Monday, 24 December 2012

WoW – A special look at – foreword

Happy Christmas everybody. However, since I don't celebrate the holiday, you're getting nothing special, just another article.

I've mentioned a few times now that I want to take a closer look at the alliance. However, as I was writing that article, I realized I had written down a lot of stuff that had more to do with my views on general warcraft lore rather than the alliance. Since that stuff was still necessary to understand where I was coming from with several of my arguments, I decided to give it an article of its own. So, let's begin.

What do I like about Warcraft?
Let's start with a simple, but important question: Why do I care about warcraft? There's hundreds of fantasy universes, so why did I choose to focus on this one? To my surprise, I was actually able to boil down the reasons pretty well.

Reason 1: Diversity: As a setting, the warcraft universe is INCREDIBLY diverse. This started as early as warcraft 2, where there were no less than 28 different factions involved (11 nations in the alliance, 7 orcish clans on Azeroth, 6 orcish clans on Draenor, the dragons of Alexstrasza, the dragons of Deathwing, the death knights of Draenor, the trolls and the goblins). Admittedly, these factions were not very developed, but it wasn't really necessary. They had enough characterization to be unique, and for players to relate and favor certain factions.

As more warcraft products came out, the number of factions only grew, each with unique characteristics. The characterization for some of the new factions was also much more extensive than that of the original 28, which meant that people could identify much more strongly with them. You certainly see a lot more fans of the night elves than you see fans of Stromgarde. However, while the books offered some development for them, warcraft 3 mostly left the original 28 factions alone, so it could focus on people who had split off to form their own groups (Thrall, Jaina, the Lich King, Sylvanas) or completely new factions (night elves, darkspear trolls, tauren). The old factions were pretty much cannon fodder throughout the campaign or were only seen as team names during victory screens. Really, only three returning factions served as anything more than cannon fodder: The Warsong Clan, Quel'thalas and Kul Tiras. Even Lordaeron, which served as the stage for a large number of missions, was really just a backdrop.

World of Warcraft tried to do something similar to Warcraft 3, giving much more development to the new factions than to the old. The dark iron dwarves, the many new troll tribes and the silithid were all given extensive backstories and connections to the previous games. However, this didn't work out as well as it did before. Warcraft 3 had been an RTS, with each map being only a tiny portion of the planet. If it wanted to ignore a faction, it simply didn't put any missions within that faction's borders. However, world of warcraft is an RPG, with a gameworld covering most of the known landmasses of Azeroth. It can't just skip over a faction the writers didn't properly develop.

That's not to say the writers didn't try though. Dalaran locked itself off for no real reason, the remnants of Alterac got wiped out off-screen, Gilneas blocked itself off with a wall, Kul Tiras and Crestfall weren't included on the map, Stromgarde fell to the syndicate, the hillsbrad foothills suddenly belonged to Stormwind with no mention of what happened to Calia, the Shattered Hand, Twilight's Hammer and Burning Blade clans stopped being clans and the Frostwolf Clan retreated to a single battleground. Not to mention the factions that simply vanished, like the Bleeding Hollow Clan, the Stormreaver Clan, four of the five goblin cartels and the Shadowtooth Tribe. There were also the groups that blizzard didn't develop, but didn't minimize, like the gnolls, the makrura, the ogres, the harpies, the ancients, the dryads, the troggs and the kobolds.

However, that's not to say the diversity is gone. On the contrary, the warcraft world has become more diverse than ever, thanks to the expansions. These were generally a lot better at adding new cultural elements to the world, mostly because they took place in lands that were largely unexplored, leaving room for the writers to add new stuff. Even Cataclysm, which had severe problems in pretty much every regard, gave us interesting new factions. The expansions did have a few problems of their own in this regard though, but we'll address those at a later point.

Reason 2: Clear backstory. In one aspect, the warcraft universe is pretty much unique amongst the popular fantasy franchises: It has an extensive, but easily understood backstory, especially when it comes to ancient history. To show what I mean, its best to compare it to some other franchises. In lord of the rings, the ancient history is given in The Silmarillion, which makes use of such complicated language and extensive metaphors (and things that seem like metaphors but are are actually meant literally) that it becomes incomprehensible to many readers. In Star Wars, the backstory has to be puzzled together from at least a hundred different expanded universe books, much of which contradicts each other or the new movies and television series. For The Elder Scrolls I can't even properly describe the backstory, what with the probably metaphorical home continent of the elves, humans somehow originating from three different continents, the warp in the west, most sources being unreliable due to being written in-universe and the contradictory nature of the daedric gods.

The backstory of the warcraft universe on the other hand makes use of relatively simple language, has the same physical laws for its entire history and can be (and more importantly, has been) explained in only a few pages. While I certainly don't dislike any of the other settings I mentioned, this does set warcraft apart. While it does have some hiccups, they are relatively minor and mostly regard lore that takes place more recently (unless that one theory about elune being a naaru and the holy light being created by the tauren sun god is confirmed, but that's a rant for another day. Maybe even more than one rant.).

What will I let warcraft get away with?
A big part of being a fantasy or science-fiction fan is being able to suspend your disbelief. You need to be able to accept all sorts of ridiculous concepts, like the laws of gravity and flying cities co-existing or societies being stagnant for thousands of years. More than that, you need to be able to accept some internal inconsistencies. If there is a dozen different writers and the works in the franchise are spread out over more than a decade, there is bound to be some things that fall by the wayside.

That doesn't mean you have to accept everything though. I do expect the writers to be paying some attention to what they are doing and try to be as consistent and internally logical as possible. Mistakes can happen, but that doesn't mean I'm happy with them. Still, there is a few things that I'm completely willing to ignore, most of which have to do with maintaining the diversity and the clear backstory I mentioned above.

For example, the history of most of the warcraft factions is extremely lackluster. It seems that most of the human kingdoms didn't have any important events happening between their founding and the first war, despite thousands of years having passed. I'm completely fine with this. That's not to say that the franchise couldn't benefit from some extensions in the backstory, but even then, its fine to just have a couple of hundred years without major events.

Another example is cultural contamination. In real life, all sorts of tiny cultural bits bleed from one nation into the nations that it has contact with. However, to maintain both diversity and a clear backstory, it's much better to ignore this most of the time. The gnomes and the ironforge dwarves get to be two distinct cultures, even in towns with a mixed population. It's actually a bad thing when cultural contamination is handled too realistically, as it takes away from the diversity. If human armies started to build spider-tanks and flying machines, the gnomes would become less distinct. If the orcs started worshiping the earthmother, the tauren would become less distinct. This can even apply internally to cultures, like blood elf magisters learning ranger tricks, or night elf druids learning to channel the power of the moon (more on that later).

On the other hand, having one race have something similar to another race can also be interesting, as long as the two are distinct. The difference between orcish and tauren shamanism is an obvious example of this. You have to be careful with this though. If you have two cultures with different views of the same spiritual being, they can't both be right. And if one them turns out to be wrong, it would make maintaining their culture, which has probably built up a fanbase by now, seem stupid. If you're planning to make one race wrong, it is best to give them only a minor cultural connection, like is the case with the tauren and the ancient guardians.

So, now that we have covered a few basic points, it's time to take a closer look at the alliance. See you all next time.

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