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Know Your Lore: The final boss of Mists of Pandaria

Anne Stickney

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.

We've heard various and sundry conflicting tales about Mists of Pandaria, tales of various pandaren groups, tales of faction warfare, tales of a warchief's downfall. But in and among all of the tales, one theme pervades, one thing stands out as something people point to in dismay. This thing is the lack of a final boss that is a powerhouse in Warcraft lore, something that we've had with every prior expansion. Illidan, Kil'jaeden, the Lich King, and Deathwing were all prominent figures in Warcraft lore before we rose up to defeat them. They were terrible threats to our world, threats that had to be dealt with.

But in Mists of Pandaria, we don't have the reassuring face of a villain to charge after. We don't have a major lore figure to take care of. We have no idea what we're facing other than some rumblings about the warchief's downfall -- and even then, we're not sure if those rumblings are correct. For the first time in World of Warcraft's history, we don't have an easily recognizable, high-profile figure to contend with.

Or perhaps we do. We have to deal with one of the greatest threats we've ever seen. We just aren't looking closely enough.

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WoW and the nature of storytelling

Stories have patterns -- certain rules of commonality that apply to pretty much every written work out there. These by and large have to do with plot and how plot is laid out in terms of a story. Stories begin with exposition or setting the scene for the plot to follow. Then there is a series of rising actions or conflicts that lead to a climax, the high point of the story. There's a brief period of falling action where loose ends are tied up, and the story generally ends with a resolution of some sort, whether it be satisfactory or not.

It's the conflict portion of the story that drives World of Warcraft and keeps the story going. Because WoW is an ongoing MMO, you'll never see a resolution to that story. However, expansions are usually laid out with exposition, rising action and a whole mess of conflict, a climax near the tail end of the expansion, and some falling action in which some loose threads concerning the main plot are tied up. You will never see all loose ends addressed, because those loose ends can be used as future exposition and rising action/conflict in future iterations of the game.

But when it boils down to it, the rising action, the conflict, is what the game is all about. Just like plot, conflict is one of those storytelling elements that can usually be categorized and outlined in three distinct ways. In other words, conflict usually revolves around one of the following.
  • External, or man vs. nature In an external conflict, the characters in the story are struggling with some outlying cause that isn't directly related to the characters themselves. An example of this would be heroes banding together to save the world from aliens, monsters, or someone struggling to survive while stranded in the wilderness.
  • Relational, or man vs. man In a relational conflict, it's not a literal romantic or blood relationship that we're looking at, but rather the conflict between two people that have some sort of relation to each other. An example of this would be a mother coming to terms with her child the criminal, or even a classic love triangle. To relate it to WoW, the story of Thrall vs. Garrosh or even Garrosh vs. Sylvanas are both examples of relational conflict.
  • Internal, or man vs. himself This type of conflict is a different animal altogether. Rather than struggling with outside forces, characters struggle with themselves. Here are conflicts of interest between what a character believes and what a character has to do. Examples of this include characters struggling to choose between loyalty to their convictions or helping a friend. A lot of internal conflict relates to the struggle between what a character believes and what they have to do.
The majority of Warcraft is firmly in the external conflict category. Heroes of Azeroth band together to fight the villains of the world, huge and overwhelmingly dramatic villains that threaten all life as we know it. There are examples of relational conflict as well -- obviously the two examples above are just a few of Warcraft's many relational conflicts.

But what we rarely see is the internal struggle in characters, largely because we are playing our own characters and we rarely think of our characters morals. The best example of an internal conflict would be Jaina Proudmoore, who is struggling to reconcile her wishes for peace and diplomacy with the reality that is Cataclysm's Horde.

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The pitfall of perpetual villainy

What Warcraft struggles with is the perpetual highlight of external conflict. The game itself is wrapped around a story that involves that major villain, and players have come to expect that villain as part and parcel of what Warcraft is. This is where the criticism of no main villain in Mists stems from -- the expectation that we're going to be in one of those external conflict situations. Blizzard has made it a point to highlight that external conflict with every prior expansion to date.

Because we aren't getting that announcement this time, we assume that the game has somehow changed for the worse, and we couldn't be more wrong on that count. With prior expansions, Blizzard was relying on its previous material to propel the story forward, but the major issue with that is you can only rely on old material for so long. Eventually, that old material is going to run out. In an ongoing story like an MMO, you have to continually add new material to draw from, or the story will eventually complete itself.

But we're looking at the wrong conflict in the Mists situation. We aren't getting that big, external conflict because we're getting something entirely different, something new. We're getting something that is possibly far more horrifying and something that will have far more impact than just another big bad stomping their way through Azeroth in a never-ending quest to crush it. We aren't getting a big bad villain announcement, but the big bad villain is there. It's always been there. It's been doing nothing but getting stronger and stronger over the years, and it is now an overwhelming force to be reckoned with.

Log into World of Warcraft. Look at your character screen. There is your villain for Mists of Pandaria.

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The land will weep

Consider this: In all the years we've been playing World of Warcraft, our characters have been doing nothing but getting stronger. We have bested Illidan, we have pushed back Kil'jaeden, we have bested the Lich King, and we have put an end to the Destroyer. We have progressed to the point where the Aspects themselves have bowed out and left us to our own devices. The Age of Mortals has begun -- but what have we left to fight? What darkness waits for us? What evil must we eventually face, now that we are more powerful than those appointed by Titan hands?

And what do we do with that overwhelming power that we've achieved? In Mists of Pandaria, that question is answered straight away -- we turn on each other. Alliance and Horde, locked in a war so bloody that they cannot take in the majesty of the new continent they've discovered. Their first reaction isn't to make peace with the locals and try to sort out why they've disappeared from the world for 10,000 years. It is to teach those locals the art of war, the art of combat, the art of violence. The creatures of Pandaria were living in relative peace and harmony until we showed up and showed them the ways of war.

In doing that, we have deliberately undone what was 10,000 years in the making. We have traveled the seas to paradise, and we cannot stop fighting long enough to appreciate it. We are not fighting agents of chaos, we are the chaos, unleashed on Pandaria just as swiftly as we unleashed our weapons on Deathwing and stopped the end of the world. Whatever sense of morality we may have had has been lost in factional fighting, in heated words.

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... and the world will break

We are the Old Gods of this expansion. We may not be deliberately trying to bring about the end of the world, but we have brought the force of chaos and destruction to Pandaria's shores. And with that moment, the story of World of Warcraft takes an interesting twist. We are no longer fighting an external conflict; it isn't us against the world anymore. We're fighting an internal conflict, where we as player characters must come to terms with what we've done and find a way to stop it.

It's that internal struggle, that moral conflict, that is at the base of Mists of Pandaria. Our inner emotions are literally released as monsters that we must fight and put to rest. The Sha are an amazing example of an internal conflict making the leap to an external one. They are manifestations of every negative emotion that courses through our veins. This isn't to say that we won't fight big bosses; we absolutely will over the course of the expansion. But every boss encounter that we fight is a direct result of our presence. Every bad thing that has happened in Pandaria is essentially our fault.

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This isn't to say that our characters are literal villains, maliciously out to destroy the world. In fact, it's just the opposite -- we're heroes. We're heroes doing our heroic thing for our assorted leaders. But our heroism has led us to a place where we are unintentionally bringing harm to the very thing we have fought so hard for so many years to protect. It's an uncomfortable space to be in, and it's a space that we've never really seen in full force before, not in Warcraft.

And this isn't to say that there won't be some final big boss for us to stand up and beat down. But when the dust has settled on Pandaria, when at last we've confronted and defeated whatever the final boss may be, the story will be far from over. For as long as we mortals exist, as long as we let our pride, our viciousness stand in the way, we're doing more damage than good. What will we do with that knowledge? How will Pandaria end?

We don't know yet. And not knowing is terrifying, but in a good way -- because this is something completely new. It's something we haven't seen before. Blizzard has shown us time and time again that it can tell a good story; we wouldn't be playing the game if we didn't believe that. In this case, ignorance is bliss -- and we'll have to wait until Mists' end to see what cards we are ultimately dealt.

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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