One thing that’s always impressed me about the World of Warcraft is how many moving pieces are involved in its story(ies). At any given point in Azeroth’s chronology, there are probably three to five major storylines (i.e., something that could become its own expansion someday) moving at the same time (often interlinked), countless subplots, and thousands upon thousands of individual questlines, most of which are stories in their own right. So much so that if you haven’t been playing these games since their start – what, fifteen years ago? – you likely won’t fully comprehend just how all these things are related. I gave up trying to keep track of it years ago (and I only started with Warcraft 3). We’ve got a couple lore-whores in the guild who are more than happy to answer (in detail) any random questions or curiosities, and for everything else there’s WoWwiki. Keeping it all straight and moving is an impressive feat.
This is not to say I necessarily think the writing behind WoW is strong – in fact, sometimes I think it’s pretty terrible (not on a quest-log level, but on a higher level – at the macro-plot level) – but there are moments of genius in there, and the overall package is more than good enough to make up for any weak pieces.
What I’m most impressed with is how Blizzard manages hundreds of moving plot-pieces and keeps the story moving along at a good clip. They’re getting better at it as time goes by. The macro-plots are tighter than the used to be, and more accessible. I know sweet-fuck-all about what Illidan was doing in Outland (was he still with the Legion? Was he against the Legion? I don’t remember from Warcraft 3 and never found the answer in BC), but I think we’re all pretty aware of Arthas and his shit. You can’t throw a stone without hitting an Image of the Lich King these days. He killed me, personally, on the steps of UK once. It wasn’t even a quest objective. He was just there, chilling (ha ha!).
Also, I imagine it would be incredibly difficult to weave a plot with any kind of intricacy, to say nothing of maintaining the laws of the universe, in and around game mechanics and, more importantly, balance. I remember, during that period prior to the release of Wrath when the scourge were attacking all the capital cities, in the comic books that introduced Varian there was a bunch of scenes of the various capitals taking on the Necropoli (or whatever they’re called).
Did you know Thrall can one-shot an entire Necropoli? Seriously. Why do I have to go into Naxx, again? Just get Thrall to shoot the fucker out of the sky. And Varian himself practically one-shotted Onyxia, if I remember correctly. And don’t even get me started on Broll (a druid). Jesus fuck. There’s nothing that man can’t do.
And every time I see these characters do these physically impossible (largely unbelieveable) things, I feel a brief moment of dread, because I know that somewhere out there, someone’s rolling a Shaman right now and they expect Blizzard to make it possible for them to one-shot a fucking flying-city-of-the-dead – because it happened in the books, so it should be possible in game. They’re writing up a forum post right now.
I’m not going to go into what I think of Thrall being able to one shot a fucking necropolis (*coughbullshitcough*), but I understand what they were going for. They have a limited number of pages and panels to make all the world leaders look epic. Go big or go home, I guess (there was a lot of that in the comic. Suffice it to say they never chose to go home. Ever. Even somebody doing something as mundane as making a tea had to have some epic battle on the way (except nothing’s really epic because everything gets one-shotted). Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to go into it, didn’t I? Yeah, I think I did. My bad!). But how do you keep something like that from breaking the temporary suspension of disbelief for your players when they load up the game and they can’t even one-shot, say, a gnome?
You hope they’re smart enough to understand the difference between comics as a medium and a game as a medium. Optimistic, perhaps, given my past experiences, but hey.
But none of that is what actually – for me anyway – defines the story of Warcraft. Not the books, not the raids, not the comics, not the movie if it ever comes out. The real gems in terms of WoW’s story are actually at the quest level.
Arthas, Illidan, the Scourge, the Legion, the Old Gods, whatever. They’re all context. They’re setting. They’re the forces that shape the world we play in, and set the tone for a given expansion; they’re the borders of our sandbox. Outside that, they’re loot piñatas. But the really good writing, the strong story-telling, the three dimensional characters and emotional depth happens, ironically, when you talk to Joe NPC in Quest Hub 4. Here is where you see the impact of the major plotlines. Here is where those big-name NPCs actually matter (not in their halls and thrones and pits).
The Burning Legion doesn’t make me care about the Scarlet Crusade – Clarice in Thunder Bluff does, when she gives me a pendant to leave on her dead, Scarlet Crusader husband’s defiled grave. Arthas doesn’t engage me in the Scourge plotline; but Pamela Redpath does, in the Darrowshire questline.
These stories – minor though they are in the grand scheme of things (one of them’s a go-to-the-next-quest-hub quest, for God’s sake) – are the pieces that communicate with me on an emotional level. They’re the pieces that make me care about the larger plot. They colour in the lines drawn by the main characters and plots; the provide detail and texture and give me a reason to be personally offended by a given boss’ existence.
I don’t need to see Arthas in person, although if it’s used sparingly it can be effective in a different way. What I need to see are the effects he’s had on other people. Show me that and I’ll care. Show me what he’s done and I’ll be involved. I’ll only hate him (or pity him) if you give me a reason to, and in a medium like an MMO, that’s more effectively done through NPCs and little quests, than through Arthas himself. Sticking a scary hat on him and giving him a sword with a skull on it isn’t going to make me get involved in the story itself. It just identifies him as a Bag o’ Loot. And having him go on long rants about what he’s done and how terrible he is, is kinda boring. First rule of story-telling, right? Show, don’t tell.
I think the story telling in BC was weak, if for no other reason than Blizz managed to miss half their audience. I don’t really understand Outland or its plot, because I never did the end-game stuff. Even the instances I did don’t have any context for me. Auchindoun…WTF?
I think the story telling in Wrath is much better, and they’re hitting more of their audience, but they’re still not there. Wrath almost feels like the individual quests suffered at the cost of the major plotlines and characters. And the quests feel like they’re suffering under the weight of our own levels. Another challenge for Blizzard is how to make killing snow-moose feel cool after letting us utterly destroy demons bigger than our houses? In the game’s continuity, we’re pretty fucking powerful, here. That needs to be acknowledged (especially for the RPers), but somehow balanced against the fact that the snow-moose population is really getting out of hand.
I trust Blizzard to get better as time goes on. I’ve never known a game company to be as quick on their feet and willing to learn from their mistakes as Blizzard. The game and its community and continuity are constantly changing, and they’re doing an admirable job keeping up. I won’t condemn them for any perceived weaknesses when the sheer scale and scope of what they’re doing is well beyond anything I would be capable of.
I think what I hope to see in the future (Cataclysm and beyond) is some combination between Wrath and Classic-WoW. Keep the grand, sweeping major plotlines, but balance them against tiny, gorgeous one-shots (at the quest-level). Weave your larger story out of many smaller stories. Stack the individual consequences, tales, and experiences on top of each other, so that when you pull them all together not only do you get your major plot, but it’s one we’re all personally affected by and caught up in. It resonates emotionally with your player base. I’ve mentioned it in the blog before, but a lot of people play the game to pretend to be a hero. A hero needs someone to rescue.
Give me someone to rescue, or avenge. Give me a reason to care. Give me something to build my own involvement off of. In the RTS games, this was less important. I was Arthas, so events impacting him directly impact me directly. But in the MMO, I’m not Arthas. So I don’t care about him anymore. I care about Protflashes, because that’s who I’m playing. You need to give me a reason to care as Protflashes.
Ultimately, when I down Deathwing, I don’t want it to be “Gimme loot!” I want it to be more along the lines of: “That was for little Timmy Braveheart, whose father was killed in the cataclysm and whose mother was corrupted by your cult and sacrificed his sister in your name. For little timmy who stayed true through it all only to die on the escort quest because my fucking scatter-brained hunter went AFK half way through the stupid thing and I can’t kill five fucking fire elementals by myself. For Timmy, you bitch!”