Ever since the announcement of Warlords of Draenor, most players -- including myself, to a degree -- have been under the assumption that this is an expansion involving time-travel of some sort. Sure, supposedly we as players aren't traveling in time, but Garrosh Hellscream did so, to an alternate version of Draenor whose history he presumably changed. Now instead of invading Azeroth as we're accustomed to, this altered version of Draenor and its Iron Horde are attempting to invade the here and now.
Only there's one key thing we've been missing -- this isn't time travel. Not in the slightest. After playing on beta for a mere few hours, what Blizzard is doing is something entirely different. While we've been focusing on time travel and how this would affect our future, Blizzard has been quietly putting together a story with some far-reaching, drastic implications that may very well take everything we know about World of Warcraft, stand it on end, and knock it over with one well-placed blow.
Spoiler Alert: The following column contains a couple of fairly large spoilers for Warlords of Draenor. If you are avoiding expansion information and discussion, do not continue.
Back to the Future
The moment Warlords was announced, players jumped pretty hard onto the time-travel aspect of the expansion, attempting to puzzle out exactly what Blizzard meant by "this isn't time-travel." The running theory most players have gone with is as follows: Garrosh Hellscream goes back in time. Garrosh stops his father and the rest of the orc clans from drinking the Blood of Mannoroth, thus saving them from demonic corruption. Garrosh says something to convince all the clans to unite together and build a Dark Portal -- not to unleash an army under Legion command, but to unleash the Iron Horde. The Dark Portal is connected to our Azeroth, present-day, and that's where our story begins.
As far as analogies go, this is perhaps closest to Back to the Future II. In that film, Marty travels to his own future with Doc and sees an aged Biff Tannen -- who realizes that Doc and Marty have a time machine. Taking matters into his own hands, Biff hijacks the Delorean and takes a sports almanac from the future back to 1955 while Doc and Marty aren't looking, giving his younger self the key to getting everything he ever wanted. When Doc and Marty return "home" to 1985, they return to an alternate version of their history in which Biff has everything -- including Marty's mother -- and Marty's father is dead. It's pretty heavy.
Applying this scenario to Warlords, here we have our Biff: Garrosh Hellscream, who hasn't traveled forward in the future, he's just grown up, been betrayed by his own people, seen what the Horde he remembered from his childhood turned out to be -- and he doesn't like it. He happens upon a method of traveling in time via Kairoz the bronze dragon, and promptly peaces out for his past with the intent to save not only his father, but the rest of the Horde. Meanwhile we're here in the present, when suddenly the Iron Horde comes busting out the Dark Portal.
But it's not quite the right analogy -- because if this were truly a Back to the Future style timeline, Thrall would suddenly cease to exist. Every orc in the Horde would suddenly cease to exist. In fact, the Horde itself would cease to exist, having never actually invaded. So we fall instead to "Garrosh made an alternate universe when he traveled back in time" -- but as of playing the beta, that's not right either. And I've got one screenshot, just one, that immediately proves it.
Rulkan, Kil'jaeden, and Ner'zhul
If you've ever read Rise of the Horde, you're familiar with the name above. Rulkan is Ner'zhul's mate, a woman of no particular distinction -- she wasn't a shaman, she wasn't a leader. And in the original timeline, she wasn't even alive. When Kil'jaeden arrived on Draenor, Rulkan had already passed away several years before, leaving Ner'zhul alone and vulnerable. So Kil'jaeden took the guise of Rulkan's spirit when he first spoke to Ner'zhul, appearing to him in a dream and leading him down a path that would set orc against draenei and eventually lead to the corruption of the orcish race.
But Rulkan never died on this Draenor. She's well and truly alive, having left the Shadowmoon Clan along with a scant handful of followers who didn't really agree with what Ner'zhul was up to. She simply exists, when according to our history, she should not. Did Garrosh change her fate? No. Garrosh Hellscream didn't prevent her death, when he traveled back in time -- he had nothing to do with her or her fate at all. And she's not the only outlier on Draenor.
In this world, Akama is no longer broken -- but he's also no longer a priest of Karabor. Instead, he's both vindicator and Exarch, one of five Exarchs who lead the draenei in a council under Prophet Velen. Garrosh certainly didn't give Akama either a promotion or a career change. There are others as well -- familiar faces that are instantly recognizable to those that played through Burning Crusade or read the novels, but in unfamiliar roles that bear no resemblance to our history. So what gives? What did Garrosh Hellscream do, when he traveled back in time?
He didn't do anything. He didn't really travel back in time at all. Or rather, he did -- but not as we conventionally think of it.
The more of beta I see -- and I have admittedly seen very, very little of it so far -- the more it is becoming blatantly clear that this isn't a Back to the Future style of story. Maybe Garrosh thought he was traveling back in time, but he wasn't -- he's on a different version of Draenor, in an alternate universe, by a method that bears far more resemblance to the 2009 Star Trek franchise reboot than Marty and Doc's adventures in time. In Star Trek, a black hole sent both Spock and the Romulan Nero back in time. Once Nero arrived, he spent years just biding his time, waiting to find Spock and have his revenge. While he was at it, he killed James T. Kirk's father, presumably setting off a chain of events that changed the history of Star Trek to the alternate universe presented.
Except Nero had nothing to do with the changes in Spock's personality, the history of Scotty, McCoy, or any of the other original Enterprise members who bore very little resemblance to their original selves. So what we have here is simply this: an alternate universe. Sure, Nero traveled back in time, but he didn't travel down his own timeline. When he came out of that black hole, he didn't come out at some point in his own history, he came out in a universe that was in some ways similar to his own, but with a few significant differences. Killing Kirk's father didn't really cause a ripple or butterfly effect. It made Kirk an orphan, but it didn't affect Nero's future or the future of Romulus in the slightest.
In Warlords, we presumed that Garrosh Hellscream traveled back along our own history -- going back to the days of Rise of the Horde. The small pieces we've seen in beta so far clearly indicate that this is absolutely not the case. Garrosh didn't travel back in his own timeline. He popped out in some strange alternate universe of Draenor, one with clans that have familiar names, but different histories. One where his father certainly existed as leader of the Warsong, but the Ner'zhul appeared to have very little sway over the clans as a whole. One where the Legion may have appeared somehow, but not through the guise of Ner'zhul's very much alive mate Rulkan. One where the Shadow Council exists, not as a cover for Gul'dan's machinations of the Horde, but ... for some other purpose that hasn't actually been revealed just yet.
What does this mean for players? It means we can take every single piece of historical lore we've been presented with to date and throw it out the window, because those rules and that history simply don't exist on Draenor. It means we are going in completely blind, and whatever preconceptions we had of how certain characters acted in our own universe no longer apply. It means we have free reign to do whatever the heck we want with this version of Draenor, because anything we do on this world will have absolutely no bearing at all on the history of our own. This Draenor does not, never has and never will grow up to be our Outland. It was never destined to be.
Did Garrosh Hellscream go back in time? Yes. But his arrival in the past bore no impact on our version of Azeroth, because that Draenor he arrived at with Kairoz wasn't the Draenor he grew up on. He might not have actually existed on that Draenor at all -- we still don't know that, yet. The Frostwolves live in Frostfire Ridge, a cold northern expanse, a far cry from the green rolling hills described in Rise of the Horde -- because this isn't Rise of the Horde. It never was. It never will be. Which means Blizzard now has free reign to tell whatever story they want to, with no need to pay attention to anything that might have come before in Warcraft I or II -- this isn't Warcraft I or II. It never was. It's a story that hasn't been told yet.
We are going into a world where the only common thread between it and our own are the names of the people we are going to see. We should not expect them to act remotely like they did in our own version of history. Honestly, we shouldn't expect anything at all, because what we appear to be getting, so far, is a strange, weird echo -- a might-have-been tale. Will it impact our own universe? It might -- but not in a way we can expect or predict. There is no predicting this expansion at all.
Which is honestly pretty exciting, when you think about it.
Kairoz and the nature of time
But that leads us to another question -- why did Kairoz take Garrosh Hellscream to this alternate Draenor? Did he intend to visit our own history, but mess it up along the way? Why would Wrathion support Kairoz in doing this? Did Kairoz intend to simply drop off Hellscream and return to our own time, secure in the knowledge that the threat of the Horde and the atrocities committed in our own timeline would simply cease to be? What did Kairoz learn on the Timeless Isle, and was his meddling with Epoch Stones and Visions of Time actually useful?
According to War Crimes, Kairoz is presumably part of a group of bronze dragons who believe that history should be changed to make a better future. So did Kairoz expect that was what he was doing, when he helped Garrosh Hellscream escape? Did he actually know what he was doing with the device in War Crimes, or did he make a gigantic mistake? We don't know the answers to these questions yet, because as of right now on the beta, Kairoz is nowhere to be seen.
But one thing is absolutely certain -- if, on this alternate version of Draenor, we see anyone from Azeroth other than those who have traveled with us on our journey, they don't belong there. Azeroth, however it might exist in this alternate universe, has no bearing on Draenor at all, and it's most definitely not our home. In that case, it might be a far wiser, better idea to leave it alone -- and instead focus on shutting down the Iron Horde so it can't invade our world, and finding a way to get back home to when and where we belong.
Either way, our history as we know it? It's exactly the same, and hasn't changed a bit. Warlords of Draenor isn't our Draenor -- it's a new world with new stories, exciting possibilities, several familiar names on people who might not be as familiar as we were expecting, and a story we simply can't predict.
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.