Know Your Lore: NPC evolution from Wrath to Cataclysm and beyond

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|10.02.11

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Know Your Lore: NPC evolution from Wrath to Cataclysm and beyond
The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Wrath of the Lich King saw the introduction of several elements that furthered the incorporation of lore into the game. Phased quest chains allowed players to actually see their effect on the zones. Cinematic cutscenes made it feel like you were playing through a movie. The faction leaders of the world were suddenly far more active than they'd ever been before. But those were the major, blowout moments that made the storytelling work. What most didn't quite recognize were the subtle efforts of the lowly NPC.

In classic WoW, players literally had to walk up to NPCs and speak to them to engage them in conversation. In The Burning Crusade, that changed slightly -- NPCs now recognized players as they walked by, according to their reputation. In Wrath, suddenly NPCs were not only recognizing players, but they were whispering players, recognizing players. Prior efforts by a player were acknowledged, even if it was just a simple "I remember you."

What Wrath of the Lich King began was a revolution in WoW gameplay that would spin into full-out overdrive with the launch of Cataclysm. The lowly NPC was no longer an unimportant figure; he was a comrade in arms, a fellow hero, or a taskmaster -- and he made certain to let you know it.

The Shattering and Cataclysm

Just prior to Cataclysm's launch, players were introduced to the newly ravaged Azerothian landscape via the Shattering patch. Along with the patch came a fully revamped 1 to 60 leveling experience. Entire zones had their stories reworked and redone as a result of Deathwing's emergence into Azeroth, and old quest chains that required a player to click on an NPC went the way of the dodo. Beyond redesigning the landscape, Blizzard also continued to tweak and play with NPCs and how they related to player characters.

Azshara and the Gob Squad

Azshara is just one example of two new ways that NPCs were able to interact with players, but these mechanics were introduced all over the new Azeroth. In Azshara, when asked to go retrieve a broken shredder, Horde players no longer had to hop in the object and take it back to the NPC who requested it. Instead, the NPC spoke to the player through the shredder itself and gave the player more quests before asking for the shredder's return. This unobtrusive questing put a halt to the back-and-forth style of questing that existed in classic WoW, allowing players to finish a substantial chain of quests without ever having to run back and forth -- and it was done in such a way that the communication with the NPC was natural.

But a more drastic change was yet to come. Further on in Azshara's questing, players were introduced to the Gob Squad -- a group of five goblins that subsequently grouped with the player and help the player complete a series of quests. Players no longer had to group with other players in the zone; they were handed a full group to accomplish difficult quests. In addition to introducing the concept of grouping without grouping, the Gob Squad would show up again, levels later in the Twilight Highlands, to help the player through yet another fairly difficult quest.

Welcome to the Machine

But arguably the most entertaining use of NPCs in old-world Azeroth was Hillsbrad Foothills, starting with the quest Welcome to the Machine. In the quest, Horde players are asked to take the part of a quest giver and live the life of an NPC. The quest itself is relatively easy -- simply stand there and hand out quests -- but the eye-opening look at NPCs as player characters like you and me is a hysterical way to completely turn the mirror around and see, for just a moment of time, what an NPC has to deal with all day.

By allowing the player to step into the shoes of an NPC, Blizzard went just a little further in erasing the line between NPC and player. Giving us a glimpse of the view from the NPCs' shoes suddenly made them far more relatable. Later in Hillsbrad, players encounter the hapless NPCs that they handed the quests to. It's an odd, mirror universe -- the NPCs remain the players and continue to acknowledge the player as an important figure. After all, the player was the quest giver, so they must be terribly important.

In fact, the majority of the Hillsbrad Foothills zone turns the NPC/player relationship into a mirror image of itself. Players step into the role of the NPC quest giver, then into the role of the NPC assistant. And as the storyline progresses, one NPC "player" continues to stand out and recognize your character as an ultimate hero -- and makes a heroic sacrifice, almost trying to be just like you, in a way.

What makes it ultimately the strangest zone in the game is that this all takes place in a land where the Forsaken have taken over, the plague runs rampant, and the world should theoretically be a dark and terrible place. But the curious hilarity of role switching never loses its appeal, and it makes what should have been a terrible zone a brilliant one.


NPC interactivity continued with Cataclysm's launch and into the new zones introduced. While Hyjal had its moments of recognition, it was the underwater zone of Vash'jir that this interaction really came to the forefront and shone. Players began their trek to the zone by hopping on a boat either in Stormwind or Orgrimmar -- a boat populated with a few familiar faces. Yes, Budd Nedreck returned, just as insane as ever, or perhaps a little more so than when we last saw him in the Grizzly Hills. A far cry from the well-spoken and snotty man we first encountered in The Burning Crusade, Budd is now an object of pity and occasional disgust to the NPCs around him.

But it's the boat itself that starts the journey through Vash'jir. No matter which side you take, an NPC fleet captain is on the ship with you -- for the Alliance, it's Captain Taylor; for the Horde, it's Legionnaire Nazgrim. The boat ride abruptly ends when giant tentacles pull the player overboard, with the intent to drown the player in the watery depths. But the story is far from over at that point. Players are recruited to rescue former shipmates, and when they do, the shipmates phase in.

One of these shipmates is the captain of your faction's fleet, and the captain immediately requests help in the form of food and armor. As the storyline progresses, it's clear that the Naga are planning another attack -- and the attack once again removes the NPC captains from the picture. Later, the captains are found, along with other survivors -- and the Vash'jir quest line continues as players work with NPCs to escape Vash'jir, fighting against obstacle after obstacle in a desperate bid to get away.

What Vash'jir does, and brilliantly so, is places the player in a situation where their fate is identical to the fate of the NPCs that they came in with. Whether it's Budd and his hapless cronies on the ship, the captain of your fleet, or any number of other shipwreck survivors, their ultimate goal is the same as yours -- to gather as many survivors as possible and get the heck out of Vash'jir, because it's a pretty miserable place to be.

It's not that the goals of yourself and the NPCs around you are identical that makes this a unique experience, however. It's that throughout the journey, you are on the same level as the NPCs. You are never treated as a lesser being or a hero -- you are simply one of the many who nearly lost their lives. You are sent on quests because you aren't quite as bad off as the others, but it's clear that the others are working on plans while you are doing recon work or simply gathering food.

It isn't that the storyline progresses around you -- it's that you and the NPCs are intricately tied to the storyline, and you all progress through the storyline together on equal footing. The NPC as defined in vanilla is essentially dead in Vash'jir, replaced by something that isn't exactly an NPC so much as it is a comrade in arms. Special care was given to these NPCs to make them relatable in a way that actually makes you care about their fate, especially given that fact that these NPCs certainly seem to care about yours as well.

Other zones make use of NPCs to further the story, with cutscenes and phasing and all of the other bells and whistles. But there is something incredibly intimate about Vash'jir that none of the other zones can compete with, and it's largely due to the sense of desperation and the intricate nature in which these NPCs work with your character. You aren't a hero, and you aren't a peon. Instead, you're simply a castaway. Everyone is a castaway, and the zone as a whole works brilliantly because of it.

The face of the NPC today

As World of Warcraft grows older, fewer and fewer players remember the days of vanilla questing and NPCs. NPCs in classic WoW were simply a means to an end, characters that were put into place just to hand out quests and rewards with little emotional involvement. The few exceptions to the rule proved to be far more interesting to vanilla players, simply because for one shining moment, it appeared that these cardboard cutouts had something more to say than what they presented a player with.

In The Burning Crusade, the oddball characters introduced in Shattrath and the progressive stories introduced with patches caught the attention of players. It wasn't just the humorous nature of the NPCs -- it was that for the first time, players were getting a glimpse of the lives of those that were previously deemed unimportant. Whether it was Cro's struggles with the fruit vendor or Griftah's cunning attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of the Aldor, NPC stories were something that charmed the Warcraft playerbase.

In Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard seemed to note the odd importance that people placed on this curious interactivity, introducing familiar faces from both vanilla and The Burning Crusade. Not content with simply giving them their own stories, Blizzard incorporated reminders of past deeds, giving these NPCs a seeming life of their own -- a life where they remembered the player and all that they'd accomplished.

With Cataclysm, NPC interaction has taken another giant step forward. NPCs are no longer static, cardboard cutouts -- they are characters with as much depth, perhaps even more in some cases, than the faction leaders and big-name heroes that we as players have looked up to since the days of the Warcraft RTS games. These NPCs are there to give orders when necessary -- but they're also there to help. They are there to remember, and they are there to care, as odd as it may seem.

And that seems to be the largest component in NPC evolution -- the drastic change from a cardboard cutout that simply distributes quests to a character that actually cares about the fate of the player. NPCs in Warcraft have run the gamut from stone statues with no personality to fully interactive characters with as much drive to move forward in the game as the player and a vested interest in making sure both the player and themselves get as far in the world as they can possibly go.

Whether trying to save the countless victims of the Shattering in Darkshore, telling tall tales in the Badlands, or simply trying to escape the watery depths of Vash'jir with their lives, NPCs in Warcraft have made an incredible journey from static figures to relatable characters with as much personality as any player in the game. No matter where the next expansion takes us, I'm excited to see it -- and excited to see what the friends I've made along the way have been up to as well. It's odd to think that these "friends" are nothing more than programming, which makes the efforts of Blizzard that much more astonishing.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
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.
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