Games this Week... The Death of World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has always been somewhere at the top of my favorite fictional worlds and universes thanks to the complex lore, history, and characterization that has been baked into the game since the beginning. This is a game that launched a series of novels to hype up its initial release, and continues to release novels, short stories, and comics that take place between expansions, to further develop the world and characters. I have devoured nearly all of the published content for the game, and I’ve spent untold hours in the game itself. (Actually, I just tallied up my four main characters’ total play time and on just those characters, I’ve racked up over 2100 hours in the game. That’s not including a large number of low-level characters.)

I have spent a lot of time immersed in this world and its lore, and other than a few weird gameplay quirks and the odd story turn here and there (looking at you Warlords of Draenor), I’ve greatly enjoyed the time spent in this world. That is, until Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands came along.

Bear with me. This is going to be a long one.

 

Battle for Azeroth

A bit of backstory: the Warcraft universe was created by Chris Metzen way back when, who developed all of the main world-building and characters that are iconic to World of Warcraft today, the world and characters I fell in love with, but ultimately, he left Blizzard sometime before Battle for Azeroth was developed. Then, a new narrative lead came on, and things started to go a little… off after the end of Legion, first with the ending to the novel Before the Storm, intended to be a prequel to Battle for Azeroth, and then the early in-game quests with regard to Sylvanas’ leadership of the Horde. Even still, I was willing to set aside my annoyances so that I could enjoy other parts of the game. But the annoyances kept racking up.

First, it was the nonsensical proxy war between Zandalar and Kul Tiras, then the abandonment of the warfronts by the game devs, then Sylvanas’ nonsensical behavior toward the other Horde leaders and mYsTeRiOuS bargains with other villains, leading to Nathanos sailing into Nazjatar for undisclosed reasons, which led to us battling Azshara, a minor baddie we’ve faced a number of times throughout the game, and the release of N’Zoth, the biggest, baddest Old God, one of the biggest villains of World of Warcraft history, only for him to be defeated in a half patch raid by a minor character no one cares about, and to top it all off, Sylvanas killed the orc leader Saurfang, abandoned the Horde, and yeeted off to who knows where.

All of this was absolutely maddening from a story perspective. Nothing the characters did made any sense. The plot was barely coherent beat to beat. They utterly butchered Sylvanas as a character. It was garbage. It made no sense. I hated it.

Then, they announced Shadowlands

 

Shadowlands

I was willing to forget the atrocities of Battle for Azeroth for a new expansion, with the understanding that I wouldn’t like anything they did with Sylvanas’ character after what they did in Battle for Azeroth, especially when they started changing established lore, retconning old content to fit the new expansion in, claiming character motivations and interactions happened when we didn’t see. It was annoying, but I was willing to ignore my annoyance, hoping that at least the story would be good, even if I didn’t like the route it took to get there.

And it started out okay! I was actually enjoying playing the game! The new zones and character designs were really interesting. The initial story of the Shadowlands and each covenant campaign was compelling, with a pretty solid plot arc from start to finish. They introduced a new villain, the mysterious Jailer, who was stealing all of the dead souls for himself and imprisoning them in the Maw, the darkest, evilest part of the Shadowlands. There were some minor complaints here and there, and parts of the story were a little thin, but it was neat! We got to see dead heroes (and villains) again! Uther! Draka! Ysera! Kael’thas!

Then… there was a content drought. After the main story and the covenant campaign, there just wasn’t anything to do. So I unsubbed for a while. I chalked it up to COVID interfering with development and waited for the next content update.

Six months later, they finally released an update! More story! There was still a lot of stupidity around Sylvanas and her mYsTeRiOuS schemes with the Jailer, but there was a new zone! There were things happening! New quests to do! New monsters to fight! I started to get excited about playing again, and then… they destroyed it. They destroyed every little bit of credibility and benefit of the doubt I was willing to give them for the sake of a game I have loved for so long.

After all the time I spent immersed in this world and lore, in one stupid questline, the narrative nosedived and swooped hard left away from all the established lore and history that has been around for years, since Warcraft III, and spat on it. All of the dangers Azeroth has faced, all the enemies that we, as players, have fought and triumphed against—the Scourge, the Burning Legion, Argus—were all actually part of the Jailer’s schemes for… somethingsomethingvaguenotwrittenyet.

And in that one bit of dialogue, they killed WoW for me.

 

What the Fuck, Steve?

After finishing this quest, I was absolutely livid. I have spent so much time invested in this game and its lore, and they just… shit all over it. Never mind the nonsensical character decisions. Never mind the butchering of my favorite character. Never mind the lore inconsistencies created with their retconning. All of those annoyances with the game pale in comparison to the sheer, unadulterated rage I feel toward the narrative leads for this steaming pile of dogshit.

In my rage, I took to the internet, trying to figure out what the actual fuck was going on with the writing team at World of Warcraft, and lo and behold, the truth is so much worse than I thought (unsafe workplace drama notwithstanding).

I wanted to know who took over the narrative for World of Warcraft after Metzen left just so I could mentally have someone to blame for all of the bad story, and the internet provided: Steve Danuser. And once I had a name, I found a lot more about his involvement in the story development for World of Warcraft, his obsession with Sylvanas to the point of making Nathanos (her lieutenant and former human lover) a self-insert, and his hand in all the retconning around the cosmology of the Warcraft universe and Sylvanas’ character.

With Shadowlands’ release, Blizzard published a book written by Danuser, Grimoire of the Shadowlands, to explain the workings of the Shadowlands in terms of lore. However, in the introduction, the narrator immediately decanonizes the previous World of Warcraft Chronicles series, which was written as a de facto guide to the lore of the Warcraft universe, from Chris Metzen and the game developers, to lay out the details and iron out inconsistencies across all the game expansions and published content. The book basically says, flat out, that Chronicles is not an accurate source of information. And it became very clear to me why everything after Legion seemed so off.

Danuser is systematically tearing down everything that Chris Metzen built so that he can remake the world the way that he wants it to be, dismantling established lore and history, butchering characters, and retconning everything to fit his new narrative. He’s tearing down everything that I’ve grown to love about the game. As a lore-nerd and a player who cares about story and characters above all else, it’s infuriating! For one, it’s disrespectful to the players, but more importantly, it’s disrespectful to all the people who worked so hard on the game when Metzen was leading it.

And the part that annoys me the most about it all is that he could have done a lot of the same story beats in a way that didn’t destroy everything that came before. It’s just that the execution of it is so terrible. It’s lazy writing. Instead of building onto existing lore, they’re just retconning things to fit new lore, even though it doesn’t make any sense.

But that’s not even the worst of it all.

 

What the Hell, Ion?

In all this research to explain the creative decisions behind Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands, I discovered this interview with Ion Hazzikostas, the Game Director for World of Warcraft, from June 2021.

The big takeaway that has me screaming into the void:

“We had the sense that players would be contending with Sylvanas for a while now, that they would be delving into and learning more about the nature of the Maw, and the Jailer’s power in this first major content update,” Ion says. “But, the specific details of the twists and turns the story is going to take, who the bosses in the Raid are, even some of the major narrative moments that we're going to see play out in the coming weeks are things that came together at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year.”

“Some of it is seeing how the stories resonated with the community, with our players, as they were delving into it,” Ion adds. “One of the great things about working on a live game like this and this iterative content cycle is that we can see what players are excited about, they're confused about, want to learn more about, what preconceptions or ideas they have about the way things are going, and pivot to make sure that what we're doing is going to hit the mark.”

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrggggggggghhhhhhhh.

With that, all of the nonsensical character choices and story arcs suddenly make perfect sense. The reason why we don’t know the character motivations, why we don’t have any foreshadowing of what’s to come, why everything is vague and handwaved like they’re trying to put out a fire is because they don’t fucking know. THEY. HAVEN’T. WRITTEN. IT. YET.

Chains of Domination was released in July 2021 and they didn’t know what they were even going to do with it until early this year, months after the expansion launched.

So now I know: they’re writing this game as it’s released, patch to patch, based on what they think the community wants. They didn’t have the whole thing planned out or written before launch. They just came up with a concept, said fuck it, and ran with it. No wonder everything is so vague. No wonder the characters seem so inconsistent. It’s because they are. It’s because the writers don’t even know where the story is going while they’re writing it. They’re delivering us a first draft.

It’s like the retail game is actually just a beta version of a game that will never actually be completed.

I hate it.

 

What Now?

Knowing that the story is half-assed and only developed patch to patch, I’m done with retail WoW. As long as Danuser and Ion are in charge, it’s not going to get any better. For now, I plan to finish out the Chains of Domination content and quit the game for now. Maybe I’ll play the next content patch just to get some fucking closure from this mess of an expansion, but at this point, I don’t know.

As a result of all this, I started playing Burning Crusade Classic instead. I still love a lot of what World of Warcraft has to offer, and I still love the world and lore and characters that Metzen created. If I continue to sub to the game, I think I’ll stick with Classic and just replay the content that made me fall in love with the game in the first place. At least I’ll get a coherent story out of it.

 

 

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