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

    
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Okay, but WHY, though.

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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Vinnie travi

I only read the part about Drustvar because it is the only part I have finished and didn’t want spoilers. I must say I loved the storyline there. It had a nice twist in the end and I was entertained through out. It never crossed my mind about the British and the Native americans and I love history. I just dont look at Wow like that. Wow is not meant to be serious. It is a popcorn flick, just sit back, shut your brain off and enjoy…

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Danstanrevolution

I think this is a monumentally important take on not just the stories that Blizzard chooses to tell, but that games in general choose to tell. The idea that this piece “reads too much into” an issue , is just an easy way to sideline an important argument that Elliot is forwarding. Furthermore, the position that Elliot shouldn’t choose to include the way he interprets the story of the zone because it’s “just an opinion” reflects a dangerous tend in culture that says news should for some reason be neutral. Finally, for games to tell stories that glorify the position of the colonizer given the state of culture and politics is an important and necessary criticism, that gamers and game-makers should be paying attention to.

Seeing articles like this is why I support this site as much as I do, I applaud Elliot for this position and hope to see a lot more pieces like this one.

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Sorenthaz

Because he is reading too much into it. WoW is rarely meant to be about real world social commentary or drawing parallels with the real world. It’s a fantasy world where witch hunts are literally hunting for witches which are a real thing in this game and we see them plenty in Drustvar. By that argument any scenario of ‘we’re moving into this territory to claim it but we have to deal with hostile inhabitants’ could be directly compared with colonial America and shade can be thrown back on our ancestors for what they did with 200+ years of hindsight and so on despite us not likely being here typing on our computers about these things if history had gone differently back then for American colonists.

It’s a single zone out of six, and much like every zone in WoW it’s essentially designed as an episodic arc that plays into a larger overall story.

You’re making this sound like it’s so much of a bigger deal/issue than it really should be. That’s what’s dangerous imo, is when we’re thinking/reading too much into every little thing in a cartoony video game that we have to find reasons to be offended or critical of it and demand writers don’t do that again. Warcraft has always had plenty of territory conquering shenanigans and this is hardly the first instance where one can draw colonization references.

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Bryan Turner

I respect this is an opinion piece and not an impartial review. I just wanted to point out that there’s a lot of shade being thrown at WoW for its uneven narration, which is funny considering this genre as a whole has tons of problems with living up to the RPG part of MMORPG between WoWs wooden delivery in the past and GW2s preschool lvl of writing that every one forgives including me; not everyone can be ESO or SWtoR when it comes to RPG elements.

I think though it’s a little insulting to Blizzard to judge them harshly on their narrative when frankly they knocked it out of the park with quality voice acting this time and immersive quests that flow well with the open world. It feels like they borrowed from ESO with larger zones and a contained story line with a big bad at the end, they borrowed from GW2 littering the area with Rares that actually drop useful loot. I think stripping down the Class Hall system was smart as it makes it less combersome, plus by making it tied into an Outpost system which you can easily drop in any new map.

As I’ve said before I think a lot of us don’t want new systems to learn, or to have our builds reinvented with new rotations, so I think it’s awesom my rotation has less steps, that I don’t have to worry about tier sets, that my Garrison/Hall/Campaign is less complicated. GW2 bringing about new systems in features basically gave us a luxury car with out what makes the car in HoT, Blizzard gave us a solid piece of content which isn’t pay to win.

BFA will not be the greatest expansion Blizzard has or will release but it sure isn’t WOD either.

rafterman74
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rafterman74

We don’t know that it’s not another WoD. That expansion was fun to level through, it wasn’t until later that people realized it was awful.

Give it time, the new car scent is already wearing off and plenty of people are already noticing the cracks in this expansion.

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Bryan Turner

All expansions have cracks, it’s the nature of our genre.

rafterman74
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rafterman74

While true, this expansion is showing them in core parts of what is supposed to be bringing to the table. The HoA system is lackluster, the War efforts that gate the new races are huge grinds, the island excursions are poor with subpar rewards, and Blizzard even found a way to make you grind just to be able to use armor drops by making the HoA requirements ridiculouly high.

I’ve said it before, the leveling experience in BfA is second to none, but everything after that points to a company that no longer trusts that its content will hold up and keep people subscribed, so they artifically limit every avenue of progression. When you start gating even armor drops behind a second exp bar you’ve officially jumped the shark.

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Bryan Turner

Is what it is, I think Blizzard and WoW would do just fine with or with out us, you have fun with what ever you’re doing I’ll have fun playing WoW.

rafterman74
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rafterman74

That doesn’t even make sense. All of the things I pointed out I can safely say because I’m playing the game. But, you go have fun pretending these things don’t exist or aren’t problems.

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Bryan Turner

It’s called I’m being civil and ending the conversation.

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Ben Stone

I just take it that the Alliance are meant to be unreliable narrators and that’s why its presented with a straight face on their side. They genuinely think theres nothing wrong with that scenario. It’s the Horde that would take pity on the marginalized faction.

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BalsBigBrother

Not sure I am qualified to really comment on this as I am just an mmo tourist and only lvl 112 so barely scratched the surface of the new content.

However, for me the narrative does the job adequately enough much like a summer block busters narrative does. Its not something you analyse to the n’th degree you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

At least that is how I look at it but I respect the writer’s right to his opinion even if I don’t agree with where he seems to be going with it

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Bruno Brito

It’s mostly because we know it can be better.

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BalsBigBrother

You do you as kids say these days at least that is what my nephew tells me.

Me I am just going to take my time to explore and enjoy what is in front of me without feeling the need to question every single story beat or compare every single thing to what has gone before it.

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John Mynard

Elliot, the article was okay, I admittedly skimmed through the tail end of it.

You seem to have left out the part where the entirety of the Drust were driven by an insane Death God who is peeved he hasn’t got the mojo to drive off a few poorly armed settlers and decided to use the souls of his minions as fuel for wicker monster robots after they failed to kill all foreigners.

Frankly, I think you really read more into it than was intended. Are the threads of it there? Sure. But just the threads, because that’s what the writers needed to tap into our collective knowledge to tell a good, really creepy story.

miol
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miol

the game feels like a $500 million movie with $50 spent on the script

Blizzard really knows how to prioritize! ^^

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whowutwhen
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whowutwhen

Never really followed more than the broad strokes of the story, as far as Game Play goes, its more of the same. If you have fun grinding some quests/dungeons/ raids then, you should find a few months of play.

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thalendor

Narrative? You mean, we’re supposed to read the quest text before going off to kill 20 murlocs? :-)

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Serrenity

A fair amount of the commentary has felt to me as stilted with trying to find the problems and largely ignoring or mentioning with a large asterisk the good stuff (the content is good* (only if you can ignore how terrible these 4 other things are). Whether intended or not, it feels like Elliot is at times going out of his way to find something wrong. Which is fine, it’s totally his prerogative, and it’s first and foremost an opinion piece, and I ultimately read it for Elliot’s perspective and opinion — explicitly because I frequently disagree with him.

It’s Elliot’s editorial privilege to write from whatever place he deems appropriate for the content and I 100% respect the privilege.

But I also disagree, at least on the Drustvar questline. Where Elliot found the absolute perspectives problematic, I saw them as deliberate nuances intended to subtly and consistently bring to mind the “us vs. them” conflict. I think the point is that the story is presented in such a black and white perspective because they want us to perceive the Horde vs. Alliance conflict in a black and white perspective. Ultimately, that mentality is hopelessly flawed, and I think throughout the course of the expansion we’ll see Blizzard build up the us vs. them, then do something to show how wrong black or white, all or nothing mentalities really are.

Side note — I’ve done several side quests in Drustvar that DO add nuance and shades of gray and there’s a line that I think was written explicitly to draw parallels with the Horde vs. Alliance. I think the nuance is there, but you have to find it and I think that’s deliberate.

Alternatively, I could just be desperately trying to organize current events by projecting a strong ideological divide onto a fictional ideological divide and hoping that the values upheld therein mirror my own.

Could go either way *shrug*

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Bruno Brito

I can agree that elliot clearly sometimes ( less than people actually think, tho ) go out of his way to find wrongs.

But i can concur with the overall feeling of the thread: That WoW as the biggest MMO, with Blizzard backing it up, should at least bring the story to par. Specially when they had good, consistent storytelling before ( Arthas, Thrall, Grom )

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Sorenthaz

I guess my previous comment was deleted without warning/notice, so I guess I’ll put it this way: in general the opinion pieces tend to be more critical of WoW because it’s an opinion piece and folks obviously have different thoughts/feelings on how/what Blizzard should do with the game. It probably comes off as nitpicky/negative/etc. because WoW is held to very high standards and folks think it can/should be done better and more akin to what they want to see Blizzard do. Also some people are the type where they can’t just enjoy a game for what it is/offers and they have to point out their perceived downsides/negatives.