It was barely 12 hours ago now that I wrote a fairly scathing rant about the Sepulcher of the First Ones’ first raid cinematic, after the defeat of Anduin in the instance. To me, what resonated most loudly out of it was that it had a lot of elements I would have enjoyed if they were tweaked slightly, presented in a different order or way, or with slight tweaks to who was present for the scene and who drove most of the action in it.
However, I do try to make a habit of seeing other sides of these debates, such as they are – my perspective is only mine, and I miss things, dislike things other people like, and have my own framing for how the narrative of the game affects me. So after sleeping on it and reading the comments on that post and some other reactions on Twitter, I thought it would be worthwhile to come back fresh and revisit the cinematic a little bit. I think it is (rightfully) polarizing, and while I found it fell frustratingly short for me, there are people who genuinely enjoyed it and it does little good to pretend that is not an authentic, well-grounded reaction people could have to it.
Given that preamble, I want to explore it through a couple of main themes, to lend this post a little more structure than a 3 AM rant.
Sylvanas Needed (And Deserved) Closure
This is a big one where I will readily admit my bias against Sylvanas plays against this cinematic. For me, I’m mostly a WoW player and mostly an Alliance main – I have no strong opinions on Horde leadership unless they’re thrust into the main narrative, and the way in which Sylvanas was put into that spotlight was one that was made to create friction for a player like me – a Night Elf main who only finally started playing for real because of the Night Elf starting experience on Teldrassil. I can admit that I will never really come around on Sylvanas for that unless the lore takes a really shocking development that gives her a measure of meaningful (in my eyes) atonement for what she did.
But as a character in the larger Warcraft narrative, Sylvanas’ tale has been built up over a long stretch of time, and her role includes a lot of plot threads that go way back to Warcraft III. The biggest of these is her death and banshee-fication at the hands of Arthas as he descended to the throne of Lich King. In this role, Sylvanas has a character arc that can be best described as tragic – she is robbed of agency, a piece of herself taken away and violated by this awful person, left to wander separate from her people, those she fought for with her life, made into a shade, an abomination her people cannot understand. There is a very real and present parallel to surviving a sexual assault in the characterization of Sylvanas – which is a very understandable reason why a lot of people are critical of when Sylvanas’ character arc veers into questionable territory or leans on tropes like becoming an abuser herself.
Sylvanas’ descent into madness, her soul sundering at Arthas’ hand and everything that has come since – these things needed a narrative payoff if Sylvanas is to continue as a character in WoW, and even if she doesn’t. If our raid finale or zone finale cinematic is Sylvanas getting executed at Tyrande’s hand (or some other death), then her character needs to be brought home – with the loose plot threads tied up as neatly as possible and a chance at closure being brought. I don’t like Sylvanas as a character, but this is fundamental storytelling stuff, and just straight up writing Sylvanas out without these things would just highlight a failure of writing basics, and the story needs this closure, if nothing else. Further, for everything that people do see of their own lived experiences in elements of Sylvanas’ character, that payoff needs to come – a core complaint (I’m writing this draft but it’s gonna have to wait until after my vacation) I have with WoW’s story is that it is a hopeless place where the most aspiration the storytellers have is to return to a broken, systemically-flawed status quo.
Sylvanas getting a moment of closure with the person who violated her in this way, a chance to come to peace with what she has been through at his hand and since that day, serves as a break from that pattern, and a good one at that. If the most tormented soul in Warcraft can find peace and hope, maybe that can be a spark to a new chapter. I have my cynicism about Blizzard writing, WoW writing in particular, and Danuser’s direction and writing in particular-particular, and maybe such hope is foolish, but this direction for Sylvanas is substantively different from much of the way WoW tells tales.
For a lightning round, I was also fairly critical of Sylvanas not breaking free of the Jailer on her own, but at the same time, I’m not sure it’s clearly established that she was being controlled so much as she bought in to his narrative and willingly served. The story development in-game in 9.2 seems to point more at the latter, so I will admit that if this is the case, a lot of my issue with the disparity in portrayal of Anduin versus Sylvanas is misguided. Lastly, I will also say that it has been stated by some of the developers on Twitter that the parallels of trauma and abuse are grounded in very real experiences of at least one writer on the team, and in that context, I can respect the courage it takes to represent that experience in a story as part of a larger narrative work. Regardless of my feelings about the execution of the story as part of a whole, I appreciate the added perspective brought to the story in this moment.
Saurfang, Varian, and Arthas
By the end of that rant post, I had seen and read Gnomecore’s breakdown of the cinematic and his thoughts on it, and I came around a bit on Saurfang’s involvement in the cinematic, but I left the earlier ranty content in my post. In isolation, I still think the emotional impact they clearly wanted would have been better served with a different character (I still think a parents and son moment that set Anduin on a new path would have been such a poignant and incredible bit of storytelling), but the two non-Anduin holders of Shalamayne makes sense in a sort of anime-esque “activating the blade’s true powers” sense. It’s a little trite and rule-of-cool-y in my mind, but there is something to it here that reaches beyond just that surface-level basicness. I think what hampers it so much for me is that neither Varian or Saurfang say anything personal or emotional to Anduin – they very much say their catchphrases and disappear, and I think that undercuts the emotional impact the scene could have had more than any quibbles over what characters are present in spirit to give Anduin that push. Varian is his dad and was missing for such a big part of his childhood – there’s so much these characters could have said to one another that would have imparted depth to the interaction, but we speed ahead to the spiel about “valor” and that’s it. Honestly, in my head, if you just keep the characters but Varian says “I love you son, and I’ll always be with you” and Saurfang says “Azeroth stands with you” or “For Azeroth!” or something sort of warchief-y and straightforward, you could keep the runtime the same and still have way more emotional resonance than what we got. When I think of squandered potential in this cutscene, this is the moment – it could have been such a great little interaction full of real emotion and humanity, and instead it just…wasn’t.
On Arthas, I guess I need to tie him back to the Sylvanas point above. I don’t hate him being in it (although in the capacity he was “in it” is uniquely small!) and him being there to give Sylvanas closure is valid and a good choice. I’m probably having the hardest time summarizing how I feel about the Arthas involvement because I think that it was superfluous to a point, but it also was necessary for Sylvanas to get that closure. On a fundamental writing level, he needs some measure of presence so that Sylvanas can let go of her past and reconcile the Banshee Queen with the Ranger General, but good lord I don’t want him anywhere near modern WoW writing.
If I combine my feelings on the Sylvanas point with Arthas, I guess I would say that this was the best way to pay that off, all told. It does raise questions about mourneblades, what role his soul served in Kingsmorne specifically and how that tied to the Domination magic, and all of those are valid bits of lore we absolutely should get and probably won’t. But I find it difficult to be too actually mad about this, because it keeps Arthas’ ending good where it was while giving Uther a chance to reflect on the Shadowlands portion of his arc, particularly Afterlives, it gives Jaina a final closure (she has already had closure with Arthas given her presence at ICC), and for Sylvanas, whose character arc was defined by Arthas in many ways, she gets closure she needs to come full-circle. As a narrative device, it accomplishes a fairly substantial amount without tarnishing the Arthas story that came before (well, more than the Jailer Ex Machina plot has) so, it’s fine, and actually, even good, perhaps. In a way, both Uther and Jaina had their opportunities to close out their stories with Arthas at multiple prior points and so the only character in the scene with things left to say and feel from Arthas was Sylvanas.
My only remaining beef with this part and one I have seen a lot of debate on is the nature of the appearance of Saurfang and Varian. Discarding interview lore for a moment, their presence here is baffling still and we’re not given much in the cinematic or surrounding raid content (at least that I could find as a non-player) to explain how they’re here, why they are actually here, and the like. The golden glow seems to portray them as shades of the Light, which is an interesting narrative choice that could perhaps be foreshadowing for a 10.0 reveal, but that’s just a theory…a game theory? A lot of the ideas about the fates of Varian and Saurfang are fan theories as well – the “fel magic destroys souls” idea is one I saw bandied about a lot, but I couldn’t find a clear source that indicated it was official lore, and Saurfang’s fate in the Maw was basically a guess based on the time of his death and the narrative of Shadowlands to this point. If Zereth Mortis is a place souls can be sent as well, that sort of undercuts the initial narrative of the expansion about ordering things through the 4 main realms, especially since Zereth Mortis is under a stage 5 super-lockdown that needs the infinity stones…uh, the Sigils I mean, totally different, to access. The Arbiter, by lore, only had one.
My ideal explanation in some ways is that they are merely projections of Anduin’s internal dialogue, memories he finds comfort in, which would explain the wooden dialogue from both and would lend well to Anduin’s characterization potential in the future (leaning on his mentor figures but learning to stand alone) and explain why it doesn’t seem that the other characters in the cutscene react to their presence or even really notice them, which, if the pair of inspiring figures are not memories of Anduin, then raises a lot more questions about why no one else seems to notice them and creates another negative point I am not going to rant about here!
So nitpicks aside, I can find reasons that the presence of these other characters works in the way it is presented and respect the choices made, while also acknowledging that I think there were more interesting choices, both in who is present but also what is said and how things are resolved. But to close out, I want to circle to a particular nitpick that framed my entire rant post.
The Importance of Lore Continuity (Or Lack Thereof)
A big part of my irritation with the cutscene was that it directly went against statements made by the lore team in interviews as recently as the last couple of months. I found myself annoyed that they’d even put forward a hard-and-fast rule that we’d see no Varian or Saurfang, only to get both in the same cutscene. I didn’t catch any heat for this, but I wanted to address it in retrospect anyways.
Ultimately, WoW’s lore is a mess to me because it doesn’t just unfold in the game – we get novels, side-stories, and then tidbits in press interviews. If you’re enough of a fan to follow all of these things, what you get is a tattered weave of elements that don’t really fit well together, because author A is writing novel A with input from the game team, and the game team then writes their own narrative that is loosely tied to the novel but also different, and then the short-story team comes through with a website story that only barely relates to the established lore and deviates in some other ways, and then Danuser tells a game magazine some rule that he’s just gonna break in 6 months time, and when you try to fit these elements together, they kind of…don’t fit!
But a valid counterpoint is that if the game can stand alone, then the game’s lore isn’t as messy as I believe it to be, and that’s certainly valid. Varian and Saurfang’s stories being “done” was an interview quote, not an in-game proclamation, so them appearing is fine through that lens. You could then point out that within the lore of Shadowlands as written in-game, it still kind of doesn’t make sense, and I agree with that – but it does dull the edge of annoyance that was needling me over the cinematic yesterday.
My core argument as I framed it yesterday is that Warcraft, if it wants to continue being a multi-medium entertainment property, needs to spend more attention on making sure the edges of that narrative meet each other correctly and don’t cause inconsistencies. Warcraft is a massive, expansive franchise filled to the brim with elements of worldbuilding, lore, history, and current narrative storytelling, and keeping it all straight is difficult. I have a measure of empathy for the team in that task. At the same time, however, you have a team working on it, and you’ve explicitly brought writers into the company to work on these out-of-game projects like novels, and the level of coordination we get should reflect that. I’m not sure if it is a lack of effort, misplaced effort, or multiple stakeholders pulling in different directions, but a fantasy narrative should not make me question its creation this much. If you’re going to sell me the full lineup of Warcraft stories as an overarching media property, it should line up correctly and feel like a cohesive whole instead of bungling bits of mediocrity. Further, your superfans should be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the story being told for the effort of following all of the various products and projects, instead of actively making the story worse by doing that.
I titled the rant “You Don’t Have To Write Yourself Into A Corner, You Know?” because ultimately, that is a problem I see across Warcraft. In this particular case, Steve Danuser made statements that contradicted what actually happened in game – it’s not a damning indictment of him as a storyteller, but if your public narrative is that everything in Shadowlands has been meticulously planned and delivered as expected, you can’t then do that and expect me to take you seriously. If the lesson you deliver through my consumption of your media is that I shouldn’t take things seriously, then you cannot also be upset that people don’t see the art of your work, and feign a lack of understanding about why people don’t enjoy the story.
In my post yesterday (okay, “yesterday”) I was pretty harsh on the cinematic, and to be clear, I didn’t hate it. A lot of my reaction to it is grounded in the idea that it could be more, should be more – that there’s so much there waiting to be used that just isn’t. At the same time, with some distance, I think it is fair to say that my lack of investment in Sylvanas was never going to let me fully enjoy it, and I think that’s fine. I do think it says something about how the game has failed to make Sylvanas fit the role she’s been slotted into, but if even half of the rumors and innuendo we’ve heard about how much of a mess the creation of this story has been are true, the fact that there’s even something there that can be pulled out as positive is a victory in its own right.
3 thoughts on “Some Other Viewpoints On The Anduin Raid Finale”
I am still completely baffled at how * can be “Arthas” not mechanically but more in a HOW COULD YOU sense. One of the biggest god damned bads in the history of WoW and he goes out not even with a whimper, not even a sigh. Just evaporated, like some sort of snow cone. I’m not a big Arthas stan but this was just beyond pathetic.
I think it’s important to state that Sylvanas’ “lore” was not developed across the whole franchise, but rather different people took cracks at adding a story and wedging it into her “lore” regardless of what the people prior had done. Did we ever get a clear answer to the exchange between Helya and her in Legion? I don’t really think we did, but I bet you some Sylvanas stan is pointing at this as an example of how deep and thought out her “lore” is. Pfah. A lot of people telling a log of stories != lore. It’s more chaos than anything, with Sylvanas as the strange attractor.
I really want to see Anduin redeemed, but this I was hoping for something that wasn’t weak tea in the process. But, sure, fine, he’s all bettah now. Can haz 10.0 naow?
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Maybe I missed it, but in the previous expansion, weren’t we lead to believe Vol’Jin had a part to play in what was coming? I probably missed some story, my brain checked out for trying to follow things, and this latest expansion really has been all over the map with everyone trying to get a fleshed out back story to make you feel invested. Still haven’t figured out the whole Vampire Clan wanting to have tea parties all the time.
As far as the lore goes, wasn’t there someone once upon a time that was the keeper of the book? @Loreology?? I forget his Twitter handle, and it was so long ago. I thought I had read he left blizzard for family health reasons. Maybe they just never filled the position and have left it to teams to piece together
Go read or listen to the Sylvanas book on Amazon/Audible. It’ll fill in all of the holes.