Action and reaction
Anne brought up the topic of active vs. proactive stories. I'm glad she did, because Anne and I discussed it together before that article was written. I want to reiterate it, because I feel it's the most important issue at hand. This problem has been made obvious in Mists of Pandaria and Cataclysm before it: the Alliance doesn't seem to have a story of its own. The Alliance has been written as a reactive entity, not proactive. On the other hand, the Horde is almost entirely proactive. The Alliance's actions only happen in the context of the Horde, but the Horde forges its own path. Take Mists of Pandaria, for example. Why is the Alliance on Pandaria? Because the Horde got there first. Why is the Alliance bringing down Garrosh Hellscream? Because Vol'jin began his rebellion and we chose to aid him and follow his lead.
That's been the theme of nearly every expansion since the launch of World of Warcraft. The Horde acts, the Alliance reacts. The stories are told almost exclusively from the point of view of the Horde, rarely the Alliance. In Burning Crusade, Draenor was the Horde's stomping grounds. In Wrath of the Lich King, arguably heavier on Alliance lore than Horde lore, the Alliance still sees consistent defeat at the hands of the Horde (see Icecrown), who chose to attack the Alliance for some gain while the Alliance sat back and watched. In Cataclysm, the Horde burned Gilneas to the ground, and the Alliance could do nothing about it.
When is the last time the Alliance chose to take an action independent of the Horde? What immediately jumps to mind is the Alliance military capturing Thrall and taking him captive in early Cataclysm, something you would only know about if you played a brand new goblin character. That story is still told exclusively to the Horde. The Alliance has no idea this happened! And what's the result of the Alliance being proactive for once? The Horde busts Thrall out of jail, then Thrall massacres the soldiers that captured him. Boy, and people thought Varian Wrynn was too bloodthirsty when he first appeared on the scene. The Horde held him captive for years and he didn't mass murder an entire Horde fleet.
The Alliance also tried pushing into the Barrens in Cataclysm and even managed to take some territory. What was the result? A dead general, a bunker full of dead dwarves, a total rout, and a very clear message telling Alliance players that our methods are invalid. There is no honor and there is no justice.
This isn't really about keeping the score. It doesn't matter who has more wins or losses. What matters is that one faction gets to act and the other does not. When the Alliance does act first, that story is either told to the Horde players instead of the Alliance players, or we get to witness ourselves losing.
Vol'jin's rebellion has brought this issue into focus more than ever before. When it first slipped that Garrosh Hellscream would be the end boss of Mists of Pandaria, Alliance players were pretty stoked. I'll repeat here what @SkarnWoW mentioned on Twitter the other night, because the issue is summed up pretty well there.
It's completely true. Leading up to Mists of Pandaria, the creative development team over at Blizzard repeated again and again that the Alliance would finally see some real badass moments in Mists of Pandaria. Considering those statements and the news of Garrosh's fall, it was entirely reasonable to expect the Alliance would have a central, or at least pivotal, role in what's happening. Instead, the Alliance is deferring almost entirely to Vol'jin. Our own king defers to him. Why? Maybe that makes sense to Horde players, but does it make sense in the context of the Alliance? Who is Vol'jin to us? Why is he deserving of our loyalty or our support? Vol'jin as the Horde's new warchief only makes any sense in the context of the Horde.
Back in Pre-Mists when Garrosh was announced as the final boss, it made a lot of sense for the Alliance, but seemed somewhat odd for the Horde. It sounded like a clearly Alliance story. How could taking down the Horde leader NOT be an Alliance story? Yet now that we have details, we find that it is a HORDE story and the Alliance just tags along. That's shocking and frankly depressing.
Garrosh is warchief right now because Thrall chose to put him on that throne. From the Alliance perspective, Thrall was just as much a monster as anybody else. Why would Thrall's right-hand man be someone we support? For all we know, Vol'jin will be a smarter, more charismatic leader, and he'll be more dangerous to us than the bull-headed Garrosh that has managed to divide his own people or the idealistic Thrall that was too blind to understand his own actions.
The Alliance's role in this story should not have been one of support. They should have been the driving force, or for the sake of being fair to Horde players, an equal force. Varian Wrynn should be the instigator, reaching out to Vol'jin, sealing assurances that what happens next won't be more of the same. If not that, then we should visually see them standing side-by-side discussing their plans and their endgame. Perhaps the developers intended for them to seem like an equal force, but that isn't the case. Alliance leaders hand us off to Horde leaders. As it stands now, the Alliance might as well be wearing a Horde tabard. While it's only datamining and may yet change before the patch launches, patch 5.3 is giving Alliance players a Darkspear Revolutionary title for participating. A knight of Stormwind wearing a Darkspear Revolutionary title? A huntress of Darnassus? A rifleman from Ironforge? Vol'jin is amazing. He recruited the entire Alliance into the Horde. Greatest warchief ever.
If this were an isolated event, if this was the first time the Alliance played a support role for the Horde, it may not feel nearly as insulting as it does. However, this all comes immediately after Cataclysm, where Thrall was the pivotal figure of the entire expansion. He was intended to be a neutral figure, but again, in the eyes of the Alliance, Thrall embodies the Horde and all its aggression. Neutral figures in World of Warcraft have never really jived with the Alliance, and there's a pretty simple reason why that's the case.
When there are neutral figures in World of Warcraft, they all leap at the chance to tell everybody they need to stop fighting each other and hold hands. Neutrality is almost never a situation where we stop stabbing each other for a few minutes of our own volition to fight something bigger and scarier in the immensely dangerous world of Azeroth. No, there's always some figure that offers a lecture on the topic, who needs to convince us that we shouldn't ignore the big scary monster stepping on our house. What, we can't see that for ourselves?
Most recently, those people were Taran Zhu and Anduin Wrynn. Wrathion is coming dangerously close as well, but at least he seems to understand the necessity of violence in a world like ours... for now.
Let's look at the introductory quest to Mists of Pandaria for the Alliance, shall we?
Leading into this expansion, the Alliance wasn't feeling very good about itself. Cataclysm was a real downer. The Gilneans entered the fold only because their city was in ruins. We lost a great deal of territory when the world was rebuilt, some of them places we really did treasure, such as Southshore. The story was centered around Thrall and our own leaders didn't contribute much. We could put all of that behind us, though -- we were on Pandaria now, hunting down the damn, dirty orcs that tried to kill the prince of Stormwind, Anduin Wrynn.
We arrive on the island in force, successfully capture a Horde outpost, and we do it in style. It feels great! The Alliance took action and it won!
Except the story does not hesitate to knock us down a peg. What happens immediately after that quest ends? Taran Zhu, leader of the Shado-Pan, arrives on the scene. He chastises you and those in command of the Alliance forces. He is haughty and arrogant, dismissive of why you attacked the Horde (they tried to murder our freaking prince!), and then goes on to explain that the land of Pandaria itself will rise against us if we fight. In seconds, the rush of that victory is taken away. We are, in fact, degraded for fighting the war we've been forced to fight.
Brother 1 punches brother 2. Brother 2 punches brother 1 in return. A stranger walks up and yells at brother 2 for giving what he got. Brother 2 is rightfully angry, because what else was he supposed to do? Grin and bear it? Hell no, brother 1 has been punching brother 2 for years. You have to stop turning the other cheek sometime. And why isn't brother 1 getting chastised for starting trouble in the first place? Maybe they are, but we don't see that, do we? That's how this goes every time we have a neutral faction. Tirion Fordring did it. Malfurion Stormrage did it. Taran Zhu did it. They can't fight for the greater good without going out of their way to insult their potential allies.
Then there's Anduin Wrynn. We're on Pandaria because his father asked us to find him. We found him! Great! Then he, too, lectured us on war and ancient wonders and ran away from us. No satisfaction there, either. In Mists of Pandaria, Anduin is one of the Alliance's central characters. It's possible there was a time when Alliance players may have found Anduin's story arc compelling. He's full of youthful naivete and thinks that he can broker peace where all others have failed. That's could be a good story. Maybe he pulls it off and we learn a lesson about new perspectives. Maybe he fails and comes to a grim realization about the world.
Here's the problem, though: we just had this character. We've already heard this story. We had Jaina Proudmoore for years, stubbornly clinging to peace with the Horde, but failing at every turn. Her attempts at peace resulted in the destruction of Theramore and the slaughter of her people. She came to that grim realization. Alliance players released a collective sigh of relief when we learned that Jaina was going to go to war. That's what we wanted all along. It turns out Jaina Proudmoore was only replaced with a younger, male version of the same character, only Anduin is in our faces about the topic far more than Jaina ever was. Jaina never gave us quests that made us undermine our own war effort. Anduin does, and to progress through the story, we must support him even if we don't want to do so.
Maybe Anduin is meant to be Jaina's foil. Maybe Anduin will succeed where others did not. If he does, I'm not sure that will bring satisfaction, either. So many have tried before him and we've watched every one of them fail with our own eyes. These people that tried, they tried really hard. Jaina has been at it for nearly a decade now, earnestly trying to form peace. She couldn't do it. If Anduin can, that cheapens Jaina. The players will perceive her as a failure. She'll see herself as a failure. To send her down that road now that she's finally found her fire would be a real waste of potential.
Can neutral factions work in World of Warcraft? Yes, absolutely. Azeroth is an extremely dangerous place and not a day goes by without something stepping up and threatening to render our existence into dust. At this point, the Horde and the Alliance are intelligent enough to make the decision to stab the bigger bad guy for awhile on their own. We need no babysitting. We don't need someone to chastise us. For the Alliance in particular, who has felt like the reactive faction for so many years, neutral characters chastising us on the "greater good" is simply insulting to the player. Don't give us a lecture, just let us fight that good fight, because we will. We will because we want to survive. That's why the Alliance exists. That's why the Alliance was fighting the Horde in the first place. We want to survive. We'll fight anything that tries to eliminate us.
One point that Anne's take on this topic brought up is the role of faction leaders. Anne suggests that, in vanilla Wow, playing Alliance felt good because we had no faction leaders. That made us the hero, and we liked that. Well, as someone who has played Alliance since vanilla, still plays Alliance, and talked to Alliance players every day of those 8 years, I'm willing to say it's not quite true. There's a balance to be had. Heroes are good. Heroes that trivialize us are bad.
Of course we like being the hero. Everybody does. However, being without leaders was crushingly depressing. You all remember how much the Alliance loved Bolvar Fordragon, right? Anne mentioned him, but I feel she understated just how much of an effect he had on the Alliance. Bolvar was all we had. We wanted heroes we could look up to and admire. In the grand scheme of things, Bolvar did very little in vanilla WoW, but at least he did something. What he did was pretty cool and it fit the theme of our faction. We treasured it. That single quest where he gets up and does battle felt amazing, a beacon of what the Alliance could be.
To say we didn't need heroes is inaccurate. We needed them so much that we put any NPC willing to take action on a pedestal. He became near and dear to every Alliance player out there, more important to us than any other character in WoW.
In his early appearances in Wrath of the Lich King, his character remained consistent with those ideals, despite having very little actual writing in classic World of Warcraft. When he shows up in the Dragonblight to fight alongside the player, he's the same man, strong and stoic and brave. Better, he remembers you. He addresses you by name and is thrilled to fight by your side again. He is thrilled to fight alongside you. He is important to you. You are important to him. It was a wonderful interaction. You were both heroes in your own ways.
When he was taken from us later in Wrath of the Lich King, it felt like a dagger in the heart. We were supposed to feel moved by his sacrifice, his choice to become the Lich King, but I don't think we were moved in the way we were meant to be. I think, at that point, we felt empty. He was all we had. He was all we ever had. To this day, we haven't been given anybody that represents the Alliance like he did then. I don't think we've ever recovered from the loss.
Why is that? Why haven't we recovered?
Our leaders don't represent us. We want heroes, but they must be relatable. Varian Wrynn began as a bloodthirsty orc in the skin of a human. We didn't like him very much because he didn't feel like one of us, he didn't feel like he even belonged on our team. Now, he's shed most of his orcish tendencies, but it's left him rather bland. Varian's new persona makes him a soft-spoken, cautious man. Varian has turned into the guy telling our other faction leaders (Tyrande, for example) to chill out. Varian, no! Let them fight the other guys! We want that! Caution isn't fun!
There's a place between bloodthirst and caution where I feel the Alliance should be. Varian went from one extreme of the spectrum to the other. Bolvar hit the right balance. He wasn't a battle-raging madman, but he didn't hesitate to do battle, either. Varian's appearances in Mists of Pandaria are slow and methodical and, as a result, are quite boring. Let's be real here -- we're playing the faction that has a rich history of great paladins and legendary warriors. When you picture Anduin Lothar, you probably imagine him on a battlefield. He isn't eating babies or burning down villages, but he's still out there with Ashkandi in hand, slick with the blood of his enemies, because that's what duty demanded of him. We want to be that. We want to be out there fighting. Our duty demands it.
I've said it before here on WoW Insider, but I've never felt more Alliance than when I was working for Joanna Blueheart in the Swamp of Sorrows. She knew what the Alliance was about. The Alliance doesn't shy from war, but it fights with honor. The alliance doesn't succumb to bloodlust. The Alliance doesn't treat its enemies like animals. We're not in it for the slaughter, but that doesn't mean we won't fight. She didn't want to burn the Horde to the ground. She wanted to act in order to save lives, to end the bloodshed. That's who we are.
Groups like SI:7 that handle situations with stealth and trickery are fantastic as support characters, but not as characters that define the entirety of our faction as they have been this expansion. They're a cog in a war machine, maybe even the lynchpin, but not the whole machine. In Mists of Pandaria, our involvement in events is entirely based around what SI:7 does. That's not the Alliance we've seen in Warcraft games of old. The human campaigns weren't about being sneaky. They were about warriors and paladins, honor and justice. Chris Metzen once said that one of the central themes of the Warcraft universe is brotherhood. Where is it? In the Alliance, we have no brothers. If Varian Wrynn is going to represent humanity in World of Warcraft, he needs to fight. We need to see him leading his people, boots on the ground, on a battlefield. We need to see a Varian Wrynn courageous enough to face down an enemy.
This land is where orcs and humans first spilled each other's blood. Not a mile south lurks Stonard, where the orcs first grouped to invade our lands.
It was here they amassed their armies before we even knew they existed. It was here that they started the first of three wars with their attack on a small Alliance town to the west.
My town. The town where my parents died to save me.
But I'm not here to settle a grudge... I'm here to win a war.
- Joanna Blueheart
Of course, if he does that, it also needs to be done right. Don't trivialize the player. What will make Varian (and other leaders) important to us is if we are just as important to them, like the relationship we had with Bolvar. If Varian can one-shot the universe while we watch, we'll form no attachment. He needs to be treated as one of us. Could Bolvar solo all of those black dragons way back in classic WoW? Yeah, he could, but it took him a damn long time to do it and it wasn't flashy. He didn't look like a super saiyan in the throne room with paticle effects blasting out of his every orifice. He was a man with a sword standing up against terrible odds and triumphing despite them. When you look at Varian, he's ridiculously over-the-top in comparison.
"Gamefeel" is both an issue of mechanics and story. Mechanically, WoW usually does an admirable job. If you crit an enemy, your number flashes bigger, and the bad guy makes a unique grunting noise, as if in pain. Quests are generally well-paced, meaning you get rewards at consisent intervals. When you push a button, your attack begins immediately. Certain other games delay your attack in favor of very complex animations. It's pretty, but it creates bad gamefeel.
Bolvar had a simple appearance, a simple set of attacks, and when he went to battle, it took him a long time to kill something. It felt good, both to watch and to participate. That made him more relatable to the players. We've all been there. When we fight an elite monster, it can be a long, grueling fight. Bolvar had the same experience. However, when we see Varian Wrynn in battle, he's covered in sparkles, has an armor set that looks completely unlike something the player can access, and he 1-shots absolutely everything that comes his way without a care in the world. In Battle for the Undercity, he was wading through hundreds of enemies significantly larger than himself and never slowed down. He's a god. He's alien to us. We can't do that. We don't live that. We can't relate. His existence in the game world lessens our own. It feels bad.
The Alliance wants heroes, no question about that, but we want heroes who are a reflection of what we stand for and who we are. Varian Wrynn could supply that, but he doesn't. Many of our faction leaders don't. Right now, we have faction leaders better suited for books than games. In a book, characters are who they are and you view events through the eyes and voice of the narrator. In games, characters need to represent something to the player, because we're viewing the events through our own eyes. There is no narrator. Lorewalker Cho isn't telling us this story on a stage. We are standing there as a part of the world ourselves. Since we're standing there as the story happens, the story needs to recognize us. Our leaders need to represent who we are, acknowledging what we've done.
In addition to Bolvar Fordragon, there's another example where this concept is pulled off wonderfully. The Alliance already had them, but they were taken from us, just as Bolvar was.
The 7th Legion
The 7th Legion made its first appearance all the way back in classic WoW as part of the organization that fought the Qiraji in Silithus. According to High Commander Halford Wyrmbane, their history is a long one: they fought in the Third War, they fought in Silithus, and they fought the Burning Legion during the Burning Crusade. When they mentioned their involvement, they didn't take credit for the victories, they just said they were there. They didn't take our victories away from us; they added to them. They impressed upon us that our actions were part of a significantly larger war effort. We were part of something big.
- High Commander Halford Wyrmbane Human Warrior
- Duke August Foehammer Dwarven Warrior
- Cavalier Durkon Dwarven Paladin
- Highlord Leoric Von Zeldig Human Paladin
- Commander Lynore Wyndstrike Night Elven Huntress
- Siege Engineer Quarterflash Gnomish Engineer
What happened to them? In Cataclysm, High Commander Halford Wyrmbane became the end-boss of Isle of Conquest for the Horde. The 7th Legion, as an entity, was sent off to Silverpine Forest to be culled by the Forsaken to make the Horde feel badass. Because sacking Gilneas and driving the Gilneans/worgen from their homeland was insufficient, right?
This happens often when the Alliance sees some glimmer of heroism. Their existence is cut short and they are discarded. Our heroes are created to die. Rather than building upon the rich foundation of the Alliance, weaving new stories with elements that have existed there all along, these strong story threads are thrown in the trash to try something else. That's not how it works. You don't change a faction with decades of history in one content patch. You look at what you have and build on that potential. Mists of Pandaria has done some of this with SI:7, bringing some select characters back from prior expansions. So far, that's working out, but it's a very small piece of what could be done with everything the Alliance has possessed over the years.
Make this group Varian Wrynn's go-to. Hell, let the player join them. When Varian Wrynn deploys the 7th Legion, we go with them, we are a part of this brotherhood that makes up the backbone of the Alliance. This can be the new Silver Hand, the shining beacon of what makes the Alliance great. When the Alliance makes landfall on some new, far off land, this is the vanguard. We are the vanguard. We take the fight to whatever goes bump in the night.
SI:7 is intelligence and reconnaissance, but when it's time to get dirty, the 7th Legion rolls in. That is how the Alliance fights a war.
If Hemet Nesingwary can show up every single expansion, these guys can, too. In fact, I think players seeing familiar faces on a regular basis would only increase engagement in quests, not decrease it. Comraderie with questgivers goes a long way.
Overall, the Alliance doesn't need an enormous, epic story to feel heroic. We don't need to change the world. Our victories don't need to be victories over the Horde. It's much simpler than that. They can be victories over any antagonist, as long as they're Alliance victories, independent of actions taken by the Horde or a neutral party. Taking decisive, victorious action over the mogu can feel good. If the Burning Legion is making a return in the near future, that's kind of our specialty, isn't it?
Involve us in something we can actually impact. Tell us an Alliance story for the Alliance and by the Alliance. We're paladins of Stormwind, agents of SI:7, dwarven mountaineers, draenei vindicators, and so many other things. We are the Alliance.
One thing we're not? Darkspear Revolutionaries.
Update: Dave Kosak has confirmed that Darkspear Revolutionary will not be the Alliance title in patch 5.3. That's the danger of datamining, folks! However, that doesn't change the overall point of this post -- the Alliance isn't feeling left out because of a title. Everything else outlined here contributes.