This is a post that I wanted to let percolate for a bit after the news of the California DFEH lawsuit against Activision Blizzard broke, although I made some vague statements in both posts I’ve written about it so far that head in this direction.
WoW’s current story, is, uh, well, it’s…not good, folks! World of Warcraft’s lore is always a hot topic, especially since Metzen left the company and the game has been managed by a variety of creative directors, narrative directors, and the whims of the larger market and the need to sell tie-in novels and the like.
I play WoW (or well, did and will likely again in the future) because I enjoy the gameplay of it. When the story is great, it’s a nice little surprise – icing on the cake, a cherry on top, etc. Over the years, Blizzard has beaten the expectation of a great story out of me – and some of you might say “well duh, it’s never been good” and some might say “it’s still good and that’s unfair” and like, you know, all of that (mine included) are just opinions.
Let me start with the more easy to write part that is less grounded in current events – WoW has a story in modern times that centers on “rule of cool” moments of craziness exploding before our eyes and has little grounded to the overarching narrative, which is really more of a moving target trying its damnedest to keep up with all the cool things Blizzard is throwing at the screen, and often failing. I’m going to explore this through a couple of core story beats in the current patch and then tie it together and introduce the unsavory part that ties to the lawsuit at the end.
(Also, there are spoilers for the Sanctum of Domination raid ending cinematic, the 9.1 Covenant campaign, and some high-level thematic touches on FFXIV’s story heading into Endwalker.)
Tyrande, Sylvanas, and A Lack Of Consistency
For multiple expansions now, Sylvanas has been characterized sharply as a keen-eyed, savvy operator, knowing full well what is happening in the world and navigating her own course through it. While that course has remained with an uncertain destination for much of the story, the storytelling in and out of the game has told us, repeatedly, that Sylvanas is an intelligent, self-motivated operator. There have been some dissonant moments (Before the Storm positions her as loyal to the Horde only for that to be undone by 8.2.5 in-game, and while she’s supposed to be cool and collected at Teldrassil, the burning of the World Tree is largely portrayed as an over-emotional reaction to a single character who was created to die hitting Sylvanas with an epic zinger) but largely, the path of Sylvanas is one defined by a strong internal motivation, a willingness to bend those around her to those ends, and the growing power to do almost anything she wishes with a moral compass willing to ignore the atrocities that best serve her goals.
Tyrande’s character has been a bit more of a shifting one, but she has largely been the steward of the Night Elves, with her actions all aligning to that as a true north of sorts. This characterization has actually been so consistent that they’ve discarded almost anything else that gets in the way of it – Legion should have seen a lot of involvement between her and Illidan, but instead it is held off and post-scripted after Illidan exits the scene. Her relationship with Malfurion is largely a prop used at the War of the Thorns content to create tension, and it doesn’t feel like there is much of a bond there as-presented. Tyrande’s BfA arc is, to me at least, quite good in a way – if we focus on Blizzard’s modern characterization of her, the post-8.0 content with her actually makes a lot of sense, and honestly, I have a soft spot for someone regarded as an outsider pushing against the comfortable do-nothingness of a feckless blue team to spur action against the unmitigated evils of a red team. It discards a lot of cool Tyrande backstory to make her more one-note and simple, but at least there’s a consistency to it. Or, well, there was.
I bring both of these up as the defining characters of modern Warcraft, not because they’re good, however. They are two characters, arguably the two with the most current storytelling muscle behind them, and they’re both written…awfully.
In 9.1 and the Sanctum of Domination finale, Sylvanas’ story unravels, more than it already has. Sure, to this point, Sylvanas was motivated by the survival of the Horde (which she then undoes and reveals them as her pawns in 8.2.5), and has been motivated by an unknown internal goal since then, stated only in innuendo and metaphor, but the story told in the raid finale cinematic actually undoes most of that anyways. It reveals that Sylvanas’ goal was largely about offering freedom – the will to choose how to best live one’s life and afterlife. However, she won’t be made to serve – so her being used by the Jailer sets her off. This creates two huge problems in her characterization for me:
- Sylvanas is smart and savvy, or the game keeps beating me over the head with that point, so how is she surprised at the Jailer’s totally inevitable and predictable turn here? She saw what happened with Anduin, what made her think she was exempt from that type of treatment?
- If Sylvanas’ aim was legitimately free will, then why did she run the Horde the way she did?
It’s a huge, huge bother – Sylvanas is so smart and cunning and yet here she’s outmaneuvered by a campy Thanos ripoff with a voice filter, made to look stupid, childish, and overly idealistic, in a way that also makes her story wholly inconsistent and quite bad. I don’t know what comes next in the Shadowlands story, frankly, but not in the good, “ooh mystery” way, and instead in a bad “what in the absolute fuck is this and why are you doing this to me, Blizzard?” way. The soul fragment story with Sylvanas could be interesting, but it is Rule of Cool-ed here as well. The Jailer just plucks a fragment out of his hidey hole and throws it at Sylvanas, and like, I’ve read too much of the stupid lore for this game, so I know what that is and the significance that Blizzard is trying to build here, but because I know that, it’s also less cool and less interesting. It was the most predictable path, and it was done in a way that confuses casual audiences while also infuriating lorefiends. What talent!
Tyrande’s characterization turns in a cutscene, and leaves a lot of the last several years of her character feeling hollow and devoid of meaning. Tyrande as an avatar of vengeance for the Night Elves was interesting, at least, even if it meant throwing out her prior characterization, and for the couple of years Blizzard stayed that path, Tyrande was written with a degree of caution and consistency, keeping her new characterization stunningly consistent for modern Blizzard. The Ardenweald-focused chapter of the 9.1 Covenant story throws that away, seemingly – Tyrande has no more thirst for vengeance, sated only by Elune telling her no (at the start of the 9.1 content) and the revelation that Elune, a literal Warcraft deity (until we are told otherwise) had no clue what was happening in the Shadowlands, a set of realms that includes her sister ruling over one of them. And, I’m just left here wondering – why does that sap Tyrande of her vengeful side? Elune basically admits to letting the burning of Teldrassil happen to send the souls to Ardenweald, except oops – your god made a mistake and now all the kaldorei spirits are being tormented in Torghast! My bad! If anything, I would have loved to see that actually push Tyrande into her own path against Elune – she is the matron god of the Kaldorei and left them be in their hour of need and your response is to cry and move on?! It would have been an incredible turn to have Tyrande turn against Elune, to decide service to her people is her priority and to re-center her character on the goal she has held up since BfA, to become the Elune Hunter, using her bond to Elune as the means to track her, to hunt and punish her for abandoning her people. You could even start to weave in Tyrande’s pre-BfA character in – Mafurion might stand opposed or try to be a voice of reason, we could explore Elune really deeply and work with the Winter Queen against her, and there were plot seeds there to suggest that the Winter Queen has an icy (ha!) relationship with Elune.
Fanfic aside, what I loathe about this story is that it again robs Tyrande of agency, just as Sylvanas being an easily-manipulated pawn does. Both characters set out on a path in service of their own goals, make it to the pinnacle of that mountain, ready to obtain that which they seek, and then it is taken from them. Very differently told stories, but very similar all the same – both are now left bereft of what they came for, infantilized as crazed and lacking understanding of the world they found themselves in, with only their sheer power taking them this far – and it wasn’t enough to save them from failure. In that light, both stories are eerily similar – the next step for both is to see what penance looks like for each and how they define new paths forward, and while I suspect those paths diverge, it feels like the shape of them will be similar.
Blizzard’s Best Stories Are The Ones You Care Least About
I bring those stories up first because they are the marquee, expansion-selling things we’ve been pushed towards for the years of hype leading into Shadowlands. However, the stories Blizzard consistently does better at are the smaller narrative arcs – zone stories, sub-stories, and the like.
I think the Shadowlands story as a whole is a narrative mess, defined by inexplicably non-communicative Covenants and driven by the wholly inconsistent arcs I ranted about above, but in the small details and the micro-plots, WoW actually still has something there. Zone stories feel good for the most part – the Kyrian story is actually a pretty good tale of characters being confronted with what their choices mean and how those manifest, and then in Chains of Domination, they strike a new path forward that learns from those mistakes. It is good, straightforward storytelling that integrates the lore of Bastion and the Kyrian and expands upon it in a satisfying way. A lot of my concern from beta with the Kyrian is mitigated by the 9.1 story – not all of it, as there is still the matter of how the Jailer was looped in with Devos and what Helya’s role is, and I suspect that the final week of story questing may enlighten there.
Similarly, the story of the Night Fae has a narrative arc that builds fairly well. I’ll carve out the whole Drust involvement as an exception of sorts, but the core story being told is interesting and it sets out how Night Fae society was changed by the Anima draught and how it adapts in the wake of the Maw Walker’s presence. All the stories individually have a good amount of narrative cohesion (not all the way in any case, but close!) and they march forward into what is, as of 9.1, largely satisfying conclusions that respect the journey.
Where WoW gets it wrong, in my opinion, is the intersection of these things with each other and the main plot. Shadowlands is ostensibly a story about the realms of death and how the afterlife of Warcraft works, but in reality, it is a character study of Sylvanas and (to a lesser extent) Tyrande. All of the rest of the lore exists to set the stage for this study, so it’s a bit like having a Broadway team as stagehands for a play written by preschoolers. The set dressing is well-made and draws you in, but then little Tina tries to deliver the line about not serving and, god bless her, she’s trying, but it just isn’t good. Part of what really pushes me away from being an honest-to-god lore nerd is that the story is unpredictable in a way that suggests it isn’t planned.
I hate to do this, but here goes – in FFXIV, story arcs are written and planned for literal years and built in a logical way towards their continuation and conclusion. The Warriors of Darkness show up in patch 3.4 and Minfilia takes them back to the First, and we get the clear implication that this story is important and will matter in the future – and hey, it does, and we go there eventually in Shadowbringers, pay off the whole arc to that point, and it’s great! The story leading into Endwalker is about recreating the Final Days on the Source, and while that has some measure of mystery around it, the logical extents of it feel pretty understandable and the story has been hinting at why Zenos might want such a thing (and I’ll discuss that in a separate post). There’s mystery as to what things are going to happen in the story and how the narrative arc will conclude, but there are things we have been told to expect and I have all faith in the FFXIV team that they’ll do it and I am excited to see how things go.
In WoW right now, the story is just…not there. What will Sylvanas’ fate be at the hands of the mortal leaders who are left with her? We don’t know, and frankly, there are so many possibilities set up that I can’t even guess, but the game has conditioned me to think that the stupidest one (Sylvanas getting a clean slate because she now has her real soul) is the most likely, and like, I don’t enjoy feeling that way. I hate feeling like the game’s story is a stupid waste of time not worth my full attention, but then I also try to shove that feeling down and get invested, and that investment rarely offers a return. Will Sylvanas have something visually cool and interesting happen to her that also completely invalidates the prior storytelling, like her being inexplicably made the Arbiter? Oh, probably. Will it be cool with a cool cinematic that showcases the actual artistic talents at Blizzard? You betcha. Will some random fan rush to tell me that it’s “Blizzard storytelling” and to let the story work itself out only for it to never be paid off in any meaningful way and for us to leave Sylvanas behind and forgotten until some future expansion in 10 years? I’d put money on that!
It is worth saying here to close this whole section out before layering on the lawsuit talk that WoW is written and created by a large team that has multiple narrative designers, consultants, outside authors, and all collaborating on the story arc, and I don’t hate any of them. I think their work is largely watered-down and done a disservice by the narrative design leadership on the game, which has failed to pull the numerous talented writers and their works together into a cohesive whole. There are moments in the game where there are fantastic themes, wonderful stories being told, but they are so rarely the spotlight and so few and far between in the actual game that I’ve effectively given up on caring about the story moment-to-moment. I care in a big picture way, but even in that way, the narrative fails to maintain cohesion.
One thing I do think is going to get better, or at least I hope it will, though.
The Role of Harassers In Creating Tokenizing, Awful Caricatures – The Path Away
I’ve hinted at this in my posts about the CA DFEH lawsuit against ATVI, but let me state it explicitly – through the lens of the information in that lawsuit, it is clear that so much of what has made the core writing of WoW awful is the game’s story being led by an awful, abusive dickbag with a misguided perception of the role of women.
Both Tyrande and Sylvanas would be stories written at the high level, driven by a creative director who thinks of women as stereotypes, as less-than, and as objects. They could both be distilled into some stereotypes such a person would have about women – crazy, irrational, easily deceived, and the like. I do feel a sort of infantilization in their stories – that they were not guided and shaped by deft hands aiming away from stereotypes or trying to do something more, but instead that they were written by people trying to do more and then that story was wrest away from them and slotted in to the fiction designed. The answer from Blizzcon 2018’s Q&A panel about Sylvanas’ goals, an answer given by one Alex Afrasiabi, leans in that direction quite heavily – and it’s hard to not be sort of disappointed by it with the missing context now abundantly clear.
However, I will also give Blizzard some credit in that the company does have more women and minorities working on writing the universe’s fiction than ever before, and while in BfA it was sometimes obvious that there was a clash of perspectives, I feel less of that in Shadowlands. It’s not completely gone yet, and I suspect that some elements of that creative direction helmed by Afrasiabi will be present until we resolve the current Sylvanas and Tyrande plotlines. However, I do think that there are more and better stories woven throughout Shadowlands that show women in particular in a far better light, on top of some in BfA that stood out, like Jaina, Talanji, and Katherine. A deft touch from people with that lived experience can only help expand our horizons and make the fiction more representative of actual experiences, more resonant with people’s actual lives, and so I shun the idea that representation does not matter – it does have a strong impact, both in the very obvious ways some things are presented and in less obvious characteristics of a story and the way we perceive it.
Shadowlands is likely in the can for now, and short of tweaks and minor changes, I suspect the creative vision for this expansion’s remaining time is going to be amended and appended material overseen in part by a overt sex pest, with the obvious warts that would carry being plastered over to the best of the team’s ability. I also want to make clear that I am not solely blaming Afrasiabi for the state of the current lore – he has not been credited as the Creative Director on WoW since Legion, so it is clear that other parties share the blame for the lack of quality in the story.
But, in a way, I choose to cling to hope – and a part of that is the hope that 10.0, whatever it brings and whenever it comes, will be a new chapter, forged by a more interesting set of voices with different perspectives to offer us all. For now, though…yikes. All I can say about the story of WoW is yikes.
3 thoughts on “The Chains of Domination Story Thus Far, And The Lens of the News”
I have always thought that WoW was at its best in the small questy stories of adventurers helping the locals, and that any focus on epic storytelling was going to go awry in a game with hundreds of thousands of “heroes.” Sylvanas and Tyrande were always two of my favorite characters. It’s a shame to hear that their stories and even characterization have been so poorly handled. As I recall, something of madness happened in Jaina’s story, as well. Now to realize that it was basically sabotaged by a turd burger or multiple turdburgers who couldn’t handle competent, or even ruthless, female characters just makes me angry.
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Last week we had a PowerPoint presentation building tutorial lecture at my work, and there was one point that applies to current lore: never start building your presentation in PowerPoint, because you’ll be thinking rooms, boxes and slides, failing to grasp the whole picture and deliver a strong narrative. Take a paper sheet or a program and draw a scheme first!
I think this is exactly what’s happening in WoW. The small lore arcs are like PowerPoint slides, every part of the team delivers their worth, and each slide maybe a masterpiece of its own. But when it comes to stepping back and take a look at the presentation as a whole, they seem poorly connected, and the whole presentation (expansion) doesn’t make a selling impression.
As for BfA, the actual warfare events, continent, zones and character arcs were written so well, but the intrigue of the war as a whole failed by keeping the main trigger (Sylvanas) in the shadows until the final cinematic. Also instead of carefully weaving the Old God/Azshara/Engine they just roughly nailed it, askew, on top of the good stuff, which didn’t help either.
I agree that Sylv/Tyrande arcs are as clumsy as possible and lack strong development, both emotionally and in their screentime presence, and focus, and narrative in the overall story.
I think the whole Shadowlands death world is bits and pieces and does not make an impression of a system at all – not to mention that weird stuff like ethereal worlds always has the least emotional involvement from players by definition, from the start, so it has to be simply perfect compared to weird, but down to earth, normal areas like Pandaria and Draenor which we could relate to. SL lore would be remembered for its nice small arcs and trashed as a whole.
I chuckled about the little Tina bit, thank you, it’s hilarious 🙂
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My thoughts on seeing the Sylvanas cinematic were: “Oh, so she’s been missing half her soul this whole time… that’s an interesting twist. Too bad it has to come at the end of this mess and they’re unlikely to do anything inspired with it.”
Kind of have to disagree on Tyrande, because weren’t the night elf souls rescued from the Maw during the Night Fae covenant campaign or something and are now in Ardenweald (not played it myself, that’s what I’ve been told)? So I think it makes sense for Tyrande to want to see some sort of healing/rebirth for them. In general that particular cinematic was super confusing though – it packed emotional punch but I found it hard to follow the logic of things because it felt like a lot of “stuff happens, because magic”. Initially I even thought it sounded like Elune was basically OK with the burning of Teldrassil because she needed to help her sister out anyway… I had to watch a video breakdown to understand that this (probably?) wasn’t what the writers intended – but it’s clear as mud.
Also agree with your assessment that Tyrande and Sylvanas’ overall treatment as characters seems to gel with the idea of the people in charge still holding some very sexist ideas. Unlike other, less central characters, they never quite seem to have managed to evolve past the “strong female character” trope.
Your theatre comparison for the overall storytelling is definitely interesting. As a returning player to retail, I found the Shadowlands levelling story extremely promising – lots of interesting ideas and concepts there that could have been developed further… but instead 8.1 focused on either wrapping these things up quickly or brushing them under the rug, and while the result isn’t bad, it’s still somewhat disappointing to me that Azeroth’s afterlife is basically being reduced to just another adventure zone where we collect some MacGuffins before teaming up to beat a big bad.