First impressions of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, part 3: Narrative


All right. Strap yourselves in, folks, because this is when we have to start talking about narratives and story and intended emotional reactions. In short, this is where World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth becomes a seriously messy piece of work, because this is an expansion in which the game posits that maybe colonialism is super great and native peoples are evil villains in league with dark powers.

Yes, that’s a thing that happens. No, we’re not going to leave it there, but I’m trying to minimize spoilers before the cut.

I’ve said on Twitter before today that the game feels like a $500 million movie with $50 spent on the script, and that still rings true. A ton of effort has been put into the presentation of this expansion, and there’s nothing to do but praise all of that; there’s honestly very little to fault in any part of the presentation of the story. The faults all arrive once you start examining the actual text of that story. And boy-howdy, that’s a mess.

Fair warning, people, there will be spoilers below.

Oh, right, remember this plot?The first zone I explored was Drustvar, based on several suggestions to do precisely that. In Drustvar, the people of Kul Tiras are being plagued by a strange coven of witches, who are enchanting and corrupting the people of the land. I was immediately into this; it captures that sort of rural paranoia and anxiety nicely, and the environment feels very familiar. So you start diving into the backstory, and it turns out that these witches are related to the Drust, the native people who attacked the peaceful Kul Tiran settlers taking their land and hold on a second.

This is the actual text of the story, I’m not embellishing it or being hyperbolic. We are told, specifically, that the Kul Tiran settlers were peaceful and friendly and didn’t even have weapons, but the big mean Drust natives attacked them without provocation. If you don’t see why this sounds really weird, replace “Drust” with “Native Americans” and “Kul Tiran” with “British.” Maybe take another look at the Kul Tian armor designs.

So how do we fight this creeping threat? Why, we start an order of witch hunters! With members explicitly titled as “Inquisitor!” And all of this is presented with a perfectly straight face as if this were actually a good thing, as if we should be very happy that people proclaiming themselves to be hunting witches are walking around and demanding to test scared refugees because some of them might be witches.

Of course, some of them are witches because this is a game where witches are a thing. But the parallels to the real world here are drawn and then completely ignored by the writing, which is… frankly, irresponsible. The term “witch hunt” specifically means a hunt for something that is not there, and books can (and have) been written about how these movements were used an as an excuse to drive out certain people or victimize marginal groups by legitimizing suspicion. Added to that is the fact that when you do meet the leader of the Drust, he engages in exactly the sort of moustache-twirling snarling villainy that you’d expect from someone transparently evil, and…

I keep feeling like this must have been something that was meant to have more emotional resonance. With better writing, this could have lots of shades of grey to it. Sure, the Drust were victims, but they were victims of something that happened hundreds of years ago, and they’re terrorizing and harming innocent people now; similarly, the inquisitors might have good reasons for what they’re doing, but people don’t like jackbooted investigators marching into town and possibly hurting others on suspicion. Here, it’s just adopting the imagery without any moral nuance, so the Order of Embers is 100% the good guys and the Coven is 100% evil without any distillation.

And here’s where we have to talk about those emotional reactions because it’s a perfect example of the difference between the text and the presentation.

Emotional reactions are something that basically every single piece of fiction plays with, and video games are a visual medium in large part, which means they use a lot of the same tricks as things like television shows and movies. It means that you run into conventions like knowing that these are the good guys because the uplifting music plays when they show up, you know that the bad guy is intimidating because he’s shot from a low angle and you’re looking up at him, you’re suspicious about this because there’s a long slow shot lingering on something seemingly innocuous. The list goes on.

When done right, this presentation feeds into your reactions of the scene. And that can be perfectly illustrated with something from WoW, in fact.

Check out the bit when the Vrykul first appear, starting around 0:36. Suddenly the music changes to be more ominous. The camera angle changes, first to focus on Bolvar looking shocked, then to shoot the Vrykul from a low angle so they look even more intimidating. We see shots in which Bolvar, a character introduced by defeating undead, is now defending against the Vrykul. And then there’s another change in music, the arrival of the Horde into the match, and suddenly things are triumphant again, you feel like the whole nature of the fight has changed.

In the span of about 50 seconds, this cinematic fits a full round of emotional reactions in, and every single one of them is being supported by the text. Bolvar is fighting back the undead, but the Vrykul are something new; he needs more strength, and the Horde (and the younger Saurfang) provide it! And the result is a victory.

The Wrathgate is still one of the highlights of storytelling in World of Warcraft because it serves as a culmination of everything going on in the expansion. The text and the emotional reaction all work perfectly to tell a story, and when you see the Forsaken show up and bombard the field, even if you are playing Horde, it’s a shock and a betrayal. The immediate followup is that Sylvanas herself didn’t orchestrate this, and you can simultaneously believe that the Horde have been made victims at the same time that the Alliance has every reason to be enraged.

Now, let’s compare and contrast.

Again, there’s a lot of effective storytelling here. Not only does it look better, but a lot is communicated subtly; watch Alleria look away for a second at a sound of something crumbling, like she knows it’s a trick. Watch the body language, with Sylvanas on a high dais above Anduin and slouching as she sits there, a position of power. Watch how she pushes her way into his personal space to threaten him. It’s a great villainous moment when you’re eager for both sides to team up and take her down.

Except… that’s not what’s happening. The text makes it clear that as a Horde player, you’re supposed to be happy to watch Sylvanas steal victory away from Anduin. The only difference between the cinematics is that Horde players get a bit more of watching people obey Sylvanas beforehand, but now they’re conflicted about it. Compare this to the woman who, historically, compelled people to serve her by sheer force of personality and subtle leadership; she even had the orc sent to watch over her downright despondent when she looked as if she’d die in early Cataclysm questing.

This is what I’m talking about with the problems the story has. The constant cinematics and big setpieces sure feel big. They’re presented well. But frequently they require you to ignore what the actual pace of the story is saying, ignore long-established character arcs, and just forget everything that precedes this.

All of the cinematic presentation gives you lots of story with definite and clear emotional beats, but those beats often do not line up with the events actually occurring on the screen.

Go back and watch that Wrathgate cinematic again. If you’re watching that as the Horde, you want to get revenge for that betrayal; if you’re watching it as Alliance, you want to make the person responsible pay. The immediate followup provided that. Horde players went on to reclaim the city and kill Varimathras, the right hand of Sylvanas and someone you were intimately familiar with, the power behind this betrayal. Alliance players fought Grand Apothecary Putress, the person actually there for this event. Both sides got to have emotional payoff for the arc.

This is clearly something that WoW is capable of providing and has provided in the past. Battle for Azeroth’s storytelling issues seem to come from conflating the epic feel of that moment with good storytelling, instead of focusing in on what story is actually being told.

Now we've got problems, and I don't think we can solve 'em.

Let me make something clear: Drustvar, for all its conceptual problems, does tell a compelling story as a whole. It’s just that it’s hard to ignore the subtext once you think about it a little bit, and that sort of taints the rest of the story being told. Instead of using it to actually make some sort of statement on moral shades of grey, it takes a naturally nuanced situation and removes all of the nuance.

I’m also tempted to compare the story being told here to Warhammer… where yes, the forces of Chaos are real and mingled among normal humans, but they’re not exclusive to natives or civilized people. They cross lines, and while the witch hunters are definitely on the side of order and civilization, they’re not the “good guys.” No one in Warhammer is. You just have even worse guys. (The aesthetics here seem pretty heavily derived from Warhammer, so it’s relevant.)

In an expansion like this, where so much emphasis is being placed on the idea of having opposing forces, it’s really murder to have every conflict you’re shown have competing forces with one obviously good and the other obviously evil. Tiragarde Sound isn’t any better about this; it doesn’t have the skeevy subtext of Drustvar, which helps it out a fair bit, but it’s still a matter of fighting obvious evil without nuance or justification.

This is a big issue and deserves continued elaboration, but it’s something worth diving into with more depth in a final part. For now, it’s enough to leave this here. The story in BfA is definitely well-presented. From a technical standpoint, it’s never been done better. But from a textual standpoint, from the stance of what the story is actually saying? It has some pretty huge problems, and they only get bigger as you pull back to look more into the overarching plot.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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