The light wishes suffering on none, my child. But it does not reign unopposed in our realm
- The Prophet Velen
It's no secret that I dig the draenei. They're my favorite race in the game (my second favorite are tauren, with worgen in third) and in all honesty for a long time, I never really knew why aside from my having really loved the draenei starting zone when I first played through it during the Burning Crusade beta. I really enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie I got from the various surviving crew members, all pulling together to survive, and as the history of the long displaced race unfolded and linked up to their appearance in Warcraft III and the broken ones I'd already met back in my vanilla days running through Swamp of Sorrows, I was hooked.
I liked that they were in turns noble yet murderous - I've never forgotten that it was Velen, supposedly kindly and peace loving Prophet, who ordered my draenei to go find the blood elves and their eredar allies on Bloodmyst and eradicate them. Kill them all, Velen said to me, and I did it. They even threw a party for me afterwards. I liked that for all our obvious compassion, we still were deeply flawed - there was clear racism and disquiet aimed at the Broken, whose mutated condition filled some of our people with disgust - you could see it in how we shoved them into the darkest corners of the crashed Exodar and forced them to toil out of sight. The draenei were many things - linked to the man'ari eredar through a common origin, forever exiled from their home, hunted by their former kin - but their long relationship with the Naaru and the Holy Light hadn't made plaster saints out of the draenei. I liked their having survived the orc genocide on Draenor has hardened, but not warped them.
And to be honest, I just really liked playing in one. I like how they move, how they run, how they look in plate or mail (most of my draenei are warriors or shaman, with one paladin who doesn't get out much), how their racial Gift of the Naaru makes a sigil float over their heads, their combat animations (especially how they use staves or polearms) - but it wasn't until recently that I really thought for a while about why, exactly, I still hold such a fondness for the draenei.
The draenei aren't any of these things.
The draenei are, ultimately, an attempt to reverse engineer the popular, sinister Eredar of Warcraft III - figures like Archimonde and Kil'jaeden - and give us their polar opposite. Most settings would say "Okay, so we have demons, what would their opposite number be?" and answer "Angels", and that's exactly what Diablo did with Tyrael, but World of Warcraft actually did something different. It said "What if you had something that still looked like a demon - hooves, tails, horns, tendrils - but which was from a culture that valued good and the Holy Light? What then?" The happy accident of Chris Metzen forgetting that he'd already come up with an origin to how Sargeras became the Fallen Titan led to a stronger lore, ultimately, and a very strong hook for a new race. And what's interesting is how alien it makes the draenei, and how alienated.
It's not just that the draenei look different from other races in World of Warcraft, it's that they are different, and they're keenly aware of it - they've abandoned everything that made them who they were to avoid being corrupted, to prevent their entire race from being lost to madness and evil so vast it's barely comprehensible. They have again and again been hounded from whatever place they managed to light upon, hunted and nearly destroyed by those that once were their own people. Their last refuge proved to be the most horrific lie, as they were nearly totally destroyed by their neighbors, who they had offered no violence or threat to in centuries. Living among them is a Prophet who guides their aims and who speaks to the Naaru themselves, beings of living Light, and yet a hostile universe again and again threatens to overwhelm them.
The draenei have a sense of duality - they understand that there is no Light without a Shadow, that conflict is inevitable between these opposed forces. They reject the hatred that spawns murder, but accept that you will eventually have to defend what you hold dear. You can't hate your killer, but you definitely don't have to stand there and let yourself be killed. More so even than the pandaren, the draenei know balance, because they themselves stand on top of a fulcrum between opposed forces.
This backstory makes them unique in Warcraft, and more, it sets them apart from the elements of familiar fantasy and myth that make up the rest of the setting. For all the jokes about 'space goats' and 'space squids' players throw around, there's an amazing truth hidden in the jibes - the draenei are aliens. They literally are not of this world, and everything about their culture, history, even their archaeology speaks to this otherworldly nature. They subvert our expectations of what we'll find in a fantasy game in many ways - by being, effectively 'good demons', by their unusual way and mode of being, by not being elves or trolls or something else familiar to us, they blow the potential of the setting off of a easily predictable track. With the draenei in the game as a playable race, there is always the possibility things could get strange and alien again - for all that the blood elves were central to much of BC's appeal, it was the weird, alien aspect of the expansion that the draenei brought that is most commonly commented upon today by those that loved that expansion.
The draenei introduce that strange, alien aspect more so than the pseudo-Lovecraftan Old Gods, that sense of we haven't seen everything yet. They're not like anything else in the setting, and it is still my fond hope we'll get to explore more of their story - see Argus, find out if any others survived somewhere out in the Great Dark Beyond, maybe even see a repaired Exodar ride the dimensions again. I admit, their potential hasn't been tapped yet - we've seen precious little draenei story in Wrath, one questline in the Swamp of Sorrows in Cataclysm, and a saddening dearth in Mists of Pandaria considering you'd expect Velen to be an excellent person to consult about the Sha and how to deal with them. Yet I still have hope - being draenei, you learn to keep hope in mind.
The draenei are not merely different, they are not only alien, they bring that with them into the setting. They can embrace the peace of the Holy Light and yet smash in someone's head without batting an eye, they understand contradiction and contrast in a way no other race in the setting can, because they've seen the best of their own people become the worst, watched the Legion destroy everything they value led by their own people. They are something else, and getting to play one means getting to really explore what that something else is... and has yet to be. Which is why I enjoy them, silly jokes and all.