Thursday, 28 March 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - lead-up

Today is the one-year anniversary of this blog. It is also the day we start talking about Cataclysm.

The reason I started this blog in the first place was so that I could eventually talk about Cataclysm. I wanted to show where each of the problems of this franchise started, and how eventually having a product this bad was inevitable. So, where to start?

Well, let's start at the beginning. Originally, blizzard was a minor gaming company by the name of Silicon & Synapse, who did a lot of platform ports, as well as producing a few games of their own. To be honest, I never played the earliest games, mostly because I hadn't actually been born at the time, and if I were able to find them now, there's a good chance I wouldn't get them to work on my computer.

The first game that's important though, I did play: Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. Originally, the plan was to obtain the warhammer license and make a warhammer game. However, due to bad experiences with the DC license (for Justice League – Task Force & The Death and Return of Superman), they instead decided to make a universe of their own.

That's not to say the new universe was original. Really, most fantasy is just rehashing the same world over and over again. In this case, there were two particularly big influences: Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons. Art for the game was done in the ridiculously buff style that was popular in the 90s, though Lead Designer Ron Millar insisted on using bold, bright colors, rather than the more realistic coloring that was popular at the time. I can safely say that this was a very good choice, and was the start of warcraft's more cartoony visuals.

In addition to Ron Millar, there's two more artists that are important here: Sam Didier and Chris Metzen, who still do work for blizzard to this very day. Chris Metzen is particularly important, as he also started to cover story duties for Warcraft II. After that, his importance only increased, helping think up the diablo and starcraft universes. Say what you will, but Metzen wrote some damn good stuff.

Unfortunately, no writer is perfect. From what I can tell, one of Metzen's weaknesses is that he doesn't really care for continuity other than in very broad strokes. And I do mean very, very broad strokes. As such, it is often changed around to fit a story idea, rather than the other way around. Warcraft 2, while much better at continuity than most warcraft products, already showed signs of this, with the war over Azeroth (now known as the first war) lasting five years rather than fifteen, the orc offensive against Stormwind being held off by the local defenders rather than slaughtering the defenders before being driven off by knights, the losing orcs being forced to retreat to the swamps rather than the dark portal, etc.

Now, these are all very minor things. With the possible exception of the year thing, I wouldn't mention them in a review. However, they're notable in that they were deliberate retcons that didn't really have an effect on the story. They're just there to emphasize certain bits in the backstory. The role of the shadow council in the horde is more important in this game, so they now had a veil over the swamps. The greater physical strength of the orcs is deemphasized, so now the defenders of Stormwind were able to fight off the orc attack without the help of knights. The war was shortened so Anduin Lothar could have been a commander from the beginning of the war and still be young enough to lead armies into battle. At least, that's my guesses for the reasons for the retcons, because frankly it's hard to think of any. Sure, the retcons themselves were absolutely minimal, but the reasons for them were even smaller.

In warcraft 3 this became even more apparent. Now I love warcraft 3. It's one of my favorite games. But the amount of changes that are made to established warcraft lore, often with no apparent reason, is just silly. For a random example, let's pick the changes to the map. Was it really necessary for alterac to be moved to the other side of the alterac mountains? For dwarven gryphon riders to be from a place called Aerie Peak rather than Northeron? For there to be a massive island in the middle of Lordamere Lake? For Stratholme to be located in the northern part of Lordaeron rather than the eastern part? For Stratholme to no longer border the lake with Cael Darrow?

But they'd have to be deliberate changes, wouldn't they? I mean, it's not that hard to pull out the old warcraft 2 map and draw something similar. And yet I can't think of any story reason this had to be changed. Did the old map just not have proper feng shui or something?

But let's not forget the changes that were made for an actual reason. For example, in Warcraft 2, the capital city of Dalaran actually wasn't Dalaran, but the Violet Citadel, which was a seperate city at the time. In Warcraft 3, the violet citadel is suddenly located inside Dalaran. Now the out-of-reason for this is obvious: so the mages of dalaran can be defeated in one fell swoop. However, why didn't you just put a throw-away line in the manual? Here, watch (added part in italics):

Years passed as tensions abated and a lasting peace settled over Lordaeron. King Terenas and the Archbishop Alonsus Faol worked ceaselessly to rebuild the kingdom and bring aid to the remaining nations of the Alliance. The southern kingdom of Azeroth grew prosperous again and reestablished itself as a military power under King Wrynn’s visionary leadership. The mages of the Kirin Tor rebuilt their Violet Citadel at the heart of Dalaran, accepting new students from throughout the alliance. Uther the Lightbringer, the supreme commander of the Paladin Order, kept the peace in Lordaeron by settling civil disputes and quelling demi-human uprisings throughout the realm. Admiral Proudmoore, whose mighty fleets patrolled the trade lanes hunting pirates and marauders, maintained order on the high seas.

And bam! Problem solved. (Fun fact: If you look at the pre-release map for Warcraft III, you can see that the city was originally marked as Violet Citadel) In other cases, the stuff that you're retconning stuff for was a downright missed opportunity. For example, the timescale of Warcraft I and Warcraft II gets retconned again, so Grom Hellscream can have been a chieftain during the drinking of the demon blood and still be in his prime today. However, how about instead emphasizing Grom's unnatural age? How it is the direct consumption of the demon blood that allowed him to not succumb to the lethargy that overcame the orcs. How it allowed him to stay young and strong to lead his people through such a hard time. How it allowed him to see sights he could have never seen within his own lifetime. It would add a lot of motivation to his decision to drink demon blood again.

And let's not forget the random changes to the timeline. Day of the Dragon was very, very clearly meant to take place between Warcraft II:Tides of War and Warcraft II:Beyond the Dark Portal. Yet the manual for Warcraft III suddenly places the book after Beyond the Dark Portal, something which made absolutely zero sense and doesn't impact the story in any way.

Speaking of Day of the Dragon, we should not forget editing. I'm not entirely sure who was in charge of green-lighting and/or checking over the stories for the books, but I think it was also Chris Metzen. And where disregard of continuity was already a bit of a problem for writing, it was absolutely disastrous for editing. Hell, we got this famous statement out of Metzen:

Ya, the novels are pretty much considered canon, um, the funny thing is some things are less canon, we shoot for canon... typically the characters in novels are canon... “

Which is really not an attitude the supreme story guy should have. Dude, I love your stories, but you should really get someone else to be in charge of continuity. Without that, we got continuity in the books depending solely on the writer. In some cases, this worked out fine. I have to give special props to Christie Golden here, whose books were not only very enjoyable, but worked with and, as a result, enriched the universe. On the other hand, we had Richard A. Knaak, who is a pretty decent writer with good story ideas, but has absolutely no grasp of continuity, degrading the universe as a result.

And then there was the RPG... Dear god, was there an RPG. Honestly, with the sheer amount of disregard for canon that was in those things, I'm a little surprised that the other media were as good as they were. Clearly, there was no editing going on at all, except maybe some basic grammar checks. Honestly, I think it's better to just show it. I give you the first page of the first chapter of the first warcraft RPG book, with editors' notes provided by me.

And mind you, that was the very first page of the very first chapter of the very first book. It was when the writers and editors hadn't gotten bored yet. Had I done a random page from the alliance&horde compendium, or even the monster guide, we'd have ended up with an entire page in red.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that the head writer was really good at telling a new story, not using continuity, and the control over the other writers was even worse. As such, going for an MMO, which has no main story and relies on a large group of writers working on largely independent content, was probably not a good idea. Maybe if it was set in a new or largely-unexplored location, it could have worked. But including the entire world? Terrible idea.

Frankly, its a miracle that World of Warcraft turned out as well as it did. Individual quest writers got no guidance or editing. Factions vanished or lost most of their interesting characteristics. Story and themes were almost completely absent. This of course wasn't helped by the fact that the disastrous RPG was still considered canon, and the writers drew inspiration from that, resulting inconsistencies across the board.

The world also felt... off. I think it had to do with the size. Remember Warcraft III and how big a deal Durotar was for the orcs? Here, it's just small. There just isn't enough room for a zone to feel like a large area. In particular, there really isn't much of a wilderness. Every spot in the zone is used. As a result, the world feels really tiny, not helped by the quest and expanded universe writers often treating it as such. Going from one continent to another should not be treated like a minor errand.

That aspect did improve a lot in later expansions though. Draenor and Northrend have zones that genuinely feel like massive eco-systems. Unfortunately, it was these expansions that really started to show the sheer disregard for continuity going on.

For blizzard, previously established continuity, no matter how interesting or important, comes second to the present story. Any aspect of the present story, no matter how tiny. The old continuity is so unimportant we're not even going to think about it. There's no need to explain how it makes sense that Muradin escaped. We don't need to make quel'serrar's backstory fit with quel'dalar's.

The best example of this is Illidan. In warcraft III, he was intriguing and complex. He fought dirty, had hatred for those we regarded as heroes, used incredibly dark magic and even aimed to become a lord of the burning legion, yet he wasn't truly evil. However, the story of Burning Crusade required there to be a big evil overlord, so they just turned Illidan mad. Illidan could have added so much to the story, but that would have required thinking about how to fit new story ideas in with old continuity.

One example how Illidan could have been used: contrast him with the naaru. Cut out the stupid aldor/scryer stuff, and replace it with naaru/illidan. The naaru are beings of benevolence, but also of simple dichotomy. The power they wield, the light, is good. The opposite of that, the shadow, is evil. All other forms of magic are placed somewhere in-between.

Illidan and his followers embrace any sort of power. Though particular forms of magic may be harder to master, all can be used to protect and all can be corrupting. The power of fel magic in particular twice managed to do what the light never could: Kill a lord of the burning legion. Relying solely on the forms of magic considered 'good' would be a grave irresponsibility.

But no. Illidan is a big bad guy, because our story doesn't have need for interesting characters, so we'll just cut out his personality before eliminating him entirely. It's not like we're trying to build a franchise here, after all.

Wrath of the Lich King again went a step further, not even bothering to explain what exactly was retconned. We were just supposed to accept the story as it was given, and not think about how it related to the setting. Varian was king-god of the alliance because, in this story, he was king-god of the alliance. No need to explain how he got in this position or making it gel with what we know of the other nations. They're not part of our story.

Wrath of the Lich King also brought in another problem, namely, the reliance on the expanded universe. Combine that with the lack of oversight, and you end up with the last arc of the warcraft comic. Luckily, the expanded universe never got quite that bad again, but that's not to say all the books afterward were good. A bigger problem however was the fact that the in-game story absolutely relied on you having read the novels, promotional materials, comics and developer interviews. No exposition was given in-universe, or in the manual or anything.

Cataclysm is the culmination of all of these problems, as well as introducing many of its own. Continuity is thrown out the window, all opportunities it provided ignored. None of its stories make any sense in the context of warcraft lore and no attempt to bridge this gap was made. The expanded universe and promotional materials were absolutely necessary to get what was going on, even though their grasp on the warcraft universe was tenuous. The stories themselves should be huge, but couldn't be told in any way that did them justice due to the limitations of the world.

Trying to tackle cataclysm all at once would be insanity. My fingers would break before I was done typing it, and your eyes would pop out before you were done reading it. Instead, we're going to handle Cataclysm in bite-sized chunks. Leaves room for other reviews too.

I hope to see all of you guys again next year. Who knows, maybe I'll even get a third commenter!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I can't believe you're praising Christie Golden, the one who took the zones literally and turned them into a 5-minute runs in-universe. For God's sake, she practically canonized the 5-building Theramore with her narrative.