WoW Factor: Oh no, not the Sylvanas redemption arc

Nothing else has worked.

All right. So. Apparently people wanted to know my response to the new cinematic mined out from within World of Warcraft. Cool. That’s easy. My response?


No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no. No no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no no no bad bad bad bad bad no no no no no no no no no no no no!

I could extend the joke a bit if I really wanted to, but the punchline has been made. This is a very, very bad thing. It is a very nicely made cinematic that is so staggeringly badly written as to basically torpedo whatever good feelings I had lingering around this expansion, and so now I’m going to spend a whole lot of words explaining exactly why this is so staggeringly bad and dumb and insulting to basic dignity and intellect.

Very fine people on both sides, sure, that's a great color on you.First and foremost, I should acknowledge the obvious fact that this is not, in the most technical sense, a confirmed redemption arc for Sylvanas. We don’t technically know where the story is heading, which has become the clarion call for people who are quick to attempt to defend this particular bit of writing.

But here’s the thing. After the past few years, does that defense still actually hold up? Are you still in a place wherein you look at the overall quality of the writing in this game from the past several expansions and say, “yeah, this isn’t going to just turn into a basic redemption arc, the developers clearly work hard at turning out a good story?”

If so, gosh, I want to be playing whatever game you have on your hard drive.

Consider for just one second that this is about as transparent as the broadcasting for Illidan’s redemption arc, a storyline that also didn’t work and was almost aggressive in its mischaracterization of the central character but at least had the slight advantage of Illidan not having spent years being built up as an ever-growing villain. Like, that was dumb and literally featured a storyline wherein you flashed back to Illidan in the past doing things which were wholly unjustified while the narration tried to convince you it was totally necessary, but at least Illidan wasn’t actively a genocidal monster.

And this has all the hallmarks of Blizzard starting the redemption arc, right down to Sylvanas ending the cutscene staring at Anduin and doing the whole “oh no, what do I do now” hesitation bit. Sylvanas, a character heretofore defined almost entirely by her unwavering certainty in her goals, is now staring in confused horror and questioning her actions. This is how Blizzard always telegraphs this stuff. It’s like seeing fire on the floor and then acting like you don’t know whether or not you should move during it.

So no, we technically don’t know where this is heading with absolute certainty, but that implies a benefit of a doubt that the current writing of the title has not earned and is unlikely to suddenly earn at any point in the near future. Which prompts the simple question of… why? Why would you write this, and why is this such a staggeringly bad decision in the first place?

The second is easier to answer with certainty, so let’s start there.

I’ve written before that Sylvanas was always evil, but the main issue that I and a lot of other people had with how things were handled in Battle for Azeroth is that she went from a very specific evil mode of operation to just big dumb nonsense for its own sake. The whole “oh, she was working for the Jailer and needed souls” nonsense didn’t justify that in the least. At the same time, though, these are the things that have been written into the story at this point. It’s disingenuous to say otherwise.

Any shades of moral ambiguity when it comes to Sylvanas was absolutely demolished back at the start of the prior expansion. You can’t just pretend like she didn’t destroy two capital cities for both factions because it’s inconvenient for the redemption arc you want to write – or not without making the story nonsensical and stupid, anyhow.

For that matter, none of her actions at the time (or subsequently) imply any sort of ambiguity in her decisions. She didn’t struggle with the decision to burn down Teldrassil, she did it without hesitation or debate. It was what she wanted to do.

I'm the villain, too?

This is dumb, but it at least does set up a necessary end point for the character, which involves players getting the chance to put her down with great prejudice.It’s kind of what needs to happen at that point. Making her an unambiguous villain means that, well, now she needs to be put down like Old Yeller. You cannot then create narrative satisfaction by deciding after the fact that she’s redeemable because one evil thing is Actually Too Far, even if the end of the arc still winds up with her dead.

So why are they making this choice? Why would you even do this? Is it really as simple as a bunch of players still being on board with the genocidal villain despite everything? Maybe… but I think it has more to do with Blizzard’s ongoing problem of misunderstanding what makes a story worth following.

WoW has a story that is inarguably dense. There’s a lot of stuff going on and a lot of elements to keep track of, which keeps people like me employed because we actually understand all of this nonsense. It also has storytelling that prizes the unexpected, where something new happens you couldn’t have predicted ahead of time.

Unfortunately, the problem with prizing the unexpected means that you can easily wind up considering the best beats as the ones no one saw coming. And what could be harder to see coming than a story beat that no one could see coming, just because it doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense?

It’s here that understanding that density seems to make the storytelling actually worse. There are people out there who will look at whatever nonsensical thing happens in the game and insist that the nonsense must have some kind of point, because we’ve spent so much time remembering all of these details and it can’t have all been for nothing. So no one seems to notice that major developments don’t pretend to make sense, or that these changes are being written primarily for shock value rather than because they logically flow or make a better story.

And Sylvanas being redeemed is definitely unexpected, in much the same way that having your car engine catch on fire and eject out from under your hood while going at a low speed down a back road would be unexpected. It’s just the kind of unexpected that doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved in the process of making it, and it sure as hell doesn’t end with you feeling satisfied by the surprise.

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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