Know Your Lore: Cinematics, character development, and story in 2014

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.

Last week, we began to take a look at 2014 in review for World of Warcraft -- not from a general game standpoint, but from the standpoint of lore and story development. While we had some written material and media released midway through the year, in game the year didn't really get started until the release of patch 6.0 and the next expansion, Warlords of Draenor. But despite only being out for a little over a month, Warlords has made an pretty sizeable impression so far.

From a perspective of sheer story delivery, the leveling game in the new expansion is hands down the best thing Blizzard has ever delivered. There's not really more than a moment or two that you aren't being hammered with story from one direction or another, whether it's the unique struggles of two different factions on two different sides of the world as they establish their bases on Draenor, or the struggles of Draenor's natives as they deal with threats from the Iron Horde and beyond. Obviously, quests are everything -- what else contributed to lore in 2014?

Cinematics and storytelling

Warlords of Draenor has taken the concept of cinematics in storytelling one step further than what we saw in the admittedly excellent Mists of Pandaria expansion. While Mists effectively used cinematics in the Jade Forest with stunning impact, there was little to be seen in the rest of the leveling experience. In Warlords, the lessons of Jade Forest's cinematic were apparently taken to heart, with nearly every zone in the leveling experience receiving a cinematic emphasis to the zone story that played out.

The good I don't think we can really lavish enough praise on the in-game cinematics team this time around. Each cinematic was carefully planned out, beautifully delivered, and came across not as a moment to pander to the audience, but as a moment that was so heavy and weighted with dramatic tension that it absolutely needed that cinematic for dramatic emphasis. There was never a point where the cinematics felt like they were unnecessary or not really needed, in the leveling experience. And because the cinematics were saved for moments of appropriately dramatic emphasis, it never really felt like there were too many of them kicking around.

Beyond the leveling experience, we've got cut scenes in various dungeons and in raids as well. While these don't quite count as "cinematics" in the same way the fully-animated scenes do, they're still worth noting here. There is something inherently cool about watching my character hijacking a train. And in the case of dungeons like Auchindoun, the cuts highlight that the dungeon is actively in the process of evolving as you run it. It feels really cool, and adds to the dungeon experience.

The not-so-good But here's the thing -- it almost felt like we could have used more of them, oddly enough. Shadowmoon, Frostfire Ridge, Talador, Nagrand and Tanaan all got these amazing cinematic moments -- in fact, there were only two zones that didn't get them. Spires of Arak and Gorgrond both had pretty cool stories, all things considered -- but those stories almost seemed to pale in comparison to what we saw elsewhere, partially because of writing, mostly because they didn't have that big moment of triumph pinpointed with the kind of cinematic work we saw elsewhere. The introduction of patch 6.0.2 could have also used some kind of introductory cinematic -- something to indicate that the Dark Portal had just turned red, things were getting real, Nethergarde was being torn apart, just for impact's sake.

At the same time, the cut scenes in dungeons and raids -- while admittedly really cool -- are a point of continual contention among people that actively run the dungeons. Sure, stopping to watch them for the first time is a unique and entertaining experience. Having the option to skip the cutscenes after you've seen them is also handy and appreciated. But where we run into a problem is when new players are experiencing those dungeons for the first time, and being matched up with a group that has already seen the content before. One person stops to smell the roses, so to speak, while everyone else moves on -- and that person finds themselves either berated, abruptly left behind, or worst of all, kicked from the dungeon for inactivity. All because they wanted to watch the cool thing in the middle of the dungeon or raid.

Room to improve That last part is really the largest problem, right there. There's a balance between showing what's going on in a dungeon, and keeping the people playing that dungeon moving along. I'm not sure where that particular point of contention can be most effectively addressed. Because while it's nice to keep the action moving in a dungeon or a raid, it's also nice to see some story progression thrown in while you're doing what you're doing, and it gives you a sense that the actions you are taking have some kind of meaning behind them. There has to be some kind of happy medium in the middle somewhere, where both can occur -- and I imagine it's just a matter of timing. Both the timing on the length of these cut away scenes, and the timing involved in placing these moments where they're most needed for dramatic tension and emphasis.

Character development

Warlords of Draenor brought together a host of faces, both new and old -- some familiar, and some brand-new. We delved a little bit into character development when we talked about quests last week, but let's take a closer look at the prominent characters and faces of 2014.

The good Warlords didn't just introduce new characters. The garrison, and the unique purpose of our mission on Draenor, brought about a unique opportunity to pull in some old, familiar friends and give us an update on their situations without really delving too far into writing up huge dramatic stories. Characters like Tommy Joe Stonefield and Maybell Maclure from all the way back in Elwynn Forest are seen again -- only this time, it's Tommy Joe Stonefield and Maybell Maclure-Stonefield, indicating the matchmaking attempts you made all the way back in vanilla were a success. There's a ton of these tiny touches added throughout Draenor, and if you're paying attention you'll realize a lot of the people hanging out in your garrison are people you've known for a very, very long time.

But the new characters in Warlords are also a standout -- Reshad and Percy, Yrel, Ga'nar, and many others are not only fun to listen to, but have been developed to the point where they've all got unique histories and personalities of their own, and this includes characters randomly encountered while leveling. They're all fully-realized personalities in their own right. More importantly, you get the sense that these people not only belong where they've been placed, but that their existence began long before you got there, and will continue on long after you leave.

The not-so-good Again, we touched on this a little last week, but it still applies here -- the problem isn't with these high-quality characters. It's that at some point, it feels like there may have been too many of these characters to handle effectively. There's a certain set of characters you expect to see when you hear that we're going to Draenor -- obviously there's the usual suspects. Grom, Ner'zhul, Gul'dan, Durotan, Draka, Blackhand, Orgrim, Kilrogg, Kargath, Velen, Restalaan -- characters that were seen in Rise of the Horde for the most part. That book was the closest look we had at Draenor. But it seems like at times, the new characters, or the side characters, are getting far more attention and development than these names we're so very familiar with and expected to see.

Which feels downright weird. Why? Because we presume that we were presented with this fanciful journey to an alternate Draenor in order to play around with and see these familiar faces in their prime, before they were relegated to their fates at the hands of the Burning Legion. We aren't getting that. What we're getting is a very different story, one that barely touches these familiar faces at all. In fact, if you look at the above list you'll note that as of Highmaul's release, Velen, Kargath, Orgrim, and Ner'zhul area all already dead and gone. Blackhand will be dealt with, presumably, in the Blackrock raid -- and it's assumed we'll see some sort of final showdown with Gul'dan at some point, as well as finding Kilrogg and Grom out in Tanaan.

Here we have Draenor's familiar faces, and we're killing them all.

More importantly, we have room for some really dramatic and interesting moments with this story. Here we have Thrall, who never really knew his parents, never really talked with them or interacted with them, suddenly confronted with the both of them in the flesh, minus the green-skin side effects of demonic blood -- and there's never really that moment of recognition. Here we have the draenei of Draenor, suddenly confronted with the living specters of a future in which they lost everything yet somehow survived -- and it's never addressed. There are moments where we expect these characters, new Draenor and old, to at least recognize or acknowledge the fact that they are suddenly working in tandem and that honestly, that's at least a little weird, but these momenst are never fully realized.

Room to improve That ... feels very odd from a story standpoint, because you begin to wonder -- if we were sent here to play with these old familiar faces, and these old familiar faces are just being systematically wiped out in a series of dungeons and raids, why were we sent here to Draenor at all? Is there a larger story that we haven't really even seen the groundwork for just yet, something that's going to jump out at us at some point in the future -- and more importantly, if all these beloved characters from Warcraft's past aren't involved with it, how invested are we going to be in what happens with future events?

If we aren't exploring that strange dichotomy between new and old, that interesting Through-the-Looking-Glass element of characters confronting characters, where is the dramatic tension and weight in this expansion? Does it lie with the Iron Horde? Is it somehow wrapped up in elements of the Burning Legion that we have yet to see? Are there secrets waiting to be uncovered in Tanaan that might make everything fall into place?

The Elephant in the Room

Here's where we address the one thing we haven't addressed yet, and there are two parts to this. First, there's the fact that despite this being a review for 2014, the large chunk of this review was written for events from November onwards. Second, the majority of this review was written from the leveling experience.

The good Warlords of Draenor, the leveling experience, is some of the best lore we've ever seen introduced in game. Yes, there are quibbles to be had here and there -- but the critique isn't that what we've gotten is somehow bad, or poorly written. The elements that are there and fully developed are excellent moments, some of the best things we've seen out of Blizzard.

The not-so-good The problem here is that when you have a perpetual, ongoing story like the one present in World of Warcraft, that story has to be exactly that -- perpetual. And what we received in 2014 was a long, long stretch of nothing at all. No story, no development, no reflection of novels or short stories in game, a handful of pieces of written content, one very well produced web series, and that was it. Was November and everything after worth waiting for? That's up to the individual player to decide.

Warlords has some absolutely excellent writing -- and when it shines, it really shines. It shines so brightly that when you run into something that doesn't work -- like the treatment of Orgrim Doomhammer -- it sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison. Some zones feel absolutely fully realized from beginning to end, like Frostfire, Shadowmoon Valley, Nagrand, even the Spires of Arak. But Gorgrond seems to suffer in comparison, not because it's necessarily bad -- it's a good bit of gameplay -- but because it just doesn't reach quite the same height as the other zones.

And once you get through that leveling experience and get to end game ... well, there's very little to be had at all. There are weekly quests in your garrison that introduce bits of story, but the content takes an hour, maybe two to complete, and then you're done for the week. Other than that, there's nothing really new being introduced at all, story-wise. There's the legendary quest chain, which seems to be heading somewhere interesting, but most players are currently mired in the middle of a collection quest that carries no significant story weight at all. There's a few interesting story elements in the Highmaul raid, but out in the world, out where you've just finished dealing with Garrosh Hellscream, where you've stopped the Iron Horde in its tracks despite all odds, there's no real reaction to what you've done. There are garrison invasions, but they feel less organic from a story perspective and more mechanical. There are daily quests that send you to these areas that are under contention, but they don't really involve any kind of story or depth -- just mindless killing, and filling a bar.

Room to improve That's where I'm worried, because I know that the story team produces excellent material. We saw all of that excellent material while we were leveling. But as it stands, we've been given a giant lump of new potential, and it's now sitting in front of us doing nothing at all. There are hundreds of questions on Draenor waiting to be answered -- what's up with the botani, and what are they really after in Gorgrond? What is Gul'dan's ultimate end game here? What's going on with the Sargerei, and how are the draenei reacting to their arrival? Are Durotan and Draka ever going to have that moment of realization, that "Hey, that's our kid" moment?

What's Khadgar's ultimate plan? What exactly is Grom Hellscream going to do, does he know what we've done to Garrosh? Does he know who Garrosh really was? If so, how and when did he find out? What happens to Rulkan when she learns of her husband's demise? Where are the leaders of the Burning Legion? What's with all these Apexis Crystals we're collecting -- is it really a good idea to feed these powerful crystals to a civilization we know used them for creating super-weapons in the past? How would Yrel react, if she knew there was another Velen on our Draenor -- and how would Velen react to the news of his alternate self's sacrifice?

That's just scratching the surface. So far, we've seen no indication of what's to come -- but I'm hoping it involves at least some story development and either some kind of satisfactory resolution, or at least some kind of movement forward. 2014 was the year that we waited, and 2015 should by all rights be the year that our waiting pays off.

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.