Sargeras was really trying to stop the Void Lords. The Jailer was really fighting against some anonymous bigger enemy. Sylvanas was really trying to help the Jailer because she thought that a dude called “The Jailer” is actually a good guy for some reason. The list goes on and on and some days I honestly expect to get a quest wherein we find out that Edwin VanCleef actually knew Onyxia was manipulating Stormwind and was trying to stop her but now I should stop before I give the writers idea.
World of Warcraft has fallen in love with its greater-scope villains over the past several years, to the point where it’s become an almost exhausting trope of finding out that the bad guy we’ve been fighting was actually the good guy of another story and we didn’t know this before. And today, I want to talk about why this is so exhausting and why it causes a major problem with the game’s storytelling as a whole, but not before first breaking down the appeal of this concept in the first place.
Two things combine to make this appealing from a writing standpoint for Blizzard: the rise of the sympathetic villain and WoW’s fundamentally adolescent nature.
Once you’re older than, say, age 10, you kind of want your villains in any media to be sympathetic. It’s understandable and it adds nuance. A lot of the earliest video game stories were not really concerned with this in the slightest and came down to “bad guy (who has at least a 75% chance of being an evil scientist) is doing bad things to Rule The World, good guy (you) goes to stop him.” And again, this is fine as far as it goes; if you want to entertain a bunch of nine-year-olds, you do not actually need to give the Joker a complex inner life, just paint him as the Bad Guy who Batman is going to foil because he’s the Good Guy.
We get older, though, we develop as people, and we want our stories to involve more nuance and depth. Again, this is also fine, and there’s nothing wrong with it – nor is there anything wrong with adding that nuance and depth to older stories. The basic realization that nobody personally identifies as a villain is kind of important in terms of growth. So you give characters reasons for doing things, motivations, stuff that makes them sympathetic.
Of course, you don’t want to make the villain too sympathetic, or the villain stops working as an antagonist. And as I have mentioned before, will no doubt mention again, and will probably mention after I finally write the article about this, WoW is generally written and pitched for a fundamentally adolescent mindset. Which brings us to… the antagonist that’s secretly good, the one who’s actually fighting against [INSERT UNSEEN EVIL HERE] and you just didn’t know about it!
At a surface level, this fixes everything. The antagonist can be as brutal and harsh as you want, because he’s actually doing everything in service of a greater good, which makes him instantly sympathetic. And once you beat him, you get the sense of “oh, I shouldn’t have done that” without necessarily being able or ready to team up with the villain. Everything works out perfectly, right!
Well… no. Because to start with, this plot usually runs into the major issue of being really stupid.
I should not need to explain to you why this is stupid. Just think about it in terms of a multiplayer Warcraft III game, if you like. If you’re Blue and the player you’re really worried about is Red, you don’t go over to Yellow, fight Yellow until Yellow loses, and then start building up in the wreckage of Yellow’s base to go fight Red. You ask Yellow if she’d like to team up with you to take out Red and you’ll worry about one another later. Starting a fight so you can fight someone scarier later is like trying to disarm your mugger by punching him in the knife.
Moreover, even if you buy that there’s some reason why today’s antagonist can’t just tell you about tomorrow’s antagonist and team up with you today, you still have to deal with the problem that this does not actually make today’s antagonist sympathetic. It explains goals but not actions. Even if you agree that Sargeras has the right ultimate idea, there’s no reason for him to not bother explaining what he does but just go around blowing up planets with no thoughts to the consequences.
The real reason for that, of course, is that these are almost always post-hoc justifications to make simple villains more sympathetic. Instead of actually introducing nuance to the character, it’s justifying the antagonist doing antagonistic things because see, it turns out there was an even worse villain down the road!
And that means you are also forever kicking the can down the road, beating up this villain before being told there’s a worse villain coming, then beating up that one until you find out why that guy was supposedly a secret good guy, on down the line when you can’t care about any of it because you know later you’re just going to be told that guy was also secretly good.
Some media is in love with a similar version of this trope, wherein the protagonists beat up the villain and the audience then finds out that that was actually part of the villain’s plan. This is also boring, because not only does it harm suspension of disbelief by creating a villain who could somehow perfectly predict this exact loss in this precise fashion to advance just this plan, it leaves the audience feeling like the heroes would have accomplished more by doing nothing. A good writer can make it work, but it’s only occasionally worth the effort in the first place.
As a result of WoW overusing this trope, it feels like every villain has some bigger bad they we’re just not told about, for no reason other than fighting us so that we have an antagonist today. The can is forever being kicked down the road and it removes any sense of narrative engagement; you know that this dude is just going to get retconned into secretly fighting someone else, so why should you care about your reasons to fight him today?
Like any twist, the impact is dulled every time it arrives, until you start predicting it before it happens with no justification provided. And while I’m definitely in favor of WoW giving us more sympathetic villains who we can actually understand and aren’t just two-dimensional pastiches… this isn’t accomplishing it. No one feels sorry for the Jailer because he alluded to some worse threat when he supposedly manipulated everyone; he’s still just a big generic scary guy in generic scary guy armor, devoid of any emotional weight.
Of course, considering WoW’s definition of “sympathetic and flawed protagonists” apparently also includes Illidan Stormrage before and during Legion, maybe the writers also are not working from a great definition of “sympathetic” in the first place. That certainly isn’t helping matters.