying, or death-aligned NPCs was heavily foreshadowing all of this. The story of Vol’jin hints that something is wrong in the land of death, and Bwonsamdi has been serving a higher power. Sylvanas and the Jailer have a long-lived relationship that travels back to the end of Wrath of the Lich King. The Stormsong have an interesting relationship with the souls of the dead, as they are able to harness their energy as seen in the Dead Ringer quest on the Alliance side, and the Zandalari have watched the death or endangerment of several loa, who we know from Vol’jin seem to be falling quiet in the face of the impending doom.

(spoiler warning – that Jailer link I mentioned above is coming in a paragraph, so avert your clicks from the link if you don’t want to see!)

With a recent leak, however, a ton of additional context suddenly becomes necessary. During the Shadowlands reveal trailers, the presence of the Jailer was light but ominous – a shadowed figure, with the silhouette of the Helm of Domination perhaps? What is this Jailer and what is the nature of his origin?

Well, take a look at his appearance…

So a few things stand out to me here. Firstly, the Helm of Domination spikes are indeed a feature of his face, although without the helm itself, which lends itself to a ton of questions – we know that the Helm was forged in Torghast, the Tower of the Damned, his tower – so that is particularly interesting. Secondly, however, is the broad strokes of his design. Does he look familiar to you?

Yes, indeed – Aman’Thul bears more than a passing resemblance to the Jailer. In fact, the Jailer looks like a wardrobe change for a heel-turned Aman’Thul. We know, however, that this is likely not the case, as Aman’Thul was just recently in WoW, being with the Pantheon in Argus, sealed away in space with Sargeras and Illidan. However, there is another possibility.

The lore of the Titans in WoW has gone from fixed pantheon to moving target with the introduction of the World Soul concept. We now know that any world with a World Soul intact can effectively give birth to a Titan. Indeed, our final boss of Legion was this process taking place with Argus, the twisted world soul of the Eredar homeworld being brought out as the Titan of Death. I’m not going to get too heavy into that, as it impedes into possible plagiarism of Pyromancer’s YouTube content, but I will note that title and say “put a pin in that.”

So what am I suggesting? My theory (and it is just that) is that the Jailer is either a Titan or of titanic origins. My theory looks at it through a few lenses – first, there is no lore to suggest that any Titan claiming a domain has exclusive power over said domain, which would provide for the possibility that Argus was Sargeras’ vision of a Death Titan while the Jailer was perhaps the Pantheon’s vision of the same concept. If that is not the case, then perhaps the Jailer is an Aspect – much like the Pantheon set Aspects into place on Azeroth via the dragonflights to wield a portion of their power in the ordering of the world, perhaps the Jailer is Argus’ vision of the same concept – a lieutenant in service of death.

The concept of Aspects on Azeroth started with Dragons specifically, but it did not end there. Cataclysm established the precedent that different mortal beings could in-fact wield the powers of an Aspect – perhaps not as effectively, but still. Thrall was proxied into the Dragon Soul as the Aspect of Earth in Deathwing’s place, and for whatever effectiveness he lacked, he still was possessed of enough power to serve that role in empowering and using the Dragon Soul to banish the former Neltharion. While this could be a stretch, there’s not any reason inherent to the lore to believe that the Jailer can’t be an Aspect. In fact, he would balance our known Titans with Aspects!

Now, to move on from the leaked stuff, we can discuss some possible story beats for Shadowlands and how things would tie together. We do know that our questing experience in the main zones involves heroes of Azeroth in their afterlifes, seeking redemption or to fill the role given them. While a few names have been tossed out – Cenarius, Kael’Thas, Uther, and Draka – we know precious little about the roles they will fill or if they are the only major lore figures we’ll see return in their deaths. I am of mixed feelings on this concept – on the one hand, it logically tracks – if everyone who dies goes to the Shadowlands, then surely we will bump elbows with characters that are known to be dead in the lore. In addition to making sense, it can show new facets to old characters, which, as long as the new plots intersect with their living plots in interesting ways, I think that is a great development and something I would think highly of. Lastly, it is just cool conceptually – us getting a chance to fight alongside or with various characters from all over the Warcraft canon is cool as hell and can be played up extraordinarily well. Imagine a Mage Tower in Shadowlands where the bosses are all major lore figures or old raid bosses, or some sort of dungeon where you fight all of these old dungeon bosses – that would be amazing if done right.

The last words of the preceding paragraph do highlight my concern, though. “If done right” is a very high bar to clear, one that requires an elegance in storytelling and an excess of thought given to why these things are happening. Even down to the redemption arcs in the individual zones – cool conceptually, but who knows where they go? If we redeem Uther and give him a role in the Kyrian only to never see him play any other role in the main story, that is, frankly, bullshit. One of the things that remains highly irritating about WoW’s storytelling to me is how often story elements exist to setup gameplay or fun moments and then are never paid off or revisited later. While newer expansions are generally better about this, they also often introduce a pile of new plot points and races that never pay off or matter. Allied Races offer a fun chance to bring back even older races as allies, but I have little confidence that they’ll go back to say, MoP and bring in the Jinyu and Hozen, or find a way to work in the Mogu or Mantid. In fact, the idea that these races even have some story significance in 8.3 is crazy given how little Blizzard tends to revisit these things.

Also, as much as I want “Dead Boss All-Stars, the Dungeon/Raid” – it could be weirdly executed, I suppose. To be fair, that idea I just want from gameplay and if you say something really basic like “these souls went to the Maw for being bad and made their own home here, take them out!” then I’d be on-board!

My suspicion is that the early stories with established characters are trial balloons or introductions to the real themes of the expansion – the mass-scale rehabilitation and reintroduction of a bevy of lore characters in a sort of “greatest hits” fashion. It logically follows given the theme and ideas, the early story is absolutely pushing in that way, and there are a ton of ideas to explore with that. Off the top of my head, imagine patch content with two Gul’dans since both MU and AU Gul’dan were killed in our Azeroth – pretty interesting idea! Outside of fun ideas like that, though, I imagine there is going to be a long tail on the Lich King storyline – Arthas and Ner’zhul both are likely to be hanging out in the Maw, maybe stuck in Torghast, probably related to the lore we already know we are getting about the crafting of both Frostmourne and the Helm of Domination. Vol’jin’s story must continue and if he is in the Shadowlands and directly interactable, we will certainly be questing with him. We have dead loa, Rastakhan, Tirion Fordring maybe?

My dream lore scenario involves famous Azerothian alliances playing out in Shadowlands and the broken barrier between worlds allowing us to perhaps bring them back through for another shot. Uther and Tirion Fordring could be reunited under the Kyrian and lead a new Silver Hand. Cenarius, unified again with the still-alive Tyrande and Malfurion, could lead a new charge as the Cenarion Circle. Draka could very well build an undead Horde – the very concept of that is interesting in its own right, especially with the Forsaken’s role in the Horde questioned due to Sylvanas. Kael’Thas is a bit more of an enigma, but he is a skillful mage and has history with Jaina, the Blood Elves overall, and many of the leaders of both factions.

On top of that, we have the loose ends of BfA that are left untouched by 8.3. Calia Menethil is undead and lightbound – with Derek Proudmoore, it seems like they’ll try to lead the Forsaken, but Calia in particular could have a role to play if Arthas is running around in Shadowlands. The tensions within the Horde will likely strain to hold the weight of pursuing Sylvanas as the unquestioned enemy while loyalists remain in the ranks of the Horde, while Tyrande will be searching for Sylvanas and also ends up in Ardenweald for some reason. I also suspect Tyrande will have a strong reaction to the spirits of the Teldrassil dead being sucked into the Maw instead of given proper rest in Ardenweald or another of the Shadowlands’ more idyllic zones.

Overall, I actually have a lot of excitement for what Shadowlands could mean. There is a ton of potential on the framework provided, and if Blizzard implements even half as well as possible, there could be some great story beats there. Will it all tie neatly together and back into the main storyline or wherever we end with 10.0? Eh…perhaps not. In that regard, my biggest fear for Shadowlands is that it ends up being fun fanservice with little or no lasting impact on the world and characters.


One thought on “Shadowlands – On The Theme of Death and The Story Leads We Have Going In

  1. Death is an interesting plane indeed, and could be developed in many ways. Blizzard has already put an important milestone for further development: the announced zones are just what we know of! That is, these are heavens and hells linked to Azeroth ONLY, and there are many more available for other planets and people inhabitating them.

    Jailer is a current big bad, but he’s not a ruler of Shadowlands (well, until now). He is normally in charge of the Maw only. A sort of a feudal lord out of many that thought too much of himself, so our goal is probably just restoring balance and replacing him with someone more adequate (not Sylvanas, lol). Considering his nature – it’s not really important who he is, entity in charge of hell of the hells would quite suffice.

    I don’t mind fan service and questing/fighting with good old NPCs, just please let them stay dead and never return to real Azeroth 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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