So the most recent roundup of interviews with World of Warcraft’s staff deeply hurt me on a fundamental level. Like, this was the sort of hurting that doesn’t go away; it just sort of roils in your gut and leaves you gently weeping in the bathtub for far too long after you’ve already drained all of the water out. If you missed the specific line, I’m just going to quote it again from the post itself so we’re all on the same page:
“We had the sense that players would be contending with Sylvanas for a while now, that they would be delving into and learning more about the nature of the Maw, and the Jailer’s power in this first major content update. But, the specific details of the twists and turns the story is going to take, who the bosses in the raid are, even some of the major narrative moments that we’re going to see play out in the coming weeks are things that came together at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year.”
To me, as a writer, it is bracingly self-evident why this is such an enormous problem. But maybe some of you aren’t writers or just don’t see why this is such a big deal. Thus, today I’m going to explain why this is a big deal, why this hurts me, and perhaps more importantly, why it’s fundamentally a repudiation of every “wait and see” attempt that Blizzard has attempted regarding its overarching story over the past several years. Buckle up.
First and foremost, I think it is important to note that this particular quote is coming from Ion Hazzikostas, who is the game director, not from the narrative designer, Steve Danuser. It is possible that there’s some miscommunication there. That having been said, I think it’s highly unlikely, and it’s also important to note that Hazzikostas is the person who would be signing off on all of this. While it’s definitely possible that he misunderstood something, I think it’s more fair to say that he may have overstated something.
However, even that seems unlikely because… well, Hazzikostas is a lot of things, but “prone to misunderstanding” is not one of them. The man speaks precisely and doesn’t display ignorance about what’s going on beneath him, nor does he have a tendency to say something in one interview and then later claim he misspoke or used a poor turn of phrase. It’s far more likely, at least in my mind, that he knew exactly what he was saying.
This is kind of a big deal!
See, let me let you in on a little secret: It’s actually not all that uncommon to start a writing project without being entirely sure of the ending. This is what’s known as the first draft. You start writing without knowing how it’s going to end or how it’s going to get there, you work on a story, you reach a satisfying ending. Then you go back and you add in things to make that ending come together in a more satisfying manner. You add foreshadowing, you make sure all the narrative threads pay off properly, and so forth.
By the time you’re getting to a version that strangers are supposed to see? You know what you’re doing. The story that’s being released is one where you have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with foreshadowing and elements to build up to what’s happening next.
What that line says to me is that Blizzard has not done that. Blizzard has written the start of a story, and then later the studio figured it would put together something that works and pulls stuff together while it’s still live. Starting a story and putting it live while you still don’t know where you’re going with it is the sort of thing that is reserved for hacks, contract writers who don’t actually care about the long-term health of a project, and J. J. Abrams.
Like, seriously, this is how you get The X-Files. Do you want The X-Files? How did that narrative end, exactly?
(Badly. It ended badly. There was no narrative payoff and its name became synonymous with disappointment. It still didn’t end well after it got revived, twice.)
The defense of this statement, of course, would be the modifier “some.” Hazzikostas isn’t claiming that the narrative team had no idea what was going on or anything; he stated that some of the major narrative beats hadn’t been decided on. But even that doesn’t work because in the same statement he also makes it clear that a lot of specific details weren’t decided on and that the team only had a “sense” of where the next raid would lead players.
That’s the really damaging part here. It doesn’t just torch the idea that this particular story is being planned; it also torches the idea that there’s enough long-term planning to make the team’s long-favored defense of “wait and see” work with regards to the game’s story.
See, if the team had a clear picture of where things were going next and how things were going to play out, then “wait and see” might be wrong, but it’s defensible. You might not actually like the revelation once you get there, but you can at least nod and admit that everything had logically built up to where the story had been going and that the full picture did add some nuance.
But if there isn’t that long-term plan in place? “Wait and see” is no longer a defense and an implication that there are twists coming you can’t see just yet. No, it’s a defense that Blizzard’s narrative team is going to try to find ways to wrench everything into a shape that you’ll like even if you don’t like where things have been going thus far. It’s not the defense of a team that knows more than you do; it’s the defense of one that’s stalling for time.
It also makes so, so much more sense to look at the entire overall story this way. Why is there suddenly the setup for a redemption arc for Sylvanas? Because this team loves writing redemption arcs, even though it makes zero sense for the character as she was written through the last expansion, and since she’s still popular, this must be a good option. Why are we being told now that the Dreadlords were serving a greater force than the Legion? Because we need to believe that the new threat is bigger than the old threats, a symptom known as “shonen anime villain expansion.” Why are we being told to wait and see? Because the actual ending isn’t written yet.
Unfortunately, it also means that the hopes of any long-term investment are equally dashed. If you know that nothing is being planned ahead more than one patch at a time, there’s no reason to really care about any of these long-term hints. They’re not foreshadowing; they’re just story threads that may or may not get picked up later. There are at best obvious signs of where the story is going next based on the few things that have been decided on, and everything else is just empty speculation.
It’s really, really disappointing. And I know, none of this is going to stop the people who always speculate about this stuff from doing so. But it means that it is, essentially, trying to predict the future with people who haven’t actually done the planning yet to reward that. You can’t guess where the story is going next because it’s being made up as they go.
If anything, it answers the question of how you can have such good people in a narrative department that still produces bad storytelling. All the skill in the world can’t help you if the plan doesn’t extend beyond the immediate future. And that’s just depressing.