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

I want a milky way.

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.


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 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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