Mists of Pandaria was easily the best expansion we've ever had in terms of story development. The new tools and different ways in which Pandaria's story was presented made the expansion shine in a way that cannot be fully appreciated until you simply play the game and experience it all first hand. Last week, we highlighted the highs of storytelling in Mists -- not the lore or the story itself, but the various ways in which that story was presented.
And it really can't be denied -- hands down, Mists of Pandaria is the most development we've seen in using story as a vehicle for gameplay in Warcraft. The sheer amount of improvement from vanilla to today is mind-boggling. But just because Mists was a resounding success from the developmental side of storytelling doesn't mean that isn't any more room for improvement. Although Mists made some giant leaps in the ways we learn lore, there were still some moments that faltered.
Mists of Pandaria was chock full of new lore with new characters, new villains, a new continent, and an all-new story. It was fantastic to see the amount of development that could come out of a completely blank slate from a storytelling standpoint. Unfortunately, focusing on all that new lore left a lot of old stories in the dust ... stories that players have been somewhat impatiently waiting to see continue for several years. Situations that began with the 1-60 Cataclysm revamp, or even Cataclysm itself have been left in the lurch, with no indication that any progression has been made.
Are the worgen still mired in Darnassus, with no hope of taking Gilneas back? What about Sylvanas and the storyline we saw play out in Silverpine, in which the Banshee Queen willfully disobeyed direct orders from the Warchief and unleashed the plague? How about the situation in Andorhal, and Koltira's sudden disappearance? What about the situation in Darkshore and Ashenvale -- have the night elves made any progress at all in reclaiming their territory? Or how about the biggest question mark out of the entirety of Cataclysm -- what about the Aspects? What happened to them, now that they've supposedly lost their immortality and their powers?
Focusing on a new continent is all well and good, but by doing so, Blizzard left a million hanging threads behind that should have been resolved or at least addressed by now. Unfortunately, there are only so many stories one can tell in a single expansion, and the stories left hanging in Cataclysm weren't on that list. However, the storyline in Mists seems to have wrapped up in such a way that there aren't quite so many hanging plot threads -- which is a sign of improvement. Leaving areas open for storytelling is great. Leaving so many mysteries left unsolved that the player base gets frustrated as a result ... that's not so great.
Dailies and story development
Mists introduced some of the best story development we've seen in the form of stories told over the course of daily quests. The shining example of this is patch 5.1, in which players that completed dailies were taken on a gradual journey of one-time quests that played out the story of the Divine Bell, including several incredibly dramatic moments that all came to a head with Anduin's near-brush with death and the revelation that Hellscream really was just crazy enough to try and use sha power, power that we'd already determined was bad news, in an effort to beef up his ideal vision of the Horde as a domineering war machine.
There was only one problem with that -- players didn't really care for daily quests. We barely had any at all in Cataclysm, and their reintroduction in Mists was embraced by some, reviled by others. Why, exactly, a tool used to give max-level players something to do and some extra gold that was happily embraced in Burning Crusade has taken such a downturn in popularity is a continuing mystery. Several theories have been offered, but it really seems like players just have their own reasons for not liking the system.
At the same time, the players do have a point. Some dailies, like the ones in 5.1, were full of story development. Others, like the reputation grind required for the August Celestials, had almost no story development at all -- or the story was awkwardly implemented in such a way that it was difficult to follow. I think a lot of the problem with the system wasn't really about the implementation of the story so much, though -- it was that dailies were required to gain reputation, which was in turn required to gain better gear.
Once you put something that will improve your character behind any kind of artificial gate, it doesn't matter what that gate is made out of. It doesn't matter how intriguing the puzzle is. Players simply want to unlock that gate as quickly as possible. Gating cool gear behind a wall of dailies turns the eye of the player away from the story, instead keeping it clearly focused on the reward they have yet to obtain. It doesn't matter how cool that story is -- all that matters is there is something good on the other side to get, and that good thing isn't available immediately.
Warlords will see an absence of daily quests. As of right now, we have no idea how that's going to work out -- but I sincerely hope this doesn't mean we'll see the end of story-laden serial content as a result. Patch 5.1 was far too good not to experience again, even if in a slightly different format.
The power of the written word
Let's face it -- The Burdens of Shaohao was fantastic. The use of cinematics in Mists was just enough, without being too overbearing or taking over gameplay. But there's one point that kind of faltered in terms of out-of-game story material, and that's written storytelling. Novels and short stories have the ability to do what we can't do in game -- get inside the heads of these major characters and show what they are thinking and feeling as they go about doing whatever it is that they do. The two novels that came out of this expansion, Tides of War and Shadows of the Horde, were both excellent books. The short stories based around the factions of Pandaria were also really well done.
But there could have been so much more. While focusing on pandaren factions was a really cool way to simultaneously highlight the pandaren and the characters from our factions that interacted with this new race, we were missing giant chunks of potential character development. It would have been interesting to see another Varian Wrynn story, and to actually get inside his head and see what he was thinking about the war -- because we certainly didn't get much of it in game. It would have been great to see something from Anduin and his struggles with independence. It would have been amazing to see something more from Jaina, a follow-up to the woman we saw well and truly broken in Tides.
How about Wrathion? Wouldn't it have been interesting to see a story told from Wrathion's eyes, about the war in Pandaria, the visions he experienced, perhaps more of a glimpse into the evolution of the Blacktalon that follow him around and silently haunt Pandaria? Or how about a story about Lorewalker Cho -- not a story that Cho tells, but Cho's story itself? The expansion was rife with possibilities in terms of short stories and novels, but it feels like that end of the equation fell a little flat. Hopefully we'll see more short stories in Warlords -- with the addition of the leaders of the Old Horde, something tells me there will be just as many stories to tell, if not more.
Mists told a fantastic story from several different angles. The pandaren cast was well-rounded and included a cast of characters that saw major amounts of development as the expansion went on. We saw the downfall of Garrosh Hellscream, without seeing a lot of Hellscream himself -- his actions and the actions of the Horde under his orders were more than enough to push that story along. In between, we had the masterfully woven tale of Vol'jin, the troll leader that not only managed to survive a direct assassination attempt, but took that and his love for the Horde as a cue to rise up, band together, and knock Hellscream off his throne.
We saw Lor'themar Theron struggle with his loyalty to the Horde, and his loyalty to his people -- to the point where he questioned whether or not the sin'dorei should even be in the Horde at all. We saw Jaina Proudmoore, former leader of a city ripped apart by Garrosh's deeds make the transition from fervent, impassioned diplomat to a vengeful woman shattered by her many losses. You'll notice something with all this character development -- we tick a lot of boxes with the Horde. We don't tick a lot of boxes for the Alliance.
And that's where the biggest problem lies with this expansion. Certainly the story was riveting on one side of the faction fence, but the other side faltered. That's not to say that the Alliance didn't have their moments -- Jaina, Anduin and Vereesa all had their moments to shine. But the few moments we caught with Varian Wrynn were curiously understated. His reaction to Anduin's near-death at the hands of Garrosh wasn't anywhere near the explosion that people expected. His interactions with Tyrande and Moira were all well and good, but they weren't really the moments of triumph that the Alliance were hoping for.
Unfortunately, that was a major failing in Mists' story. When you have two different sides experiencing two different stories, you have to take extra care to make sure that both of those stories are as riveting as possible. Players shouldn't feel like they're missing out by playing one faction over another. While one might argue that this is simply a case of the grass looking greener on the other side, I have to say after playing through both sides that it isn't that at all. There were cool moments on the Alliance side, but overall I felt I got more story development out of playing Horde than I did playing Alliance.
I think that a lot of these issues stemmed with making a major Horde figure into a villain, and not really having an Alliance hero equivalent. In order to do something like make a faction leader a villain, you have to explain his actions, and you have to explain why his own faction would be turning against him. The other side doesn't need that explanation, they're already enemies. While you have one side getting all that development, you have the other simply sitting there waiting for that moment in which they actually get to strike and do something.
So how do you solve this problem? I'm no story developer, but at this point, I'd say the faltering moment was putting the focus on a major Horde figure. In expansions past, we dealt with villains that stood apart from both Alliance and Horde, allowing each faction to have their own story and make their own choices about why and how to counter what that villain was up to. The story in Wrath, for example, had both sides pitted against the Lich King -- and while the Horde was dealing with Garrosh and how he was handling that particular situation, the Alliance was looking at the history of Arthas, how the Lich King came to be, and even the origins of the races that made up their faction.
It was two different tales, but it was a far more balanced story overall, because each side had their own highlights. Horde had the moments of raw tension between Garrosh and the Alliance, the moments of shock when Putress unleashed the plague and Sylvanas was overthrown. Alliance had the intriguing experience of being able to see the ghosts of Arthas' past play out before them, the tragic fall of Bolvar Fordragon, the moments of discovering the links between vrykul and human, mechagnome and gnome. And both sides were focused on the end result: taking down the Lich King.
We don't really know who that final boss of Warlords is going to be just yet. What we know so far is fairly Horde-centric, because we're dealing with old orc heroes and characters. But we definitely shouldn't expect another Horde-heavy expansion out of this, because Blizzard has heard the message loud and clear. While the Horde is dealing with these heroes of old, the Alliance has a story all their own, expanding upon a race that really didn't get a lot of face time in Burning Crusade. It's a story that we've been waiting for for a very long time, a story long overdue.
But what of Mists? Mists was still easily the best story-laden expansion we've ever had. It certainly had its faltering moments, but the expansion itself proved that Blizzard could still improve on the excellent storytelling they've been doing since the release of the RTS games. Warcraft still has a lot of story to tell -- and Mists showed that Blizzard is not only willing, but eager to tell that story as masterfully as possible. If Mists showed this much improvement from Cataclysm, Warlords is going to be an expansion to watch.
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.