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The dilemma of Darrowshire and Warcraft's creep factor

I remember my first encounter with Pamela vividly. It was vanilla, years and years ago, and I discovered a quest in Winterspring offered by a woman named Jessica Redpath, who had very little else to say. In between all the usual round of Winterspring quests was this woman, who asked that I go check on the town she grew up in called Darrowshire. It was all the way in the Eastern Plaguelands, but I figured for a change of pace from all the snow and desolation I'd go check it out.

Not only were the Eastern Plaguelands exceptionally creepy and bizarre in terms of architecture, especially compared to anything on Kalimdor, but the sounds and music for the zone were incredibly eerie as well. And when I finally found Darrowshire, I found a deserted collection of dilapidated buildings, and one lone question mark off in a corner -- belonging to the ghost of a very dead little girl.

And every hair on the back of my neck simultaneously stood up.


Vanilla Plaguelands

Cue the violins and the Psycho soundtrack, because things were about to get really creepy. The subsequent series of quests sent me back to the Western Plaguelands, where I discovered Chillwind Camp and an entirely different series of quests. Andorhal was overrun by a host of disturbing undead skeletons, zombies and liches, and the entire zone was devoid of any kind of natural life save for the occasional Scarlet Crusade encampment. And the Scarlet Crusade were about as happy to see me as they were any member of the Scourge.

This was the Plaguelands in vanilla -- an entirely hostile chunk of land that was blatant evidence of the havoc wreaked by the Scourge back in Warcraft III. Nothing there was particularly friendly, and there was certainly very little in the way of funny moments. In fact, the entirety of both zones felt like breath being held, the stench of decay almost palpable through the screen. And over all of that, an inescapable sadness that all of this, all of the land and the surrounding forests used to be lush farmland, bustling villages and homes once upon a time.

But with all that desolation were some of the most beautifully sad quests in the history of Warcraft. Each home along the winding roads of Western Plaguelands had its own quests, usually involving the former residents and the horrific things that had happened to them. Some had mementos to be returned to living relatives all the way in Stormwind, some simply wanted to be released from the torturous grip of undeath.

And today, all of those quests are gone.
Today's Plaguelands

It's not a bad change. The revamp to the Plaguelands has re-worked the zones to show that yes, progress is being made and the Argent Crusade is taking steps to set things right. There are even sections that are now green and healthy, stark contrasts to the old, never-ending scenery of decay. Each zone has its own major storyline that plays out, with other quests and stories that are neatly tucked and dovetailed into that main story arc. And the main storylines are clever and intriguing. Who doesn't want to know what the heck happened to Koltira Deathweaver? Who doesn't want to see the Scarlet Crusade stomped firmly into dust?

In the Eastern Plaguelands, a different kind of story takes place -- you become a member of a traveling caravan that continually picks up more passengers over time. In that caravan story is the story of little Pamela and Darrowshire, now compact and requiring far less travel time. The characters in the caravan are deftly written and their banter is entertaining, and the entire quest chain takes you through the whole zone in one purposeful sweep that ends with a suitably dramatic conclusion.

But it's not creepy anymore. It's not that there isn't emotion to be found in either of the zones, it's that it pales in comparison to what was there before. In vanilla, each zone served as a collection of delightfully creepy little ghost stories, WoW's very own version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They were reminders of exactly how horrific the Plaguelands and the Scourge could be. Wrath of the Lich King continued this in its own way, serving up several reminders of Warcraft's spooky history in the form of quests involving the discovery of Frostmourne, and the haunting tale of Matthias Lehner in Icecrown.

Where are the ghost stories now?
The creep factor

Honestly, we haven't seen them. Cataclysm revamped the Plaguelands and served up a charming group of stories that work really well for leveling players. Mists of Pandaria has several moments that are disturbing, but nothing that compares to the out and out creep factor that the Plaguelands once held. As I was leveling an alt through the Plaguelands, I realized that we haven't had that chills-down-your-spine feeling since Wrath -- it was taken out in Cataclysm, and we never really got it back again. And although what we've been given is some wonderful story, I really miss being creeped out.

Why do the crypts beneath Karazhan hold so much appeal for players, even though they've never been actual content? Because they represent some of the creepiest, most horrifying stuff we've ever seen in the game. And creepy stuff is fun. Being scared is entertaining. It's why campfire stories are fun to tell -- because there's nothing quite like working up yourself and your friends into a terrified frenzy and feeling that peculiar adrenaline rush that something is out to get you, when you know perfectly well you're safe and sound.

I miss that in Warcraft. It's part of what made Wrath so engaging and fun. It wasn't just that Arthas was one of the pinnacle villains of the franchise, it was that Arthas' story was so ridiculously creepy and terrifying and in some small way, something players could relate to. Just like the ghost stories in the Plaguelands, haunting cautionary tales of sadness and woe, meant to scare the pants off of us and make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand on end.

I realize Warlords isn't exactly the kind of expansion where ghost stories naturally come into play, but I hope we see some kind of creep factor return. It was one of those hallmarks of what really made Warcraft unique -- a game that could be out and out silly at times, throw in a million pop culture references, yet still offer the kind of tales that haunt us just as readily as those old ghosts in the Plaguelands, gone but not forgotten.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Lore

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