WoW Factor: The strange diegetics of the Shadowlands

All over again.

So hey, everyone may be totally immortal right now in World of Warcraft. That seems like a thing we should examine now, huh?

I freely admit that this week I just mostly feel like being a little silly and don’t have something serious to pick at. So as is often the case in that situation, I decided to start picking at a thread that starts from the fact that you wind up bodily in the Shadowlands along with a portal directly leading between Oribos and your faction’s capital city. And that… leads some places.

To really pick this apart, of course, we also need to discuss diegesis and the correlation between that and the game world we inhabit. So it’s going to get a little bit meta, but I promise you that when it’s all done, you will… well, possibly share my view that “someone did not think through these implications when the expansion was greenlit.”

Diegesis, as a word, simply means a narrative or a plot within a medium. However, the term and the adjectival form of diegetic means something else. We state that something is diegetic if it “actually” exists within the world of the story and non-diegetic if it isn’t.

Using WoW as an example for understandable reason, we know that the game’s soundtrack is non-diegetic. There is not actual movement playing from nowhere in the middle of Stormwind. Similarly, logging out is non-diegetic; your Draenei Priest does not vanish into nothingness only to reappear in the same place a few hours later. That makes sense, right?

Now, there would have been an opportunity to make venturing bodily into the Shadowlands either non-diegetic or at least vaguely so. If you had traveled there and had no means of getting back except via an undiscussed portal, it’d be easy to say that the portal is not diegetic. Once you’re through, you don’t go back out until the expansion is over.

But that’s not what happened. Bolvar specifically has portals opened. People come through to Oribos after you arrive. There is explicit travel back and forth between the Shadowlands and Azeroth.

So let’s talk about Draka.


One of the things that got a lot of people’s attention in the little animated short with Draka before the launch was that she seemed to be dealing with the Burning Legion, and that definitely implies that she isn’t a metaphysical construct. But the actual experience of leveling makes it even more clear. Draka, by all accounts, is flesh and blood. Everyone in Maldraxxus seems to be physically present. There is nothing preventing Draka from heading to Oribos and then deciding to walk through the portal to Orgrimmar.

Sure, right now there’s an obvious reason to keep her there: The whole conflict at the heart of the expansion takes priority right now. But once that problem is solved, what’s to prevent people from heading through the portals? Writer fiat, mostly, but that still leaves questions and issues.

So let’s say Draka decides to go through the portal and step into Orgrimmar. Can she die? It seems as if people can die in Maldraxxus (it’s a plot point at one point), so that would seem to answer rather decisively that she can. But she didn’t die in the Shadowlands in that situation. Her soul was not in its resting place, it was on Azeroth. Does her soul go back to the Arbiter to be judged once again? It seems logical, right?

But let’s assume that there is something preventing beings from the Shadowlands from leaving. For whatever reason, what makes these worlds physically present doesn’t go the other way. That would seem to contradict things like Draka dealing with the Burning Legion, but whatever. Let’s just pretend that for a moment.

What prevents people from Azeroth from going back and forth?

Again, you can’t pretend that this is non-diegetic and thus not worth worrying about because people literally do that. We’ve watched it happen in the game’s actual story. And because the game gives you that option, you have to acknowledge that there’s no actual burden to going and talking to these people other than knowing where they happened to end up. In other words, the only problem right now is that the Jailer is a problem – once that’s done, the afterlife is a physically present realm that provides an eternal playground.

Roast somebody.

Draka doesn’t have to go to Orgrimmar to have people go to her. For that matter, there are no doubt mages and warriors and the like with far more experience than anyone could accumulate in one mortal lifetime. All of them are just hanging out in the afterlife, easily accessible to pass on lessons otherwise lost. And that’s not even getting into things like spies who died before bringing back vital information.

And all of that is, again, assuming that there’s something preventing Shadowlands beings from returning to the world, which we know is not the case. There’s nothing preventing back-and-forth travel, which means that someone who died and wound up in Maldraxxus can just come back through and keep on living all over again, albeit with a bit less of a healthy pallor.

The obvious rejoinder is that this is a direct result of Sylvanas breaking the veil between worlds, and that’s a plausible excuse… but that’s an excuse for why you could go the first time. It doesn’t even slightly change the fact that the afterlife is, demonstrably, a set of physical places with physical boundaries for people to explore. Heck, even look at the reaction to the player character derping around.

Is everyone surprised to see a mortal? Yes. But not “this has never happened ever” surprised, just “this is highly unusual.” Think of it this way: It’s more surprising to people that you got out of the Maw than the fact that you’re a mortal in the realms of the dead. That part is unusual but not half a patch on escaping the Maw.

Ultimately, making the realms of death physical spaces you can meander around in has far-reaching implications for the game world. Or at least, it would if I thought that any of this has been considered in this much depth by the developers.

I don’t mean that entirely as a dig. The point here is that we’re not supposed to think so deeply about what’s going on with the metaphysics of this realm and what it means to have people roaming the Shadowlands. It exists this way because it allows you to have weird ethereal zones and bring back lore characters and so forth, not because you’re supposed to deeply interrogate how this metaphysical revelation might affect the longer term.

But it’s also fun pulling at the threads of what those implications might be because the fact that everyone is now theoretically immortal might be worth pondering and answering at some point. And since that portal is likely to be hanging around well after this expansion… yeah, it seems like “conquering death forever” is the sort of thing that might need need to be actively addressed.

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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immortality is a diegetic concept in WoW, ever has been. it may be a simple res or a complex ritual by Helyas Valkyrs, Titans, Old Gods, demons etc. dont die as in cease to exist, their essence lingers until it finally reincarnates (or is retconned back into existence). so Varian lives too, we already met Voljin and ressed Ysera – but death still is an existential concept in WoW, as the Dead r still separated from the living (maybe not the undead) and to some extent from their means. death still is tragedy in WoW, as Theramore, Teldrassil etc. verify.
this immortality is not perceived as one, is not narratively delivered as a daily business, but a tragedy.

this immortality doesnt relativate death and existence, but further increase their value, as it forces those who died to face their failures and maybe fight for a second chance.

metaphysically SL is about hope (and therefore also regret), to face and overcome failures, so to learn, cuz thats what it means to live?
its quite an aesthetical interpretation of RPGs integral core at the most existential perspective: progress( or die)ion (haha, i didnt intent the double meaning, progress or die, Ion, cuz he rlly has to progress hi understanding of the communities demand or this will be his last xpac as game director).

it also explores diverse perspectives on the concept of death and therefore life itself (eg covenants) and the impact of any (individual) perspective on the whole.

while i still dislike the (execution of this) narrative, i cant deny the metaphysical aspect and its implications. there is much wrong with SL (eg progression pacing nurtures toxicity), but the metaphysical aspect is more self-critical than WoW has ever been.
cuz it reflects on its own narrative decisions by not simply resolving loose ends, but achieving a new perspective, maybe even overcoming on the infantile Good and Evil scheme later on (Sylvanas motivs).
SL is an overall aesthetical statement, maybe the most arrogant Blizzard has ever published…

now one may argue about rational options of the afterlive being physical, but any fiction doesnt have to care about any other ratio than their own, cuz else it wouldnt be fiction but documentation?

fiction is exclusively about to construct a setting/frame/narrative to expose/deliver/reflect a statement.

so what is SL statement? esp. death means to learn to not give up, but to evolve. this is the most common denominator of all fiction, even anti-heroes r a statement to progress. but, and this is the most deciding (and therefore a very big BUT) factor is by what means define survival and therefore evolution. cuz those means define us and our qualities as human beings.

gg Blizzney, as much as i dislike the narrative transportation (textbox hater and quest design) and much more on SL, the metaphysical aspect Shakespeare always got right, hm?


Lore has always been one of WoW’s weaknesses, from my perspective. I love the world, but a lot of it’s history just seems very plastic. The writing is often very good, but the overall ideas and main story arcs have always struck me as both trite and melodramatic, ironically


If Draka meeting Thrall again is locked behind a raid I shall be most put out.


It’s fun picking at this because it illustrates so clearly how very little thought and engagement is actually going into the narrative of wow, even FOURTEEN YEARS LATER and why its “lore” is ultimately a ludicrous patchwork of silliness like someone cooked up in a treehouse one day.
It’s still fun to some degree, but imagine how amazing it could be if, say, someone had given a crap about the underpinnings of the whole thing and not just winged it every time a new expansion is due.

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Scott Leyes

Shadowlands? It MAKES NO SENSE.

Seriously. Sylvanas ran off on her own and tore a hole in the sky; OK, well, I guess that’s a problem, but the story so far seems more concerned that she dragged a bunch of leaders through the hole with her.

And then they come to ME to rescue them… who the hell am I??? Sure, I’ve done some stuff over the years, but I have no practical experience in the afterlife. Why am I special? Why does the portal to Oribos react to ME???

And once I get to the afterlife? Oh, put the whole “rescue” thing to the side, I have to go fix the broken Machine of Death… maybe, we’re not sure, ‘cuz Blizzard has to trickle out the story over several months. But hey, go ahead and pull Baine out of the evil tower while you’re grinding rep with a Covenant.

Even if I am the “chosen” one (again, why is this?), what happens if and when I fix the afterlife? Everything I’ve seen so far seems to point out the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, the Afterlife was seriously F-ed up long before the Arbiter got smacked with a red power surge (that has absolutely no explanation either). The Kyrian are mostly unhappy with being tortured and having to give up their past lives and memories; Ardenweald is predicated on the idea that the forest is more important than the lives within it; Maldraxxus is just a never-ending Fight Club; and Revendreth is another Torture-Culture, somehow “cleansing” souls so that they can… do what, exactly? Be promoted to Torturers? Go to another realm?

And of course, there’s the Jailor… He’s in charge (?) of the Maw, but imprisoned there? Why does he want out? Revenge? Spite? Access to fine pastries? We don’t know… and frankly, I’m not sure why we should care. I was recruited to save Anduin and Jaina and Baine and Thrall – I think, maybe I was supposed to kill Sylvanas, or… jeez, I don’t care anymore.


Is it suppose to makes sense though? >.<


I find the whole story and premise of the expansion a lot more palatable if I think about it as another dimension/plane of existence rather than specifically the “afterlife”.

I know that’s not the story, but it works for me. If I think about it being the afterlife too much I get into the same questions presented here and it all falls apart. Blizzard’s story department generally operates on “the rule of cool” and the game is more fun if you’re willing to meet them there.

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One thing that I’m surprised hasn’t happened (unless it has and I’ve just completely missed it), is that the “spirit healers” on Azeroth have not had their models updated to be more Valkyrie-like. They are, and always have been, much more akin to the kind of slender stone angels that you find in graveyards and so on. So now I have to wonder how the traditional “spirit healer” fits in with all the lore about the Valkyrie in the Chronicles books.

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Okay, so the Wowpaedia has a good answer:

“Spirit Healers are angelic beings usually encountered at a graveyard after death. These floating figures of death and rebirth return people to life where their spirit stands. The Spirit Healers are Watchers, kyrian whose role is to eternally evaluate souls within the Veil. They are called to those who die to peer into the soul’s inner self and evaluate whether they are ready to be dead. If the Watchers deem the soul ready, they will call forth a kyrian Bearer to come and bring their soul to the Shadowlands. If they aren’t ready, the Watchers return them to life.

Spirit Healers have blue skin and white wrappings, and their wings are a paler blue. As evidenced by their similar appearance, Spirit Healers are the progeny of the kyrian of Bastion, a prominent Covenant within the Shadowlands.”

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Can you imagine playing for 15 years, and then having your main die one day, and the game telling you, “No, sorry, you’re really dead this time mate, up you go.” And then you’re logged out and that character is erased forever. :D :D :D

Bruno Brito

If i ever go back to WoW, i hope it happens to me.


It would make a characters family, relationships, inheritance, and progeny as important as they are irl, basically…

Danny Smith

The Shadowlands don’t actually feel like an afterlife but another Outland or Dreanor. Its not abstract enough. The anima drought should have shown people fading out back to the future style or something. All we got was machines breaking down.