We stand on the edge of patch 5.4 -- Orgrimmar is about to be invaded, and Garrosh Hellscream is about to be dethroned and likely killed. The decision to make a playable faction's leader the end boss of an expansion is a pretty surprising one, and as is to be expected, has been met with mixed feelings from many among the player base, myself included. I admit, Garrosh holds a very special place in my heart. Back at the end of 2009, Blizzard called me up and asked if I would be willing to write his leader story, to hopefully give some more depth to a character who was at the time much maligned. The prospect was incredibly daunting, and I was terrified, but keen for a challenge, I agreed.
As often happens when you spend enough time getting into the head of a character or two (or more), that fictional person begins to grow on you. When I started Heart of War I will admit I had little love for the younger Hellscream. I thought him brash, full of himself, and woefully ignorant of Azeroth. But I went into the story production armed with the following philosophy: everyone is the protagonist of their own story. As such, I was determined to give Garrosh, as my Australian husband sometimes quips, a fair shake of the sauce bottle.
I admit I still think of Garrosh much as I did before: brash, full of himself, and woefully ignorant of Azeroth and its history. Still, as I worked on his story, going through draft after draft, I began to see beyond that veneer. What I felt I glimpsed was, in reality, the core of a frightened man, abandoned by his family yet saddled with legacy of that same family's greatest shame, stricken ill and bedridden among a society that valued physical warrior prowess above all. Here was someone desperate to prove himself, yet terrified to do just that, lest he go too far. In his heart of hearts, I felt Garrosh was powerfully insecure. To this day I believe that he, as a character, is defined by insecurity in a way that no other major figure in WoW ever has been.
Which makes Garrosh's story all the more heartbreaking. For here it is, at last -- that despondent and in many ways pathetic Garrosh we first met in Nagrand -- his worst fears are coming true. He has become exactly what he feared he would, if given the opportunity. There's an aching tragedy in that. It's not, fundamentally, a satisfying character narrative arc. In fact, it's a rather terrifying one.
And I love it. I love that Blizzard won't pull that punch. It's not the first time Blizzard has done this to a character so many of us wanted so much more for. Kael'thas Sunstrider was a popular character from Warcraft III, and to many fans our re-introduction to him in The Burning Crusade was an unpleasant shock. I know a lot of people who held out with a shred of hope, after it was revealed that he hadn't actually died at Tempest Keep, that he would still ultimately be redeemed and return to Quel'Thalas a triumphant king. That is the direction we both wanted and expected the narrative to take.
We were disappointed. Kael'thas came back even worse than before, a shell of his former self, to be destroyed for good. Like Garrosh, there is no satisfaction in this character arc. It is all tragedy, but it is, in my opinion, interesting tragedy. Garrosh and Kael'thas, they are stories that say, "Sometimes there is no going back." Sometimes, you don't deserve to be forgiven. The people you have led, the people you have loved, they can choose to tell you, "No." Sometimes, you simply lose.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me tweet enthusiastically about Final Fantasy VI. I love that game for the same reason I love the stories of Garrosh and Kael'thas. I love it because halfway through the game, the villain wins. He destroys the world, despite your every effort to stop him, and literally kills its gods. You start again, a year after the calamity, and everything you knew is wrong. Your journey, then, is not just about how to defeat Kefka -- because defeat him you will, he is a tyrant who must be stopped -- but about how to go on. And even when you do win against Kefka, you can't fix what happened. The damage is permanent. You are left with a world whose maps have been rewritten overnight, whose faith is literally dead, and whose power, magic, evaporates forever with your final, Pyrrhic, victory.
That is heavy. And really, really atypical for a fantasy setting, which is, let's face it, usually about our fantasies -- and those don't often involve losing spectacularly and being forced to live with the loss.
And yet, sometimes I think these stories are better. Sometimes they're even more inspiring than the redemption. Kael'thas is gone and the blood elves have, somehow, had to keep going. Their final, greatest hope destroyed, they had to stop waiting for him to restore their nation, and get to work restoring it themselves. Garrosh has crossed the threshold of no return and his Horde is devouring itself, but from the catastrophe will arise something new and, hopefully, better. The ancient tree that dies and falls leaves a hole in the canopy through which light can finally reach the forest floor.
Garrosh and Kael'thas both failed. Those of us who wanted to see their stories end in success can mourn that in our own silly, fannish ways, through blog posts and Twitter conversations and endless debates on the Story Forums (if we dare). But the thwarting of their heroic narratives has left so many more interesting possibilities for WoW's overall narrative, that I can't be too sad about it. What do you do when tragedy strikes? What else can you do, but pick up and go on?