The Warcraft series has always been a little weird. The core conflict of the game, orcs versus humans, comes about from inciting factors like “portals opened between worlds” and “demons empowering orcs with their blood.”
We’ve been hanging out with Draenei and their crashed spaceship since World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. With all of that in mind, it says a lot that World of Warcraft’s story has gotten unusually bizarre. It isn’t a bad thing, necessarily — there are a lot of times that the odd twists and turns the story is taking work well or are fun... but each time the writers make a decision to head off-road through the wild undergrowth of plot mechanics like time travel, alternate dimensions, cosmic forces and World Souls, you can see the foundation start to tremble, just a little.
World of Warcraft has gotten weird as hell, and there’s no turning back now. All that’s left is to see how this gamble shakes out.
How weird are we talking, exactly?
The Warlords of Draenor expansion gets a lot of heat from the community. There are a lot of factors here: an unsatisfying Garrison system, a missing tier of raid content, a lack of player agency and the entire premise of the expansion. Warlords of Draenor starts off-screen, with heroes from both the Horde and the Alliance coming together to hold a trial for Garrosh Hellscream and his war crimes.
War crimes is an unusual charge for Hellscream, because if that is a thing in the world of Warcraft, the player should probably be up for trial as well. We’ve tortured NPCs to get answers, burned people alive, killed civilians and bombed settlements. If you’re a Death Knight, you’ve also engaged in fun things like torturing people’s souls, necromancy and slaughtering allied red dragons en masse so that you can enjoy a sick mount. (All of these things are no-nos.)
In the end, Hellscream never receives his sentence, because a dragon smuggles him out and takes him back in time to an alternate dimension, where he takes over an RTS-era Horde on the planet of Draenor and uses it to invade Azeroth.
This is probably the turning point for where World of Warcraft got really absurd. Legion reins the premise back in, bringing players back to Azeroth and then sending them on a quest for the Pillars of Creation throughout the Broken Isles. It’s good, clean fun... and then the planet of Argus, the Draenei homeworld, becomes our next tactical target. We team up with the Army of Light, led by two Alliance war heroes who have been locked in space combat for one thousand years, and get on a spaceship to head to Argus with the goal of fighting the planet’s soul.
Cue Battle for Azeroth, where we’re back on our home planet worrying about things like farmers’ crops and local politics.
The last few expansions have really taken things off the rails, and what’s more, every time things get reined back in, bits of the previous storyline come along for the ride. Alleria Windrunner is still helping the Alliance out, which is great, except she ate the essence of a corrupted Light God and is now irrevocably tainted by the Void. She’s also recruited a small faction of Blood Elves who dabbled in the Void themselves; the Alliance now has Void Elves as an Allied Race. These former Blood Elves have stars falling from their hair, constantly hear the whispers of the void and seem to exclusively travel by ripping holes in time and space.
This is problematic, because players are learning about the existence of things called Void Lords, great cosmic forces that seek nefarious goals. Sargeras, the Fallen Titan, was the previous end boss of Warcraft. Eventually, we discovered that Sargeras had fallen because he had discovered Void Lords; he was so terrified of these beings that he created the Burning Legion to stop them.
There’s also the opposite of Void: the Light. Since the Warcraft RTS games, the Light has been painted as a benevolent force, worshipped as a religion. World of Warcraft is informing us that the Light is actually dangerous in equal measure to the Void, with Warlords of Draenor’s Yrel using the Light as a tool for genocide and conscription.
House of cards
To borrow a phrase from Battle for Azeroth’s marketing campaign: It matters. While there will always be a portion of the player base who clicks through quest text until they get their purples, it’s clear Blizzard is working hard on making the Warcraft universe sustainable storywise. None of these changes are a death knell for the game; in fact, the story is the best it’s been for some time. Every time Blizzard makes a story decision, they need to live with that for years. Sometimes, they can’t find a way to make that work.
Take the Vindicaar, the spaceship we took to Argus in Legion. The Alliance is engaged in a war against the Horde, and they have a spaceship capable of making orbital strikes from space in their arsenal. They’re not using it. Why? Well, that wouldn’t be interesting. The Vindicaar goes back on the shelf until we need to invade another planet.
Blizzard needs to take care that its story choices, no matter how wild, stay sustainable. The more we have to shrug off or justify, the harder it is to buy into the World of Warcraft that it’s painstakingly building.
As for the future of World of Warcraft, it seems obvious we’ll be heading back into some pretty out-there territory soon. The Old Gods are stirring, Azshara is bringing the vengeance of N’Zoth to Azeroth, and priests are running around Kul Tiras with squids for faces. We’re carrying the heart of our planet around our neck and feeding it the planet’s lifeblood. It’s not a matter of if something completely wild is going to happen — it’s just a question or whether the game will be able to justify that narrative choice.