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Siege of Orgrimmar and the world of the idea

Siege of Orgrimmar and the ideas we experience in World of Warcraft
Last night while raiding Orgrimmar, specifically while coming into the gates of the city past the Iron Juggernaut, I had this intense feeling of recognition layered with the discontinuity changes bring. It's a similar feeling to when you go back to the city or town you grew up in after a few years. Things have changed, but you still recognize most of it - tiny flashes of memory jump out, saying (in this case) "Hey, remember hovering over Grommash Hold in your flying mount waiting for raid" and then "This was always my favorite Auction House, I wonder if I left anything up before I switched factions" but at the same time the cages and wandering Kor'kron mobs lent a surreal air to the whole experience.

I'd spent the whole night distracted anyway by the little touches of the raid so far - the fight with the Fallen Protectors started a chain of thought that stayed with me. These people were dead because, in part, of actions I'd taken while I was playing as Horde. After all, I stood next to Garrosh in the Shrine of Two Moons as he said that he would learn from the mogu. I helped him steal the Divine Bell from Darnassus. I watched him use it on Ichi, discarding a loyal servant like a broken toy when it didn't work. And more of course - I served Hellscream in breaching the Jade Forest, bringing the war that my faction was waging to foreign shores, and disrupted the cycle of rebirth for the Jade Serpent, loosing the Sha upon the forest. I snuck into Theramore and freed the Horde agent who helped keep Alliance civilians in the city for the bomb to destroy.

Now of course, I didn't actually do any of those things because it is a game. Garrosh Hellscream is a voice actor's craft and a mass of pixels reading lines written by Blizzard's team of writers. What I find interesting, and overlooked at times by players like myself, is the opportunity to muse on the ideas presented to us by the game. What would it be like to return to Orgrimmar as a soldier invading it? What would it feel like to bear a certain responsibility for the ruin of a peaceful valley, the destruction of people who had only sought to protect their home? To see a beautiful land scarred by a monstrous act, and know that the act couldn't have happened without your assistance, however small, and however deeply you regretted it? For me, part of the fun of playing the game is in thinking differently than I usually do, to explore the ideas presented by the story as I move through it. I mean, at one point we actually have to kill pride. That's the subtext leaping forth from the head of the text, that is.
Siege of Orgrimmar and the ideas we experience in World of Warcraft
To use another example from a recent quest chain - in patch 5.1 I was playing a worgen. So when I went to Dalaran, and Jaina Proudmoore decided to expel the blood elves of the Sunreavers, I took the quests from Vereesa Windrunner and I purged the city. At the time, I went along with it because, well, it's a quest and that's what you do, but I also did it because I felt like to a worgen, who'd had his home plague bombed by the Horde invaders, any form of retribution would feel perfectly justified. Would feel perfectly justified, mind you, because what I did - murdering shopkeepers in their places of business, killing a man in the bank so he couldn't withdraw his own money, stalking and assassinating Sunreavers for the crime of trying to defend their own people from an assault they had no expectation of and no idea why it happened - was not admirable. It was easy for me to come up with a story justification for it, but that didn't make it right and it took me a while to really think about what the quests were saying about war and about our participation in it.

This isn't new to this expansion. Back in Wrath of the Lich King, the entire death knight starting zone presents you with a buffet of atrocities committed by you, and those quests clearly indicate that even as you are shaking off the influence of the Lich King, you continue to commit those atrocities - every death knight is therefore complicit in the horrors of the Scourge and the Lich King, and as a result the destruction of same becomes deeply personal, a quest for the only form of redemption left to a walking corpse who feeds on sorrow, pain and misery, encasing herself in death to shun the pain of a life she can no longer feel. (My first DK was a human woman.) Thinking about what that would be like - contemplating being personally implicated in something so monstrous - has rewards both in terms of story engagement and in its relation to the world we actually live in. Not to put too fine a point on it, but whether you support or oppose your nation's actions and its leadership, you're always part of it, and so a story where players come face to face with actions they could never support is worthwhile for the light it shines on our own experiences.
Siege of Orgrimmar and the ideas we experience in World of Warcraft

The explorations of these themes - how much responsibility do we bear for the actions taken in our name or by our leadership, what price rebellion, what happens when you become as bad as the thing you yourself oppose - are worth considering. When a player explored Zul'Drak in Wrath, they got to see a society besieged by forces of horrific undeath that it could not directly conquer, and saw the lengths it went through to survive. While the particulars are fantastic - armies of undead, the life essences of godlike Loa spirits drained and consumed in an attempt to stem the tide of inevitability - it translates to an experience we can well relate to, since in every person's life sooner or later we come face to face with something we can't overcome and we have to learn either to accept it, or watch ourselves destroy everything we care about in a mad flailing to avoid it. The questline in Westfall in Cataclysm isn't just a chance to re-use the Defias in a leveling zone, it gives us a view of a monster created by well-meaning people, about how with the best of intentions we can sometimes make the world a worse place. These ideas aren't literally true - to my knowledge, I've never actually hacked off Edwin VanCleef's head and turned it in for a pair of mail pants in front of his young daughter - but they're representative.

If you leveled up in the Borean Tundra and did the Kirin Tor quests there, you had a choice - you could complete a quest where you torture an agent of Malygos for information, or you don't get the quests to go over to Coldarra. You don't progress if you don't torture a man. This quest is amazingly disquieting, in part because of its stark brutality and in part because it presents you with a simple dichotomy - do you abandon your goals and leave for somewhere else (which is much easier for your World of Warcraft character than it would be for a real live person) or do you do it? Do you torture him? I admit it - I chose to torture him. I never forgot my choice, and I wouldn't do it again today - just contemplating the action, the idea implicit in it, has been enough to change the way I approach the game. It's enriched the game, but also, it's given me a means to think about something I will hopefully never actually experience.
Siege of Orgrimmar and the ideas we experience in World of Warcraft

The interesting thing about Siege of Orgrimmar for me is that it as a raid is designed to show you the consequences of actions taken, including your own. Everything has led up to this moment - ever since we set foot in Pandaria and began recruiting Hozen and/or Jinyu to serve as proxies, we set out on the river that led to this shore. Having done the Horde quests, I remember Nazgrim as a harried but loyal soldier of the Horde who depended on me, trusted me. I was his right hand, effectively - Nazgrim asked me to find him a way out of his predicament and I went forth and made it happen. The entire Jade Forest campaign is a result of my having aided Nazgrim, and worse, of my having been off with Lorewalker Cho while Nazgrim put his plan into motion. Nazgrim's push into Kun-Lai Summit would have failed utterly without me there to help him. We served together in the Grizzly Hills, we came through Vashj'ir together, and within the week I'll be killing him. Again, he's not a real person - what he is really is a chance to contemplate a situation humans have found themselves in over and over again throughout our history, without actually having to go participate in a bloody uprising. What is it like to fight someone you respect who just can't see things your way? What does it mean to die honorably, and to extend honor even to those you kill? Can there be a just war?

These, and many others, are the ideas woven through what is ultimately a really fun way to pass a few hours in game. I don't mean to sound like all I do when I raid is think deep thoughts - nothing could be further from the truth. Mostly, I gleefully unleash the full arsenal of my character's ludicrous powers to make big yellow numbers float above the fray until everything that isn't on my side stops moving and sparkles. But the ideas are there, if you choose to take some time to think about them. And the exploration of those ideas can add something to your experience.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Lore, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria

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