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The war between narrative and game mechanics

Alex Ziebart
09.08.14
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I've long had a complicated relationship with the story of Warcraft. Once, I was enamored by the world they've created -- I was one of the earlier contributors to Know Your Lore, eager to share my love of the franchise's narrative. I'm no longer so enamored. I don't hate it, but neither do I love it. I'm not angry, I'm disappointed. Yes, I often disagree with the narrative choices Blizzard has made with their story, but moreso I come to realize World of Warcraft is burdened by itself in respect to its narrative. Story and game mechanics are in constant conflict, and when you're looking at a game like WoW and a company like Blizzard (with their focus on tight gameplay), story will lose that battle every time. Blizzard has mentioned more than once that orcs versus humans is the core element of Warcraft. Whenever the narrative tries to move back to the roots of the franchise, that's where it goes. And that's the problem.

The war between the Alliance and the Horde can never end. Worse, it can never progress -- and the characters involved in that war story cannot progress unless removed from it. Mists of Pandaria made this more obvious than it has ever been before.

Boneheaded heroes

For the sake of parity, let's look at both Jaina Proudmoore and Thrall. These two characters have had a history together since Warcraft III. Not a romantic history as some like to claim, but a history. They were allies. Both of them held out hope for peace between the Horde and the Alliance for years. Both of them made sacrifices in the hopes of accomplishing it, Jaina moreso than any other, allowing the Horde to kill her orc-slaying father. They were both powerful, influential people in their respective factions. The events of Warcraft III made us believe they might achieve that peace. World of Warcraft showed us otherwise.


The mere act of including two factions and PVP gameplay made their failure a foregone conclusion. Yet, though we knew they would forever fail, they stuck to their guns. For a time, that was admirable. But their arc remained stagnant for nearly a decade and they failed at every turn. Whenever tension between the factions rose, Thrall and Jaina were there, arguing for peace and failing. Admirable traits lost their appeal. Their attempts for peace ceased to be appreciated by players because we knew they could never succeed. Their interventions became unwelcome to the point of frustration. The nature of the game was a character assassination -- Thrall and Jaina came to be perceived as downright stupid.

It was Jaina that finally broke. After countless years of campaigning for peace, the Horde -- under the command of Garrosh Hellscream -- wiped Theramore off of the map. Finally, after so long, Jaina was angry and rightfully so. But it still doesn't matter. Because even an angry Jaina cannot accomplish anything in a conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. A Jaina Proudmoore fueled by righteous fury is just as ineffective as the one campaigning for peace when her focus is the Horde. It cannot happen. World of Warcraft's entire premise -- in game mechanics, if not narrative -- relies on the war continuing with neither faction the victor.
It's no surprise that Jaina's shining moment in Mists of Pandaria is when she turned her attention toward Lei Shen and the Isle of Thunder, a place where the narrative would allow victory. Lei Shen was an enemy that she could defeat -- was allowed to defeat mechanically. It was a conflict that had an end point. The Horde was the secondary goal, not the primary. And that was awesome.

Aftermath of the Siege

After Garrosh Hellscream is defeated, the following is implied:
  • The Horde and the Alliance are in the midst of a ceasefire
  • The Alliance is the current world power with the Horde significantly weakened
None of it matters. Narratively we can say those things are true, but the narrative cannot wholly ignore the mechanical essentials of the game. If there's a ceasefire between the Horde and the Alliance, the battle for Ashran shouldn't be happening in Warlords of Draenor. And if it is happening, the Alliance as the clear world power should be able to sweep the Horde out without issue. You can argue that we, as players, need to separate narrative from gameplay -- stating that Ashran is obviously there for gameplay reasons and shouldn't impact the story being told -- but the narrative tries to explain both without actually taking them into consideration. The solution isn't to stop including PVP content: The solution is to stop making this faction conflict central to everything happening in the World of Warcraft. Recognize that it exists and focus on something else.
The post-Garrosh cinematic paints an engaging picture from the Alliance's end. Former peacemaker Jaina Proudmoore demands the Horde be dismantled. Former warmonger Varian Wrynn is the one to show restraint, sparing the Horde leadership and giving them another chance. It would have been quite dramatic if it mattered at all. We know better. As players, we know nothing will happen. The war will go on and Varian Wrynn is stupid for believing the Horde will accept a peaceful resolution. Varian Wrynn would have also been stupid for trying to dismantle the Horde because we know the Horde will never go away. There is no decision anyone in that room could have made that would have given us a satisfying conclusion to the faction feud.

Varian, and his son Anduin, stand where Thrall and Jaina stood previously. They are characters mired in this unending faction war. Until they are extracted from that war, nothing they can do can make them characters worth caring about. Varian will never truly accomplish anything. Anduin doesn't rage against the dying of the light. It's dead and it isn't coming back.

Parity problems

The conclusion of Siege of Orgrimmar also writes checks it can't cash. After the cinematic, statements are made that the Alliance must use their new position as world power as an opportunity to reclaim places such as Gilneas. Will that actually happen? Probably not. It can't.

Alliance players would like to see Gilneas reclaimed, but game mechanics are unlikely to allow for it. Would the Alliance really be given territory so close to Undercity? Unlikely. And if the Alliance did start reclaiming territory, parity between the factions means the Horde would also need to claim new territory. An imbalance between them is the entire reason Cataclysm destroyed so many Alliance settlements and handed them over to the Horde -- the Alliance initially had more than the Horde and the changes brought balance to that. The Alliance can't reclaim anything without introducing new imbalance. The Alliance can't have that victory without in turn giving something away. Again, the narrative attempts to paint a picture that cannot be made reality due to game mechanics. That needs to be avoided.
Because that bit of text was written, it will never be forgotten. Players will always wonder if we'll be reclaiming Gilneas in the next patch or the next expansion and it's highly unlikely to ever happen. I won't say it will never happen, but if it does, the Horde will lay claim to something, too. And it will probably be something the Alliance treasures and we're back where we started. Not necessarily because of any favoritism, but because that's what the game requires.

The story of World of Warcraft needs to leave the faction war to the battlegrounds and to players' spontaneity. When it plays a role in the overarching narrative, it drags everything else down. Pivotal NPCs can never do anything meaningful. No one can win or lose. No one can even score a point. No NPC can ever take a position of neutrality without it being a betrayal, even if it's for the "greater good." No one looks good. No one is a hero. There is no hope for progression or advancement.

In my opinion, the best thing Blizzard could do for their narrative post-Warlords is distance all of their pivotal NPCs from the faction conflict and direct them toward a third party. A big, nasty, Burning Legiony third party. Give us an Avengers scenario. Give us the Power Rangers. Give us whatever other ensemble-cast-of-awesome-people thing you prefer. Don't make one guy our hero -- not a Thrall or a Malfurion or a Tirion Fordring -- but a team. Make it clear we're turning our focus towards the monsters that lurk in the darkness for a good long time rather than focusing on each other. And let the commanders in places like Ashran and Warsong Gulch keep doing their thing while we're over there doing ours. Do this without even bringing the faction war into it. We don't need another NPC monologuing about peace or a greater good. We know peace isn't going to happen. Just focus on something else.
And let Jaina be a kickass wizard lady already. We've seen she can do it. Stop cutting her legs out from under her. She's had the potential to be a meaningful force in the world for years now, but she gets put in storage for a rainy day every single time. She's established as one of the most powerful mages in the world. Surely she'd like to slay some internet dragons, too. Azeroth isn't short on nasties.

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