WoW Factor: Why people are mad at Battle for Azeroth, part four: Story

    
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Another route.

The fun thing about bringing up the story of World of Warcraft is that you inevitably have some folks who will immediately crop up and claim that they don’t care about the story, therefore it’s not a valid criticism. For understandable reasons, I didn’t have time to whip up a certificate for those of you in this category, but if you fall into that category congratulations! You care not one whit about storytelling or setting or world or any of that and would be perfectly happy shooting at featureless mannequins suspended over an endless void. You’re excused for the day.

For the rest of us, however, let’s talk about the storytelling here. While WoW has never been the greatest at storytelling, this expansion isn’t just bad but actively distasteful, the sort of unpleasantness that leaves a foul taste in your mouth well after you’ve moved on from the story. It’s the same sort of “what the heck” you saw in Uldum, but it’s an entire expansion of Uldums, and then it’s loads of top-level storytelling failures.

However, let’s start out by accepting that WoW’s stories have long been hit-or-miss, and that’s not actually a problem.

Pictured: good times.The easiest point of comparison, at least for me, is Transformers. The entire Transformers franchise has long been a franchise of many separate stories of wildly varying quality because they’ve never been under any obligation to be in continuity with one another. IDW’s G1 comics are separate from the cartoon and from Marvel’s comics, which are also separate from Dreamwave’s comics, and they’re separate from the Activision-published video games that were supposed to be in a different continuity but contained endless nods to the cartoon… you get the idea.

Being a fan of Transformers means learning to accept that most of this franchise’s media is going to be some variant of “not good.” There are exceptions, like the superlative More Than Meets The Eye/Lost Light run or Beast Wars or Prime, but for many of the franchises, what you’re looking for is something. Sure, Robots in Disguise might not be great storytelling in either incarnation (yes, there were two shows with that subtitle), but one featured some great Decepticon characterization and Strongarm, and the other brought us Sky-Byte. The Dreamwave comics had some bad art, but they had some neat ideas and they also brought in artists that would later go on to do much better work.

This is, fundamentally, what WoW storytelling has always been like. It’s always hit and miss, in many cases it’s more “miss” than “hit,” but usually there’s fun stuff to pull out of it. There was lots of dumb going on in Cataclysm, sure, but we also got Gilneas and its culture, a more developed dynamic for both factions, and some neat bits of individual lore. Warlords of Draenor gave us a nice look at what the Draenei were like outside of being demolished victims. You get the idea.

None of that is in Battle for Azeroth. Instead, the storytelling seems to be built entirely around either mangling characters to fit into a predetermined end point or managing to piss off more or less everyone who had some investment in the setting or these characters. It’s like someone wrote an expansion where the thesis statement was “you’re dumb for caring about WoW.”

This is something I’ve written about a lot of times, and to a certain extent it feels like repeating the same points ad infinitum. I’ve talked before about how and why Sylvanas is being twisted into a caricature of her long-established identity for the sake of making a big bad to beat on; Jaina’s continuing a long downward slide in terms of character consistency that’s been going on since Mists of Pandaria, and Saurfang seems to have turned from the perhaps uncomfortably honest face of the Horde into the Thrall-but-without-Thrall-baggage so that the Horde has someone reasonable opposed to cartoonish evil.

Bad character writing is bad enough, but the problem is compounded because all of this is just boring. It’s tedious. The game, for the second time, has focused in on a conflict wherein both factions are not actually a little bad. The Alliance remains absolutely pure and free of any large-scale wrongdoing outside of being harsh when the Horde once again does something awful, while the Horde is made up of gleeful mass-murderers and people who are willing to put up with gleeful mass murder only up until they have a compelling alternative in terms of leadership.

Insecure.

It gets even worse in a lot of the side stories. The Mag’har recruitment questline, for example, posits that suddenly the Draenei go crazy (because Light = Bad now, so that they could absolve Illidan of consequences for being awful, I guess) and become genocidal maniacs in a setup that makes absolutely zero sense whatsoever. Drustvar posits the idea that the Kul Tirans who colonized the island were completely good while the natives already living there were just plain bad, as well as being tone-deaf to the point of bafflement.

It’s not just dumb; it actually removes one of the best ideas from Warlords of Draenor in the process. One of the cool bits of storytelling from that expansion was the idea that contrary to expectations, it turns out that the orcs would have waged a genocidal war against the Draenei even without the Burning Legion. It set up an interesting question about Orcish culture, the sort of thing that could provide loads of storytelling fodder. Naturally, it’s now completely ignored and turned into “nah, Draenei would have genocided them given the opportunity.”

It’s dumb, it’s lazy, it removes storytelling chances. And worst of all is that this didn’t have to be the case. If the developers wanted to place us in exactly the same spot story-wise as we find ourselves in now, it would have been doable without any of this tedious stupidity. And to prove that to myself? I figured out how to do it.

Yes, that’s a whole rundown of exactly how you could take the story, put us in the same spot by the end of it, and even continue along to what looks like the same conclusions without hitting any of the screamingly dumb points I’m taking the writers to task for here.

Very fine people on both sides, sure, that's a great color on you.My point here is not that I’m a better writer than everyone on the WoW team. I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that if the writers being paid far more than I am to develop this storyline wanted to, they could come up with much better ideas for the game. No, my point is that if I can come up with all of this on what amounts to my metaphorical lunch break, they could come up with something much better if they cared to do so.

By not doing so, you remove a lot of the investment in the game. Instead of creating what feels like a continuation of a long-running franchise, you have something actively dismantling that investment and calling you foolish for caring about it in the first place. It makes me wonder why I ever cared about these characters or this world or setting, because I’m already putting more thought into this than the people who are actually in charge. It makes me stop caring about things like lore, because this isn’t offering interesting hints about the future; it’s all going to be yanked away whenever the developers have a whim to follow, so why care? Why remember? Why invest?

It’s not a good look for the game, and it means that one of the last things that could keep people through bad mechanics, bad systems, and bad gameplay is being aggressively eroded.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, I think it’s high time to wrap this up with a final thesis statement, an examination of why we’re here, and perhaps most importantly what could be done to actually rectify this state of affairs without just calling a mulligan and hoping the next expansion invites amends.

Further reading in this series:

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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mosselyn

Most of my problem with the BfA story is how contrived it all feels. Things like the burning of Teldrassil feel arbitrary and random, and there’s absolutely no tension/immersion in all the fake “pvp”, like the invasions and island expeditions. It doesn’t engage my emotions at all.

Grimalkin
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Grimalkin

This expansion makes Uldum look really great.
(P.S. I liked Uldum when it was current, but I can see where people are coming from)

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PSDuckie

As much as I dislike where Sylvanas’ character has gone, I don’t think it’s fair to blame BFA for it. After all, I doubt that BFA had even been conceived when Sylvanas crossed the moral event horizon. That butchering of Sylvanas’ character was the true Cataclysm, and Cataclysm is the expansion it happened in.

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Utakata

I have multiple issues with where the story is going right now. What irks me the most is how they using the story to force my characters into OOC dispositions. Such as, why would my characters want to slaughter 100o’s of Orcs or Humans? What have they ever done to my toons that warrant this aggression. Did they pee in my bowl of morning cornflakes? Yet that’s what the narrative says I have to do, or I’d be locked out of the progression and must haves. And it’s tearing my characters apart from the inside.

I don’t really like Vanilla WoW, and would want to go back there even if I was paid to. But the one thing that it had going for it was the stories where never really focused on the faction stuff. That was left to the PvP’ers in the BG’s or the PvP servers. Instead, it told a bit about the world we gamed in and how to take it back from the NPC factions that went rogue. And it rarely got in the way of progression. Well…least not to the end game stuff. But even then, there was no forced to kill hundreds of Hordies because Mr. Greymane was having a bad day like it is now. So I would like it to go back there again. Just saying.

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PSDuckie

Why would each of my characters want to kill Horde? Well, my BE mage and NB warlock don’t, for now anyway, but as for the others…

NE monk: The Horde burned down her home in a “morally gray” act. Morally gray…yeah, right.

Human warrior: The Horde dropped a mana bomb on Theramore, and as a proud Kul Tiran (I still need to race change him to KTH) he can’t tolerate such senseless destruction on Kul Tiran soil.

KTH druid: The Horde keeps attacking Drustvar, her homeland.

BE DK: This is an interesting one, as she wouldn’t say she wants to kill Horde. To her, the Horde is already dead, having fallen at the Broken Shore. She does have a name for the current Horde, though, and that name is the Scourge.

Yes, even one of my Horde characters hates the current Horde!

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Bruno Brito

inb4 loleg complains about Eliot, says that the entire population of Belgium loves retail and everything is fine before going back to his cashgrabby pserver.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Well, millions play retail so they find something they love about it despite Eliot’s neverending stories how much retail sucks.

And btw I dont play PA and Warmane for quite a while. Leveling on TauriWoW atm and there is 0 cashgrab.

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Bruno Brito

Leveling on TauriWoW atm and there is 0 cashgrab.

This was the only correct thing i’ve ever seen you spout.

Well, millions play retail so they find something they love about it despite Eliot’s neverending stories how much retail sucks.

Millions also paid to watch 50 Shades. Doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with it.

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Oleg Chebeneev

If its wrong for you doesnt mean its wrong for millions who paid for it

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Danny Smith

WoW’s problems are threefold:

1 – Apocalypse fatigue. Forget everything you just did to save the world. That was, once again, mere prelude to the ultimate final evil of epic wars guyz and THIS is the real world ending threat, swear on me mum, 18th times the charm! at this point who gives a shit? Is there a single soul that thinks Sylvanas, Azshara or Nzoth are going to do anything of significance? They phased out teldrassil for post 110 players. Thats it. A ghost town nobody used and you can just talk to an npc to revert. Nothing matters, these constant impotent threats dont matter and never will. The fact that this has been the major hook in some fashion for every single bloody wow expansion has rendered it as meaningless as Metzen did with the word ‘Epic’. The World of Warcraft isn’t going to end. Its just a shooting gallery of loot pinatas and without any variance its like repeating a word out loud until you lose the meaning. No threat is ever really real in a persistent mmo. But a bad one has you consciously aware of that fact.

2 – “Well thats the RTS gallery of villains all dealt with, now what?” WoW’s writing has never been strong. What was compelling was moments like “holy shit Mauradin is still alive?!?” and its soap opera trash writing when you really think about it but it was stuff you had already invested years in from the rts games. You get to Stratholme and see the black smoke overhead and thats a impactful moment. You get to Icecrown its the same. You get to Outland its the same. Hell you finally get to see pandaria and its the same. Theres very little of that left and at this point, when Azshara is dealt with its all done for bad the old gods. So they pull new power tiers out their ass like these ‘void lords’ and its like Stargate after they beat their villains and pulled out a new tier. Its not good writing or new reveals. Its Dragonball Z power levels at best. At the very best. Which brings us right back to Apocalypse Fatigue combined with “this shit has no relation to what i cared about all these years, its not remotely the same” sentiments that happen when new writers essentially start to insert their OC’s which is a problem all longform media including stuff like Comics in particular struggle to deal with. When Superman beat Doomsday what possible threat can a new writer attempt to say is a real threat years down the road when the staff working on it got replaced?

3 – The Point, or lack thereof. WoW is never going to end as long as it makes money. It still has redeeming factors, i don’t think anyone can shit on the art team for that game to this day. But there comes a point where “passion project where the devs have a burning desire to tell their stories” gets replaced with “this is a factory production line and we need a new expansion box to sell and keep the sub money rolling in” and it really feels like that point was reached for WoW with Legion. It wasn’t a bad expansion but it felt less like ‘finally the story we are dying to tell!’ and more ‘jesus fuck we are haemorrhaging users time to break the fanservice glass button, demon hunters, burning legion, you get an ashbringer, and you get an ashbringer!’ and so on.
It could just be me being cynical but when i see the devs now they look so god damn tired and the content feels as soulless as a mobile game. Products that buy and large exist entirely as a money farm exercise. If my impression of the current WoW team is comparable to a mobile game studio and not the companies putting out all the amazing games we have had -mostly single player in retrospect- over the last 3 years then thats me getting an impression of just a production line studio. Not an rpg developer, mmo or not. Which makes me look at the story combined with the first two issues and just ask myself “whats the point of the story beyond ‘we need to sell a box’ anymore?”

/armchair critic bullshit.

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Jaymes Buckman

Comic book stories can go on for decades to keep a lucrative brand and still tell good stories. Ongoing games can too.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

Especially some slow burn writers like Chris Clairemont, or Bendis.

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Jaymes Buckman

Two of my favourites.

And yeah. They basically set records for continuous runs. Chris’s X-Men work spanned decades without a break, and he still comes back to visit.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

To be Frank the story telling was pretty damn good this time around. My problem was once the story ended and the same old hamster loot wheel kicked in I lost interest.

The story was fine, this article is a stretch.

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DargorV .

Could be a 20 parter article tbh. A better question is how are people still liking it… actively paying for it when they could just go play something else until next xpac (or never again)

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thalendor

Because, for some of us, the parts of the game we like the most are still very much intact and enjoyable. It’s not that I substantially disagree with any of Eliot’s 4 articles thus far: I either do agree, as is the case with the combat article, or am just indifferent, as is the case with the story. What damage has been done I can overlook since the content I like the most — dungeons and raids — are still, IMO, quite fun. (To the extent I find the group content the most enjoyable, it also helps my guild has weathered BFA pretty well and very few of the people I’ve run stuff with have quit.) So while I would agree that BFA is of lesser quality than Legion, I don’t find things to be that bad either.

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Ben Stone

Because everything else out there at the moment is actually worse? So while WoW isn’t as good as Legion, its still better than the alternatives.

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Paragon Lost

Damn, very well written up Eliot, I’m extremely glad I clicked on the article. So many quotable great remarks in this write up. Kudos Eliot.

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jealouspirate

To me BfA’s story has two “categories”, one of which is pretty good and the other sucks.

The first category is Kul Tiras/Zandalar. These stories are almost completely separate from the overarching Horde vs Alliance conflict. In my opinion, they’re great. Questing through each zone was fun. There were cool stories and characters on both continents. You can’t tell me Bwonsamdi is not one of the most interesting characters Blizzard has done. As for Jaina, I like what they’ve done with her and don’t find any inconsistency in her character.

The other side of the coin is the Alliance vs Horde story. This aspect is pretty much universally bad. I hate everything about it.