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World of WarCrafts: Blizzard fan fiction runner-up Saif Ansari

Anne Stickney

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The Lich King may be dead, but the assault on Icecrown Citadel and its fallout will never be forgotten. Over the course of Wrath of the Lich King, many players fought their way through Naxxramas, explored the mysteries of Ulduar, challenged themselves at the Trial of the Crusade and finally scaled the frozen peaks of Icecrown to challenge the Lich King at the foot of the Frozen Throne. But what of those who didn't fight the Lich King face to face? What of those who paved the way, those who dealt with the bodies of the fallen?

In Entombed, author Saif Ansari explores the lives of those who weren't warriors on the front lines -- the lives of those who quietly worked behind the scenes, addressing the carnage and preventing as many souls as possible from succumbing to the Lich King's grasp, and the lives of those left alone and abandoned in the midst of battle to fend for themselves. Interesting? Even more interesting is the exploration into the link between Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel, a link many may have overlooked or forgotten.

World of WarCrafts: Hello Saif, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing?

Saif: I'm a programmer and I live in New York City with my wife and our new son. When I'm not on Warcraft, I'm probably playing board games or pen-and-paper RPGs -- I used to play other video games, but you know how WoW can eat your gaming time. I started playing back in the summer of 2007 when I had some time off from work and nothing to do so I thought I'd try the game for a while and I'm still here. My main is a protection paladin that I've been raiding on since early Wrath. I used to raid on my bear back in TBC, but that was a long time ago. I mostly play Alliance but I have a couple of Horde characters as well.

Writing has been a life-long hobby for me. I was the editor of my high-school student literature magazine, I took enough elective writing classes to practically minor in it, stuff like that. Right now, I'm trying to moonlight as a writer when I can -- I've had some short-fiction published, and a small play I wrote had a few performances, nothing major. Currently, I'm working on taking my first book through its umpteenth draft and just starting on the process of becoming a self-publisher.

Entombed features a look at a side of the assault on Icecrown that we as players don't see -- the cleanup crew, as it were, that handles the bodies of the dead. It's a unique perspective to take; what made you decide to go with that route?

I write mostly weird fiction -- that is to say, dark fantasy or horror in the vein of William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, stuff like that. For the most part, they wrote about "small" people and the way they deal with the weird and the strange in their lives and how enigmatic the lives of these characters can be. I find it much more satisfying to write about the intimate lives of such characters -- they're accessible to me in a way that I can get a really good grip on them.

When I write fantasy, this sensibility becomes a bit strange in that, generally speaking, fantasy, especially Warcraft, tends to be really widescreen cinema type stuff with huge characters, big personalities and sweeping, epic movements and I don't have a good mind for that. Er, that was a long-winded way of saying I like writing stories from very grounded and accessible perspectives.

As for how the story developed -- I knew I wanted to talk about the raids because last summer was all about heroic ICC for my guild but my favorite raid of Wrath was Ulduar. Writing about Ulduar I thought would feel a bit out of date, and also I also didn't want this story to be self-serving in any way, so I threw out the prospect of writing about any class I had seriously played in the game, or a well-detailed lore character that I might step on the toes of somehow because I didn't read some comic or story with contradictory information.

While thinking of stories about the Citadel, I had this image of an older woman in ash-stained robes giving last rites to dead soldiers away from all the fighting, being stalked by a shadow of some sort (there are plenty of Argent Crusade quests along that line in the game, anyway), and I kind of went from there. I really didn't intend for it to be quite as melancholy as it wound up being, but I like the tone of it -- it captures the way I felt after endless nights wiping on heroic Putricide (I kid! I love raiding, honest.).

I honestly didn't know how I was going to end it till I was writing it -- one of the great things about writing fiction is that sometimes the story develops in ways that surprises you and I was very lucky to have found the ending I did.

You also addressed that link between Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel -- the link between Yogg-Saron and the Lich King. It's a link a lot of people miss. Do you think Blizzard could have linked the two raids together more coherently? How would you have done it?

I think Blizzard could have done a lot more to make the links explicit, but I personally enjoyed the subtle hints that were left like breadcrumbs. There is a good bit in Howling Fjord with the dwarves digging in the mines, but you really started seeing it first in Grizzly Hills and then you start to see more and more of it in Storm Peaks and parts of Icecrown. Those elements were few and far in between -- if you wanted to make that connection more explicit, the opportunity (and I think, the intent) was there with the Old Kingdom dungeon in Dragonblight -- you can see open old-god worship and the whole idea that the place belongs to the Scourge feels like a fairly thin excuse. Taldaram is completely out of place there, for example.

And then you have Saronite being used everywhere, and I thought it was a brilliantly creepy idea that the Citadel and armor and everything were built with the blood of the Old God, yet Blizzard never really exploited that thread, and I felt that was a shame. When you were in Ulduar, there was absolutely no hint of Scourge nor any mention of it, other than for people who completed Yogg and saw the one vision of the Lich King, and that, I think was the big point of failure -- we should have seen some hint of Scourge influence in Ulduar and that would have helped considerably.

We know the Lich King thought he tamed Yogg into being his tool -- but we see no hints of how that might have happened. Was it because he got a few Faceless Ones working for him here and there? I don't know. Also, I almost thought about writing about Sara -- who was she? A hallucination or someone real? Maybe an echo of someone real? And the Val'kyr -- was there some connection between her and the other named Val'kyr? Were the Val'kyr compromised sleeper-agents working for Yogg in the Citadel? What does it say about the Val'kyr working for Sylvanas now, who herself is acting a bit nutty? So much potential for tinfoil-hattery!

Lastly, I was really hoping to see Yogg come up in the Lich King fight, but I suppose that could be pretty bleak, and Blizzard wanted to focus more on the Arthas and Lich King story than Yogg at that point. But I thought it would make for a really creepy segue into Cataclysm, where you see the Old Gods showing their power even as we take down the Lich King. In this story, I was trying to bridge Ulduar and Icecrown while also forecasting the coming apocalypse engineered by the Old Gods. I think the Halion encounter (a really challenging and great raid on its own) was so out of place that it failed to create any sense of foreboding or threat about the coming cataclysm.

Maybe I just don't like happy endings.

Do you think the Old Gods we've addressed in game are dead, or do you thnk we'll see a return at some point?

No, I don't think they're dead, in a story sense. The Old Gods seem to me to be primordial aspects that are unkillable in the way death is normally experienced. I think of them as anthropomorphic manifestations of emotion. The primitive and primal fears of living populations, if not create, then sustain them. No matter how many times you kill them, so long as the people of Azeroth feel fear, anger, hatred, anxiety, jealousy, lust, etc. -- they will recreate themselves. Not to mention the active worship of the Twilight Hammer also feeds to their continued existence.

The scale of PC attacks on the Old Gods allows the PCs to disrupt and interfere with their plots, and to set them back, but I don't think the Old Gods can actually be killed any more than the people of Azeroth can be cured of their negative emotions.

Whether we actually see them in WoW again is a different question. I think we're already seeing C'thun in the Cho'gall fight. Those eye-stalks in phase 2 are absolutely a throwback to the C'thun fight. It is probably a bit early to reintroduce Yogg but even if Yogg doesn't appear in WoW again, I know, that in its house at Ulduar, dead Yogg-Saron lies dreaming. Right now, based on the Lore Q&A last October, I can't wait to dig into N'Zoth, the third Old God to be revealed this expansion.

So how long did it take you to complete Entombed?

I used my usual writing process which is to take the first strong idea, write a good bit of it at one go, set it aside, let it percolate for a bit, then come back and finish it in another go. I started writing and worked through the first half of the story rapidly, and then I set it aside, and got caught up in work stuff.

One Monday morning, I walked into work and on a whim, checked the Blizzard website to see if the deadline was next Monday or the Monday after. It was due that day. I quietly shut the door to my office and feverishly wrote another 3,000 words between meetings and then came home, ran into Halls of Reflection to get into the mood, finished and quickly drafted it twice, while my wife read it in another room and made language and grammar corrections (I'm lucky enough to be married to an editor). I managed to submit it an hour before the deadline.

So in all, it took me about two days, or a month, depending on how you want to look at it.

Have you done any other Warcraft-related fan fiction?

Yes, but most of it is inter-character roleplay that I used to participate in years ago -- lately, I've become more of a raider/PvPer so I don't really have the time or energy to devote to long and complicated stories. Since being short-listed, I've been chewing over the prospect of writing more WoW fiction and putting it on the web. I'm not sure there's an audience for it, or what the proper venue would be, but I think I'll give it a shot over on my WoW blog, Raiding After Dark, where I go on about raiding and tanking and paladins and guilds and those sorts of things most of the time.

If you were given a chance to write about a major lore character, who would you pick?

I want to say Sylvanas because I really, really like the super-dark direction she's going into now, and I think that could be explored in an interesting way, but I don't know if I would do justice to the scale of her character. I think another character in a similar dilemma but with a slightly smaller scope would be Mograine. I know he has a long history, but I think of him sitting up in Acherus, chewing over his continued existence after the Lich King is gone while his (incredibly powerful) death knights are scattered, serving both the Horde and the Alliance in their rapidly escalating conflict in a world torn by forces no one seems to understand.

He has the potential to go in so many ways -- he could make power-plays or spark a split to form a third faction which I honestly think would benefit the Warcraft universe as the Horde/Alliance split is a bit too binary for me. He could go on some sort of undead version of a hero's journey to reinvent himself, or find purpose for the undead in a world of the living. I think that's a good pickup point to start exploring some stories and see what shakes loose. I'm sure he's got plenty of loose bones in his closets.

Then there's always Sara ...

Any advice to people wanting to enter the next Global Writing Contest?

Stick with your first idea -- don't change your mind about it. Usually I find my first idea is the best one, and changing course will set you back a long way. Don't procrastinate like I did and get the story in early -- I was super-lucky to notice the date.

Know when you're done; I can twiddle with a story forever and keep on chewing over the exact pace and wording and spacing over and over. Stories don't need to be perfect, they need to be good. That said, do at least two full drafts, and try to get another set of eyes on the text between those drafts. You'll be surprised how much other people notice. If you can, find test readers and be open to criticism.

Finally, even if you don't like the story in the end, submit it anyway. You never know!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Saif -- and congratulations on your win!

For more from Saif, read the full version of his winning story Entombed on his blog, Raiding After Dark. For more excerpts from winning authors, take a look at the official Blizzard website.

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