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Why World of Warcraft lore matters

Matthew Rossi

I started playing World of Warcraft with no real idea of the Warcraft universe. I'd played a lot of RPGs, but I wasn't a big RTS player and I was generally more into tabletop play. My gateway drugs for the MMO genre were games like Planescape: Torment. (Man, I loved Planescape.)

As a result, my first time through the game, I barely paid attention to what I was doing, who I was fighting or why. It wasn't until I got to Molten Core that I started really thinking about what was going on. How did Thaurissan summon Ragnaros when he clearly had not intended to, and what was the Firelord up to? At the time, Ragnaros seemed astonishing to me, an entity of pure fire older than the whole world. The war between his Dark Iron servants and the dragons and orcs atop the Blackrock Spire became a central part of my game as I moved on to Blackwing Lair. I started paying a lot more attention to the dungeons and quests I was running.

Once we hit Outland and I got to Shadowmoon Valley, I ran the Cipher of Damnation quest line (a quest that is all I could hope for in a long quest chain, frankly), and the end of that quest line raised so many questions that I often point to it as the beginning of my lore nerd status.

What is the Cipher of Damnation? If it's the spell Kil'jaeden taught to Gul'dan that he used to raise the Hand of Gul'dan and sever the connection between the orcs and the elements, it's clearly not all it can do. Since using it summons Cyrukh the Firelord and since Oronok Torn-heart says it has been used "in the history of our worlds," I am now convinced that the Cipher is the spell that Thaurissan used to summon Ragnaros. But where did he learn it? It was also the spell Kael'thas used to try and summon Kil'jaeden through the Sunwell, which continued past Kael's death in Magister's Terrace.

The importance of lore
Errant nerdity?

Sitting and pondering all of this can seem like a lot of errant nerdity, and I suppose to a degree, it absolutely is. But it's also given me a real sense of enjoyment as I've continued playing the game. Seeing Deathwing summon Ragnaros to Hyjal, it became clear to me that he too knew the Cipher. This means that both the Legion and the Old Gods use the spell for their own ends. This reminded me that Milhouse Manastorm, who appears in Cataclysm as an agent of the Twilight's Hammer, first appears in the Arcatraz as a captive of a servant of the Old Gods who himself who declares, "I bear allegiance to powers untouched by time, unmoved by fate. No force on this world or beyond harbors the strength to bend our knee... not even the mighty Legion!"

Without a knowledge of the story (easily gained by simply reading some quest text and listening to some emotes, I might add), it all becomes unrelated vignettes of random pixels crashing together. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Dragon Soul more than many. To me, running through the Hour of Twilight dungeons really set the stage for Deathwing's final attack, and I was was eager to see it. Rather than feeling that the raid reused old Wrath zones to cut corners (an accusation many made), I instead found the return to Wyrmrest Temple wholly apt and necessary. Where else would the Aspects go? Wyrmrest Temple is expressly the place that the dragonflights gather, and it wouldn't make sense for us not to go there.

The importance of lore
Gameplay vs. lore

Now, it's true that the gameplay has to trump lore sometimes. We can't speak to opposite-faction players not because of a lore reason (Jaina speaks to Cairne Bloodhoof and later his son Baine with no difficulty, probably via magic) but because it was too easy for opposite-faction players to grief one another (or in the inverse, cooperate with one another). But knowing that Dire Maul is the ruined city of Eldre'thalas makes the recent return of the Highborne and the rise of night elf mages not only more sensible, but it also gives you a connection to it. If you played before Cataclysm, it was in part your invasion of Dire Maul that inspired the Highborne to shake off thousands of years of apathy and attempt to rejoin their people.

One of the reasons I absolutely love running Black Temple to this day are all the tidbits in there. The place has such a long and tragic history. Boss mechanics are outleveled, but trying to decipher how the Reliquary of Souls functions and why the Lich King has one too still keeps me interested. Since we know Ner'zhul once lived in the Black Temple and was privy to all of its secrets -- indeed, Gul'dan deliberately allowed his former mentor to learn them, since he knew Ner'zhul couldn't use the secrets without Kil'jaeden's favor -- we have to wonder if he created the Devourer after Kil'jaeden transformed him into the Lich King to mock his "creator." These story hooks, unexplained situations, and strange similarities keep the game fresh for me and keep me interested in seeing what comes next.

Something about having that foundation, knowing who these figures are or were and what they did makes new stuff more interesting and exciting for me. From wandering around the sites of the Alliance Expedition in The Burning Crusade to meeting Rexxar back in vanilla, remembering the epic AQ event and getting to see it again when we ran the elemental invasion bosses before Cataclysm, nerding out over the statue of Lothar in the Burning Steppes or saying goodbye to Cairne in Mulgore, the lore makes me feel grounded in a world that is not real but is consistent. Going back to Karazhan or BT, landing my mount atop Uther's Tomb in the Plaguelands, and watching the Wrathgate cinematic all help to build that sense of verisimilitude that makes playing more satisfying to me.

The importance of lore
Everything old is new again

This is why I'm so excited for Mists of Pandaria. Everything is new. All sorts of new grist for the mill, new lore to connect up with the old. Did the mogu really arise from the Well of Eternity? Does that mean that the Vale of Eternal Blessings is the last remnant of the original Well of Eternity, a new font of mystical power kept hidden for 10,000 years? Will the fading of the mists in turn lead the Legion to stage yet another invasion of Azeroth, since there are potentially two Wells of Eternity now? Why are the mogu so involved with Titan ruins? How does their soul-grafting magic work, and do their terracotta constructs truly live?

And that's just one new race. The jinyu, the mantid, and the pandaren themselves all have fascinating new stories to unfold, and better yet, to inform the game as a whole. The lore, the story is important because ultimately, the gameplay is merely a transmission vector for it. As much fun as raiding, PvP, dungeons can all be, without a story, you don't have anything to do and no reason to do it.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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