The Nature of Story Arcs in MMOs And Why WoW Needs Them

Deep breath in, folks. This post is going to start off with wrestling.

This last Saturday was All Elite Wrestling’s Full Gear PPV, an even which saw the culmination of a 2+ year storyline in the fall and rise of Hangman Adam Page, conquering his demons, regaining his self-confidence, and becoming the World Champion over a former friend that left him behind. It was a well-done, deeply emotional moment that elicited tears – the ending of the event seeing Page discard a beer offered to him (the character had become an alcoholic as a coping mechanism on-screen for his prior failures, not to mention the real-life context of AEW star Jon Moxley being in alcohol rehab as I write this) and instead embraced his new friends in the Dark Order, being hoisted on their shoulders in celebration to close the show.

Compared to WWE, AEW’s bigger competitor, this was a breath of fresh air. Story arcs in American wrestling have, for years, not really been a thing. WWE books every show like fans have goldfish brains, so storylines are often short on details or callbacks and not particularly well-planned in advance. Really, since the Attitude Era of the 90s and early 00s ended, WWE has had shoddy, awful creative, with relatively few highlights (the ascent and victory of Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania XXX, the implosion of the Shield and the subsequent character arc of Seth Rollins, and Kofimania in 2019) and even most of the highlights rely on very-recent storytelling at the time, not drawing on the rich history at their fingertips.

In the MMO space right now, the top two games are arguably in a similar contrast.

Final Fantasy XIV has story arcs that feel planned and organic, with things growing in importance and being paid off at moments that are, generally speaking, usually quite on-target. The upcoming saga of Endwalker is exciting because it is earned – the team at Square Enix have kept up a fantastic story about the nature of the world and its creation mythology that has spanned since 1.0, and even across multiple main writers (only Shadowbringers and Endwalker have been written mainly by Natsuko Ishikawa, with the prior expansion stories all having different lead scenario writers and even patches within her expansions being written by other writers at times!) the team has kept a level-headed continuity that has explored possibilities, left them open to speculation, and makes Endwalker a hell of a lore hook – we know the end of Hydaelyn and Zodiark as narrative forces is coming, but what that means is wide-open to interpretation! That is exciting as hell, and part of the reason that the FFXIV fandom is so openly jubilant right now – the best is yet to come.

WoW on the other hand…is not eliciting the same responses. For the sake of this post and the topic focus, I want to exclude the writing quality or lack thereof in terms of characters, motivations, or events – and I just want to focus on the building and conclusion of major story arcs.

When looking at WoW (or the broader Warcraft universe fiction as a whole), it is difficult to cleanly identify arcs that have started and ended since Chris Metzen left the company. The early days lore of WoW was building and clearing arcs from the RTSes, specifically and mostly Warcraft III, and the early game did a very good job of that. We see the aftermath of the WCIII campaign in Lordaeron, visit the throne room of Arthas’ betrayal, and see him ultimately fall at Icecrown Citadel, after getting to see many of the big places from WCIII The Frozen Throne. Similarly, we see Illidan’s story arc paid off in The Burning Crusade, after seeing the impact of his actions on the Night Elves and how fractured their society is, followed by getting to see and face his lieutenants throughout the TBC experience. Even Cataclysm, as iffy as it could be on story, pays off a mix of Vanilla WoW story arcs and Warcraft RTS stories, with the Blackrock Mountain conflict’s main non-playable race forces being dealt with in Nefarian and Ragnaros, while we then deal a decisive blow against Deathwing. Cataclysm felt like it could be the start of a new saga in Warcraft – with the Aspects unempowered, where do we go?

Well…there have been relatively few well-done story arcs since then.

Mists of Pandaria was really the Garrosh story, and I would point at Garrosh as a successful story arc of the post-Cataclysm era. He has an interesting introduction as his Act 1, a simmering hatred of non-Orcs that is slightly tempered throughout Wrath and into Cataclysm as he seems like he is adapting to the weight of being Warchief, before Mists comes and the Sha play on his deepest desires and beliefs, bringing evil Garrosh to light and leading him on his crusade to see Orcs held to higher glory, before he falls at Orgrimmar and then ultimately dies in AU Nagrand, the most fitting place for him to fall. Even his brief reintroduction in Shadowlands makes sense and honors the story arc he went on – his thorough unwillingness to repent for his actions making him valuable and ultimately releasing him from his afterlife.

The problem past that, however, is that there just aren’t any real major, well-done story arcs that have persisted. Sylvanas tries to get close, but she was in stop-start land for a long time, with her characterization and focus shifting all over the place and even her BfA and after characterization largely disagreeing with certain elements – Before the Storm Sylvanas has a very different character motivation that is largely incompatible with late-BfA and early Shadowlands Sylvanas, and Shadowlands Sylvanas rolls out rather poorly, with vague motivations and even vaguer reasons for believing that the Jailer could fulfill those motivations.

The biggest problem is that lack of consistency or a clearly-defined end point for Sylvanas. It doesn’t feel like there’s been a steady plan or a steady hand at the helm guiding her story to a conclusion, partially because there hasn’t been! Even then, however, where FFXIV has writers on the same page writing to the same goals and making the same pivots, the WoW team has had rotating leads of story and writing staff underneath, and the end result of much of this has been a disjointed story, where each writer seems like they have their own take and there’s little effort to reconcile these. On the one hand, you can point to a clear Sylvanas arc originating around Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, where she is attempting to find a way forward for the Forsaken and willing to take some drastic measures to get there, but at the same time, this storytelling is undone by her heel turn in mid-BfA (as if burning down Teldrassil wasn’t a heel turn, but you know what I mean), where she discards the Horde including the Forsaken to move to her true goal, whatever that is.

And ultimately, the thing about the story right now is that it seems uncertain that we’ll see what her original ideal was. She is definitely present at the Sepulcher, although in what form beyond a prisoner of the Azerothian forces remains to be seen, and there’s little else to go on for now. I don’t think they’ll let it linger or go unanswered, but at the same time, we still don’t know the nature of her pact with Helya, why she withdrew as she did at the Broken Shore, or if she was even involved with the Wrathgate (a proclamation made by the problematic Alex Afrasiabi that has not been explored in game to date). Because of the game’s current history, I have little reason to have faith that the team will meaningfully pay off these bits of story, or build them into the overall arc of Sylvanas as a character. Instead, I find myself with the sinking feeling that what has happened and will continue to happen is that characters will instead evolve around Sylvanas, moving past her story without ever really addressing it. The seeds of this are with Tyrande, who gives up her rage in 9.1’s story and seems like a part of that will be giving up her quest against Sylvanas, given how the Elune bits all tie together. This in itself doesn’t represent much of an arc either, as the story of Tyrande itself hasn’t had much in the way of meaningful payoff either as of yet and her prior behavior does not tie to the Tyrande in-game today, who has seemingly broken clean off from the BfA Tyrande as an almost new character.

And to be fair, all of those things could change and we could end up with a lot closed arcs that feel fulfilling, but I don’t have that level of faith in the WoW writing at this point in time. Khadgar’s sudden involvement and then disappearance from the lore hasn’t really been explored and it was an awkward bit of story for him to both dip in and dip out in the ways he did. Ysera’s death feels hollow in the wake of her rebirth in Shadowlands, and Xavius’ larger role with the Emerald Nightmare and the forces of the Void could have been explored much more with 8.3 in BfA and just…weren’t. The one place where I will say that WoW has excellent story arcs is in leveling stories – we get a look at each zone, a local narrative that is introduced, has a good 3-act structure, and then concludes, but these are a minor part of an overarching narrative that keeps going without any clear direction. The direction is also obviously shifting, as Sylvanas demonstrates – there’s a clear shift in how she is presented with Metzen at the helm, then with Afrasiabi, and now with Danuser – and there are connective bits between each, but the 3 writers present 3 otherwise different versions of Sylvanas without bridging that gap. It’s frustrating!

I think WoW would benefit from old-school writing, because here’s the thing – Metzen isn’t a deft hand as a writer either, but his stories all had some sense of continuity and payoff that was baked in. The structure of old WoW expansions as stories is very siloed and independent, but it actually worked better that way in my opinion. Sure, TBC and WotLK both lean heavily on Warcraft III, but they also tell a story through leveling and other content that brings you into the fold and explores the narratives from those games while introducing new content.

The problem with WoW’s shift to serialized fiction over independent chapters in a larger tale is that if you don’t know when to stop, things start and stop erratically. The easiest comparison, trite as it is, is fanfiction. Many works of fanfiction start and stop on the writer’s whim, and most novice writers do not have a clean story conclusion in mind that is worked towards. Instead, they write until they either give up altogether, or the story concludes out of nowhere. The most infamous example, the 50 Shades franchise, did exactly this – continuing as a formless fanfic gathering up a small amount of story out of nowhere before concluding almost abruptly once publication was announced, with most of the story being dropped on the ground and characters seeing almost 0 growth or change. (I haven’t read 50 Shades, but I did watch Dan Olson’s excellent 3-part video essay on the franchise and it is worth a peek!).

In a perfect world, I would want WoW to have a strong overarching narrative, made up of clearly defined and well-planned chapters and moments. However, not every story needs to be that, and if the situation is that we can either have the current state or the prior state of disconnected expansions each being an independent story, I’d rather have those clean story arcs than a muddy, long-running trough of bullshit. Either way, improvements are needed on a technical level to how the story is told – both in the terms I’ve discussed today, like defining and pre-building character arcs to make use of foreshadowing and other such narrative devices to build and payoff long-running tensions, but also in delivery, like consolidating most key story moments into the game and using expanded lore materials like novels and short stories to expand upon existing lore, instead of new lore being delivered via those stories and then not presented in full context inside the game.

However it happens, change is dearly needed to a lot of things within WoW, but perhaps nothing more than the storytelling.

2 thoughts on “The Nature of Story Arcs in MMOs And Why WoW Needs Them

  1. I mentioned this idea in my guild’s Discord (and may have mentioned it before, elsewhere), but there is a way to make the inconsistencies work, story-wise. They should just steal a story beat from the original Ultima Online trailer and say that time has been shattered into a bunch of shards. That the Bronze Dragonflight has had us secretly going from shard to shard to keep each from being destroyed. (That is, they’ve kept it secret from us.) Each shard is now a warped version of what was the original Azeroth (thus the discrepancies between each xpac). Bingo, no need to have seamless continuity between each expansion. In fact, you can lampshade that events from expansion to expansion aren’t expected to fit together. The ultimate goal is to put Time back together as best we can. The ultimate goal is to put Time back together as best we can.

    Blizzard should still try to make things fit, story-wise, of course. This just gives them an out for all the old stuff they really can’t go back and fix. No need to retcon anything.

    All this said, the writers at Blizzard ought to go study some of the other MMOs that do story well. FF 14, Swtor, Secret World Legends, etc. There are ways of telling great stories that don’t involve Rule of Cooling everything. :sigh:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One thing about the Garrosh story is that I was sadly mistaken that the Stonetalon Mountains story meant that Garrosh was learning on the job about honor and the whole nine yards. According to an Ion interview, that was a mistake, and he was supposed to have a much darker interaction with the underling, basically approving of the methods. Which makes me sad that honor is only a convenience for Garrosh.

    Liked by 1 person

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