Know Your Lore: Why read a novel, anyway?

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|08.19.12

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Know Your Lore: Why read a novel, anyway?
Know Your Lore Why read a novel, anyway SUN
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.

Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War is due out on the 28th of this month, and it's a big book in terms of story. It covers the conflict leading into Mists of Pandaria and gives some additional development to Jaina Proudmoore, who has been in sore need of something to do since Wrath's end. I already wrote a spoiler-free review of the book, but to reiterate what I said in the review: The book is solid, it's an excellent read, and Golden's a good author as always.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Warcraft's novels. I have the complete collection sitting on my bookshelf both for reference purposes for this column and simply because I like the series. While some novels rate far above others in the list that's been released, there's a spot for all of them on my shelf. I'm not the only fan out there, but one question I get asked a lot is why exactly would one want to read all those books, anyway?

Well ... story, of course. But the answer is a little more complex than that.

Know Your Lore Why read a novel, anyway SUN
Warcraft novels over time

Novels about Warcraft have been around far longer than World of Warcraft itself. The first novels date all the way back to 2001, long before WoW was even in its beta stage. Because of this, the older novels really don't have any tie into present-day WoW at all; they're simply tales of the past, whether it be the history of Tirion Fordring and Eitrigg or the tale of a certain green-skinned orc who went from an imprisoned gladiator to the warchief of the Horde. As such, these novels are more of a historical account of things that led to what we see in WoW today, not events that happened in the game itself.

Later novels went a slightly different route and filled in holes in the lore that didn't previously have any real explanation. The War of the Ancients trilogy gave us more history of the events that were only briefly touched on in the Warcraft III manual. Cycle of Hatred attempted to fill in the gap between the end of Warcraft III and the launch of World of Warcraft. Night of the Dragon touched on the gap between The Burning Crusade and Wrath. They tied into the games that we play, but they didn't really detail any of the events that happened in the game itself.

The latest iteration of Blizzard publishing has taken these novels in a different direction entirely. Beginning with The Shattering, the Warcraft novel line has stepped directly into gameplay and highlighted events that actually occur within the game itself. The only exception to this has been Wolfheart, which touched heavily on the character of Varian Wrynn, the ultimate inclusion of the worgen race into the Alliance, and Varian's continued struggles with both himself and his son Anduin. These events weren't really highlighted in game, although they have been referenced.

Above and beyond the novels are the short stories that were released over the course of Cataclysm that highlighted the various racial leaders and what they've been up to in regards to their individual races. These short stories reflected events that occurred in the novels, but they were short, free, and available for anyone to read. With the combination of the new direction for the novels and the short stories, Blizzard has moved its published works from something that is simply there to reiterate history, to something that is an interactive part of gameplay.

Character development

World of Warcraft is, of course, ultimately a game -- but it's also a franchise with an ongoing story and a vast, myriad cast of characters. Unfortunately, there is only so much one can do with gameplay, and there's only so much character development that can be poured into a video game. When you're playing a game, sure you want to be entertained by the story, but you also want to play the game instead of listening to a bunch of talking heads. Without the talking heads, it's difficult to show any kind of significant character development.

You see the quandary here? Blizzard has done an excellent job of integrating cinematics and voice acting to help tell the tale a little more thoroughly. But when you begin to introduce too much cinematic -- in Uldum, for example -- you take away from the gameplay experience. There's a fine line between letting players experience the story through the gameplay and forcing them to experience it by taking them out of the gameplay altogether.

What the novels do, in this case, is allow Blizzard to flesh out these characters that ordinarily wouldn't get a lot of major development in the game itself. You'll see Thrall move from place to place throughout Cataclysm, and explanations are given for what he is doing in each case, but you can't really get into Thrall's head and figure out what he's thinking in the game. You can when you read the novels -- and that's what the novels are for.

They're to give these interesting little piles of pixels additional life and realism that simply doesn't exist in the game itself. Every now and again I'll write a Know Your Lore about one character or another and point out what they are thinking and how they are feeling. This is not me making things up; these are things that can be pulled out and examined from the novels. By integrating the novels with the game itself, Blizzard can tell the tale they wish to tell, without making the game any less fun in the process.

Know Your Lore Why read a novel, anyway SUN
Novels and gameplay

This isn't to say that you absolutely must read the novels that are published. There are plenty of people out there who don't really care for reading, and for those players, Blizzard has done a good enough job of telling stories via interactive quests. You'll get the gist of what has happened over the course of an expansion simply by playing the game. It gets a little convoluted the further you get into an expansion, but you can still follow that story.

And it's gotten even easier as time has gone on. In vanilla, the only real way to follow that in-game story was by reading every quest you were handed. You didn't really see much in the way of in-game events. There were a few exceptions here and there, like The Great Masquerade, in which players led Marshall Windsor through Stormwind to the throne room and confronted Onyxia. But really, for the most part, you were relegated to reading quest text if you wanted to know what was going on.

That started shifting when The Burning Crusade was launched, and it's been moving to a more dynamic space ever since. Mists has more voice acting than ever before, and it makes it far easier to follow along with the story behind the game. If you haven't got more than a passing interest in the lore, simply playing the game will do just fine.

By now you're probably asking, if this is the case, then what's the point to reading all of those novels?

Emotional investment

What the novels do that cannot come across in a plain old game environment is this. They make you care. Books have a wonderful escapist quality to them, allowing you to lose yourself in the story of someone else. Yes, you see characters like Jaina, Thrall, Varian and countless others in game, but you don't really have a grasp of what's going on in their head. You can't really play a game and see what these characters are thinking.

It's that inner aspect of a character that makes them truly fascinating, and it's what ultimately makes those characters beloved. When you look at it from a game standpoint, you are playing a character. That character is a simple adventurer, a hero to many by this point in time as far as the game is concerned, but an adventurer nonetheless. And because of this, there's a lack of connection to any major characters in the game.

Sure, you can help Thrall get the Dragon Soul to Wyrmrest Temple, and he'll thank you and praise your skills. But he's not going to sit down with you and have an intimate chat about his insecurities and doubts. Garrosh Hellscream is not going to suddenly be pals with an adventurer, particularly if that adventurer is an orc, and he is definitely not going to confess any deeply personal information to anyone who just happens to be standing by. Jaina Proudmoore may be a diplomat, but that's a polite title for someone who is really good at talking to people and being rational without getting too close.

Reading the novels takes you from the space of a random adventurer out in the world to that fly on the wall that is simply observing everyone being real. It's getting a glimpse into the minds of characters in a way that doing quests simply will not allow. It's the difference between making casual conversation with an acquaintance and being able to read that acquaintance's mind and see everything that they do.

And because there is that emotional connection that is simply missed in quests and game interaction, it's a lot easier to identify with these characters. It's a lot easier to sympathize with Jaina and feel bad that she feels sad. It's easier to laugh when a character cracks an internal joke. It's easier to simply connect and understand just what makes all of these people tick.

Know Your Lore Why read a novel, anyway SUN
Why bother reading?

Personally, that's the part I find fascinating. I like seeing how people think, what makes them react a certain way to certain things. I like seeing emotion and understanding why that emotion is there. I like observing the interpersonal relationships and social aspects of people. Reading a book is a bit like being able to indulge in all of those things.

To me, reading in general is just as entertaining as watching television, and on some levels, even more so. It's because a book is simply a script, and the voices, situations, direction, action -- that's all up to me and what I picture in my head. My imagination is not limited by a special effects budget. And as far as the Warcraft novels go, it gives me a deeper glimpse into this game I've been playing since 2004.

Should you read the novels? My answer is always going to be yes, because doing so changes the way that you look at the game in a fundamental kind of way. Even if you aren't really into reading, there are several Warcraft novels that are available in audiobook format, so you can just listen instead of sitting around turning pages.

Although reading Warcraft novels may not be everyone's cup of tea, they change your perception of these little piles of pixels. They jump from pixels into little people with little, complicated lives that aren't just fun to watch, but they're also fun to care about. And I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to enjoy things far more when I actually care.

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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