Story and Sound: Mozart would be writing the World of Warcraft

I've been thinking a lot lately about the dynamics of telling a story. What exactly is a story? How do you tell it most effectively, both from an artistic narrative stand point, and a consumer-friendly attention grabbing one? I've also been concerned with new ways to tell a story, especially one that people might discount at first since the story mechanism lives on the edge of pop culture.

Besides working on WoW Insider, I also make my home at the Minnesota Opera, working on their website and advancing an opera's story through digital mediums. Opera is an old art form, one that if not nurtured and brought into the next century is at risk of becoming obscure. I'm proud to work for a company that realizes this and does some really ground breaking things.

It struck me recently when sitting through a dress rehearsal the eerie similarities between Warcraft and an opera like The Magic Flute. After thinking about how very like these two story-telling vehicles are, I realized that they are both just a natural progression in humanity's ability to tell a story.

We started our history of story with the oral tradition, communicating with one another where the safest places to sleep were, what a bear looked like, and how to run from a tiger. We then started writing these stories on our walls for future generations -- just pictures at this point. As a species we advanced quickly to create more complex linguistic syntax and began telling more complex stories of gods and demons. These were oral stories at first, plays passed down and changed from generation to generation. Eventually we started putting these plays down in written language, and they survive today from antiquity. Add some music, you've got opera. Add a television camera and you've got movies. Bring the listener into the story itself, and you arrive at video games.

As with most things in today we are but on the farthest out branch in the tree of life and technology. Our collective societal evolution has gifted us with amazing abilities to enrich the human existence in ways that would be, quite literally, considered magic in bygone eras. But with all that technology and evolution, the story being told is still the same.

Turn to The Magic Flute, one of the most popular operas around, written by Mozart back in the late 1700s. It's all about this guy who defeats a dragon, falls in love with a girl, gets cast down into the depths of hell for trials and tribulations. He then goes on a quest with a magic flute to get with this girl; he finds his way out of death from queens, demons, and other monsters of the night. Sound familiar? It's the same plot that's been played out since the beginning of time in thousands of different ways.

What's particularly similar to Warcraft, however, is the way in which these stories are told. Here's a quick list of what's common amongst the art forms:

  • The plots are all over the place

  • Characters are usually pretty straight good or evil, multidimensional characters are relatively rare when compared to the whole cast of characters

  • Music plays a central part in creating the environment

  • Rarely does the story take place in the current time period

These are all direct elements that have carried over from previous methods of telling a story to today's new vehicles. The biggest difference between the World of Warcraft (nearly all modern video games) and every other form of story telling around today is that we, the consumer of the story, are an integrated part of the very tale being woven.

Central to all of humanity's greatest stories is the music. Think of your favorite movies and what pops into your head? The sound track. Dahhhhhh, dah da dahhh ta taah dah da tahhhh... Tah dah, tatata taahh dah... Dadadadada dum dada dum dada dum... I have sat between the arts non-profit world and the World of Warcaft all of my professional life now. Only recently have I come to grasp with why I need both in my life, why I am drawn so fanatically to each.

If Mozart were alive today, I believe he'd be creating video games. He'd be telling a story with rich music, with identifiable yet archtypical characters, and with plot twists and turns that boggle the mind to think of. Mozart would be right at home next to Chris Metzen and Russell Brower, and he'd love the idea of going back in time to mess with your relatives.