Ian Bates, better known as Red Shirt Guy for his heroic lines of questions during BlizzCon panels, recently tweeted that references to the War of the Thorns, the Battle of Lordaeron, and azerite in general is being removed for both Horde and Alliance in the new leveling format. Massive, enormously consequential storylines are being ignored and are not considered essential for new or leveling players.
Moreover, the Forsaken intro quests define them as “tirelessly striving to protect the living”, in stark contrast to their entire existence in the story from Vanilla to where we are now.
The Ascent of the Warchief
A bit of background first – Sylvanas Windrunner, banshee queen of the Forsaken, had assumed the mantle of warchief under ever-so-slightly (or not) circumstances at the beginning of Legion after the death of previous warchief Vol’jin. Uncharacteristically, Vol’jin had seemingly been abandoned by his gods – the Loa – during combat on the frontlines with the demons of the Burning Legion, and the spirits had insisted on Sylvanas taking his place. Eyebrows were raised, but the decision was made.
She wasn’t an orc or a troll, or even a tauren – the original members of the Horde. She was an undead high elf with tenuous concepts of honor, something which serves as a core concept within the Horde’s ranks.
Throughout Legion, we assisted Sylvanas on some dubious quests – we even bump into her in Helya’s domain within the shadowlands to find her striking a bargain with Helya herself. Nodding and following orders, we help her retrieve a relic called “the Soulcage” so that she can subjugate Eyir, the leader of the Valarjar val’kyr. Why? We’re still not sure.
Not only were we dealing with Sylvanas’ antics during Legion, we were also gearing up to fight gods – the end of the expansion literally having us best a titan world-soul in its infancy. I remember a decade ago when the playerbase would have heated discussions about what the end of the Warcraft story would like, and people scoffing at the idea that we would ever see Sargeras – as written, his very presence would scorch the ground irreparably for miles around each footstep – but here he is, driving his dark blade into Silithus from space.
So when the trailer for Battle for Azeroth was revealed, it looked like we were going to take a step back from godslaying, and get back to the good old days of orcs versus humans.
The Battle for Azerite
In early November 2017, Blizzard released the trailer for Battle for Azeroth. It’s a masterpiece – visually incredible, well directed, and both factions get their moment to shine. The Undercity – dwelling of the Forsaken and one of only two bastions of the Horde on the Eastern Kingdoms – is under siege by the Alliance. Both factions stand their ground, paving the way for players to speculate on what had provoked such an incredibly bold military move by Anduin Wrynn, leader of the Alliance.
The catalyst was azerite – a mineral of great power which comes to surface after the dark titan Sargeras thrust his sword into Azeroth. Players would discover in the pre-expansion event that this was something the Horde and Alliance were going to fight over and, in the case of Sylvanas Windrunner, commit genocide to control.
Sylvanas’ war crimes are not hyperbole – The War of the Thorns was the result of an attempt to consolidate the Horde’s power on their home continent of Kalimdor, provoking a counter-assault by the Alliance to march on Lordaeron and take the Undercity. The world tree Teldrassil, atop which stood the Night Elven capital of Darnassus, was burned to the ground by the Horde. Anyone who followed through with the war campaign in Battle for Azeroth on the Horde side has blood on their hands since they contributed too. Despite Blizzard allowing players to choose whether they deliver the final blow to Sira Moonwarden to assuage any guilt on their part, players are still left to watch Sylvanas issue the orders for Teldrassil to be burned to the ground.
At the time, players were uproarious on both sides of the fence. Alliance players were shocked that the Horde would stoop to such a level after the madhouse that was Garrosh Hellscream’s chiefdom. Horde players, on the other hand, were split – some enjoyed playing the bad guys, and others were left feeling as though they were being pulled along with the story. Blizzard continuously alluded to a greater plan, a storyline that would unfold through the expansion. It never happened.
Either way, moral ambiguity was totally thrown out the window – Sylvanas had ordered the Horde to decimate Teldrassil and Darnassus in an unprovoked attack
The problem here is not that the Horde did something outrageous, or that the Alliance struck back and took a Horde foothold on their continent. Rather, the problem is that the Alliance are going to forget about it.
Whitewashing the Past
As Battle for Azeroth comes to a close, Sylvanas is gone. She won the battle but lost the war against the Horde uprising against her, and the leader of the Alliance played a partisan role. The Horde is disjointed but still together, and the Alliance still haven’t addressed the burning tree in the room.
As we prepare to enter Shadowlands, it seems to me that Blizzard are not content to simply ignore the issue, but rather that they are going to cover it up. According to Red Shirt Guy, Anduin Wrynn simply identifies that the Horde have found new allies in the Zandalari, and that they must find new allies in the Kul Tirans. That is a massive sidestep on the storytelling front for anyone new to the game. Why would they do it?
The first thought that comes to mind is that the Blizzard writers screwed up. Here we were being promised an incredible story with morally grey arcs which were open to interpretation, but instead we got what everyone expected – and rallied against – Garrosh 2.0. To give background, the events of Mists of Pandaria had then-warchief Garrosh Hellscream fall to madness at the hands of an old god’s heart, his actions and instructions to members of the Horde becoming more and more honorless, his politics becoming more racist and isolationist, and his antics becoming more and more predictable.
It became clear that he was going to have to be stopped. In its finality, Garrosh was apprehended by both factions deep in the heart of Orgrimmar, the Horde capital. Horde players were left irritated that they had to rely on the Alliance to clean up their mess, and Alliance players were exasperated as they watched Varian Wrynn, Anduin’s father and then-leader of the Alliance, forgive the Horde and let them off with a slapped wrist.
This kind of storytelling didn’t achieve its goal because, despite building up huge elements of controversy – such as when Garrosh Hellscream obliterated Jaina Proudmoore’s human city-state of Theramore with a mana-bomb – the final result of the storyline proved truly lackluster and disappointing. There was no way that one faction was going to claim supremacy over the other – it just wouldn’t work in a storytelling RPG format. The story was heading to disaster from early on, and it was impressed upon Blizzard that this was not something to repeat.
Another point is that Blizzard might find it hard to consolidate the Horde’s actions in a general sense. The Alliance is righteous and just, the Horde honorable but flawed. However, when the Horde does something within their nature, the Alliance cannot respond in kind. It has been mentioned several times this expansion that the Alliance just feel they’re here for the ride to find out what’s going to happen to Sylvanas. I’m certain any Alliance players at Blizzard have felt the same, so the feel now is the time to change player perceptions, especially with regards to the plague-happy Forsaken.
The problem with this is obvious. The existence of storylines in literally every expansion that prove that the Forsaken are corrupt from the inside-out will prove confusing. For a new player that likes the Forsaken aesthetic to read that the Forsaken are – and I quote – “tirelessly striving to protect the living”, only to witness them at the Wrathgate, planting human crops on farms in Hillsbrad, or any of the other numerous examples of their contempt for humanity, would leave them confused. It’s bad storytelling.
The quest revamps long ago in Cataclysm had rebranded the evil Forsaken as almost comically misguided – a much better trope to adopt if it’s consistent. We have gotten a bit more serious in modern expansions, however, and now I feel like the rebrand is a bit too stark in its contrast.
The Great Escape
The Horde are going to get away with it again. We survived persecution at Angrathar in Wrath of the Lich King, we snuck away from the naughty step after Garrosh’s arrest in Mists of Pandaria, and now we will serve no punishment for genocidal city-burning in Battle for Azeroth. It’s not that I don’t enjoy big, brash displays of war and combat in the game’s story, it’s just that it gets exhausting when something monumental happens, only to be forgotten about.
After the burning of Teldrassil, we went into engaging Azshara, an incredibly powerful and controversial figure in the lore, especially for the Night Elves. Despite the story with Azshara in Battle for Azeroth feeling rushed and incomplete, neither Tyrande Whisperwind or Malfurion Stormrage – the two leaders of the Night Elf faction who were present when Azshara ruled them and witnessed her handing over her lot to the demons of the Burning Legion which then led to the Sundering (deep breath) – were anywhere to be found.
Years in the making, and Azshara is dealt with in two patches with neither of the two characters who are relevant to her anywhere to be seen. Unbelieveable.
Even our latest patch, 8.3, has felt like a rushed endeavor. Within the breadth of a content patch, we’ve developed a plan to kill an old god in the form of N’zoth, gathered the resources for it, entered and engaged his own realm, and killed him. One of the most powerful enemies in existence, a corrupting influence unlike any we’ve encountered before, blasted in the face.
I miss the days of Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, where the big bad guy was ever-present. The Lich King used to be present everywhere in Northrend – encountered in quests, smiting your efforts at each turn as you tried to mount an offensive on his home continent. Deathwing would fly around during Cataclysm and literally incinerate a random zone every now and then, because he was a bad guy. You’d see him, you’d fear him, and in regards to both of those expansions, your prime directive for the expansion was to kill that bad guy – and we did.
Simpler times, maybe – but we’ve gone from having a faction war in the opening of the expansion, to a parley in order to deal with Azshara, to a very sudden and straight-forward death of an old god (see: some of the most powerful entities within the Warcraft universe). Some speculate that we haven’t actually killed N’zoth which, if true, just further complicates and belittles the narrative of World of Warcraft.
I’ve bemoaned the story a lot in this post, despite playing for well over a decade. I’m a hypocrite, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Blizzard do better. Shadowlands is right around the corner, and sees us encountering old souls and past enemies in a land where those souls are judged for their actions in life. I’d imagine my characters – voiceless co-conspirators to some of the dodgiest war crimes imaginable throughout the Warcraft narrative – are going to face any judgment. Nonetheless, I hope that the bills will finally be paid for some characters – notably Sylvanas – and that we won’t see the Alliance as spineless in the face of the Horde’s transgressions anymore.
It’s about time the Horde paid for its sins.