Of Pauldrons, Patience and Petty Arson: Warcraft's storytelling challenge
Last week a fire rocked World of Warcraft. It was an epic act of petulance, strategically foolish. It seemed bizarrely out of character for a beloved
Last week a fire rocked World of Warcraft. It was an epic act of petulance, strategically foolish. It seemed bizarrely out of character for a beloved anti-hero, and damaged the honour of half the game's player population.
In the heat of the moment, it's been hard for many players and fans to accept. The game has thrived on nuanced reasoning that keeps the Horde and Alliance opposed while both feel justified in their animosity. But this was different.
But this was pure aggression and murder. How do you maintain your faction pride in the face of an evil act?
Yes, it's just a story. Yes, it's just a game. But World of Warcraft is in uncharted territory as an entertainment experience that crosses into a near lifestyle choice. 14 years of continuous story, never forcing players to roll new player characters or start over again.
If you were a teenager when you first touched WoW you could now be playing it as a 30-something adult. Or like me, if you had kids in the early days of the game your kids can now play the game alongside you.
There's a lived experience in this story that runs right alongside player's real world lives, and many players hold real pride in their faction allegiance.
Player allegiance in Warcraft can run as deep as that for any sports team.
And if this was football, it would be like the time Eric Cantona did a flying kick into a rowdy fan. A rush of blood that can't be taken back. But instead of a kick he stabbed a guy, and instead of a mouthy guy it's an innocent kid.
There's no denying many are upset because they feel that the writing itself is what went wrong. That this story beat could have been better if the justification played out differently. Or that it seem to paint characters into impossible corners.
But this all comes back to the biggest problem for Warcraft - it is not a book, it is a game that must slowly reveal its story over weeks and months to take players on a journey that will play out over the next two years of game updates.
Last week I ran an interview in three parts (One, Two, Three) with Alex Afrasiabi, Creative Director of World of Warcraft, and in the final act as we looked to the future he clearly knew what was about to go down in the fanbase.
"We want to make sure that you feel something, that there's some emotionality there for you," says Afrasiabi. "Sometimes it's anger. That's a valid emotion! Sometimes it's happiness, sometimes it's sadness and excitement and so on."
"But the story is continuing to evolve and the answers you seek will be there and hopefully they satisfy you."
Afrasiabi's primary call to players was to "Be patient."
In the eye of the storm last week, it seemed like something may have truly broken. But even with only a weekend between us and that fateful scenario, it feels like there are amazing stories already emerging that show the beauty of massively multiplayer gaming with a depth of fan commitment like no other. That this will be one of those 'moments' people look back on with fascination.
For some players, it really was too much. They were willing to pay for a faction transfer to shift out of the Horde and become Alliance, because that moment broke their belief in what the Horde stood for.
For those that waited a few days - in fact, just two days from the fire went live in game - there was a follow up cinematic that captured the feeling of many long-time Horde lovers.
An old soldier, Saurfang, was feeling the pain of dishonour and questioned everything. He removes his pauldrons and prepares to walk into battle with no intent to walk away. But a young troll convinces him to fight once more - not for the Warchief, but for the Horde.
That moment offered fans of the Horde a question - what do you stand for? What is the Horde made of? Is it still OK to believe in the Horde?
Everything about this moment showed Blizzard's WoW story team knew they needed a counterpoint for Horde sentiments quickly after the burning of Teldrassil.
Some fans believed the video was released early (it released in the middle of the night US time) because the fan reaction was too much, but an official response pointed out it was always planned to release at a digital entertainment event in Shanghai, Chinajoy.
What's more, the video gave rise to a new way for Horde players to express their feelings in game. From streamers to Reddit to forum posts, players called on honourable Horde fans to remove their pauldrons in game (like Saurfang in the video) as a symbol of their distaste for the evil act of their undead Warchief.
Few things light my fire for storytelling like the actual roleplaying that can emerge in a player community. It's where the depth of a game's fandom is revealed and how our character as people who play blurs with the characters we choose to play. It's the true magic in multiplayer game experience.
Whatever the angle you take on the quality of the writing or the motivations behind last week's fire, the game is in the midst of an emotional moment that again shows how deep the love for faction and the love for this fantasy world runs for its fans.
Blizzard's mission statement is "Dedicated to creating the most epic entertainment experiences... ever." And from its earliest days to the current launch event for the next expansion, it's hard to suggest the Warcraft experience is anything other than epic.