As we head into the newest World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth, we’re all meant to be rooting for our respective faction: Alliance or Horde. At BlizzCon in November 2017, the developers set up a giant diorama based off the Battle for Lordaeron, with players’ figures represented in stark red or blue. The developers joked about how players pass each other in the halls of the convention center and stop to holler “For the Horde!” at Alliance players. Even Blizzard’s new ad campaign focuses on the message “It matters” — it, of course, being what faction you chose to main.
There’s just one problem with this grand campaign, and it’s that as fierce as Alliance vs. Horde debates are, there’s one faction debate that immediately gets more personal, more heated, and ten times as ugly: Horde against Horde.
The Horde are depicted as an island of misfit toys, a coalition of those who have been kicked around by life and choose to stand with allies for protection. The Horde offers a wider diversity of roles for players to buy into and build stories around. The Forsaken, especially in the pre-Cataclysm opening to the game, are openly stated to be disloyal to the rest of the Horde and biding their time before they can strike against their enemies. The Blood Elves and Nightborne are former magic addicts who walled themselves away until outside circumstances forced them to build alliances. The Orcs, Tauren, and Trolls are the closest thing that the faction has to a united front.
This isn’t necessarily a problem on its own; there’s plenty of interesting stories to be wrung from the disagreements the different races have. However, the Horde stands in stark contrast to the Alliance, which has remained largely unified under the same banner over the course of World of Warcraft.
The Alliance has been led by King Varian Wrynn since Wrath of the Lich King launched in 2008 — that’s 10 years of real time, during which the Horde has cycled through three Warchiefs. Varian dies at the beginning of Legion, and leadership falls to his son. No one — despite the fact that they are all older and more experienced by Anduin, often by thousands of years — disputes his leadership of the entire Alliance.
It’s not as though the Alliance is completely without conflict, but the narrative doesn’t dig deep on those divisions the same way it does for the Horde. In Legion, Gilnean King Genn Greymane takes a gunship into Stormheim for the express purpose of hunting Sylvanas Windrunner. This is an action that could start a second war; it is indefensible. Except it turns out that Sylvanas was up to no good after all, and Genn Greymane walks away from Stormheim in the Alliance’s good books. He still remains Anduin’s top advisor.
In the War of the Thorns, Horde players must fight their way through Night Elf territory, through towns that Alliance players later find filled with the bodies of dead civilians. In the Battle for Lordaeron, the Alliance army just appears in front of the Undercity. There is no quest to level Brill and the Forsaken citizens. The Alliance isn’t forced to ask themselves the same questions the Horde players are.
Here’s where the Horde starts to splinter — not just in game, but among the player base. There are tons of Horde players who signed up to play the bad guy. They’re Forsaken who cheered when Sylvanas burned the tree, or Orcs who are tired of playing peace-loving pals with the Alliance after in-game decades of animosity. Some of the new Nightborne players are perfectly happy to burn the World Tree after having to deal with Tyrande Whisperwind. When these players see the community outcry over Sylvanas burning the World Tree, it sparks conflict. These players are tired of stories like the one in Legion, where both factions put their animosity aside to save the universe. They want the war in Warcraft.
Why not burn the World Tree, these players ask. Why not just keep burning things?
These players clash hard with the Horde characters who are horrified at the path their Warchief is leading them on. This is a conflict that goes deeper than Horde versus Alliance, because the whole point of the game is for those two factions to clash. There’s a comfort in that inevitability, and it’s intentional.
The divide between the Horde is deeper and uglier, partially because it only strongly afflicts one faction. While the Horde infight about their own identity — both in-game and on social media — the Alliance stand shoulder to shoulder, stronger than ever.
It’s not impossible to write a MMO where one faction is intentionally the bad guys. Star Wars: The Old Republic wrote a series of compelling Empire side stories where you could play anything from an outright monstrous Sith Inquisitor to a noble Sith Warrior to a defected Imperial agent. But everyone was in agreement in Star Wars that the Imperials are the bad guys.
Is the Horde evil? The developers don’t want you to think so; game director Ion Hazzikostas says that Azeroth is “a world of grey’. Many of the players certainly don’t think so, hence the outcry on social media. Are their actions, as portrayed in game, evil? That certainly seems to be the case, even if Hazzikostas says that there’s “a lot of story to tell going forward.”
One thing seems certain. The plot of World of Warcraft can’t stagnate. As the story goes on, the identity of the Horde will have to be settled one way or another. Either way, as we head into Battle for Azeroth, the main conflict doesn’t seem to be against the Alliance or against the Old Gods — it’s against the question of what it means to be Horde.