WoW Factor: What Warcraft’s Old Gods were and how we lost it

A journey already taken.

“It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self – not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep – the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign…”
-H. P. Lovecraft & E. Hoffman Price, Through the Gates of the Silver Key

At one point, I loved the Old Gods of World of Warcraft. At this point, they disappoint me. And since we’re not that far away from the game’s next raid that brings them into center focus again, it seems like it’s time to talk about them a little bit and why the dang things have not just become so endlessly boring but so misused.

I don’t really need to belabor the point of where the idea behind the Old Gods originates, since we’ve had enough things linking them to the writings of Howard Phillips “Hello I Am An Enormous Racist” Lovecraft and associated horror by this point. No, what interests me far more is the idea that the Old Gods represent and how it has decayed significantly to the modern day. To do that, of course, we have to go back to the first in-game appearance of the Old Gods… which is back in Warcraft 3. Maybe.

The fact of the matter is that Warcraft lore has always been a melange of whatever seemed cool at the time, and at one point in the Warcraft 3 expansion missions for the Undead, Arthas comes across monstrosities that look like… nothing else in the game. The Forgotten One and the Faceless Ones are something other, something distinct and wrong in a world that is already pumped to the brim full of demons, undead, and monsters of every stripe. They feature the signifiers of this particular strain of horror, as well, with tentacles, asymmetric features, misplaced orifices, and shapes that don’t seem to conform to our understanding of biological entities.

It’s not a coincidence. Two words get thrown around a lot to replace the term “Lovecraftian horror” (if you don’t know why, look up the name of the man’s cat), and the most common terms are cosmic horror and cthonic horror. Which is ironic, because on one level those terms mean the exact opposite things; cosmic horror implies that it’s the horror of a scale so huge that you can’t comprehend it, and cthonic horror implies that it’s something beneath you.

However, if you understand the genre, it makes perfect sense to combine them. This is the kind of horror wherein you are nothing and neither is anything else. You are a grease spot, a momentary stain on a film of existence that only exists because nothing has jostled it too hard today… and the reminders of that are never far away. Your horror is that far from being ordered, rational, and comprehensible, the universe is actually a hostile and ever-shifting morass of chaos and you happened to pop into existence on one of its more stable days.

You are not a victim of forces so far above you that they cannot perceive you; you simply exist, cavorting pointlessly, while the forces that govern reality don’t even deign to notice you. Nothing you will ever do could gain their attention or concern. The universe isn’t just uncaring; it’s actively antithetical to you and could shatter at any second. It’s a horror of grand scale and one that exists below you.

That was what the Old Gods promised as we were slowly shown vague hints of them. Unfortunately, the more WoW reminded us about the Old Gods, the more they got screwed up.

oh noes a bitey scratchus

See, the thing about these sorts of deities is that one of the first instincts we have is to make these things make sense. We want to figure out how many Old Gods there are, what they do, what they want, and so forth. Natural impulses. But the entire point of this style of horror, the entire nature of this inclusion, was that Old Gods don’t want anything on a scale or of a nature we can understand. If you could understand their goals, you’d be insane, like an ant trying to understand what a human being wants and why.

They don’t fit into a pantheon. They don’t fit into the space of scheming bad guys. And to a certain extent, C’thun did work for this. He wasn’t trying to attack anyone, but rather a sliver of him was manifested and started killing us because he was mildly annoyed and we were there. His followers were crazy enough to bring him to us and we happened to kill them first so he didn’t get the chance.

Alas… it kept going. We got an ordered set of Old Gods and a count of exactly how many there were and their domains. We got a whole Old God hierarchy. We got Old God corruption, something that makes zero sense in context; the Old Gods shouldn’t be corrupting things – why would they care? Why are the Old Gods now trying to bring themselves back to power instead of just being ageless, patient things pushing down the walls of our fragile reality? Why is one of them threatening us?! How did someone form a pact with one, much less backstab one?!

To reuse the ant analogy, Azshara forming a pact with N’zoth makes about as much sense as an ant in your kitchen making an agreement with you… or at least, it would if the Old Gods remained remotely connected to their inspiration. Instead, all that’s left now is a series of baddies with weird eyes and tentacles that’s a new blob of stuff you smack until it dies. All of the weirdness has been stripped away and systematically purged.

Still not cool, though.

Now, as much as I’m happy to call out WoW writing for being bad – due to, you know, being bad an awful lot – to some extent this is kind of inevitable. It’s really hard to write these kinds of antagonists into any sort of narrative experience, since players do want to smack these things around and ultimately win. The game is sort of built around that idea. When you’re working in the heroic fantasy mold, it’s hard to really also have unknowable cosmic entities of basically infinite power in the background, to an extent.

But the writing has had two knock-on effects. The first is that far from the original novelty of the idea, “Old God corruption/influence” has turned into a writing Get Out Of Motivation Free card. Why are people holding the idiot ball? Old Gods. Who’s our bugbear to fight here? Old Gods. Who’s the real threat for both factions to fight that has ultimately become a convenient punching bag instead of, say, examining why there’s only one faction that keeps promoting blood psychopaths into leadership roles? Old Gods.

The other one, though, is that there’s no longer any difference between the Old Gods and the Burning Legion aside from cosmetics. It was really easy to tell the difference before; the Legion was a force with seemingly infinite numbers and malice actively trying to kill Azeroth, while the Old Gods simply were, ancient and uncaring, dangerous but ultimately no more malicious than a hurricane or erosion. It was a nice contrast of enemies, a hard-edged foe with demonic flavor compared to a slithering mass that cannot be faced directly.

Now, though? It’s just two groups hating each other, but one is more about fire and spikes while the other is into tentacles and random eyeballs. The actual character of both is the same.

That’s why I find myself still very much nonplussed about Ny’alotha. I get why it’s there. I understand the rationale behind making this the final raid of the expansion. But instead of being a sign that reality is not glued together nearly as firmly as I like to think it is, it’s just the place to go beat up some octopus cosplayers. Given the choice, I know which one feels more unique.

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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