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

    
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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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Ken from Chicago

What if …

… the Old Gods were just a front, a charade, put up to impress and distract mortals from the actual extradimensional entitites beyond the veil?

What if …

… the devolution of the WoW Old Gods is NOT merely a descending level of quality by Blizzard but a clue that other brave heroes have been breaking through the charade?

What if …

… Blizzard *meant* to do this?

hurbster
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hurbster

Good article.

Allwynd
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Allwynd

WoW has been going downhill and in circles since TBC. Every expansion has been a copy or a rehash of an old expansion.

TBC adds a new location that’s instanced from the rest of the game.*
WoTLK is a copy/rehash of TBC but instead of a demonic-infested lands covered in green liquid, it’s a ice land infested with undead.
Cataclysm is the only expansion that had good ideas, but a horrible execution and it marked the death of the game.**
Pandaria is a copy/rehash of the same concept as TBC and WoTLK – far away land, instanced from the rest of the game.
Draenor is a copy/rehash of Outlands, just before it became a piece of land floating into space.
Legion is a copy/rehash of TBC, but in a new location.
Battle for Azeroth is the copy/rehash of Cataclysm and also a copy/rehash of Vanilla.

*This trend to add end-game content that’s locked off until you’re a high level and it serves as the new goal is what began killing the game by segregating the already segregated playerbase even more. It’s the trend that ruined everything, not only in WoW, but in the rest of the MMORPGs that copied WoW’s concepts.

**Cataclysm’s idea was good – alter the old world rather than creating a new one. But the execution was bad, because all the changes were uncalled for. The other reason it was bad was because of the previously established focus on end game content while forsaking the edventure of early level content, namely, the leveling.

What Cataclysm and all the previous and later expansions should’ve done was to add more details, activities and mechanics to the old world. For example:

– increase the scale of the old world
– add more quests, locations, NPCs
– add new professions, new dungeons, new cities/towns/capitals
– add new classes, to existing classes to add new talents, skills
– add new items
– eventually use the advances in technology to connect Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms into one seamless piece of land AND ONLY THEN add new land like Pandaria or Northrend into the already seamless world
– with the seamless world there could’ve been additions to how travel and ships work, meaning the game could’ve been expanded with some Pirate/Marine-themed expansion that adds naval battles and more

What WoW has become is the same song, different chorus. It’s amazing how people are still tricked by it and still give Blizzard’s lazy incompetent asses money.

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Utakata

What about the New Gods,
Same as the Old Gods?
Won’t get fooled again….

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Danny Smith

I think part of the problem is that by and large Warcraft as a whole is a successful case of winging it. Each box release since Warcraft 2 they are going “okay, what can we work with?” and running with it. Over the last 20+ years we know this can lead to good and bad results but at the start of a big franchise its fine. As it goes on however you run into writing issues. Not even in a “oh palpatine is back but you need to play fortnite to know why” type stuff but simply things like apocalypse fatigue.

The biggest flaw with wows storytelling is that every expansion needs to be the end of the world. No, i know we said that last time but THIS is the real world ending big bad. Forget we had a release called ‘Cataclysm’ half the game behind us when your characters were less than half as strong as they are now and stopped THE CATACLYSM, this time its really reals for reals. Yo.

Combine this with turning their roster into loot pinatas and we get what writing calls ‘Apocalypse Fatigue’. When every time its the end of the world its the status quo, not a shocking turn of events and thats not intrigue thats monotony. They grind you down with the same threat and its like the old saying for parents and teachers: if you offer the worst punishment first and the kids dont blink you have nowhere to go and ultimately you have lost. Blizzard has been telling us something is going to end the world since at least 2008 with Wrath of the Lich King. For 12 years without a single break we have dealt with that.

Compare this to things like Final Fantasy XIV where Heavensward was one of the most lauded mmo expansions of the last 10 years and its a story about the player character going to an isolationist nation and getting caught in a blood fued between a corrupt nobility, a dragon whos sister was murdered and it was covered up and the downtrodden peasants treated like garbage. Thats it. You spend over a year of your real life in Ishgard and its never saving the world from the big bad. Its getting to know the people in a single city and the dragons and trying to find a resolution to a very localised war thats greatest threat is loss of life leading to a contuining cycle of violence and grudges. But at any time you could have just walked away. Ishgard would have probably fallen, an isolationist nation of pomp and ceremony built on lies and the brood of Niddhog would have probably replaced them in a way but the rest of the world would have carried on just like when some of the other past city states and cultures died.

This was something that released at the same time Warlords of Dreanor was winding down. The lich king was going to end the world! but so was yogg saron, and then ragnoros, then deathwing, then the sha and the mantid, then garrosh, then the iron horde, the the legion. This was all half a decade ago and that conga line never stopped adding members to it.

The trouble with lovecraft inspired horror is it comes from a very simple premise: Deep down you know you are a very insignificant thing in the vast, indifferent universe around us. Who knows what great cosmic predators are in this endless ocean waiting to swallow us whole? and they personify it. They aren’t cackling. They are indifferent. They aren’t playing 4 dimensional chess. The ones that aren’t called things like “The Blind Idiot God” are simply patient on a geological scale. In terms of modern pop culture they shouldn’t be the screaming old man in star wars, they should be thanos saying “i dont even know who you are” at the most understandable.

But how in a game entirely designed as a loot pinata power trip do you deal with that?

Personally? i dont think Blizzard has the balls nor budget for it so to speak but to impress the old gods as anything close to what they are? i think the players need to lose, but the world doesn’t end. It needs to be fractured. Not literally, not in a third times the charm way, but the old gods need to start bleeding out and this needs to divide people. Not with brainwashing and mindslaves alone. People willingly join the Twilights Hammer, if it were all insane people it wouldn’t feasibly function as a organisation.

I think Blizzard needs to look to Fromsoftwares Bloodborne where -Spoilers for a half a decade old game- it turns out that its not a werewolf plague at all but a dead old god washed up on a fishing hamlets beach and they discovered its blood had healing and transformative effects. Over time worship of “the great ones” became a dominant religious institution because the people didn’t understand what they were dealing with, only that in a world of violence and strife it was a tangible higher power they could contact and hope anything could be better.

Imagine a world of warcraft where the common man and woman so tired of living day to day in a world given the name ‘warcraft’ as a setting see provable gods in a world where elune is apparently absent and the light has proven time and again to be at best pest control after its too late to stop a catastrophe. What does the alliance and horde do when half its people start wearing tentacle broaches and medallions and want to follow the old gods for a misguided hope for something better and the entire structure of the world falls about without a single faceless one or mindflayer lifting a finger in combat?

It makes me think of the satellite god in futurama saying “when i’ve done something right, people aren’t sure i’ve done anything at all” or the warhammer 40k short story where a warp storm surrounds a world that prepares for an apocalyptic war that never comes and the people go insane from the stress of something they are sure of but never comes to pass and turn into murderous cultists themselves.

Imagine if Nyalotha rose from the ocean floor, opened its doors and the only thing that came out was a faceless one with a welcome mat. How on earth does the militaristic horde and alliance deal with their common folk learning that a literal god is walking the earth so to speak and said “everyone is welcome, come hear the good word”?

I don’t know about you but a world of warcraft where its not a howling, gibbering loot pinata for the umpteenth time in a row but nervous city guards with swords raised afraid of their own people having never experienced such a thing before would be a hell of a lot more interesting to me as a story hook because i dont know where things go after that and thats exactly how every large scale cosmic horror story ends.

“We don’t know whats going to happen, this is too big to fight” is the most effective teaser an ongoing live service game can offer. Doesn’t always pay off but you always remember it.

Will we remember N’zoth as anything but a hp bar you grind for the right trinket proc?

But i do know i will always remember Bloodborne for its final story update ending with a simple voice over: “A bottomless Curse, A bottomless Sea, accepting of all that there is, and can be”

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Rick Mills

Nice analysis!
I do think they started to have a story with Jaina and some of the sub-lines of the allied races (especially in legion) – if you stuck to the questing and ignored the raids it kinda worked.

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zoward

This parallels what happened to Lovecraft’s fictional (?) universe itself. Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones were distantly and unfathomably “alien”, as Eliot stated above. After his death, August Derleth retained the rights to his literary estate (“Arkham House”) and continued writing in the “Lovecraft mythos”, which he recast as a good vs. evil morality story – the Elder Gods vs the Ancient Ones. It’s sad to watch Warcraft’s Old Gods go down the same path. But, Blizzard is running low on credible enemies.

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Bryan Correll

I never did care for Derleth’s attempt to categorize things that Lovecraft deliberately left vague.

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ichi sakari

I remember being inside C’thun’s tummy thinking ‘this guy isn’t so different than I am” but I really wanted that Striker’s Hauberk so I dismissed my musings and got to killin

nice analysis E, spot on

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Sorenthaz

The problem is basically that the Old Gods needed to eventually be dealt with in some way, but Blizzard decided to write them into being literal parasites/cancer clumps that will potentially kill our planet if they’re removed.

And then they needed to figure out what the source of the Old Gods was, and they decided to, instead of leaving it a mystery or open-ended, close it by creating a threat that’s at an even higher tier so that they can then whip those guys out when they inevitably run out of things for us to kill.

So now the Old Gods’ horror aspects/etc. get stunted horribly because “oh they’re just some Void Lord tumors that they stuck onto planets in the hopes of making a corrupt Titan so they can consume the universe that they don’t otherwise have access to”.

Then they had to make it worse by making Sargeras’s motives/intentions to basically be saving the universe from the Void Lords by destroying any planet they attempt to corrupt. And as a result it’s like, we basically have the same problem that Starcraft 2’s story did in the long run where the biggest bads are tied to this ‘Void’ that’s outside the regularly reachable universe, the mystery of the xel’naga deteriorated, and there has to always be some bigger evil puppet master controlling things.

Heck I won’t be surprised if eventually there comes an expansion (assuming they milk it for all its worth) where we go into the Void, get spit out, and somehow we’ve accidentally wound up in Starcraft’s universe.

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Danny Smith

Its basically thematic power creep right out of shounen anime when you get down to it. Everyone thought Goku was the strongest guy on earth there was after the events of Dragonball, but then Dragonball Z starts with a spaceship landing and it literally never stopped escalating from there.

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Sorenthaz

I’d attribute it more to Naruto’s crappy storytelling than DBZ. With Naruto it was a repetitive chain of “this is truly the main bad guy” followed by, upon cornering them, “actually no, this main bad guy was just a puppet for the real main bad guy” which would keep repeating until it scaled so hilariously out of proportion that it was like the goddess of Ninjutsu or something was actually the real villain the whole time orchestrating everything and playing everyone like pawns. And only through BS last-minute magical godmode gifts did Naruto and Sasuke prevail.

…And then proceeded to fight each other because they’re like the wannabe Goku and wannabe Majin Vegeta with all the extra edge and teenage angst one can possibly shove into a character.

With DBZ is was more of an episodic ordeal rather than attempting to explain that Deathwing was really just a puppet of the Old Gods who are really just puppets of the Void Lords who will probably turn out to just be puppets of a literal entity that embodies Chaos itself which operates within a multiverse where he’s put Void agents in each one to try and devour every universe so it’s inevitable for WoW’s universe to eventually be consumed as well until we get the macguffin button that can stop it only after we absorb enough good guy space dust from the souls of fallen titans.

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Bruno Brito

I do think it’s more similar to Naruto, because Kishimoto clearly wrote himself into a corner as the story went by.

Anyone with a modicum of rationale can realize that the ending to Naruto was not what he wanted to write, and it feels rushed. The entire war saga feels rushed and dumb, and he probably wanted to enter Boruto as quickly as possible.

It’s a huge jump from Naruto as a teenager to him as a Hokage with sons. It really feels rushed.

DBZ at least had the cosmic threat from the beginning, so while i don’t like galatic powerpeaks, at least it’s consistent.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah Naruto’s power scaling just never made that much sense to me. It started going way out of whack from basically being all about the actual martial arts/ninjutsu combinations to all this insane stuff that looked great spectacle-wise but threw everything prior out the window.

With Dragon Ball it originally was a focus more on the martial arts aspects with a few techniques, and then by DBZ it was much more about the techniques and the big beam clashes + everyone in the main cast becoming planet busters.

Makes me appreciate One Piece’s scaling just because while it has certainly scaled, the growth has felt more natural-ish rather than ridiculous leaps.

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cursedseishi

Going outside of World of Warcraft here for a moment, but World of Warcraft wouldn’t be the only one where ‘Old Gods’ or figures like them do have pacts or form them. D&D has the Great Old One patron for Warlocks, though it all usually depends on how it is handled…

The important thing is as it even specifies, is that the Old One doesn’t even need be aware of it. Or if it is, it does not care. Azshara could have formed a pact with N’zoth and made it work, the issue is how Blizzard decidedly to ultimately handle things.

It’s fine to have the Old Gods come up in the game. Ulduar could have simply served as what was a massive containment center for and extension of the jailing for Yogg-Saron. But over time his presence corroded and overtook those handling it, and then they too began to run amok.

Similarly, Azshara, in the depths of her desperation, reached out for any hope however minute it would have been. And rather than N’zoth promising help in return for bla-bladdie-blah? Make it a symptom of the resulting madness. Over time, the ‘gift’ she took for herself and her people drove them towards an eventual fanatical worship of N’zoth. And that causes the issues that lead to this.

It’s fine to have an old god corrupt things. By their nature, just their existence does that. The problem is when you give C’thulhu agency and interest to actively do so. Those fallen under the madness could certainly work to actively bring them about, but the Gods themselves should be about as unconcerned with the affairs of Azeroth as they can be…

… Which, honestly, is a catch-22 since Blizzard decided our whole planet is simply a jail cell for them, and decided to use that as motivation.

The only time C’thulhu should be doing anything actively of his own accord is when he is trying to save the world… Or Christmas.

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David Blair

See. I like your take on it. I’m not down with Uber-Gods that simply can’t be interacted with. I like them being on the level with other Gods if you’re running a polytheistic universe.

And in a high fantasy game, heroic characters should be able to challenge god-like beings. With difficulty, but they should be able to interact.

I loved Soggoth’s corpse in Darkshore as a “what the hell is that? What the hell happened?” moment. C’Thun and his insect race. Cool. Totally down with Yogg-Saron, although I didn’t like the backstory in Lich King that the races were all inorganic and the old ones made them organic… I couldn’t get behind that.

Things started falling apart for me between Lich King and Cataclysm.

I come from back in the Warcraft 2 days, where Deathwing was just an evil dragon, because he wanted to be evil. I had to roll my eyes at all the retconning in WoW where evil only exists on Azeroth because an Old God corrupted you… I like my Old Gods to spread madness corruption, not evil corruption. Evil should be something that just exists…

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Danny Smith

Honestly Ulduar could have worked just fine if it wasn’t a jail cell but a information repository and simply collecting enough evidence of an old god in one space caused nightmarish things to tear their way into the real world using the instillation like a doorway.

But nope its a blobfish with a dental problem in chains.

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Bryan Correll

G’kar, Catherine Sakai. and the ant.

Course, those Old Ones lost a lot of their mystery later on, too.