The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how, but do you know the why? Each week Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
In the last Lore 101 segment, I went over resources -- the novels, manga, comics, source guides, games and everything else that make up the story behind World of Warcraft. It's a lot of material to follow, and the sheer volume of it can be daunting, but there's no better way to sort out the story and what happened to who, when and where, than by following the original sources.
While this is all well and good, today's post covers why everything in part one may or may not be... well, invalid. That's right, the novel you just picked up and read through may very well not count in the long run. The comics may not actually apply. A later novel may wipe out the timeline of existing events in one fell swoop, and the information you thought you had a solid grasp on might be invalidated in an instant.
And that's perfectly okay. Let's take a look at what makes a story like Warcraft tick.
In story terminology, there's a word thrown around that a lot of people like to take and apply to a variety of different aspects or situations of many different stories, not just Warcraft. The word is 'canon', which boils down to 'this is absolutely something that happened in the author's story, and this event or character will be reflected on in future works'. In other words, what happened is 'real', in the context of the story's universe.
Canon is something that is tremendously hard to apply to a game like Warcraft. There's a few different reasons why, but first let's look at this quote from Chris Metzen back in 2007 at the San Diego Comic Con World of Warcraft panel, regarding the Warcraft novels and the use of the word canon:
The phrase 'shoot for canon' is a little strange, but let me try to explain it a little further. With a typical book, you have a novel or a series of novels, set in a particular universe, with a specific beginning, middle, end, and cast of characters. While people pick up the novels and read them, they really don't have that much impact on what happens within that story -- its already been written down and committed to print. So someone could say... hate the fact that Dumbledore died in the Harry Potter series, but there's not really much to be done about it. The author has created a fully fleshed universe and put their character into it -- it's kind of like you're reading about events after they've already happened....yeah, the novels are pretty much considered canon, umm... the funny thing is that some things are less canon, you know, but we shoot for canon... that's a strange statement... we shoot for canon... but yeah, typically the characters in novels are canon.
A lot of times... depending on when one thing gets started during another, we happen to be in the middle or the game, or doing the manga thing for instance or this comic series specifically, we try to engineer as much interplay as possible. Like characters in the manga series showing up in Netherstorm and we are doing stuff like that, so we want to make everything feels as continuity friendly and as integrated as possible. Because that's what makes it cool, right, it's all...moving. - Chris Metzen
With Warcraft, it's not a matter of a fully fleshed universe. When you are dealing with something like a comic series, or a video game in the form of an MMO, the whole catch to draw people in is to have that story as an ongoing, interactive process. The important thing to note from this is that things can literally change at any time. That NPC you enjoyed talking to may not exist three days from now. The lore figure you hold in such high reverence may in fact die. With no established ending, it's like not only reading a novel, but also being an interactive part of it. So characters and events in the books are 'canon' in the sense that yes, they exist -- but what is presented in that novel, the characters and the events that take place may change at a moment's notice.
As an example: Once upon a time, King Varian existed in an underground dungeon on Alcaz Island over in Dustwallow Marsh. Not only that, but he was wearing cloth armor and didn't really look at all like his current incarnation. Players could go visit him -- my old guild leader and I had an awfully fun time kiting him out of the dungeon and all the way to Orgrimmar as a 'present' for Thrall, in fact. There was no explanation for him being there, other than an incomplete storyline that left players thinking that the Defias had somehow kidnapped the King. While King Wrynn was 'gone', players worked with NPCs to uncover a devious plot by Lady Katrana Prestor, a.k.a. Onyxia, and ultimately went to her lair, killed her and brought back her head.
One day (when patch 1.9 hit), King Wrynn disappeared from the island with no explanation -- and as there was no explanation for his appearance to begin with, nobody really knew what had happened. There was no story explanation for his appearance and disappearance; it was just a random NPC in the middle of nowhere. As for the Onyxia storyline, players continued uncovering Prestor's plot and delivering Onyxia's head to Bolvar all the way up to the end of the Burning Crusade expansion, at which point all of a sudden King Wrynn was back in Stormwind and Lady Prestor and Bolvar Fordragon had disappeared.
What happened? Well, the story that players experienced in game was simply... overwritten. In the Warcraft comic series, it explained the reasons for King Varian's return -- and his subsequent uncovering of the Onyxia plot and beheading of the dragon. Players may have been doing this for years, but as far as the Warcraft storyline is concerned, it never happened. Wrynn did it, end of story, move along.
As for the strange King Wrynn over on Alcaz Island... he never existed. Sure, you may have seen him in game, you may have kited him to exciting and new locations, but as far as the storyline is concerned, he was never there.
The point to take from all of this is that even though the storyline is 'established', even though things have been stated as 'canon', they can literally change at any point in time. We hope for explanations to the changes, and while sometimes those explanations exist, in the case of Varian's sudden reappearance in Stormwind, other times, they don't -- such as the appearance and disappearance of the strange Varian NPC. Canon is one of those words that is extremely difficult to apply to a story like Warcraft's, because of this constant flux in information. Perhaps a more appropriate phrase would be a somewhat more ominous 'canon for now.'