Do I have another column or two in me about World of Warcraft: Dragonflight? I mean, probably, even though we clearly have a long, long
man time until the expansion actually comes out. But with patch 9.2.5 having been released and the door thus being pretty definitively closed on Shadowlands as a whole, my brain would not stop circling around the central question. There was something waiting there, hovering, like a splinter in my thoughts, always present no matter how I tried to dodge it or push it away.
Namely… when all is said and done, what was the point of Shadowlands?
In order to approach this, of course, we need to start by changing one of the primary vectors of discussion that has dominated conversations around Shadowlands from the earliest days of the expansion, one that’s so ubiquitous that I feel it’s taken as a prima facie assumption even by those who are otherwise defensive of the expansion: The story is bad. And for these particular purposes, we need to start by accepting that this fact doesn’t actually matter.
Before anyone gets bent out of shape here, I want to make it clear that I’m not revising my opinion of the expansion storyline in any fashion; the story has been accepted as bad because it is, in fact, very bad. This is an expansion with a bad story through and through. Rather, the point here is that while the fact that the story is bad may be true, it is not actually the most relevant portion of discussing the point of the expansion, and they are actually separate conversations.
To use something that is a known element of pop culture, let’s talk about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The point of that film in the larger context was to get rid of SHIELD as an organization, to establish the existence of the eponymous Winter Soldier, and to give Captain America in particular and the Avengers in general a reason to be hunting down Hydra. The point of the film as a standalone feature was to talk about the nature of surveillance and who is being given power over the observation of others, examine the morality of political forces and larger organizations, and consider whether or not defending ideals and values is an unalloyed good or perhaps represents a cult of tradition independent of positive value.
All of these things are true whether you think that movie is one of the best things you’ve ever seen or you think it’s disposable, schlocky garbage. The discussion is not about the quality of those points or whether or not they work – or even the merits of those points. There’s space to object to any and all of that, but whether or not you think it works, these are indisputably what the film was trying to do.
With that foundation established, we can ask: What was the point of Shadowlands? What did it seek to accomplish?
The first and most obvious answer would be to upend the nature of death and the afterlife in Azeroth, but that’s clearly not the case. Indeed, rather than changing anything about the afterlife, the actual point seemed to be keeping it the same. Everything about the story was a matter of restoring a system that had been broken, not creating a new system in any fashion. The closest we came was selecting a new Arbiter, and even that was about just getting someone to do the job instead of hover there dead.
It also clearly wasn’t about challenging what we knew about Azeroth’s place in the cosmos as this expansion once again went out of its way to reassure everyone that Azeroth is super important. You could imagine that it might have been setting up a new threat for players to brace against and anticipate, but the only hint of that was the absolute last moments of the Jailer… and in those moments he didn’t specify the new threat, just said “hey, like every other villain in this game, I’m trying to stop a bigger threat I won’t explain.” So that couldn’t be the point, either.
Incidentally, I think that at a subconscious level players recognized that the Jailer had no larger point beyond the expansion, which is why a lot of people continued to call him irrelevant no matter what happened. He’s not memorable or significant aside from being here, and he exists here only to exist here and be a big bad guy.
So the point wasn’t to change anything. It wasn’t to create a new status quo or complications that would later be dealt with because none of those things happened. And it wasn’t to humble or diminish the player character, since by the end of this story backflips have been done to make the main character even more important. It also very clearly wasn’t to write some kind of conclusion to the story that started back in Warcraft III, for reasons I’m not going to even bother going into here. You all know it’s true.
What’s left? What was the actual point? We’re down to… the one thing the expansion actually focused on: providing a redemption arc for Sylvanas.
It feels almost laughable to say that was the point because the actual redemption arc in question was such a failed non-starter that you can hardly even call it one. I made my feelings on the actual writing there very, very clear. But if we’re talking about things that the story actually set up and dealt with as problems? The whole reason Bolvar is the Lich King was destroyed and basically treated as an offhanded “someone should probably think about this at some point” and then never really brought up since. We even know that wasn’t the point because the next expansion deals with something completely different!
So that really does seem to be the entire point: writing a redemption arc for Sylvanas.
Whether or not you think she even needed one – especially prior to Battle for Azeroth – is secondary to the question. That does, by all accounts, appear to be the point because it’s the only threat that’s actually followed through to the end and required this particular story to be told in this context. And the more I think about it and try to examine other potential points or repercussions or impacts, the more it just circles back to fundamentally be a way of offering Sylvanas as Get Out Of Evil card.
It doesn’t even work for “expand the understanding of the Warcraft cosmology” when the expansion literally changed some of that cosmology just to make itself work. You can’t have that one both ways.
Oh, I suppose you could also argue that it gives Anduin a reason to be off the board before a Wrathion-heavy expansion so no one will talk about homoerotic subtext between the two of them? I mean, that feels like a stretch, but it’s at least conceivable. But it sure as hell doesn’t help any feelings about this expansion… well, let’s not mince words, seeming pointless. There was a point, yes, but it definitely does not appear to be a point anyone wanted.