It wasn't until after a few weeks of raiding Siege of Orgrimmar that it really hit me: Mists of Pandaria is winding down. Unless Blizzard has a fast one up its sleeve, this is the last tier of raiding before the new expansion, whatever that happens to be. It seems almost too fast, seeing as how we've just hit the one-year anniversary for Mists, but at the same time the faster pace has left me very little time to be bored. Between patches with raid content and patches with quest content, there has always been something to do -- and in patch 5.4, we get not only a new raid, but a delightful island on which to while away the hours.
And I was flying to the Timeless Isle to go farm a rare mob or two when I started thinking about the expansion as it comes to its end. More specifically, the Jade Forest. A lush, tropical paradise the likes of which we hadn't really seen in such scale, the gorgeous scenery and introductory quests ushered players through what ended up being an emotional, gripping, and overall entertaining roller coaster of an expansion. But there's a catch to that. Once upon a time, the Jade Forest wore a very different face -- and had it gone live, Pandaria itself may have looked very, very different to players.
Introduction to Pandaria
In the first iteration of the Mists of Pandaria beta, the Jade Forest had a very, very different introduction on both sides. Later on, as the beta progressed, the Jade Forest was shut down. When it re-opened, we saw the quests and hubs that made it to the official launch. As for those old introductory quests, they were never to be seen again. But besides the quest changes, the Jade Forest had a very different change in the overall feeling of the zone -- and although later quests in the zone remained the same, the weight of those quests, the tone of those quests shifted simply by merit of what had come before.
My experience with these early quests was on a Horde character -- I copied my main to the beta as soon as I could. If I recall correctly, premade characters were not an option at that point -- my memory is fuzzy as far as that goes. But the memories of those early quests are clear as a bell, because they were so very, very different from anything we'd seen in Warcraft before. Although there was no opening cinematic sequence, your arrival on Pandaria was marked by a crash site -- nothing more. There was no friendly nearby pandaren town, there was simply a vast stretch of forboding forests crawling with critters that were up to no good.
In short, it was you, the character, the player, waking up to find that the crew of your airship was by and large either dead or scattered, and it was up to you to find them. Early quests included searching for the by-now familiar members of that Horde scouting party, gathering supplies for the injured, and carrying the bodies of the dead to the cliffs -- to toss them over the edge and give them some semblance of a burial at sea. Players eventually managed to establish a base camp -- but there weren't really any Alliance to be found.
More importantly, there was nary a pandaren -- or a sha -- in sight.
Stranger in a strange land
This odd introduction had the even odder affect of making one feel like they were well and truly alone. Add to this the quests themselves -- which weren't given away by friendly NPCs, but instead simply fed to you over the course of the first part of the zone -- and you got the distinct feeling of being completely stranded. But there was another twist to this, and it was an interesting twist -- the quests, presented to you as "You find x and decide it might be useful to the crew. In fact, you decide you should gather more of it," had the odd side effect of making you feel as though your character was cleverly figuring things out on their own.
In this aspect, it really worked. After all, by this point in time in WoW's lifetime, your character had gone to Outland, defeated the Lich King, and prevented the end of the world. By all rights, your character ought to be clever enough to figure out how to survive in foreign wilderness. And the fact that you were helping your comrades recover and recuperate from whatever tremendous event that had caused the airship to crash in the first place made you feel less like a soldier following orders, and more like a valuable individual, fully aware and in charge of their own actions.
It wasn't until later that you would discover yourself slowly tumbling in a mad free-fall of action and reaction, slowly and inevitably leading to the climax of the zone. The sha were never introduced in this original introduction -- you didn't discover what they were, or even that they existed, until the climax of the zone ... when it was far too late to do anything about them. Taran Zhu never showed up in this original iteration of the Jade Forest, and you were never given any warnings -- you were simply pulled along with the story, helpless to choose another direction, all the while getting an increasingly ill feeling in the pit of your stomach that something was definitely ... wrong.
As for the pandaren, your first introduction to the pandaren race was Lorewalker Cho -- and he was a different character, too.
The two faces of Cho
Players encountered Cho at the same point in the game as they do on live -- but he was a very different character. Unlike the friendly, jovial storyteller who curiously and eagerly talks your ear off about who you are, where you come from, whether or not your traditions are the same, Cho was instead...a little curt. A little gruff. Not enough to be unfriendly, but just enough to be wary. And rather than ask you to read some rocks, he instead tried to subtly feel you out and see if you knew the finer arts of meditation in a mini-game that didn't make the cut for release.
In this mini-game, players were presented with a bar and a sliding marker. The point of the exercise was to keep the marker in the middle of the bar and achieve a successful state of zen. If the bar fell too far one way or another, players would fall into blissful slumber or otherwise get jolted out of the meditation exercise. Cho played a large part in this, because he would not leave the player alone. He'd poke, prod, take a swing -- basically trying to knock you out of that meditative state. And if you failed, your only choice was to suck it up and try again.
The Cho from the early days of beta was less of a friendly storyteller, and more of a Mr. Miyagi -- a testy, wary, wise old dude who was deliberately sizing you up to see if you were a threat. This was your first interaction with the pandaren -- not a friendly welcome, but a wary "Who are you" that carried on until you encountered the much more friendly and curious pandaren of Dawn's Blossom. He warmed up to you, over time -- but you had to win him over and show him you could make smart choices, first.
What makes all of this interesting to me is the deliberate change in tone. Although the Jade Forest revamp did nothing more than change those first moments in Pandaria, it shifted the overall feel of the zone. But one zone does not an expansion make -- and the later exploits in Pandaria looked very different with those few changes to that introduction. In one case, we were completely unaware of the sha -- in fact, the pandaren as a whole seemed to be blissfully unaware of the sha. The pinnacle of the original beta was the moment in which Cho sent players to his family shrine, high above Serpent's Heart to meditate -- and meditating caused a small, strange, black beast to spawn and attack the player. It had a name. Sha.
And then all hell broke loose.
In this alternate Pandaria, we didn't know what we were doing. The mosaic at Emperor's Omen was a mystery. And that made the end result of those actions even more heartbreaking -- because we simply didn't know. It made going into the Valley of the Four Winds an exercise in repentance, with full knowledge of what we had done. It made the journey into Kun Lai, Townlong Steppes, and eventually the Dread Wastes a journey of discovery, one that uncovered just how fatal that first, initial, uninformed mistake had been. We didn't see the scope of what we had done until we discovered it, as we quested. Each new discovery was another moment of quiet horror and regret.
In the end, the biggest difference came from this. In one instance, we unleashed hell on Pandaria simply by virtue of our existence and our actions. We had no idea what lay inside of us, the potential for destruction, until we unleashed it -- and then we had to contemplate and come to terms with the fact that regardless of our heroics elsewhere, we were essentially weapons. Ticking time bombs which, if left to our own devices in the wilds of the world, would quickly detonate.
In the live version, we have a different version of the same tale. Oh yes, we are time bombs. In fact, we knew we were time bombs. Taran Zhu told us as much as soon as he rushed in and discovered what we had done. He told us of the sha, and we saw the results of the sha shortly after dropping into the zone. Yet Cho was there to greet us later, and he was friendly, he was kind. Despite what we had done, despite Taran Zhu's curt warning, Cho wanted to let us know we were welcome in Pandaria.
In one case, we had no idea what we were doing, and we unleashed hell on the continent. In the other, we knew exactly what we were doing -- and we proceeded to unleash hell anyway. Taran Zhu's warning fell on deaf ears. When you think about it, you have to wonder which is worse -- ruining a lost paradise because of ignorance, or being fully cognizant of what you are doing, and deliberately choosing the path of destruction.
The changes to Jade Forest were needed, of course -- the original iteration of the zone, the original iteration of Cho were both a far cry from what the developers wanted. But it's interesting to look back on the old quests, the interactions and events long gone and wonder what the face of Mists, the moral of the story might look like today if they had been left untouched.