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Warcraft as the anything-goes fantasy

I was playing Diablo III last night after playing WoW, because I hate it when days happen and I see the sun, when it occurred to me that the two settings are very different in a variety of ways, and one of the big ones is this - you could (and have) basically fit the entire thematic kit of the Diablo setting inside WoW, but you couldn't do the same in reverse. There's not enough room, for lack of a better word, for all of Warcraft inside Sanctuary. What do I mean by that? Well, Diablo as a setting has specific themes - the war between Heaven and Hell, Sanctuary created by dissidents from both sides, the creation of humanity by said defectors, and Diablo's plans to enlist or subvert humans to fight in said war between these polar opposites.

Warcraft has a host of demons that seek to destroy all reality that can easily stand-in for the hosts of Hell from Diablo, and the risen dead we see in places like Tristram is if anything small potatoes compared to the plague of undeath we see in the Plaguelands. But WoW contains multitudes that have little to nothing to do with them - the Old Gods are a completely different kind of menace and one that there's no place for in Diablo. Similarly, the many races of the Warcraft setting have no place in the cosmology of the Diablo setting.

Part of the reason for this is the origin of each game - while both have Dungeons and Dragons in their DNA, Diablo has always been a more straightforward dungeon crawl while Warcraft was originally an RTS with deep roots in the orc vs. human gameplay element. As an RTS, and one with two competing factions, new units helped create diversity and gameplay, and as a result having these new units be of different races gave flavor to the setting. Diablo has always been about you, alone in a vast dunegon complex or infested region, destroying waves of foes by yourself or with a small group - the variety came in terms of different kinds of foes to destroy and the ways you did so.


Over time the Warcraft setting has become the computer game equivalent of Walt Whitman's oft-quoted Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

The sprawling, all inclusive nature of Warcraft as a setting means that by 2014 (ten years after the game began, and twenty years after the first game in the series has incorporated into itself elements such as space gods, dimensional travel, shattered worlds suspended in the void between realities, demons, crystalline entities of pure light, a magical curse that can make the unliving turn into beings of flesh and blood, rocks that make you smarter and a host of entities such as the Loa, Ancients, August Celestials, and dragon Aspects. Multitudes indeed.

I've often complained about there being a few too many pop culture in-jokes and references in World of Warcraft but they've always been there, because the setting comes from a place somewhere between Warhammer and classic D&D before adding its particular spin on the elements it absorbs. Warcraft is something akin to the Borg in that regard - it can and does assimilate many disparate elements and ideas to service the overall goal of providing people with new things to do. The scale of the setting has forever expanded - from the relatively small scale of the first RTS to the expansion of Warcraft II to include the entire continent, and then to take players through the Dark Portal and into Draenor itself, and Warcraft III's introduction of Kalimdor and Northrend the setting has forever changed and grown with every installment.

It's now a game with kung-fu pandas doing battle with the orcish war machine, to give just one example of elements one doesn't necessarily expect to see together. Within this one setting, you can play as a walking, talking corpse, a minotaur, a purple warrior elf in tune with darkness and the night, or a werewolf - familiar elements from other fantasy settings or myths, given a new spin by Blizzard as they were incorporated. Let's be honest - night elves owe more than a little to Dungeons and Dragons' Drow, but Blizzard definitely didn't just cut and paste them - they're an entirely different kind of elf. Similarly, the evolution of the orc over three Warcraft games goes from the Tolkien 'inspired' Warhammer/D&D versions and becomes its own beast, allowing for a wide range of portrayals of orcs from demonic blood addicts to noble shamans and everything in between. A character like Garrosh Hellscream, despite his hearkening back to the early days of the setting, could never have existed back then due to his far more textured and nuanced portrayal.

What I find interesting about this development is that, in many ways, Warcraft reminds me of that homebrew D&D campaign you hear about (and sometimes play in) that's gone on for years and years, starting and restarting, as various players come and go and their characters become enshrined NPC's in the setting. It's taken in new cosmological elements, effectively reinvented itself from time to time - the game we're playing in 2014 has grown in all directions from its roots in 1994. I don't think the MMO could have happened if the original games hadn't created that tradition of expansion, of whole new continents just appearing out of nowhere, of new races and new units appearing to create new kinds of gameplay. The vast diversity of theme and tone in Warcraft from in-jokes referencing Star Wars to the inner torment of being infected with a curse that transforms you into a monster has come from the desire on the part of its developers to be expansive, to make room for new ideas. It's much more of a 'you want to do that - let's see if we can make it happen' setting.

Now if you'll excuse me, my werewolf who was raised from the dead as an champion of unholy power by a former prince turned King of all Undead, who I rebelled against and slew, has to go tend to his farm before he teams up with a gnome priest, a blue hoofed space woman who talks to rocks and fire, and some others to go fight an entity that kills you with your own egotism. Later we're going to force our pets to fight for our amusement.


Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Blizzard

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