Wrath Retrospective: Lore and the art of storytelling

With the final content patch of this expansion on our doorstep and Cataclysm following close behind, we'll be taking the next several weeks to look back on Wrath of the Lich King and everything that made it what it is, for better or for worse, in WotLK Retrospective.

Wrath of the Lich King wasn't just an expansion -- it was an experiment in progressive storytelling featuring story lines and lore that we haven't seen since Warcraft III. While Burning Crusade tackled new issues and races, it did little to further any of the Azeroth stories we'd seen in the earlier Warcraft games; Wrath took a step backwards to move the prior stories forward. Along with this change in direction, we saw the introduction of a few things that hadn't been seen in Warcraft before that made a large change to the way we view stories and quests in World of Warcraft, and a re-introduction of many of the heroes and prominent figures that we'd only caught glimpses of in vanilla. Today, we're going to look at Wrath lore: what worked, what knocked it out of the park and what failed to impress.


Quite possibly the biggest technical advancement in storytelling was the introduction of the phasing mechanic. This allowed players to play through quests, and as the stories progressed, so did the world around the players, giving a new and unique feel to story line progression. Suddenly, instead of playing through a zone with no indication that you'd made any changes to the status quo, the world changed around you -- the chain of events in Conquest Hold in Grizzly Hills and Frosthold in the Storm Peaks both actually ended with NPCs being replaced as a direct result of player interaction. In the quest chain of The Battle for the Undercity, both Alliance and Horde players are teleported into a phased version of Orgrimmar, designed as a vehicle to further the story line -- and as a way for Alliance players to interact with Thrall without being attacked.

But beyond the introduction of players affecting the world around them, there was a different side to phasing -- that of a storytelling vehicle that could not have occurred without the phasing mechanic. Suddenly, players could be placed at any point in the game's "time line." Death knights, for example, start out at the beginning of their journey in an Ebon Hold that is being run by the Lich King himself. Through the clever use of phasing mechanics, death knights actually played through their redemption as an interactive story and got to witness first hand the utter devastation of New Avalon at their hands, as well as the eventual result of the battle at Light's Hope Chapel, the "defeat" of the Lich King and the reclamation of Ebon Hold.

This mechanic wasn't just limited to death knights, however. Wrath was full of stories and events that took full advantage of the phasing mechanic. Players could travel back in time and witness events that took place in Warcraft III firsthand and help correct errors with time lines that have been meddled with. In what was perhaps the most extensive use of the phasing mechanic, the zone of Icecrown itself was heavily phased, and as your respective faction progressed, so did the scenery around you. In addition, there was the strange, haunting story of Matthias Lehner, who not only creeped players out but offered a unique glimpse into the story of Arthas and the Lich King -- and the little boy mysteriously cropped up all over the zone.

Cinematic cut scenes

Introduced at the tail end of Burning Crusade, the first in-game cinematic was available in Magisters' Terrace ... sort of. The Magisters' Terrace "cinematic" was more like a cut scene where the player's camera was suddenly taken control of and led on a winding path through the zone, showing you a glimpse of what was to come in Sunwell Plateau and introducing Anveena and Kalecgos, a blue dragon who had previously only been seen in the Warcraft manga. It was a pretty effective way to introduce characters that hadn't been seen before, but players had to talk to Kalecgos to get the full story -- and even then, most players simply rushed through to get the next quest and move on without really reading what was going on.

This was, however, a hallmark of future events -- the use of in-game cinematics as a vehicle for furthering a story. The events at Wrathgate played out in a cinematic that stunned players first making their way through the quest lines, and even today, it's still an effective and moving cut scene. More importantly, there was always the option of skipping the cut scene for players who had seen it before, and the option to re-watch the cinematic if players accidentally skipped it. But perhaps most important was the use of the cinematic in conjunction with phasing. Where once had been a battlefield and two armies at war, after the cinematic there lay only ruin -- and a pair of truly massive red dragons.

It was nice to see a cinematic actually incorporated in the game world -- and in the case of Wrathgate, anything less than a full-blown cinematic would've cheapened the experience. Normally, "cinematics" were simply scenes played out between characters that the players could stand back and observe, like Thrall's journey to Garadar in The Burning Crusade and the conversation that played out with Garrosh. In the case of Wrathgate, relegating the events to mere NPC interaction would've killed the shock of the sequence. In addition, it was nice to see the cinematic department actually design content for the game -- previous contributions were limited to trailers that were released separately from game content, which meant that in order to see them, players had to visit a website. Including the cinematic as part of the game experience was a much better move and allowed everyone to experience the content without leaving the game.

We can't talk about the cinematics without talking about the fall of the Lich King. Players who actually manage to defeat Arthas are treated to an in-game cinematic at the moment of his death that shows what occurs just after. After the cinematic plays out, the area is phased, with the Frozen Throne changed to reflect what's occurred. Again, there is an option to view the cinematic for players who haven't defeated the Lich King themselves -- a statue placed in Dalaran does the job nicely. This was a giant step up in quality from Illidan's death, where NPCs simply talked to each other, and it gave the victory a uniquely epic feel.

Faction leader activity

Perhaps the largest advancement in storytelling that didn't involve new mechanics or bells and whistles was the story of Wrath itself and how it affected the NPCs we've interacted with since day one of World of Warcraft. In vanilla, players simply didn't see faction leaders outside of wherever their designated zone was, with few exceptions. The introduction of Ahn'Quiraj had NPCs taking a slightly more active role (and in the case of Tyrande and Eranikus, a somewhat major one), but beyond these few limited events, nothing seemed to happen. The king of Stormwind was missing, Jaina stayed quite firmly in Theramore with the exception of one quest, and none of the other major players in Warcraft lore really did anything substantial.

In The Burning Crusade, Horde players saw a little more activity in the above-mentioned Garadar quest line, where Thrall makes a trip to Garadar to visit his relatives. Suddenly Thrall was doing something more than sending players to investigate possible Burning Blade activity, and players loved it. Blizzard took that response and ran with it. Suddenly in Wrath, major lore figures were all over the place, moving around, creating tension and furthering the story line in ways never before seen. This was a huge step forward in WoW storytelling -- a giant leap from the beautiful but stagnant world we were presented with in vanilla's release to a fully interactive world where players and characters actually work together.

Easily the largest amount of movement and the best interplay was the Battle for the Undercity, where both Horde and Alliance players battled against the traitorous Royal Apothecaries and Varimathras. Suddenly it wasn't a matter of fighting at the behest your faction leaders; it was a matter of fighting at your faction leader's sides -- and watching your faction leader in action when abruptly presented with the other side. Suddenly Jaina and Varian leapt to life, along with Thrall and Saurfang, and their interaction gave way to one of the more interesting political conflicts introduced in Wrath of the Lich King.

Lore, lore and more lore

Wrath of the Lich King saw the resolution of many different stories in Warcraft history -- stories that began long before World of Warcraft's original launch. The fate of Muradin, the whereabouts of Brann Bronzebeard, the activities of the Lich King all factored heavily into play. In addition, we saw the introduction of new elements. Here's a summarized list of some of the important points we saw addressed in Wrath:

  • The Lich King's story line, what he'd been up to in Northrend these past few years

  • The fate of Muradin Bronzebeard

  • The origin of the gnomes

  • Further exploration into the titans and the origins of Azeroth

  • The fate of Brann Bronzebeard and his first appearance in game

  • The politics of the Kirin Tor and introduction of the Argent Crusade

  • The expansion of the Scarlet Crusade into the Scarlet Onslaught

  • The introduction and redemption of playable death knights

  • The further adventures of Tirion Fordring

  • The introduction of the Taunka

  • The further struggles of the dragonflights

  • The death of Malygos, aspect of the blue dragonflight

  • The relocation of the citadel Naxxramas

  • The power struggle of the orcs -- Garrosh/Thrall

  • The rising conflict between the Alliance and Horde

  • The introduction of the Tuskarr, Wolvar and Oracles

  • The attempted coup of the Undercity

  • The further exploration of the Old Gods and introduction of Yogg-Saron

  • The origin of humans on Azeroth

  • The fall of Arthas, and the fate of the Lich King

Whew, that's quite the list, and I'm relatively certain that's not even half of it. In contrast, while The Burning Crusade was a large expansion, it didn't feel like it had anywhere near the depth of storytelling as Wrath of the Lich King. Why? Because The Burning Crusade was largely focused on moving the story forward, and Wrath of the Lich King seemed to have its focus on resolving stories from earlier games and furthering the development of characters and factions that were already established at World of Warcraft's release. Don't get me wrong -- The Burning Crusade had a ton of stories and epic moments, from Thrall's journey to Garadar, to the release of Maiev and the redemption of Akama, to Illidan's defeat, to ultimately, the restoration of the Sunwell. It just lacked the impact that Wrath had, largely due to dealing with stories that didn't really have any root in vanilla WoW.

Then we have Wrath of the Lich King, which took elements that were heavily addressed in Warcraft III, as well as addressed those story elements we simply didn't see resolved in vanilla -- the return of King Varian Wrynn and his impact on the Alliance, more information on stories we watched start way back with Uldaman, the progression of the Scarlet Crusade out of the Eastern Kingdoms and into Northrend. We had the reveal of Dalaran, which had been kept under a giant purple bubble for the entirety of vanilla's run, the development of Tirion Fordring, who was introduced as a simple hermit back in vanilla, and way, way more exploration into the Scourge and their development. And of course, the Lich King, a major villain who was fully realized at the end of Warcraft III when Arthas strode up the Frozen Throne and found himself a nice new hat.

This is why Wrath worked, from a story standpoint -- because it took those familiar elements that were near and dear to our hearts and expanded upon them. Who didn't feel terrible when Bolvar Fordragon gasped his last breath in the Wrathgate cinematic? Who didn't feel at the very least a little unsettled when the Old God Yogg-Saron started whispering to them in Howling Fjord? Who wasn't thrilled when Dalaran was announced as the new central hub for activity in Northrend? All of these things, plus the thousands of additional small reveals, led Wrath to being the most story-heavy, involved and "complete" expansion that has been released to date. To me, there should be a reason that I am performing all these tasks for people -- and with Wrath, these reasons were fully realized in a way that vanilla and The Burning Crusade had only begun to touch.

New story lines that were presented were written in an engaging fashion that kept players entertained. The entirety of the Wolvar/Oracle conflict, from the moment Gekgek furiously accuses you of stealing his kill to the moment in which you have to decide whose side you're on, Oracle or Wolvar, was a whirlwind of writing that had me engaged from beginning to end, amused and wondering just what the hell was going to happen to my poor character next. The clever phasing of the flight path that you built yourself was also a nice addition, and most of all made sense -- this was important to me, as the sudden appearance of a flight path in Un'goro Crater back in the day made little sense for an expedition that was supposedly "stranded."

In addition, new mechanics like phasing and vehicular combat opened the way for all kinds of new ways to present stories. It's no longer a matter of killing X critter for Y body parts to deliver to Z; instead, you're treated to scenes that would have been impossible without the new additions. A notable quest line is The Drakkensryd, which has players flying impossibly high above the ground, battling mobs on dragonback and using a harpoon chain to leap from back to back on the way to Thorim's throne. This is the sort of thing you would never see in vanilla or in Burning Crusade and it worked brilliantly, making Wrath one of the finest vehicles for interactive storytelling in Warcraft's history.

Now that we've looked at the positive aspects of Wrath lore and storytelling, let's take a look at where they fell short. What didn't work with the Wrath story? What elements could have been improved upon?

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