WoW Factor: What works and what doesn’t about Dragonflight’s Primalists (so far)

    
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Yeah, this is a thing.

The whole plot with the Primalists in World of Warcraft could turn out to be a very interesting overall course… or it could turn out to just be rehashing one of the endlessly repeated things that this game seems to be unable to get over. I’m hoping for the former but worried about the latter. And with the expansion launch just around the corner, I feel like taking that apart a little.

Now, as I believe I’ve previously mentioned, I am not actually in the beta for the expansion so it’s possible a lot of my speculation based on publicly available information is already wrong or contradicted somewhere, one way or the other. That’s fine. What’s important in this particular context is that there’s some interesting stuff potentially sitting here, and while there are some uncomfortable whispers of familiar awful story beats and evidence of the writers already trying to write out “maybe the people we thought weren’t villains secretly are,” there is at least potential.

Let’s start with something that’s always struck me as interesting: the fact that WoW’s dragonflights are not, as a whole, actually connected to elements as you might expect.

Not all draconic fiction does tie dragons to being elemental forces in any way, but the fact that WoW explicitly groups dragons into five distinct flights that are all themed around a distinct concept seems to imply that there are elemental connections. And in broad strokes they are there, with blue dragons preferring mountains and abandoned structures, green dragons preferring groves and trees, red dragons favoring fields and plateaus, bronze dragons in the desert, and black dragons in caves when they still exist at all. But the actual foundations of the flights – Life, Dream, Time, Magic, and Earth – are not a classical elemental axis.

This becomes doubly true when you consider that the black flight is about the land, not about literal rock and magma. But you’re probably smart enough to have already gotten that concept, so let’s just move on here.

We already knew that the heart of dragon history was the five aspects defeating Galakrond, rejecting their savage original nature and becoming full dragons with the help of the Titans. Dragonflight doesn’t really retcon that, but it does retcon some of the assumptions about the proto-drakes, making it clear that what they lacked was not the sapience of the flights but the willingness to serve as stewards for the land.

Mister World Orlando Fontaine Warcraft, with a tip of the hat to our commentariat.

It makes sense, then, that there would be a faction of draconic ancestors with a vested interest in finding their own niche – just like it would make sense that the flights, which had already won that fight, wouldn’t really bring it up all that much. Heck, it even makes sense from a narrative standpoint to have this coming up now. The dragonflights have lost a ton of their power, three of the five aspects are dead, and the choice to imprison this contingent rather than outright kill them is coming back to bite everyone.

And that’s great. You feel a certain amount of sympathy for the primalists and the proto-drakes who didn’t get much of a say in how their species developed. They’re obviously villains, and their goals are contemptible, but they’re coming from a comprehensible place, and you can’t say that they’re just monsters whose deaths don’t matter. Great! Everything is in place for an interesting conflict and if we can just leave things there it’ll be good.

Unfortunately, there are fingerprints all over this suggesting that Blizzard could send the whole thing into a death spiral. And it starts with dragon whelps.

The writing staff at Blizzard has a big problem with changing the context of known facts. Not necessarily straight retcons (although those are in there, too), but in adding new facts and new information that suddenly reveals that everything you thought you knew is secretly wrong. You thought the Titans were trustworthy, but maybe they’re actually bad? Maybe the Light is secretly villainous? Maybe everything you thought you knew was wrong and Bad Baddington, Professor of Villainy, is actually trying to stop the Even Baddermen from attacking us and Blast Hardcheese the very Manliest of Heroes actually hates kittens and sunlight!

Sorry, that last part just slipped out.

Not only is this bad writing, but it’s the sort of thing people get trained to expect that leads to it actually being worse writing. Not in the sense of “this character is too nice, they must be Secretly Evil,” but in the sense where the audience starts to expect that anything we’re told is a good thing might later turn out to be bad. And yes, we’re getting the seeds of that with “oh, maybe the Titans were actually manipulating the dragons, maybe they’re not actually good!”

Drig-drag.

And that’s just dumb. Not because the Titans have to be good but because the story as it has been written is not framed with the Titans as ambiguous beyond “not present.” It’s dumb because it removes any sense of consistency in the universe as it has been presented to date, creating a creeping suspicion that anyone who is a trustworthy force for good could turn out to be the greatest villain ever tomorrow, with no forewarning or build-up beyond that.

Moreover, it raises a moral question that the game isn’t going to answer just by its very structure. If the end conclusion is “the Titans altered the dragons in a negative way and the dragonflights are actually bad,” then it’s going to make a whole lot of previous plot points totally nonsensical; if the end conclusion is “the Titans might not be good guys but the dragonflights totally are and the primalists are wrong,” then you don’t actually need the first part at all.

Heck, if you want to make Titan alteration the question, you don’t pit the flights against the primalists; you pit them against other Titan-made flights. You make it clear that the Titans were actually just meddling and a lot of their efforts made things actually work.

But that’s not what we’re getting. Instead, we’re getting some of that old familiar “maybe the Titans aren’t so good” nonsense and whispers in the Legacy shorts about how Neltharion actually turned to the Old Gods for a reason instead of just having it happen to him, and that brings in the specter of It Was All The Old Gods All Along, Austin.

Is that actually where we’re going to wind up with the story? I don’t know. I hope not. It would not only make for another expansion that’s terribly written but also destroy the part where you can actually understand the Primalists on some level. It takes their actions away from being wrong but relatable to being another set of manipulated villains, blah blah greater threat, blah blah here we go again.

And look, I know you guys don’t actually write your stories ahead of time as well as you should, so take this as an early sign. Don’t go this route. Let this story just be about a bunch of messed-up proto-dragons who want to go back to world domination. Because I promise you, that’s going to make people care a lot more about those messed-up proto-dragons.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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