Know Your Lore: Top 10 lore developments of 2011, part 1

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|01.01.12

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Know Your Lore: Top 10 lore developments of 2011, part 1
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.

Since Rossi is taking a look at the top lore reveals of Cataclysm, I decided to jump in hand-in-hand with that. A little over a year and a half ago, I addressed some of the storytelling methods of Wrath -- what worked, what didn't work. It wasn't a look at specific lore moments as much as a look at how Blizzard was handling lore as a whole. Compared to the early days of WoW, Wrath made some giant strides forward in how we as players interacted and mingled with the various storylines of the expansion.

Much like Wrath, Cataclysm observed all that had come before, took a good look at all of it, and promptly made some giant strides of its own. What we've gotten in the past year has been nothing short of astonishing in terms of creating a meld of gameplay and lore that draws the player in and keeps them there ... to a point. After all, nothing's perfect in this world, and there are always things that could be tweaked and improved upon. Let's take a look at the top 10 lore developments of 2011 -- not the story we've seen in the foreground, but all those wonderful mechanics behind it.

10. Focused storytelling

The good While Wrath began to refine the idea of story as a means to propel a player across a zone, Cataclysm took that concept and ran with it. Each new zone in Cataclysm had its own story, a story that carried the player through the events of the zone and ended with a meaningful flourish that made the player feel as though they'd accomplished something important. I'm not just talking about the level 80 to 85 zones here; I'm talking about the entirety of the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor revamps, too.

In vanilla, when a player started out, they were left with little reason to be moving along a map and little motivation to stay in a zone. Heck, if you didn't want to hunt for zhevra hooves that didn't seem to exist, you didn't feel particularly obligated to stay in The Barrens. If you weren't interested in fighting your way through endless gnoll camps, you didn't need to stay in Westfall. But Cataclysm changed all that in a profound way. Suddenly, there is a far more focused reason for a fresh player to want to stay in a zone and complete it -- and part of that lies in the focus on the player themselves.

Cataclysm went out of its way to make the player feel like they were an essential part of the story being played out -- and it made that distinction from levels 1 to 60 and again from levels 80 to 85. When you travel to Westfall now, you are confronted with a murder mystery, and in the course of solving it, you are drawn completely into the story as an integral piece of it. For players who are involved in lore, it's almost impossible to tear yourself away because you want to see how it all turns out; for those who perhaps don't have as vested an interest in the lore, it's enough to draw you in as well.

The not-so-good The only issue with this method of storytelling is that it is very, very linear -- to the point of feeling that you're in the middle of a Disneyland ride in some areas. Each step along the way deliberately leads you to the next step; there is no deviation from the story's path. This isn't an issue when you play through a zone for the first time; the experience of being drawn into the story is pretty breathtaking the first time through. But repeated play through a zone begins to take away the edge of that story and you get tired of it, much as how reading a novel over and over or seeing the same rerun of a television show you love makes that novel or television show a little more boring over time.

How things can improve This is the hard part, and one that I'm uncertain can really be addressed. How do you make a compelling story that people want to play through, yet make it a case where replaying that story doesn't make it lose its edge? There ought to be a way to balance the two -- to keep a player engaged, but not to the point where it's the same story playing out upon repeat performances. Skyrim, which I've been playing a lot lately, does an excellent job of this by presenting the main storyline but also offering a million and a half side quests, each with their own degree of importance. With Skyrim, you've got a choice: You can follow the rails of the main story, or you can branch off into one of a million different side quests that are equally interesting. However, this kind of storytelling is something that takes years and years to complete. While it works for a single-player game like Skyrim, I'm not sure how well it would mesh with an MMO like WoW.

9. Character development

The good Cataclysm saw the return of Malfurion Stormrage, the rise of Garrosh Hellscream, the deaths of Cairne Bloodhoof and Magni Bronzebeard, and a host of other major pieces of character development. Major NPCs are no longer the static, stand-in-the-throne-room-and-look-pretty pieces of cardboard we saw in vanilla. NPCs themselves are as vibrant and full of life as the players who take their quests. We've seen major shifts in the way the lore of the game is moving, and those shifts have their good and bad sides.

On the Horde side of things, Garrosh Hellscream may not be the favorite Warchief, but he's a polarizing one. The interactions between him and the other leaders of the Horde are interesting to watch. Sylvanas is wreaking havoc in Silverpine with seemingly little in the way of supervision. Her recruitment of the val'kyr and the reemergence of the Forsaken as a force to be reckoned with are both worrisome matters. Vol'jin's struggles with both Garrosh and the reinvigorated Zandalari tribe make one wonder what's going on -- and overall, the general vibe of the Horde is one of anxious uncertainty.

On the Alliance side of things, Malfurion's back and working hard to help the night elves recover from the devastating effects of the Shattering in Darkshore, while trying to lend a helping hand and a place to stay to the worgen of Gilneas, who have been ousted from their homeland. Anduin Wrynn has grown up a little, and the Council of Three Hammers has become the new force behind Ironforge.

All in all, there has been a lot of focus on major lore character development ... to a point.

The not-so-good Let's face it -- there hasn't really been a lot in the way of Alliance development in game. We've seen the struggles of Westfall, Redridge and Duskwood reimagined and refined, but Varian's doing very little compared to his activity in Wrath. Jaina's a non-entity. Tyrande doesn't seem to be doing anything of importance that is causing her to travel from Darnassus. The Council of Three Hammers, while an interesting development, doesn't seem to have done much. Even Velen hasn't had a lot of activity, other than a fascinating quest chain in the Swamp of Sorrows. This is a definite problem. In Wrath, we saw both sides of the faction fence moving forward. Jaina and Varian were just as much a presence in Northrend as Thrall and Garrosh. And speaking of Thrall ...

Thrall is meant to be moving the direction of a neutral character. This is fine, this is actually where he probably ought to be going as a character. It would be against Thrall's nature to simply throw his hands in the air and start attacking the Alliance. That's just not who Thrall is. But here's the major issue: It's not that Thrall hasn't made some perfectly good strides in terms of character development; it's that Thrall is really the only character who has made these kinds of profound changes in a manner every player can see. Because of this, we run into the same problem we saw in Wrath with the Lich King -- overexposure.

In Wrath, you were confronted with the Lich King shortly after stepping into Northrend. And again shortly after that. And again, shortly after that. In fact, by the time most players reached the Crusader's Coliseum, the Lich King had almost devolved from major villain to running gag. Icecrown Citadel and the Lich King encounter made up for that to a degree. In Cataclysm, Deathwing's had a much more laid-back manner of letting people know he's there -- he simply showed up and randomly torched zones, killing everyone in his path. So Deathwing didn't have that overexposure that the Lich King ultimately suffered from.

Instead, the mantle of guy-we're-really-tired-of-seeing-around-every-corner has been passed quite handily over to Thrall. This time, instead of an overexposed bad guy, we've got an overexposed good guy, and the end result is the same -- players are totally sick of seeing him. Was his character development absolutely needed? Yes, without question; we needed Thrall to wield the Dragon Soul because there wasn't really anyone else capable of doing it. But the side story of Thrall settling down with Aggra perhaps didn't need to be told right at this very second. With everything else Thrall has going on, Aggra feels almost like an afterthought put into place for the very specific purpose of giving Thrall some kids, and she deserves far more than that simplistic role.

How things can improve Again, it's a matter of balance. Character development is great, but too much character development focused on one character and one character only means that everyone else is lost behind the scenes. In the case of Thrall, his story was great and it needed to be told, but there should have been a balance between perhaps his story and the stories of other major players. Though Thrall may be presented as a neutral character, he still feels like a Horde character to the majority of Alliance players, which makes the focus on his character feel like a lopsided, Horde-centric storyline that Alliance players aren't particularly thrilled about. Instead of focusing on one character, whether it's a good guy or a bad guy, a broader approach to this fun character development would make things a little more balanced and keep characters from feeling as though their development has been altogether rushed and unimportant.

8. Short stories

The good Perhaps you haven't noticed the growing number of short stories available on Blizzard's website. If you haven't ... well, I suggest you go and take a look at them. Each short story, whether a leader short story or a stand-alone, sheds further light on these characters and situations we've seen in Cataclysm. And here's the best part: They're absolutely free to read. You don't have to go to a bookstore. You don't have to pay for a novel. You can simply open a tab and read to your heart's content.

Now you may be wondering why, in a list of lore developments, I'm listing short stories that aren't actually in game. It's because this is the first time we've seen this kind of out-of-game content available in a major way, and it's fantastic. You don't need to know any of this information to log into the game and punch a few internet dragons, but if you're interested in the background of these characters you're interacting with, it's all right there for the reading. We've had a few short stories before -- Unbroken by Micky Neilson stands out as a shining example of written and freely available Burning Crusade content -- but never in the quantity that we've seen in Cataclysm.

And while the focus this expansion has been on short stories involving the faction leaders, that path makes total sense given the path of Cataclysm itself. We're on the road to war whether we like it or not, and these short stories are weaving the paths of all of these faction leaders together toward what we'll eventually see in Mists. They're a great insight into what our faction leaders have been thinking about, they tie completely into the game, and they're absolutely free to read.

The not-so-good There's not a lot of not-so-good to be said about this. However, some short stories stand out as being far better than others; some are really engaging and involving, and others ... not so much. But this is the first time we've seen this amount of activity when it comes to releasing easily accessible lore information, so it's expected that things may be a little rocky at first. This sort of thing can only improve with time, and hopefully more stories!

How things can improve Keep producing this content, of course -- and keep it tied to the game. There's plans for a short story tie-in to Mists that were announced at BlizzCon, so thankfully, it doesn't seem like the short stories are going anywhere any time soon. And that's a very, very good thing.

Next week, part two takes a look at more of the game mechanics behind the lore -- and a few things outside of the game that also made some giant leaps forward in 2011.

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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