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World of Warcraft is redefining undeath and rewriting a race

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What does it mean to be Forsaken?

Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG, so we, as the players, tend to die a lot. Most of these deaths are brushed off as non-canon, but every player who raids and completes end-game content has died twice canonically: once at the hands of Arthas, the Lich King, at the peak of Icecrown Citadel, and once while battling Argus the Unmaker at the end of the Legion expansion. That is, unless you’re a Forsaken; you’ve been dead the entire time.

The Forsaken are currently getting a whole lot of spotlight in World of Warcraft, because their leader Sylvanas Windrunner is now the Horde’s Warchief. Since she rules the Horde, the royal guards and advisors tend to be either Forsaken or the player character. Sylvanas has already done some pretty alarming things, including setting the Night Elves’ capital city on fire and invading the Kul Tiran village of Brennadam.

The most alarming thing about Sylvanas’ reign as Warchief may just be the way the story is changing the way undeath and the dead work. When one of the player races (and one of the classes) is made up exclusively of undead people, that’s pretty dramatic.

[Warning: This post contains major spoilers for World of Warcraft’s upcoming Patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance.]

Sylvanas has been raising people from the dead en masse since Cataclysm, where she spends the post-Wrath of the Lich King early Forsaken campaign waging war against the Scarlet Crusade and Gilneas and raising their fallen from the dead to join the Forsaken. One of the core tenets of the Forsaken has always been that they maintain free will. Cataclysm started to change that; at one point, Sylvanas raises a whole host of undead at once and they salute and praise the Banshee Queen immediately.

Sylvanas Windrunner stands in Lordaeron.
It’s fine. I feel like we can trust Sylvanas.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Battle for Azeroth raises further questions. You spend the Horde War Campaign raising some Kul Tirans from the dead, and we learn that the transition from human to undead has a risk of changing you. Thomas Zelling, a benevolent tidesage who chose undeath and protecting his family over dying alone, struggles with rage and resentment. At one point, he even threatens his family before becoming horrified at his actions. He wants, so badly, to be good... but when he loses focus, he slips into anger. Amalia Stone, a former human captain of Kul Tiras, is brought back and decides to join the Forsaken since her former people won’t accept her anymore. Finally, we find the corpse of Derek Proudmoore, one of Kul Tiras’ greatest heroes, and bring him to Sylvanas.

Patch 8.1 will expand on these ideas. We find out, via datamining done by WoWhead, that the Alliance kill King Rastakhan in the new Siege of Zuldazar raid. Sylvanas decides to go ahead and raise Derek Proudmoore in response, and plans to use him to kill the Proudmoores. We get to hear some genuinely disturbing audio as Derek screams and wails, and Sylvanas makes it clear she’s about to torture him into complying with her plan.

This is actually the least worrying thing about undeath in Patch 8.1. Sylvanas sends her Horde champions to Darkshore, the region where the Horde invaded and burned the World Tree. We then go about raising Night Elves from the dead, which is rubbing salt into the wound for many Alliance players. Tyrande Whisperwind, now ascended into being the Night Warrior and an avatar of Elune’s Vengeance, manages to kill the Val’kyr we’re using to raise the dead and repels us and Nathanos... but not before we raise two major Night Elf characters, Delaryn Summermoon and Sira Moonwarden into death.

Here’s where things get really weird: the game makes it clear that Delaryn and Sira wanted to come back. In fact, we can only raise Night Elves who are “willing” in some way, although what that means and their reasons for being willing aren’t explained. If we try to raise non-compliant Night Elves, their wisp attacks us in a final show of defiance.

Sylvanas Windrunner watches the Burning of Teldrassil in the Old Soldier cinematic.
It’s odd to see Night Elves, undead or not, be cool with this act.
Blizzard Entertainment

Delaryn Summermoon was the major Alliance quest giver in this summer’s War of the Thorns event; she fought Sylvanas tooth and nail as the Horde marched up Darkshore. Sira Moonwarden has been a Night Elf questgiver since Cataclysm. As soon as they are raised, they swear allegiance to the Forsaken and swear that they will fight against the Night Elves. It’s one thing to have them both be angry at the Night Elves — Delaryn was the main character of the novella Elegy, and it was clear that she died, she rejected Elune — but to immediately take up arms against their people under Sylvanas? That’s certainly an odd choice. Sira even admits that the player must be curious as to why she’s doing this, but there’s “no time” to explain.

Part of the reason this is so worrying is that it completely changes the way we look at the Forsaken. Previously, the Forsaken were people who had been brought back against their will by a cruel and uncaring war machine. They wanted to live in the lands they held and be left alone, but their former allies wanted to hunt them as monsters. That’s a sympathetic, nuanced backstory that justifies and explains a lot of the actions people take in World of Warcraft, especially Sylvanas.

Patch 8.1 raises the possibility that maybe the Crusade and the other antagonistic factions who hunted the Forsaken like vermin were right. If coming back as Forsaken has a strong chance to warp your spirit to the point that you will immediately be cool with the continued genocide of your former people, maybe... maybe we should be hunting down the Forsaken. Maybe the Scarlet Crusade was right the entire time.

Blizzard clearly has plans for the Forsaken and undeath in general. Calia Menethil, the former heir of Lordaeron and Arthas’s sister, shows up in the latest novel Before the Storm and is killed during the novel’s climax. She is raised from the dead as a lightforged Forsaken, the first undead to be imbued with light. Steve Danuser, World of Warcraft’s senior narrative designer, notes that she “definitely has a role to play, not so much in the battle but from the storylines that unfold from it.”

Add in Bwomsandi, Vol’jin’s missing spirit, Bolvar Fordragon, and a dozen other plot threads that all seem to be working toward the concept of death, and it’s clear that there’s a storm brewing on the horizon of Battle for Azeroth’s story.