Monday, 8 April 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - premise

Okay, Cataclysm time. Today's subject: The premise.

The Cataclysm
I'll admit, the premise of Cataclysm really confuses me. From what everyone tells me, the idea is that Deathwing emerged from his hiding place in Deepholm. From there, the explanations start to vary.

Explanation one is that the very act breaking through caused The Shattering, doing massive damage to the world by breaking the world pillar. This one is supported by most in-game sources.

The problem with this one is that at least some of the damage was already done before Deathwing emerged. In particular, the cataclysm pre-game event, “Elemental Unrest”, indicated that the elementals of Azeroth were already going nuts several months before Deathwing emerged, with frequent earthquakes and invasions by elementals. It makes no sense for them to be going crazy before Deathwing shattered the world pillar. I could buy some sort of prophetic vision of the future, but then why wouldn't the elemental spirits pass that along to the shamans?

Plus, the entire idea of the world pillar is stupid. The concept is that the barrier between Azeroth and the elemental realm is somehow resting upon a titan-created pillar located in Deepholm. Except, why would that thing exist? We know that the elemental planes and Azeroth were already separate and that the elementals were already bound to their native realms before the titans came. So what is this pillar supposed to do that's so important you add a massive weak point to Azeroth? And why is the pillar located in Deepholm? We know the elementals were fighting constant, massive wars after they were first imprisoned. Wouldn't you want to keep it in a more secure location than that? Like, say, a massive cloaked titan city guarded by four god-like beings and a race of stone cat-people that you're also using to house your planet-extinguishing super-weapon? Just sayin'.

Also, if causing the cataclysm was as easy as breaking a single pillar, why didn't deathwing ever do so before? We know he regularly visited Deepholm back when he was still Neltharion, so it's not like the world pillar was out of his reach or anything. Had he destroyed the pillar anywhere between ten thousand and ten years ago, the shamans of the world would be too disorganized to stop him.

Explanation two is that, after breaking through to Azeroth, Deathwing simply started flying around, destroying stuff. This one is confirmed for at least a number of the zones, like Kezan, the Badlands and Stormwind. While there is still the problem with several events having occurred before the cataclysm, another problem with that is that Deathwing simply doesn't have the power to do that for some of the other destruction (even some of the destruction that's confirmed to be caused directly by him). He got his ass kicked by mortal mages from the Kirin Tor by the end of the second war. He's powerful, sure, but he's not a worldbreaker. If he had that power, he would have used it ages ago.

To be fair though, it's been stated that Deathwing's power has been increased. However, that doesn't make sense either. The idea is that Yogg-saron and C'thun, being unchained, have increased his power. However, C'thun has been unchained since, at the very least, the first scarab war. More likely is that he was never chained to begin with, since the titans thought he was dead. If he was gonna empower Deathwing, he would have done so a long time ago. Yogg-saron has also been free for quite a bit, though we don't know how long (so he could have been freed at some point between day of the dragon and WotLK). However, we've destroyed his form and reactivated his keepers. There's no way he's still sending power to ol' Fluffywing.

What makes it more confusing is that everyone in-universe seems to treat the cataclysm like a singular event, despite the fact that even the changes that are actually explained have vastly different causes, some of which took place over long periods, others which were caused by singular events that couldn't have taken place simultaneously. Hell, in some areas the cataclysm is actually still going on, with parts of Vashj'ir rising to the surface and Darkshore being torn apart by a massive tornado.

Of course, I'm ignoring the blatantly obvious here: The reason the premise doesn't work is that it wasn't the original premise. Remember that dreadful, dreadful last arc of the World of warcraft comic? That arc revolved around a particular prophecy, recovered from a random cave in outland:

"When the child of the three realms becomes as light, the ancient power will be released. The earth will tremble, the seas will rise up in answer, and all will be madness. A new day will dawn, bringing with it chaos or peace..."

The chaos part got elaborated on a bit later, explaining that it would mean the barrier between the elemental realm and Azeroth would start to dissolve. Now, is all of this starting to sound familiar?

So it's pretty clear that the cataclysm was intended to be a result of the events from the comic. However, no connection between the two is ever seen in-game, and none of the events are even alluded to. Hell, some events from the comic even seem to be contradicted, with cho'gall walking around all fine and dandy in the game despite being at the receiving end of the full power of an atiesh-wielding mary sue in the comic.

On the other hand, basing an entire expansion around something as stupid as that comic would certainly rub me the wrong way too. It's certainly a good thing that Blizzard recognized legitimate fan outrage and altered their plans (lets hope the same happens for the elune/naaru thing). Making the comic a full-on tie-in like it was for WotLK would not be a good idea, for the sole reason that it'd get people to look up the comic. However, I still would have preferred a solution that made actual sense.

Another issue present here is that we simply don't have all the relevant information to make sense of the backstory for this expansion. Elementals are a good example of this. I'm gonna give you four short bits of lore:

1) When the world was young, it was dominated by elementals, who were servants of the malefic old gods. When the titans came, they were disturbed by the old gods' penchant for evil, and waged war against them and their elemental servants. Eventually, the titans won, and they shattered the citadels of the old gods, killing or imprisoning them. Without the power of the old gods to sustain them, the elementals were banished back to their native realms, where they waged eternal war. However, over the years, a number of elementals have managed to enter Azeroth, bringing their war to the mortal realm.

2) It is the way of the shaman to communicate with the five great elemental spirits: fire, earth, water, air and the wilds. Each world has these five spirits, guiding its natural processes. When there is a drought, the shaman can call upon the spirit of water to provide rain. When there is hunger, the shaman can call upon the spirit of the wilds to sacrifice living creatures to provide food. However, these gifts are not to be taken lightly. The bond with the spirits is one of respect and moderation. Do not call for what you do not need and do not call without respect, for the spirits may not answer your calls for a very long time. However, strengthen your bond, and you may even call upon true representations of the spirits in the form of elementals.

3) On the world of Azeroth, it is important to properly respect nature, for if you don't, nature may just take its revenge. From befouled lakes, defiled earth and destroyed forest rise powerful creatures, restless by the destruction of their homelands. However, it is not just mortals that may give rise to these elementals. Natural disasters can also disturb the land, causing such creatures to rise.

4) In rare locations throughout the world, one may find locations of exceptional elemental power. Even with no gate to the elemental plane or outside disruptions, elementals spawn in these locations, bound to these sacred spots.

Now, we know that these four things are somehow related, since they all involve elementals and we've seen some crossover between them. However, their exact connection has never been made clear. Previously, that was fine. The elementals were a pretty minor element of the setting, and it was always assumed we'd get an explanation later.

However, now we've got an expansion where the elementals take center stage. Two of the raid bosses are elemental lords, the main good guys are shamans and all of the elemental realms play major roles in the events of the expansion. And yet, we're still not given any new background information. We're just supposed to accept shamanism is connected to everything that's been going on, but it's never explained how. What is twilight magic, and how is it connected to shamanism? Why is a shaman able to substitute a black dragon in certain magical rituals? What is the difference between binding an elemental through elementium cages and bracers of binding? Why are elementals that appear from disturbed ground wearing bracers of binding? How are giants and elementals related? If there are five elemental spirits, why are there only four elemental lords? What came first; elemental spirit or elemental lord, and who or what created one from the other? If the elemental spirits represent the planet, how can they be connected to the elemental lords that are native to another realm? And why can they still be called upon in the elemental plane? Why does the original well of eternity serve as a gateway to the realm of earth? What position does the tauren belief the earthmother have in relation to the elemental spirits?

I can understand keeping a few things vague in order to keep the setting somewhat mysterious. However, it's really not too much to ask for at least some basic background for the story you're telling.

Actually, that seems to be a recurring theme for cataclysm. Despite the fact that the content for the expansion takes place across the entire planet, we barely get any new background details at all. It is by a very, very long shot the expansion that added the least amount of backstory. I'll probably go more into detail about the lack of detail in upcoming parts that take a closer look at specific zones.

Of course, we've only covered half the premise. There's another important story: The horde and the alliance go to war! Ugh, I still can't believe they go with that plot. Apparently, all the alliance leaders just up and drop their own quests for peace when king Paranoid tells them that orcs were mind-controlling the forsaken into killing their own men to somehow gain a victory against the alliance by killing as much horde as alliance soldiers. Seriously, at the very least Jaina should have left the alliance. She isn't going to follow that windbag Varian....

What do you mean, Varian isn't behind the war? I played Wrath of the Lich King. He was the one that declared war, ruining six full years of peace negotiations. And the alliance and horde are pretty clearly still at war. There's been no mention of any change in the game and...

Varian stopped the war? When did that happen? Also, who restarted it?

Garrosh!?! That's just crazy, imaginary voice in my head. I mean, sure, Garrosh was kept in a position of power after doing terrible things last expansion, but even Thrall wouldn't be stupid enough to let him restart the war. I mean...

Did you just say that Thrall made Garrosh warchief? But.... but... but...


You're kidding...

That's.... what.... No...

I'm sorry. I can't do this. Clearly, I'm in a coma and cataclysm is just a delusion. And if I'm having delusions, I'd rather go talk about something else.

Let's see.... Digimon! Now I loved the first digimon show. Still do actually. Sure, the animation was terrible and there were some really annoying deus ex machinas (most notably the digivices developing new powers as the plot demanded), but...

The voices in my head have just informed me that I'm not delusional and should return to talking about Cataclysm. Darn.

Okay, so Garrosh becomes warchief. How did that happen? Well, apparently, there were numerous massive story events that happened completely off-screen, one of which was Garrosh becoming slightly more likable for a bit, being promoted to warchief when Thrall left for shaman reasons, after which Garrosh returned to his stupid, aggressive self. From a narrative perspective, this is just pure insanity. Garrosh has spent an entire expansion screwing up in every possible way, always in front of either Thrall or an adviser to Thrall. Having him promoted to warchief without any in-game explanation after that is just ridiculous.

And that is another one of the great mistakes of Cataclysm. The entire plot absolutely depends on you having read just about every single warcraft material that had ever come out. From the novels, to the short stories on the site to, in some cases, promotional material. Almost no exposition is ever given in-game. Remember the good old days, when warcraft games came with manuals that explained the relevant tie-ins? Yeah, those are over.

Honestly, with the sheer amount of content that's skipped over in-game, you could easily fill an entire expansion, probably one much better than cataclysm. It would have at least ensured there to be some measure of continuity, because that's almost completely absent from Cata. Almost none of the consequences of the events in the expanded universe are fully implemented.

Too Much
Which brings us to the final premise problem we'll discuss today: Blizzard bit off more than they could chew. Was the idea of integrating the entire world in the original WoW already questionable, this is just madness. You can't redo the entire world in a single expansion, let alone redo the entire world and still add tons of new content. You simply don't have the resources.

As a result, none of the story ideas for cataclysm were fully developed, resulting in incredibly shoddy story-telling (Garrosh becoming warchief), plot developments that get dropped halfway through the expansion without another word (grimtotem tauren becoming allies of the alliance), other plot developments coming out of nowhere despite the fact that they should have become important much earlier (Al'akir joining forces with Deathwing), massive inconsistencies across the board (the alliance killing a character for helping the horde, the horde killing the very same character for leading a war against them), massive events being brought up and resolved off-handedly (the new legion invasion in Ashenvale), entire zones that resolve around plot elements that should no longer exist (searing gorge, eastern plaguelands, dustwallow marsh) and just general incompetence (arathi highlands).

When I call Cataclysm half-finished, I mean it literally. WotLK had obvious missing content as well, but the vast majority of content was implemented and polished before release. For cataclysm, this isn't the case. Take the zones for example. Cataclysm zones can be divided into four categories, depending on how much of them has been finished.
  • Finished Zones
    In some very rare cases, the zones have actually not only been finished, but have also been refined and tested. It doesn't have to mean that the zone is good (most still exhibit other cataclysm-related problems), but it does mean the zone actually appears to have been made by professionals. Examples of this are the goblin starting zones, darkshore and silverpine forest.
  • Unpolished zones
    For the majority of new zones and a few old zones, the content has been either finished or mostly finished. However, they didn't go through the review phase. No one double checked for incredibly blatant plot holes, superfluous elements, fluent story-telling or general bugs. Good examples here are Mount Hyjal, Deepholm, Swamp of Sorrows and the first half of the worgen starting experience
  • Unfinished zones
    These are zones that haven't even gotten to the review phase yet, still needing extra content to fully fill the zone out. Either portions of the original quests are left in in places where they don't make any sense, or there are areas that were obviously intended to have larger story-lines but don't. The degree to which zones are unfinished can vary heavily. At the mostly done end of the scale there are Vashj'ir and Stonetalon Mountains, while at the barely started end of the scale, you can find Ashenvale and Durotar.
  • Unwritten zones
    Most of the redone zones sadly fall under this category. Normally, a zone starts with a few ideas, which lead to a concept, which includes the basic visual style for the zone and main story-line(s). The concept then gets implemented and expanded, expanding details or adding new ideas. Then, the zone gets reviewed, fixing mistakes, adding more consistency to the story and removing bugs along the way. The other categories have the zones fall short in later parts. Here, it fails at the beginning: The zone simply doesn't have a fully developed concept.
    In most cases though, this doesn't mean that the zone is left untouched. The designers simply started to implement various unrelated ideas. The best example of this is Tirisfal Glades. By all means, the entire zone should have been revamped since most of its quests involved fighting the scarlet crusade and the scourge, factions that should no longer exist, at least not in the state they were in the original world of warcraft. However, the majority of the quests is actually updated in some way, just not in a way that addresses the changes that should have happened to the area.
    For other zones, the ideas implemented were a lot less extensive though. Teldrassil only had one tiny little series of quests added that would serve as a handwave as for why all the corrupted elements of the tree were still around after the entire emerald nightmare plot had been resolved in a novel.

Next time, we're going to be looking at a couple of updated zones in particular.

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