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.
Sometimes, the storytelling in World of Warcraft sets people on edge -- which may very well be the understatement of the year. So far, nothing in Mists of Pandaria has been quite as contentious as the idea of Alliance vs. Horde story development. We've delved into the seemingly lopsided nature of Alliance development in WoW before, and taken some guesses and speculation on what the Alliance seems to be missing from a development standpoint.
But patch 5.3 has introduced a new element -- the Darkspear Rebellion -- and with that element comes a new wave of discontent. Having played through both sides of the event, I can definitely see where the Alliance are coming from. While the Horde has a really great triumphant moment of smacking down Garrosh's forces, the Alliance doesn't really have an equivalent. Which leads people to ask, once again, when the Alliance are going to get a moment of glory?
It's a good question, and the answer to that question warrants a look into the story behind the expansion, as well as a look at the nuts and bolts of story development.
Why the change in Garrosh?
So why the sudden change in Garrosh Hellscream? Frankly, it hasn't been that sudden at all -- this is something the story has been slowly building up to on the Horde side since Wrath of the Lich King. The Burning Crusade was launched back on January 16th, 2007 -- six years ago. In that expansion, we met an orc named Garrosh Hellscream, and witnessed his brief moment of redemption as Thrall filled him in on the fact that his father, Grom, was not the horrific person Garrosh thought he'd been. And in that moment, we watched a character make a rapid 180 from depression and despair, to an orc that seemed to be full of life.
Keep in mind that this was nearly two years before Wrath's launch, and the arrival of Varian Wrynn. From both a story standpoint and a time standpoint, Garrosh has spent far longer by now a part of WoW than not. Did we expect to see him again, after TBC? No -- because TBC was the first expansion, and we had no idea how future expansions were going to be handled. We didn't know if there was going to be continuity between them or not. We didn't know if any of the new races or characters introduced would ever be seen again, outside of that pocket of leveling experience.
But that character, in that moment of instant 180, displayed a pivotal moment of development that would continue to progress for the next six years. It wasn't just a moment of redemption -- it was a moment that displayed just how emotionally out-of-whack Garrosh was. That rapid mood shift, suddenly overwriting all the years he'd spent growing up despondent in Garadar, was a clear indicator that this guy was a volatile mess just waiting to happen.
Garrosh could have been left as just an odd, sudden moment of happily ever after, Thrall being his deus ex machina to a happy ending. It would have been a really lame happy ending, but it could have remained as it was. But when he appeared again, at the end of TBC and just prior to the launch of Wrath, it was clear that this was not going to be a story that Blizzard left alone.
Wrath of the Lich King
In fact, that brief moment we were shown, the duel between Garrosh and Thrall, was another pivotal exchange right on the heels of the first one. Garrosh made another seeming 180 from being pleased at Thrall's revelation, to being incredibly upset with the way Thrall was handling things as Warchief. And frankly, he had every right to be -- what we were shown of Thrall in vanilla WoW was honestly, very little in terms of character advancement. Thrall didn't seem to really be actively doing anything at all for the Horde, other than sending players on a few questionable diplomatic missions. Based on what we saw in vanilla, it was only natural that Garrosh would question Thrall's right to lead -- because we had been shown that Thrall didn't really seem to have a handle on what the Horde wanted or what it should be.
Thrall sent Garrosh to Northrend, and it was simultaneously the best and worst decision he could have made. It got Garrosh out of his hair, it gave Garrosh a chance to prove himself, and ultimately, it gave Garrosh's ego enough of a boost that he felt completely comfortable continuing to question and badger Thrall at every turn. Yet by sending Garrosh to Northrend, Thrall missed an opportunity to demonstrate exactly who and what the Horde were -- Garrosh had to extrapolate his own opinions out of what he witnessed in Northrend. What he pulled from that experience wasn't really the correct image of the Horde at all.
And from that, Garrosh took the opportunity to needle the other races of the Horde the moment he came back a hero. Why? Because he was a hero. He was a success. He proved he had what it took in Northrend, and he came back to cheers and accolades. Sure, he was reluctant to take Thrall's place as Warchief come Cataclysm -- but it was because he understood being a military leader and being a political leader were two very different things. Unfortunately, Garrosh didn't grasp the nuances of politics at all -- to the point where he began, in his arrogance and bravado, to belittle and push the other Horde races away.
The Darkspear Rebellion
Which is where the Darkspear Rebellion comes in. This wasn't a sudden decision on Vol'jin's part. If it had been, he would've done it the moment he and Garrosh exchanged heated words, shown in a brief scene to new troll players. He wouldn't have threatened to kill Garrosh, he would've simply killed him point-blank without waiting to see what Garrosh would do. He wouldn't have given Garrosh the opportunity to command any kind of loyalty, or build up an army of Kor'kron wholly devoted to defending the Warchief.
Instead, Vol'jin made a strategic retreat to wait and see, hoping that Garrosh would somehow prove himself again. And Garrosh did -- he proved to the Darkspear, and to everyone else, that he only had the best interests of the orcs of the Horde at heart. He proved that he cared little for the other races of the Horde. He proved that he would take whatever ruthless, bullheaded moves he had to make in order to ensure the Horde's survival -- to ensure the orcs' survival. As far as Garrosh is concerned, the rest of the Horde isn't really worth bothering with.
It was apparent to Vol'jin right away, and perhaps in a way to Baine as well, but it took time for the others to see it -- Sylvanas witnessed it in Silverpine. Lor'themar and the blood elves didn't really witness it in full until patch 5.1. The goblins only just witnessed Garrosh's true opinion of them in the patch 5.3 scenario, Dark Heart of Pandaria. Vol'jin would not have had the support of the other Horde races behind him, had he killed Garrosh back in Cataclysm -- and in his own way, he likely knew that. He certainly has their support now.
The role of the Alliance
Yet all this talk and discussion has been about the Horde, with very little told at all about the Alliance. Why? Because, quite frankly, the Alliance didn't need a reason to hate Garrosh. They probably didn't even need the destruction of Theramore, although it sealed the deal -- what Garrosh did in Cataclysm was more than enough to have the Alliance clamoring for Garrosh's head. Varian was certainly gung-ho about going after him in the Ulduar trailer -- and Garrosh gave him more than enough reason to warrant the attack, with his casual insults.
But Varian held back. And he continued to hold back. He held back all through Cataclysm, to the dismay and outrage of Alliance players. There was a logical reason for that, too -- the Alliance simply didn't have the forces to fight back. They lost a ton of good soldiers up in Northrend, some to the Scourge, some to the Horde -- and the Cataclysm wreaked havoc on the Alliance races, too. The night elves were dealing with tremendous devastation in Darkshore and Ashenvale, the worgen had just been ousted from their kingdom, and the dwarves had just lost their beloved leader and were in the middle of a civil dispute for leadership.
That left who -- the gnomes? The draenei? The gnomes were busy with their own troubles trying to take back Gnomeregan, something they still haven't fully completed. The draenei are notoriously renowned for being by and large peacefully diplomatic -- they even helped the blood elves restore the Sunwell. They put together the Shattered Sun Offensive to unite both Horde and Alliance against a common foe, and then watched that unity fall apart. They weren't about to throw themselves into open war.
That meant that the Alliance had to be patient -- that Varian had to be patient. And he's been deliberately patient in Mists, because if nothing else, Theramore vividly demonstrated that charging blindly into a situation regarding the Horde was a terrible idea. He sent some of his best commanders to Theramore to help -- and saw them killed for their efforts. Varian doesn't want to lose any more lives than necessary, and he knows he can't just blindly rush in -- he has to assess the situation first.
Story and game development
But there's a reason for all of this storytelling, and it honestly comes down to simple mechanics. If the Alliance are going to have a Siege of Orgrimmar raid, then the Horde needs a good and viable reason to do so as well. Why? Because you don't want to, you can't make lopsided raid content. It takes months to develop a raid with multiple bosses, and that content is expected to hold people's interest for a long, long time. If the Siege of Orgrimmar was intended for Alliance alone, what would Horde players have to raid? How would you make a raid like that work? How could you feasibly justify the development hours required to make two raids?
More importantly, how could you balance it so that both sides were equally happy with what they got? Blizzard's demonstrated that they're moving away from faction-only scenarios -- they had a couple in patch 5.1, and in patch 5.2 they were promptly made available to both sides, so both sides could experience the content and the story. Blizzard has made it very clear that all content should be accessible by all players -- even the introduction of LFR points to this. There was a giant group of players that had never stepped foot in a raid and didn't really have the time to join a raid guild, and LFR was created to give them an opportunity to see that content on their own time and at their own pace. You can argue about the logistics and effectiveness of LFR, but you can't argue that it's allowed many, many more players to access that raid content -- players that would otherwise never have seen it.
And that's where we run into the problem of the seeming lopsided nature of the Darkspear Rebellion, and even the seemingly lopsided nature of storytelling so far in the rest of Mists. You can't simply throw the Horde blindly into Orgrimmar and tell them they need to kill their Warchief -- there has to be a logical reason for them to do so. In a way, this is an interesting reminder of vanilla WoW. Alliance players that were preparing to raid Onyxia's Lair had a very, very good reason for doing so, in the form of an epic storyline that played out all the way to a grand finale in the throne room of their capital city.
There was a very obvious reason for Alliance players to kill Onyxia -- she'd been behind every poor decision made in Stormwind for the past several years, even orchestrating the disappearance of the King. For the Horde, the story was a very different one. Horde players were simply told by Thrall that spies noted that Onyxia had infiltrated Stormwind. In the name of diplomacy, not to mention in the name of killing a very, very bad dragon, Horde players were asked to kill Onyxia.
While the Alliance storyline was one of intrigue and deception that involved uncovering Onyxia's plot, the Horde storyline was simply a matter of putting together an amulet so players could enter Onyxia's Lair. It was another case where one faction had to be given some sort of good reason to be doing what they were doing -- only the good reason wasn't really all that good, when you really looked at it. In the end, Onyxia didn't matter anywhere near as much as Orgrimmar does -- because she didn't directly represent one of the two major factions in the game.
Why the Darkspear Rebellion?
This is why there's a Darkspear Rebellion. Because the Horde needs some very, very good reasons to play out their side of the story. They need some sort of justification for what they will be doing in patch 5.4. It has to be put in place. As for the Alliance, there's no need to justify that end of the story to them, because they already have some really good reasons of their own -- it's just a matter of time before they get to carry out their revenge. In the meantime, the Horde has to be shown a viable reason to rebel.
But you can't just release a patch of content without giving both sides something to do -- so Alliance players get to participate in the Rebellion as well, albeit from a slightly different perspective. Varian doesn't want to sacrifice any more Alliance lives. He doesn't want to lose any more people in this war than absolutely necessary. So why not make a deal with Vol'jin and use the troll and his motley army of Horde as a way to weaken Garrosh's defenses? Why not help Vol'jin throw himself at Orgrimmar's gates, then step in when the Warchief is vulnerable?
Alliance players are killing two birds with one stone, here. They are encouraging a civil war that will doubtless end up with plenty of Horde, both pro and anti-Garrosh, meeting their deaths. They are using that civil war to weaken the Horde's defenses, so that in the end, when Garrosh is finally taken care of, the Horde that remains will be a much weaker one. And -- if the Alliance plays its cards right -- helping the anti-Garrosh side may end up in some kind of diplomatic resolution at the end of the war, placing the Horde in a far less threatening role.
Varian may not be the most present of faction leaders at the moment, but even he recognizes the wisdom of the actions taken by Alliance players in the 5.3 quest chain. In a way, it's a very sneaky build-up to what should be, ultimately, an Alliance triumph at the end of the Siege of Orgrimmar. It doesn't matter which way the fight goes between Horde and Rebellion -- all the Alliance has to do is wait for both sides to beat each other senseless, then move in for the kill. Check and mate.
So how do you tell a faction story while making sure the other faction is getting equal attention? That's a good question. I don't know if we've quite gotten the answer to it yet. But it's one of those puzzles that ought to be addressed, and it's a definite challenge in any kind of story development. Until then, we'll have to wait and see how the Siege of Orgrimmar plays out -- and what Blizzard's got up their sleeves next.
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.