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.
Today's post was supposed to be an introduction to the Wildhammer, a dwarven faction that will be responsible for bringing the shaman class to the forefront of dwarven society; however, plans have changed. As I was writing the article, I kept going back to the comments on last week's post and addressing issues and concerns brought up by readers, as well as thinking about the people out there who believe that the storytelling is "shoddy" or "unbelievable." So I'm putting the dwarves aside this week -- don't worry, they'll be back next week, I promise!
Some of Blizzard's decisions regarding new class and race combinations make more sense than others -- as stated last week, hunters aren't a big stretch for the imaginations of most players. Some take advantage of expanding upon existing lore, like the development regarding the forgotten eye of the Earthmother, An'she. There was a lot of commentary and discussion on the tauren paladin article regarding whether or not these decisions make sense, but what people seem to be overlooking is it's not a matter of whether or not these changes make sense.
What it is about is storytelling -- the construction of a believable story that progresses in a fashion that isn't too out of bounds. While the draenei race was a stretch in many player's minds, the basic fundamentals behind their introduction and integration into the Alliance during The Burning Crusade wasn't as far-fetched as people first thought. Yes, the original story of the draenei involved one of the biggest "whoops" moments in Warcraft's history -- but even the misstep with lore could be explained in a logical fashion when looked at in the correct light.
And that is the key behind understanding lore -- it's not just about knowing the events in the order they happened, it's absorbing the new information as it comes and integrating it with the old. In the event that something seems off or ill-designed, the question you have to ask yourself as you're looking at the story isn't "How could Blizzard let this happen?" but "What did the designers have in mind when they wrote this, and what pieces of the puzzle am I overlooking?" Nine times out of 10, if something new is introduced, there is a reason for it, whether we know that reason or not -- and figuring out that line of reasoning is what story analysis is all about.
So let's step back from the situation for a moment and take a look, a really good look, at what makes up Warcraft. The first Warcraft game was released back in 1994. Originally, the Warcraft series was a real-time strategy game, not a massively multiplayer or even a simple roleplaying game. When you're dealing with an RTS game, the emphasis on story doesn't need to be that heavy; people are generally playing for the tactics and the opportunity to play against opponents and blow things up. What made Warcraft: Orcs and Humans so very, very different from the rest of the RTS world was the fact that there was a story surrounding this game, and the characters involved in that game were actually ... well written. Identifiable. Players could play through both the human and the orc campaigns, and the story that was told was considerably more engaging than most RTS efforts at the time.
The game manual for Warcraft I went into the backstory in even more detail, and the story itself drew people in. This is because the people behind the story's creation are very good writers and more than capable of putting together a story that people find fascinating. That takes skill as a writer. There are plenty of novels and comics out there lying around unread because despite the author's technical prowess, the story just wasn't the kind of thing that captured people's attention. There are very few that hit the bestseller's lists, and those books are there because they are read.
Despite the popularity of the game, the release of Warcraft II brought about some changes to that original lore from the very first of the Warcraft game manuals. Events were changed or tweaked or in some cases retconned altogether. This wasn't done to irritate the masses; this was done as a deliberate act on the author's part to keep the story moving and progressing in a way that people could follow. That's what the good authors do -- the very best of writers out there can take elements from previous works that the audience simply overlooked and bring them back in an "aha!" moment that takes everyone reading completely by surprise.
For an excellent example of this, I recommend that people look at Neil Gaiman's works, particularly the comic series Sandman. Yes, I am recommending that you go read comic books. In Sandman, Gaiman effortlessly introduced characters that seemed like minor players of little note and then brought them back in later issues of the series in ways that were completely unexpected. By the end of the series run, it was obvious that there wasn't a single character in the series that wasn't important, somehow, to the construction of the tale as a whole. This kind of seemingly effortless storytelling is the sort of thing that bestsellers are made of.
So here we are, discussing novels and comic books of all things, when the question is: "How does this fit in the realm of video games?" Simple -- a series of video games, especially a series as lore-heavy as Warcraft, can and should be looked at in the same way one looks at novels, or more accurately, comics. Why comics? Because the game's story progresses with each new edition of the game that is released, like comic book issues -- and the "back issues" tend to play a major part in upcoming events. It's not that difficult to manage as a writer when you're looking at RTS games, where one game with a singular story is released, and then years down the line a second, then years down the line, a third.
But then you come to World of Warcraft. WoW is a different kind of animal altogether, because there isn't a break in gameplay between one story and the next. Rather than RTS games that you can view as individual "issues" if you're looking at it from a comics perspective, the MMORPG is a continually evolving story that people are constantly playing through. Think of it as reading a book. We're still in the middle of the book, guys -- and any one of those minor players of little note that have been introduced could potentially be something big in the future. We can't read ahead, but we can guess what's coming up by looking at previous chapters. Sometimes we're right, sometimes we're wrong -- but that's story analysis in a nutshell. It's the process of trying to predict the future by digging through what's gone before and looking for those minor characters or small elements previously forgotten, and trying to discover the "aha!" moments before the author introduces them.
The challenge as a writer, however, is to keep those "aha!" moments safely hidden -- to weave them tightly enough into the story as a whole and to draw attention away from them so that they are forgotten. It makes the surprise better, the reveal bigger and ultimately keeps the reading audience at the edge of their seats if it's done correctly. The larger the audience, the harder it is to keep those elements hidden -- but again, it's one of those challenges of being an author. It's not just about creating a story that's well received; it's about creating a story that is engaging enough that people will continue following it rabidly through every twist and turn.
For those who play WoW simply for the gameplay and the social aspects, this constant challenge/answer struggle is something that doesn't even occur to them and isn't particularly noteworthy. To those of us who follow the lore, it becomes as much of a game as WoW itself -- the "What will the author pull out of his hat next?" game, in which the only satisfaction is realizing you got it right. For people who follow the lore, this is definite entertainment.
Keeping all of this in mind -- the interplay between author and analyst, the struggle between writer and reader and the general progression of WoW as a whole -- what you have to realize is that there are no "lolore" moments in Warcraft. There are no pieces in the story that "simply cannot happen," because the author is ultimately the person responsible for the story. The author is, in a word, god. What he writes is truth -- until he reveals that the truth wasn't what we'd assumed. Can an author make mistakes? Of course he can -- and there are two ways to address that. First, he can own up and apologize -- Chris Metzen's famous Eredar/Sargeras error when creating the back story for the draenei is a prime example of an author's coming clean, saying, "I messed up," and moving on.