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World of Warcraft’s latest story campaign has ignited the fanbase

Blizzard’s War of the Thorns has created a fiery controversy

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Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

World of Warcraft is about to get a new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which returns to the series’ roots of faction-against-faction conflict. Returning to the status quo isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially because the current Legion expansion’s campaign culminated with players teaming up aboard a spaceship to go and fight the soul of a planet. Blizzard has rolled out a two-part pre-expansion campaign called War of the Thorns, with two different stories for the Horde and the Alliance. War of the Thorns culminates with the Night Elf world tree, Teldrassil, being burned down.

We’ve known that Teldrassil burns since BlizzCon in November 2017; we also know that the Alliance mobilizes to retake the Undercity from the Horde as a direct response. As always, the devil is in the details, and fans are taking to social media to express their unhappiness with the current story — and what it means for their characters.

A Horde divided

In order to understand why players are currently so upset, we need to go back to World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. In that expansion, the founding Warchief of the Horde, Thrall, stepped down from his position and appointed Garrosh Hellscream. Garrosh Hellscream’s story had started promisingly enough, but ended up with him committing so many war crimes that players had to team up to take him down as the final boss of the Mists of Pandaria expansion.

Garrosh Hellscream’s successor, Vol’jin, was a perfectly fine Warchief ... until he died at the beginning of Legion. Vol’jin had only served for one full expansion. In his place, on the advice of his Gods, he appointed Sylvanas Windrunner, one of the Horde’s darkest characters. Many fans were hoping this would be the beginning of a new era of stability for the Horde, or a chance for Sylvanas to further evolve toward being a hero.

Moment of ignition

The Burning of Teldrassil has been central to all speculation around Sylvanas for months. When we learned that the burning of Teldrassil kicks off the newest war between the Alliance and Horde, players were nervous but intrigued. Sylvanas was clearly present at the site the entire time, but theories began to form that she wasn’t the one who burned the tree. Perhaps it was a false flag operation by one of the Alliance, or intervention from the Old Gods. The community buzzed with speculation.

The truth was unveiled during the War of the Thorns quest line, and via the Warbringers: Sylvanas animation. Sylvanas burns the tree, killing innocent civilians en masse and giving up all military advantage. She does this while actively denouncing the concepts of life and hope.

The burning of Teldrassil is the culmination of the War of the Thorns questline, which already had many Horde players on edge. In the Alliance version of the quests, you encounter a village where everyone is dead — even the civilians — and Forsaken assassins emerge from the shadows howling “Can you hear their screams?” In the Horde version of the quest, you’re allowed to spare the civilians ... but you still have to attack the forests of Darnassus, kill soldiers defending their home, massacre the local wildlife and attempt to assassinate Malfurion Stormrage, a character who has been nearly exclusively neutral in the Horde/Alliance conflict and who has been critical in defending nature from multiple threats.

For many of Warcraft’s fans, this is the final moral horizon.

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Player agency

A healthy amount of the outrage on social media is directed toward Sylvanas and her actions, but the majority of it comes from players who feel as though participating in the quests have made them complicit in her misdeeds. Genocide, petty destruction of properties, torture, assassination and more have all been part of the Warcraft franchise since the RTS games. The fact that every Horde player must participate in this quest — or not play the new content at all — is much more complicated.

The Horde and the Alliance have both been sold as morally gray factions, with each contributing to the endless cycle of hostilities. This latest campaign positions the Alliance as innocent, while the Horde are the aggressors. The Horde is a diverse faction, and many players — Tauren druids who have worked with Malfurion, orcs and trolls who profess honor, blood elves who have seen their people invaded and slaughter, or Nightborne who only recently joined the Horde — are wondering why they are forced to participate.

Between the churn and burn of Warchiefs, and now the faction being responsible for starting the newest war, some Horde players are feeling as they have to be the evil faction, while the Alliance walk away as the good guys.

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Where do we go now?

In fairness, the War of the Thorns is just the start of Battle for Azeroth’s story. The rest of the story will play out once the expansion goes live on Aug. 14. However, the opening chapter raises questions of where the rest of the story can possibly go. Will we get our second Garrosh Hellscream situation, where Sylvanas ends up a raid boss? It would be an unfortunate end to a fan favorite character who’s been in the Warcraft universe for a decade and a half.

On the other hand, how can the Horde continue to survive with Sylvanas at the helm? Sylvanas burned a World Tree out of spite. In the prequel novel Before the Storm, she openly states that she plans to massacre the city of Stormwind and its people so that she can raise them as undead. She also thinks this will be a fantastic thing. Horde players who bought into the vision of Thrall are struggling with completing one pre-expansion campaign; what happens when they have to sit through an entire major phase of an expansion with Sylvanas running the show?

No matter what twists and turns the Battle for Azeroth story takes, there’s an important lesson about player agency and buy-in to be found from War of the Thorns. It’s not as though every player hates being the villain, but to funnel the entire Horde through such a story has caused an enormous outcry. As World of Warcraft’s storytelling continues to become more ambitious, developers will have to consider how to handle a game where many people just want to be a hero.