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Know Your Lore: The clever ins and outs of Ask CDev Round 2

Anne Stickney

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.

Creative Development is one of those tough jobs that doesn't seem that difficult until you really start to think about it. Creative Development is responsible for the world of Azeroth as we know it -- every story, every lore point, every moment of an NPC's life is documented and written by the folks over in Blizzard's Creative Development. Without the world, we wouldn't really have a game to play, would we?

But it goes beyond merely writing the story as it stands today. The Creative Development team also has to figure out where the story is going in the future. Then they have to keep track of the miles of story that have already been written and figure out whether or not, in the context of what has happened already, the thing that they would very much like to happen can actually happen. If it doesn't fit, they have to write it to make it fit. That's where it gets tricky and devs have to start being clever regarding what they say, because anything that is said to players is set in stone as "this is something that in the story of the game actually happened."

Some players (like the guy in the video above, or -- let's face it -- like me) are notoriously anal about keeping these facts straight, and when the story doesn't line up with what they were told, these people are very, very quick to point it out. When you're simply writing a book from beginning to end, you can catch these inconsistencies before the novel hits the printing press; when you're working on an ongoing story like Warcraft, it gets much harder. Enter the Ask a CDev 2 thread, a thread created in February that didn't get its answers revealed until yesterday, four months after the fact.

Today, we're going to look at the thread a little differently than you'd expect. Rather than looking at answers, painstakingly analyzing their content and how they affect current lore, we're going to look at the answers themselves -- what took so long to give them, why some questions were answered while others were not, what's really being said and why it's being said that way, and what examining the construction of an answer will tell you. It's a look into the back end of lore creation and development.

What took them so long?

The biggest question on people's minds is why exactly it took four months for these answers to come out -- especially given the other Ask A Dev threads, which were often answered in the matter of a week or two (sometimes even less than that). There's a difference between questions about class mechanics and questions about the story behind the game we're playing. When you're answering a class question about the mechanics behind the class, that answer isn't going to directly affect anything game-related -- unless, of course, you're announcing something you're going to do down the road.

With a lore question, however, the answer given affects the story behind the game as we know it today. Blizzard addressed this directly with one of the first questions in Ask CDev 2:

Q: Where is X? (X = Calia Menethil, Turalyon, Alleria Windrunner, Med'an, Gallywix, etc.)

A: There are several "missing" characters in the Warcraft universe, but they are not forgotten! While we'd love to talk about these characters, doing so would spoil a number of the plots we have for Cataclysm and beyond. Believe us when we say that you will definitely hear about these characters when we're ready to talk about them!

If the Creative Development team decided to answer these questions with direct answers, they would essentially be locking those characters into that place and time -- or worse yet, spoiling future story content. So picture this: You have threads from multiple forums with hundreds of questions. Not only do those questions have to be sorted for content already in play, they also have to be sorted according to what is to come in the future. If a question involves something that may or may not become a future plot point, it can't be answered. But once those questions are sorted out, then there's the task of answering them and deciding what can get a flat-out answer and what can't.

All of this is more than likely done while keeping track of the great, gigantic, whomping beast that is the Warcraft storyline. The answers that the CDev department hand out can directly affect that storyline in a profound way, so they have to be very, very careful about what they choose to answer, how they answer it, and what wording they use when answering it. In other words, it takes a lot of thinking and analysis just to whittle down a list of questions that actually can be answered and keep the fan base of players happy while they're at it -- and even longer to actually come up with those answers and make sure that everyone on the CDev team is clear with what's being said.

Keeping all of that in mind, four months isn't a terribly long time to wait.

Not set in stone, unless it already is

Once you get to the answers themselves, that's where the cleverness comes in. When you're discussing a story that hasn't been finished yet, you have to be careful not to give anything away -- you'd spoil the story you're telling, and that wouldn't be any fun, would it? Sometimes, however, questions can have a direct answer, like the following few from the thread:

Q: Have we seen a true titan yet in World of Warcraft?

A: No, only their creations.

Q: Why do blood elves still have green eyes?

A: Corruption from fel energies takes a long time to wear off. It's why most orcs are still green even though Mannoroth is dead.

Q: The "There must always be a Lich King" mantra seemed awfully suspicious, coming from ghosts trapped in Frostmourne. Was there something else going on there?

A: To save people from generating elaborate conspiracy theories, we'll be serious for a moment and say, definitively, no. The ghosts of Uther and Terenas understood that the Scourge would run rampant without someone to keep them in check. Yes, that does also mean that Arthas and Ner'zhul were not unleashing the full force of the Scourge during their respective reigns: you are welcome to speculate on the reasons for that.

They are direct answers because the answers really don't have any huge bearing on the overall storyline. Some of them, like the question regarding blood elf eye color, simply explain what is a game mechanic -- models -- with a lore-related answer that makes complete sense. Some of them, like the question regarding whether or not we've seen a titan, are just stating simple facts that we as players didn't really know for certain.

And then we have answers like the one given for the question about the Lich King. This one was probably addressed directly because it involves old content that we likely won't see again. Note the last sentence, however; the exact mechanics behind Ner'zhul and Arthas' interactions with the Lich King are left wide open for speculation. Does this mean we'll see this mechanic addressed in the future? Maybe, maybe not. But the CDev department didn't lock themselves into an answer with that one, likely because we still have Bolvar sitting up on the throne, and the mysteriousness surrounding what exactly he is doing there is a tantalizing bit of mystery that should remain that -- a mystery.

Sometimes direct answers are fine, when it comes to stories. Sometimes, you want to leave a little mystery there. After all, what fun is there in knowing everything there is to know?

Setting the record straight

Some people were upset about the following couple of answers:

Q: Are the Warcraft and World of Warcraft RPG books considered canon?

A: No. The RPG books were created to provide an engaging table-top role-playing experience, which sometimes required diverging from the established video game canon. Blizzard helped generate a great deal of the content within the RPG books, so there will be times when ideas from the RPG will make their way into the game and official lore, but you are much better off considering the RPG books non-canonical unless otherwise stated.

Q: What races were on Azeroth before the coming of the titans?

A: Besides the elementals, the only known sentient races on Azeroth when the titans' forces arrived to subdue the Old Gods were the trolls, the race known as "faceless ones," and the aqir. Due to the Old Gods' war against the titans, as well as the extensive terraforming that followed the war's conclusion, records of what races existed before even the Old Gods' arrival have likely been lost forever.

The question of whether or not the RPG source guides were considered canon has long been something that was up in the air among people who follow the lore. The fact that a large chunk of the RPG source books may not be canon has people in a bit of an uproar, but it really shouldn't be bothering people. What we have here is a solid answer to a solid question and a clarification to something that has been bothering people for years. That's a good thing, right?

When you're dealing with things like RPG source guides for intellectual property, what you have to keep in mind is that while the folks behind the intellectual property -- Blizzard, in this case -- have some say about what goes into that RPG source guide, they are not the be-all and end-all source for the information in the books. The RPG source guides were primarily written for people that were working for White Wolf, rather than people working for Blizzard directly.

According to the answer given, while Blizzard had a hand in generating content for the books, they weren't really responsible for everything in the source guides. When you're dealing with a tabletop RPG, you can't simply take video game knowledge and just plop it down on paper and expect it to work. Adjustments are necessary to make that tabletop game playable and enjoyable.

In that case, Blizzard's answer is not only valid but a welcome clarification. Some of the items you see in the sourcebooks may be canon, but most are likely not. If you look at the RPG books themselves ... well, they originally were the notations of one Brann Bronzebeard, and who knows exactly how accurate that dwarf is when taking notes. Until you see direct clarification one way or another, you can pretty well assume that the sourcebooks, while full of fun stories and useful information, should not be taken as rote canon unless specified otherwise.

As for the second question -- well, this one confused me as well. It's long been established that the tauren were one of the original seed races of Azeroth. Their own recorded history suggests they were around for the birth of Cenarius or at least interacted with Cenarius when he was very young. However, there seems to be no real reference I can find that states definitively that the tauren were around prior to the evolution of the night elves, something that occurred after the titans' arrival.

But then you have to look at the construction of that answer: "the only known sentient races on Azeroth." In that case, it could be that the earliest tauren have been around since the dawn of time. It wasn't until thousands of years later that they developed the kind of sentience we see today. There are a lot of these lore questions that deliberately leave things open to individual interpretation. No one interpretation is right, but with a little thinking, readers can easily come up with an explanation that makes sense to them.

The question that's left muddled here doesn't really have to do with the tauren; it involves the titans and Old Gods themselves. Which one came first? Originally, it was thought that the Old Gods came first, and the titans arrived to put the Old Gods in their place and turn the world into what we see today. The Tribunal of Ages event in the Halls of Stone implied that the titans came first, Old Gods came next, then the titans returned to fix the damage the Old Gods had wrought. So which is it? The answer here seems to imply that the Old Gods were first. This would be an excellent question the next time there happens to be an Ask CDev thread.

Deliberate obscurity

Oh, Blizzard. I love it when you mess with me. The last question we're going to look at is an elegant exercise in what I like to call "deliberate obscurity" and involves a subject we at Know Your Lore are very familiar with:

Q: Is Elune a naaru?

A: During a recent visit to Darnassus by Velen, he explained that the kaldorei's description of Elune, as well as the demonstrated powers of the goddess, matched his experiences with powerful naaru. He began to offer advice regarding how to commune with powerful naaru, but Tyrande thanked him for his opinion, then cordially requested that he refrain from making such outlandish claims when in Darnassus or in the presence of Elune's priesthood.

Touché, Blizzard. I am still laughing about this one. So what, exactly, does this answer say? Absolutely nothing at all -- nothing that can be set in stone. Sometimes an author just doesn't want to give a yes or a no, for his own reasons -- so he'll answer the question while deliberately framing it in a way that doesn't answer the question at all. In the case of the Elune question, rather than respond with a direct "yes" or "no," we're given a small snippet of story.

Given what we know of night elf society, the situation presented makes perfect sense. The night elves have been worshipping Elune for thousands of years. Having a stranger, no matter how kind, show up on their doorstep and proclaim the goddess they've devoutly followed is actually a being that the draenei have been chatting it up with for centuries wouldn't exactly be well-received. In that aspect, this is a really good answer.

Does this answer the question? Sort of. What it answers is whether the night elves are interested in finding out whether or not their goddess is a naaru, and that answer is a definitive no. Whether or not she actually is isn't addressed. This is a way of answering a question that a lot of people would like to know without answering it -- but framing it in such a way that those asking the question are left satisfied.

When you're looking at the answers given in any Q&A or even the lore panels at BlizzCon, these are the kinds of answers you'll see. Creative Development -- and indeed, any author in general -- works very hard at keeping the story they work on fresh and interesting. They don't have to answer questions about the story; they simply choose to do so. Sometimes we get factual information, sometimes we get tantalizing bits of mystery. When writing a continually evolving story like Warcraft, it's the mystery that keeps us playing -- and the authors of these stories ... well, they love to keep us guessing!

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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