Last week in this column, I told y’all a bit of a bluff.
Well, all right, that’s not true. Last week’s column was about what the point of Shadowlands ultimately was when it comes to World of Warcraft, and I stand by it as a breakdown of what clearly was the intention from a narrative standpoint. But there was one other thing that I don’t think really qualifies as the point of the expansion but does serve as a perhaps unconsidered positive point in the expansion’s favor from the point of view of the people who are responsible for the game on the creative side.
See… Shadowlands does not take place on Azeroth. And that’s kind of a good thing because if you’re one of the people whose job it is to figure out what you’re setting where, Azeroth is kind of running out of space to explore. So today I want to talk about that a little, since I think it provides an interesting look at what the current writers are and are not willing to retcon and what that may or may not mean for the future of the game in a post-Dragonflight world.
In the original Warcraft game, “Azeroth” referred specifically to the area we now call Stormwind, the southern half of the Eastern Kingdoms. Later retcons have made Azeroth the name of that as a continent as well as the planet; it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we just roll with it. The point is that over time, our conception of what Azeroth is as a world has expanded from one region of one continent to cover the entire the world, which has four major continents and a number of smaller archipelagos and islands hither and yon.
This is kind of a problem at this point because we’ve already explored most of them.
Our four major continents (Eastern Kingdoms, Northrend, Kalimdor, and Pandaria) have been mapped out. Most of the larger islands we knew about and some we didn’t have been mapped out. The Dragon Isles were the last name that’s kind of floated around in the ether for years and hadn’t been seen… but now it’s the setting for the next expansion, and so we know where that is and what it’s all about. There just aren’t that many land masses left for adventuring.
Like… all right, maybe you could patch something together in the south seas with Kezan, Tel’Abim, and a couple other locales? Maybe. But you’re kind of reaching even then, since that’s where Zandalar is in the first place. Beyond that… well… you have to start making things up.
This is not, in and of itself, a problem. I have said multiple times, and will probably say many more times, that lore is made up and you can change it whenever you’d like. Kalimdor didn’t exist until Warcraft III, Northrend didn’t exist until that game got an expansion, and so on.
The problem isn’t that it’s impossible to do. The problem appears to be that the designers really appear to not want to make up new land masses.
Is there some precedent for it? Yes. The first Chronicles book calls pre-sundering Kalimdor the largest landmass on the planet, which by its phrasing implies that other smaller landmasses existed; however, the phrasing could also just mean there were a few tiny islands elsewhere, and the third Chronicles book specifically notes that the Night Elves were located on the planet’s single landmass. So it’s inconsistent, in other words.
Logically, yes, there’s no reason we can’t have continents elsewhere. It would even make sense in terms of climate; Northrend is notably colder than other continents, but much of Pandaria is tropical, implying that it’s near the equator and there’s potentially a whole southern hemisphere. Beyond that, we’re never really had any sea expeditions go the other way round. You could, conceivably, say “hey, here’s a big old landmass to the east of the Eastern Kingdoms” and have it work from a geographic standpoint.
But… the flip side to that is the simple reality that the game’s lore writers do not seem to want to. And while I’m the first to say that it’s not like you can’t change the lore, you sort of do have to explain a lot of things if there’s another continent sitting out there. You have to explain why nothing that’s happened on Azeroth up to this point has involved any of these other landmasses, why they weren’t involved in the Sundering or anything subsequent, why people haven’t found these landmasses and come back, why the Legion didn’t bother with them, so on and so forth.
Can you do this? Absolutely you can. Heck, it’s not even hard to say that Unknown Continent A has been dealing with all sorts of other problems that the main landmasses we’ve explored have no idea about! But first you have to want to do it, and you have to accept that even if all lore is made up (and it is), this has a kind of big impact on the world as we have known it up until this point.
And the creative team doesn’t seem interested. If you need proof of that fact, let’s look at the facts as they exist: The creative team decided rewriting the entire definition of how life and death looked in this entire continuity was less a shock to the system than saying “oh, there’s another continent south of Pandaria, let’s go there.”
You might say that hey, this needn’t itself be a problem; for example, phasing makes it easy for us to have a new adventure in existing zones, so there’s nothing stopping us from just having a new set of adventures in the world of Azeroth we’ve already explored. But doing so forgets that the people in charge of the game clearly want us to be groundbound (or bound to our riding dragon) until a certain point in every expansion, which isn’t really doable in familiar areas. Plus, for better or worse (probably worse), the design team seems to have internalized the lesson that going back to old regions is something players don’t like, even though that wasn’t even close to why almost everyone hated Cataclysm.
Let’s not mince words here: I would absolutely mark out over suddenly getting a wave of new people from a portion of Azeroth we haven’t already seen. I think that would be great, a magnificent chance for creative revitalization and a turn away from the more cosmic high-stakes nonsense that ultimately goes nowhere to the adventuring vignettes that represent WoW’s best moments. So I am absolutely in favor of the idea.
But at the same time, I don’t think that it’s necessarily the wrong choice to avoid invalidating a setting that, for better or worse, seems pretty well mapped out. The fact of the matter is that the map of Azeroth is now a pretty known factor, something that players look to as a bedrock of the game. Tearing that up is something that does have consequences, and it’s also something you only want to do from a creative standpoint if you feel comfortable that whatever you replace it with is something that also holds up and delights the imagination.
So… maybe it’s a good thing that this creative team doesn’t want to do that. But it does mean that we’re running out of Azeroth to adventure in.