It's hard for it to be reflected in the lore, and sometimes it's not even applicable (for instance, Wrath of the Lich King moved right into Cataclysm in terms of lore, since Arthas wasn't even officially dead yet when Halion made his attack on the Ruby Sanctum), but right now, we're in a fascinating period for game lore. Deathwing is dead, the world is saved, and the brewing conflict hasn't erupted yet. In essence, while we're used to the interexpansion periods as players in terms of patches and gameplay, this is for some purposes the first real period of peace (relatively speaking) in years.
Yes, the Alliance/Horde conflict endures, and it is about to escalate. But that event is still in the future. When patch 5.0.4 drops today, we are officially in the post-Deathwing world, with that all-too-brief feeling of accomplishment, as the elemental forces that have threatened us for the past year calm themselves and life turns its face away from its potential destruction.
Being that this is the World of Warcraft, of course that's not going to last. Personally, I'm ecstatic at the chance to go over all the new lore coming to us in the expansion, both in terms of that aforementioned escalating conflict and the brand new world we'll all swarm across like locusts, the formerly mist-shrouded land of Pandaria. We've talked before about how the real end boss of the new expansion is us, how we bring our conflict to a peaceful shore, but what I find most interesting about the lore of the game is how, in its cyclical nature, it plays variations on a theme.
So, what's next, Destroyer's End?
In The Burning Crusade we went to Outland, Horde and Alliance, and fought our way across a vast and desolate landscape full of strange and alien wonders we'd never seen before. We stormed the bastions of Illidan's forces and eventually brought the fight to the man himself, toppling him from his perch atop the Black Temple, then diverted ourselves to prevent Kil'Jaeden from entering Azeroth in his full power. In so doing, we reignited the Sunwell and restored the balance for the sin'dorei. Our march across this new world had taught us about ourselves and about our own world and how fragile its place in the cosmos was.
In Wrath of the Lich King, however, we returned to that embattled and threatened Azeroth to confront Arthas Menethil, once a heroic Knight of the Silver Hand and former prince of Lordaeron, a hero like ourselves turned to evil and now more of an insane force of supernatural destruction. Yet, as we marched across Northrend in our quest to defeat his Scourge and save our world, we came to realize how his fall had happened and how he'd allowed madness and obsession to erode who he was until all that was left was the Lich King. In the end, when we stood atop the spire and did battle with the Lich King, we were fighting what we could have become, and we'd learned that being willing to do anything for your people was perhaps too great a price to pay.
As the Cataclysm hit, we were forced to come to terms with that very lesson as Garrosh Hellscream's tenure as warchief led a more aggressive Horde into open conflict with a war-weary Alliance, and a rampaging assault by the elements spearheaded by the madness and fury of Deathwing, former Aspect of Earth, threatened destruction on a global scale. If the Destroyer got his way, Azeroth would ultimately shatter as Draenor had, torn asunder by a magical disaster so titanic that there would be no life left to contend for the scraps of resources. In the end, despite the distractions on factional conflict and resource war, a band of mortal heroes stepped in to do what dragon aspects and world shaman could not and defeated Neltharion the Earth Warder before his 10,000-year fall to madness and corruption could be complete in the annihilation of everything he once held dear.
Step aside and let us handle this
What's always interested me about the lore of this game and its development is that ultimately, it's a universally personal story. Yes, lore figures like Sylvanas, Cairne, Rexxar, Varian, Thrall, Jaina, Maiev enter it and pass through our lives, and they have their own stories to tell. But World of Warcraft isn't about them. It's about us -- you and me and everyone else playing the game.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the Madness of Deathwing fight from a lore perspective is that we basically shoved Thrall and the aspects to the back and said "OK, you had your shot at him, it's our turn." We basically smacked that gigantic mutated kaiju-dragon around, killing his tentacles, blowing up his seething blood, and smashing in that gigantic chin of his until he was finally weak enough for the Dragon Soul to kill him. Make no mistake -- the aspects are kill stealers. We didn't need them -- they needed us.
More importantly, though, each expansion has told our story. Particulars vary, of course. We've all done some zones and skipped others. Some of us have leveled more in dungeons, and others through PvP. Some of us are questing completionists, while others barely pay attention to quest text. But taken as a whole, each expansion you play though is telling the story of your character and her or his travels through the world.
Periods like now, when the main villains are defeated and the world is (however temporarily) at a sort of equilibrium, give you the chance to really sit back and think about what you've actually done. If Cataclysm were an RTS instead of an MMO, you'd basically be the hero of a Rexxar-style campaign, a figure who was called upon to fight your way through bastions of forgotten antiquity and keeps of raw elemental fury to help save the world.
What to do with the world once you've saved it
Frankly, we've saved the world three expansions in a row. If you count vanilla, with Molten Core, BWL and AQ, we've saved it at least four times. Heck, I saved the world twice in Wrath of the Lich King when I kicked Algalon's butt. That is a lot of world saving.
One of the benefits of Mists of Pandaria and this period before its launch is that we can finally stop saving the world and get on with other things. Our characters have marched into realms floating in the Twisted Nether and into the very shadow of Death itself, standing against the madness of the earth defiled and coming out the other side. It's time for a breather. Time for us to get to sit back on our laurels and titles, to get a little rest from our labors. The story has carried us here, to this absolute highest point. The world is saved.
From here, the deluge, as the Horde and Alliance go to war and draft us -- their most powerful champions, their greatest heroes, to fight for this new land, this gleaming prize open to whoever can claim it. What will we learn in Pandaria? What will this new land teach us, and how will we see ourselves reflected in the mirror it holds up to us? We can't say yet. But as this wave descends, we know we'll be at the heart of it all. We're about to crash onto uncharted shores. Pandaria will be changed by our coming, yes, and we'll be changed by it as well.
But for right now, we're at the crest of the wave, waiting for it to break. Enjoy that moment of calm, because it's fleeting, and tomorrow we go to war.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.