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.
The development of lore in WoW has ramped up over the years. While vanilla saw a few lore developments, players could still wander the lands of Azeroth with nary a clue as to why they were there, skipping quest text altogether in favor of simply getting the job done. The Burning Crusade saw more of these lore-related quests introduced, and Wrath pushed the concept even further. But Cataclysm's taken lore and gameplay to a new level of interactivity.
Last week, in segments #10 through #8, we talked about a few of those innovations in lore development, include the emphasis on focused, directed storytelling over the aimless wandering days of vanilla WoW and the trend of releasing free-to-read short stories on the official website. Both of these have their ups and downs, but the short stories weren't the only focus of Blizzard's writing department.
The good Warcraft novels existed long before the release of WoW. These novels took various elements of the game and fleshed out the story for those who wanted to read the full version, but they never really tied into the games in a dynamic fashion. If you wanted to read more about Medivh, you could always pick up The Last Guardian, but the novel really didn't have too much to do with the actual gameplay of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. In regards to WoW, the novel Cycle of Hatred attempted to flesh out the lack of story between the end of Warcraft III and the beginning of WoW, but it didn't have too much to do with the actual story of WoW itself.
Arthas, released during Wrath of the Lich King, was a well-written book that told the story of Arthas Menethil and his rise as the Lich King that was the focus of the Wrath expansion. But though the book discussed elements of Arthas' rise to power, it didn't really address anything that was actually going on in Wrath, present day. Stormrage was a bridge between what we'd seen in game in regards to the Emerald Nightmare and a resolution of those events -- something that I to this day wish we'd been able to see in the game itself. And then we had The Shattering in 2010.
The Shattering was another bridge novel, this time tackling the events between the end of Wrath and the Shattering patch just before Cataclysm's launch. It was brilliantly written and featured all kinds of character development that tied directly into what we would be seeing in Cataclysm, setting the pace for the two novels released in 2011, Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects, and Wolfheart. While other novels in the Warcraft stable were stand-alone pieces that didn't really tie into what was going on in the game, 2011 represented a marked change in the way Warcraft novels were presented.
Both Twilight of the Aspects and Wolfheart tied directly into what we were seeing in game. They told the stories of what we were playing and gently guided the lore into what we were going to see in future patch releases. With Twilight of the Aspects, it was the story of Thrall's growing relationship with the Aspects, something that came into play in a major way with the release of patch 4.3. With Wolfheart, it told the story of Greymane and his worgen brethren's acceptance into the Alliance, and it also continued the development of Varian and Anduin Wrynn.
There is a huge difference in the style and stories presented in 2011 and the stories that have come before. The Warcraft novels are now a dynamic part of the game, representing lore that actually weaves in with what we are playing every day. This jump from stand-alone novels to novels that actually fold into current lore is a major one, and it breathed new life into a print series that was previously just something to read if you had some spare time.
The not-so-good There were a couple of issues with the novels released this year, the most glaring one being their order of release. Wolfheart takes place immediately after the cataclysm, yet the novel wasn't released until fall of 2011, far later than it rightfully should have been. The other issue ties into what we discussed last week -- lack of Alliance development. While Wolfheart was a really well-written novel that discussed Alliance issues in detail, we never really saw any of that development reflected in game. For Alliance players, this is an absolute pity, because Wolfheart did an amazing job of pushing Alliance development along.
How things can improve I'm not going to beat around the bush here -- I think the new direction of the WoW novels is absolutely what the series needed. But players do not want to put down money for a novel just to understand what is going on in the game they are already playing. Lore hounds like myself will gladly pick up any book Blizzard throws out there, but the average player isn't likely to do so, especially if they feel forced to do so. There needs to be a balance between what is going on in game and what is presented in the novels, and the emphasis should always be what is going on in the game.
Twilight of the Aspects did an amazing job with that. The novel told the story of Thrall's journey up to the point of the quests introduced in patch 4.2. The events in the novel led up to what Thrall is now doing in patch 4.3, and there was a short story released on the official website that acted as a further bridge between the two. It was a little sloppy, but it's the first time we've seen Blizzard do something like this, and further refining should turn it into seamless progression.
Wolfheart, on the other hand ... I loved the novel Wolfheart. It is easily Knaak's best work, hands down. But there was no tie-in whatsoever to anything that happened in game, and the release of the book was far too late for most to really care about. If Blizzard is going to continue tying novels into the game like this, it needs to take extra care to make sure that those novels come out in a timely manner. And speaking of Knaak, and Golden, too -- I love them both dearly, and I love their work, but hey, why not throw some other authors into the mix? There are several really amazing short stories on the website right now by authors that absolutely have a grasp on Warcraft characters. Why not give them a chance to write a full-fledged novel?
The good Back in 2010 when I was discussing the good stuff we got out of Wrath, I talked about the use of cinematics as a method of storytelling. We had a few cinematics in Wrath, and I wanted to see more of them. We got more in Cataclysm ... sort of. Rather than full-fledged cinematics, what we saw was the introduction of what I'll call mini-cinematics. These are cutscenes where the gameplay is interrupted and the camera takes over to highlight what the character is doing, without need for character control.
Part of the inherent problem with understanding lore in vanilla WoW was that there were two choices for learning it: read the novels, or read all the quest text. Basically, reading -- something that not everyone was really enthused about doing. What these mini-cinematics do is eliminate the need to read all the quest text by presenting the story right in front of the player. And by doing that, they create the urge to read the following quest text, to find out what happens next. Rather than simply expecting the player to read, it's a game of engaging the player in watching something, then using that engagement to encourage them to read further. And it works.
As far as the full-blown cinematics, they've been worked into something that is utterly ingenious when you realize what exactly is going on in Dragon Soul. The cinematics between each sequence aren't just there for flavor's sake. They are present as a buffer between phased zones. After you defeat Ultraxion, there needs to be a reason the Alliance airship suddenly shows up, so a cinematic eloquently expresses this, while the phasing is going on in the background. There's no real way to convey the jump from the airship to Deathwing's back, so a cinematic works again in perfect harmony to illustrate this, and again when tumbling from Deathwing's back to the Maelstrom. It's a brilliant way to breath new life into raid situations and introduce raids that are far more engaging than simply walking from point A to point B.
The not-so-good Much like vehicular combat in Wrath, we've again got a really cool concept that is so amazing that it was entirely overdone in certain zones. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Uldum -- but half of the zone was taken up by these mini-cinematics. Complete a quest, get a cinematic. Complete another quest, get another one. It went from being engaging to disrupting the gameplay and turned into a frustrating experience rather than an entertaining one.
How things can improve All it needs is a little scaling back. Zones like Silverpine and the Stonetalon Mountains had the perfect balance between gameplay and events, with just enough story introduction to be engaging, without being obtrusive to the actual gameplay. Uldum, on the other hand, suffered from entirely too many of these mini-cinematics and is an example of when cutscenes go entirely too far. If it starts hampering gameplay, it stops being fun.
5. Voice acting
The good Voice acting in Warcraft has always been something that was there, but you didn't necessarily notice. Bosses in various dungeons had voices, but quests themselves didn't really have much in the way of voice work. In Cataclysm, this changed in a noticeable way, with more and more quests having voiceover work that you didn't necessarily need to hear but helped move the story along. It was a subtle introduction, one that worked hand in hand with the mini-cinematics mentioned above, but the further you got into Cataclysm, the more you noticed the voice work.
And these voiceovers are great. Characters like the tiny, angry Stormcaller Mylra in Deepholm suddenly had a voice to go with the quest text. The voiceovers do what the cutscenes also do -- they offer another way for players to get engaged by the lore of the game. Listening to a quest NPC as they chat about what they are doing gives further incentive to click and read. And it's fun to hear what they have to say!
The not-so-good Voice acting is varied depending on where you are and what you are doing. Some zones have a lot of it; some zones don't really have a ton to offer. On the one hand, this means that when you run into voice acting, it's extra special; on the other hand, it means that scenes where you'd really love to hear voice acting -- like Johnny Awesome's amazing monologue when you head into Hillsbrad Foothills -- remain silent. It's a pity when you see an amazing cutscene, like the one between Rheastrasza and Deathwing in the Badlands, but you cannot hear what these characters sound like. That scene, among many others, would have benefited from voice acting in a tremendous way; it already had a lot of impact, but voice acting would have taken it one step further.
How things can improve More, please! But not too much. Games like Skyrim suffer a little because you have to listen to what the quest people are saying. In the early days of playing, it is enchanting. After playing the game for awhile, it becomes a time-waster. Suffice it to say, having more voice acting would be incredible and continue to breathe more life into WoW -- but if it becomes a point of hampering the natural progression of gameplay, opt for less rather than more.
Next week, we'll take a look at the top of the top lore developments of 2011, including a revisit to an old friend from Wrath, who still seems to be the pesky spectre that haunts traditional gameplay with others.
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.