WoW Factor: Infinite (Dragonflight) frustration and the time-travel problem in World of Warcraft


Sometimes, you just gotta rant about lore. And that’s the case this week because World of Warcraft has finally wrapped up the long-standing plot where Nozdormu was eventually going to become Murozond… maybe. Nope, not happening. But this plot has always bugged the living heck out of me because either we always knew this was going to happen… or we always knew it was going to happen, and we also knew it had zero stakes.

Writing a good time travel story is tricky at the best of times, and the fact that WoW has long had a set of dragons devoted to preserving the timeline would presumably give the space to write something interesting. Unfortunately, it has always fallen afoul of the fact that the writers have never actually been able to lay down how time travel works in WoW, trying to have it both ways and thus making one part of it not matter. Either we already knew the Infinites lost from the start… or we always knew that Nozdormu wasn’t going to become their leader.

Let’s talk a little about time travel. No, not the actual science behind it, and no, not the joke I like to make about how everything in my home is a time machine. (It travels into the future at a rate of one second per second. What you’re looking for is a multi-directional time machine.) No, we’re going to talk about the two basic laws that underpin the mechanics: closed loops and evolving time.

The idea of a closed loop of time posits that time is basically a fixed thing. If you travel back in time to 1956, for example, whatever happened in 1956 is what already happened in 1956. If you go back in time attempting to kill one of your ancestors, you already know you failed because you’re here now. In other words, time travel does not actually mean altering events in any substantial ways; it means that time is a fixed sequence of events, and traveling back in time merely gives you access to multiple vantage points to those events.

For a lot of people, this is kind of difficult to accept because the obvious rejoinder is “well, what if I choose to do something different now?” But you can’t. Not that the universe will stop you from doing something different, but in the sense that… you already did it. It already happened. It’s a part of your original past. That’s just how the universe works.

The other possibility, of course, is evolving time. This is what a lot of stories use when they want to ape Back to the Future or the like. Traveling back in time gives you a chance to alter what is otherwise a fixed course of events. Scientifically, this is more likely a case of parallel universes: If you go back and change the past, then travel forward, you haven’t altered your past but have simply traveled forward to a different future influenced by your actions. But for a lot of fiction it’s treated as the same thing because, like… otherwise you can’t make things worse, right?

Love lift us up where we belong~

So which one applies in WoW? Well… both. That’s kind of the problem.

The Infinite Dragonflight first showed up in The Burning Crusade with their whole deal being that they were trying to alter past events and derail the timeline in a substantial fashion. This was a bad thing, and it definitely set up the idea that the game worked very specifically on evolving time. If you have ice cream in your freezer on Tuesday and you eat it, then you travel back in time to Monday and eat it, you will no longer have that ice cream on Tuesday.

In and of itself, this is fine. The Infinite Dragonflight is a real threat and could change the timeline, and it has to not change the timeline. This is, unfortunately, frequently kind of lame, but whatever. (As others have pointed out, it’s weird that a lot of time travel stories focus on not changing the past while inspired by the aforementioned Back to the Future, a series of movies that repeatedly tells the audience that changing the past is awesome when good people do it.)

But we start getting into trouble in Cataclysm when Nozdormu confirms that he is, eventually, going to turn into Murozond. He states this as a matter-of-fact thing that he just knows it’s going to happen at some point. And while that is momentarily chilling, as soon as you learn that, you realize that this is incompatible with what we were previously told.

If Nozdormu is inevitably going to turn into Murozond, after all, that means we’re dealing with a closed loop. Sure, he can see the path of time, can travel along it, and so forth… but this is an inevitable result. But it also means that we’re in a closed loop, which means that the Infinite Dragonflight was always attempting to stop these events from happening, and always failed. We already know that the Infinite Dragonflight doesn’t succeed because we’re still standing here. You can’t change time.


“Right, but you can change time,” you argue. And that’s also fine… but it also means that Nozdormu isn’t inevitably going to become anything. He can just make different choices. Sure, you can try to paint this with “he’s less able to see around these particular events” to justify it, but becoming a time-traveling evil dragon is kind of a multi-step process. It’s not something that just happens because you have low blood sugar or whatever.

This wasn’t a problem when the whole plotline was out of focus for the longest time because… well, no one was really thinking about it. But since Dragonflight wants to pay off every possible dragon-related plot and even a few new ones, so it’s come back into focus, and it hasn’t worked any better. It’s impossible to really feel menaced by something that is either inevitable (and thus not scary) or is entirely avoidable (and thus isn’t inevitable and thus not scary).

Part of the problem here is that the aspects have, over time, become less pseudo-inscrutable forces and more just Dragon Friends. It’s one thing when Nozdormu is just overseeing the timeline dispassionately without much communication with mortals and sometimes doing things that seem harsh, making him into an ambiguously good figure to begin with. It’s quite another when Nozdormu is a chill bro you hang out with who asks Alexstrasza to bring him his emergency migraine meds. The stakes get weird.

By and large, I don’t have too many bad things to say about the general arc of Dragonflight’s antagonists. The writing has been substantially better than the mess of the past couple expansions, which is damning with faint praise but also true. But the fact that we’re being asked to be so worried about whether or not one of our allies is going to turn out to be evil doesn’t work out when the mechanics almost make it a foregone conclusion.

Look, if you wanted to raise questions about “maybe this ally is actually evil,” I would have started with Sabellian. I’m just saying.

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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