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.
One of the most contentious pieces of information to come out of BlizzCon this year was the rumor that Theramore, Alliance stronghold on the coast of Kalimdor and home to Jaina Proudmoore, would come under attack and possibly be destroyed come time for the next expansion. This created a flurry of indignant outcry from Alliance players, who thought that once again, the Alliance was being treated unfairly and the Horde was the obvious favorite to all.
This outcry was so loud and boisterous as to warrant a response on the issue from Zarhym, who reassured players that there was much to see with the story behind the next expansion, and this was merely a first step. Yet the outcry continues, and the sheer overwhelming negativity and cynicism launched at Blizzard by players is an almost palpable cloud.
To all of you, I say this: Relax. It's going to be OK. Take a deep breath, and come with me on a journey into the back-end and construction of an evolving world, and discover why Theramore has to be torched into oblivion.
The construction of story
The purpose of a story, no matter whether it be book, game, film, or television show, is this: to entertain and to get the reader emotionally invested in the story. Written works like books are usually done in a predictable format of exposition, complication, climax, and resolution -- not necessarily pat in that order, and sometimes (as in the case of multi-book series like Harry Potter) over several novels. But the resolution is always there by the end of the story, a moment when everything is tidily wrapped up and the characters live, if not happily ever after, to see another day.
In the midst of that clinical construction of plot are the characters, and each character has a distinct motivation for what he or she is doing, even if that motivation isn't clearly defined until the very end of the book -- or not at all! Slap on the events that happen to those characters, and you've got yourself a story. But if you simply stop at that point, it's not going to be a particularly good story. The author has to invest as much emotion into the story as those who read it, because that's how that emotion comes across. A flat, clinical description of events doesn't bring the story to life; the emotional aspect of it does.
Yet there's more than just that. If a plot is simple, it's not going to keep a reader engaged. If a character is underdeveloped, it won't feel like a genuine character. If the events in a story are all somehow balanced and fair, there's no conflict to be had. Conflict is one of the key elements that get people emotionally invested in a story. Without it, there's simply no reason to care about the characters or wonder what's going to happen to them.
Story construction in an evolving world
When you are dealing with a creation like a book, that construction is pretty cut and dry -- and you get multiple chances to go over that story and make certain all the key elements are there before you send it to press to be published. As a reader of a book, you have no say in what happens in that story; you're merely reading through from beginning to end. The difficult chapters, the ones filled with strife and sorrow for the characters -- those chapters come to an end and move on. You can sit down and read a book from beginning to end in a sitting if you wish; you aren't left hanging unless there's a deliberate cliff-hanger at the end.
But when you're dealing with the story behind an evolving world like Warcraft, that dynamic of simply reading a story from beginning to end simply isn't present. As someone "reading" the story of Warcraft (playing through it), you are consistently suspended at the moment that the story pauses, waiting for the next chapter to be released -- or even more aptly, waiting for the next page to be printed. As a reader or a player, this can be incredibly frustrating, especially if it seems like the future of the rest of the book is a bleak and uninspired one.
But what you have to keep in mind is that a story told through an evolving world cannot be told all in one sitting. If you know what is going to happen from now until the end of WoW, what would keep you playing? Just like books or movies, if someone spoils the ending of that book or movie, you're far less likely to pick it up and read or watch it. Why bother? You already know how it ends.
Cataclysm, or catalyst?
What we have with Warcraft is a world that developed in an RTS game where the beginning, middle and end was predetermined. There was no waiting for further story development in the RTS games. You could simply play through the game until you reached the end and saw how it all panned out. In classic World of Warcraft, that story began where the RTS games left off and continued to expand it. With The Burning Crusade and Wrath, the little story hooks that were left over from those original RTS games were addressed and wrapped up. Illidan, Vashj and Kael were dealt with, as was the Lich King.
What this left us with was a giant blank canvas. These old story elements were wrapped up, with little left to address from those old RTS games. Everything that we had been fighting for and playing through from classic until Wrath's end was taken care of. The question left to the story development team was a big "What now?"
Or at least, that's what it looks like from the eyes of a player. But Blizzard already knows the answer to that question. It writes these expansions long, long before we actually see them. What did we get after Wrath? We got Cataclysm, a contentious expansion that seemed to bring in tons of story elements -- the worgen, the goblins, Sylvanas' actions in Silverpine and the Western Plaguelands, the contentious rift between the various Horde factions, even the sudden disappearance of Neptulon. And none of these stories seem to be on their way to being tidly wrapped up by Cataclysm's end. What's up with that?
Consider for a moment that this was done 100% on purpose. With the end of Wrath, there were no more story hooks to draw from. The simple fact is that we needed new ones to keep us invested in the story. There is no big "the end" to World of Warcraft; that world has to keep continually evolving in order to move on. And those elements we see in Cataclysm -- the odd actions of Sylvanas, the rise of Garrosh , the massive amount of discord and strife thrown at the Alliance -- are elements that will continue to drive the story forward without the need to draw from the RTS games. These threads were all hinted at and began back as far as classic WoW.
Hints and threads
In classic WoW, Horde players who made their way through Hillsbrad Foothills got a glimpse of the somewhat questionable nature of the Banshee Queen. In The Burning Crusade, Horde players were introduced to Garrosh Hellscream and actually helped him regain the confidence that he's using in spades to try and rule the world in Cataclysm. In classic, the humans dealt with the loss of their king. In The Burning Crusade, he returned. And in Wrath, he was thrown into a war against a creature that was once his friend -- and he had to deal with the "savages" that held him imprisoned and forced him into fighting in the pits.
There was a burgeoning anger in Varian Wrynn and a burgeoning anger in Garrosh Hellscream -- anger for each other. Garrosh viewed the humans and the rest of the Alliance as weaklings, and Varian viewed the orcs and the rest of the Horde as brutal, worthless savages. And there were two people who were desperately trying to change the minds of thousands upon thousands of others -- the Warchief Thrall and Lady Jaina Proudmoore.
Thrall grew up and was raised as a slave by a human who treated him like scum, but there were other humans like Taretha who taught him not all humans were like that. That Blackmoore was an exception, not the standard rule for humankind. Jaina Proudmoore was an idealist who saw the world for what it could be -- a shining example of peace and prosperity. Jaina was willing to forgive and let go, and saw the necessity of doing so, to the point of sacrificing her own father's life in order to let that vision of peace come to pass.
Both of these characters have been standing on a line that has been growing thinner and thinner over the course of the expansions, desperately trying to tell both sides that if they simply make up and apologize, the world would be better for it.
A darker future
But this isn't World of Peacecraft, and a world in which everyone gets along is simply a boring world with no conflict. Thrall was the first to be taken out of the picture. He stepped down as Warchief when he realized his vision, as wonderful as it might be, was not the vision of the Horde. He could not effectively lead the Horde when the Horde itself was not behind him, so he gave the Horde what he thought it needed -- an orc who would lead the Horde to victory and honor. At this point, it is not the best decision he's ever made. That's OK; characters can make bad decisions -- we do it all the time in the real world.
Jaina has yet to be taken out of that picture, but we've seen hints in the Warcraft novels, faint as those hints might be. In particular, The Shattering led to a confrontation with Thrall and was the beginning of the slow realization for Jaina that perhaps one day, she would have to choose sides. Perhaps the world was not ready for this idyllic vision of peace that she'd been carrying with her since she was a child. Perhaps this vision of equality, where all creatures of Azeroth and beyond stood together as one against the foes of the world, was simply not meant to pass. Yet despite these realizations, she has still continued to hold her ground and stand firm.
Jaina Proudmoore is nothing if not stubborn and set in her ideals. It will take far more than a simple word from her king to step aside and let go of what is holding her back.
This is why Theramore is vitally important to the story. It's not a matter of the Alliance losing ground; it's a matter of giving Jaina, a character who hasn't seen a ton of development so far, a swift kick in the rear end that will advance her storyline and change her way of thinking -- and through that, push the Alliance as a whole forward into action. It's to once and for all shove Jaina with utter certainty off of that line that she and Thrall have been standing on for years. She won't budge as it stands; she won't move or change from her resolve unless something drastic enough happens to change her mind.
With Theramore's destruction, Jaina will be shown exactly what it is she's been fighting for. She'll be shown that the Horde she's been fighting and struggling to hold peace with is not interested in peace. She'll be shown that her dear friend Thrall, the one orc who shared that vision with her, is no longer in charge, and those he left behind are simply not interested in peace. She'll be shown with utter clarity that the sacrifice she made in Warcraft III, the death of her father, was a sacrifice made in vain. She'll see that her father was right, and had she not been so whimsically following a path of idealism and peace, he would still be alive and standing next to her today.
That is a lot to show to a character, particularly a character like Jaina Proudmoore who has had very little in the way of character development beyond being distressed at the thought of killing the Lich King and wistfully, foolishly hoping that perhaps Arthas, the man she loved, still resided somewhere beneath the Lich King's helm. It's an explosive, fiery confirmation that everything she has built her world around and been fighting for is nothing. It's confirmation that her hopes and ideals, everything she had built her life around, are essentially foolish, childish daydreams.
Alliance vs. Horde and fairness
In war, fairness does not exist. It is a state of side against side, and one side may hold the upper hand for a while, but the other side may retaliate in kind. In stories, it is the conflict that holds the tension and keeps the tale alive. If both sides were treated equally in a story, there would be little cause for conflict, and that idyllic world that Jaina Proudmoore wishes so hard she could see come to pass would be -- let's face it -- utterly boring and devoid of any reason to follow it.
In stories, the conflict provides the tension, but the characters drive that story -- and in Warcraft, we have been slowly introduced to a cast of characters with the potential to drive that story to new peaks of conflict. Concentrating on who holds the upper hand is simply focusing on a part of the story that in the end holds little value. The valuable aspect of the story is the characters and their struggle and evolution through an ever-changing world.
Yes, sometimes the Horde will hold the upper hand, as in Cataclysm. And sometimes the Alliance will hold the upper hand. An evolving story in an MMO like Warcraft cannot afford to simply make the world a fair and balanced place. It's the conflict that creates the emotional investment that, at the end, is a key part of what good storytelling is all about.
And judging from the emotionally charged response to Theramore's destruction, Blizzard has stepped up and handed us a story that is absolutely riveting and polarizing. Consider this: You would not be so upset about the events to come unless you were emotionally invested in the story deeply enough to be affected by that outcome on a profound level. That's the hallmark of good storytelling, and Blizzard's been giving us years of it. It would be foolish to think that Blizzard isn't going to give us plenty more.
For now, yes, we are at a chapter in the story that is distressing. It will be OK, and the tides of war will continue to shift and ebb. We simply need to be patient and wait for the next page to turn.
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.