Fans of World of Warcraft have a lot to discuss right now: The game introduced a bunch of new revelations and kickstarted a revolution with patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance. Soon, players will enter the Zandalari capital for the expansion’s second raid to continue the faction war in Dazar’alor.
With all of these events going on, you would think that Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde, or Princess Talanji would be the focus of most fans’ excitement and praise right now. Instead, fans are tremendously hyped for the return of ... a knife.
That might sound underwhelming, but this knife is no mere dining instrument — she is Xal’atath, Blade of the Black Empire, and her return kicks off some serious Old Gods developments. Let’s run through what that means for the upcoming story of Battle for Azeroth, and why Xal’atath is stealing the show.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for World of Warcraft’s upcoming Patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance.]
Wait, a knife?
In Legion, World of Warcraft players got access to powerful artifact weapons that were tailored to their class and specialization. Many of these weapons had history and were a part of Warcraft lore; paladins got to wield the mighty Ashbringer after over a decade of hype, druids claimed the Scythe of Elune, and so on. Other weapons, out of necessity, had to be invented. One of them was Xal’atath, Blade of the Black Empire.
Xal’atath is obviously extremely bad news. The weapon’s flavor text reads, “Xal’atath has a mind of its own. Ignore its maddening whispers. Do not trust the lies it spins. Take from it what you need, but always remember that the dark presence in the blade is not your ally.” She whispers to you, one of the few artifact weapons who actually speaks to its wielder. “Every little death helps,” she’ll croon at you as you clear a mob. She also gave out a lot of genuinely useful advice throughout the course of Legion, and thanks to her, the players know more about the Old Gods than we ever have.
Xal’atath is also pretty funny throughout Legion. There are multiple points during the expansion where she encourages the player to do something that will get them murdered, and then cheekily apologizes when you come back to life. She razzes on NPCs, and flatters the player. She’s a character with character, which is stunning, considering she is literally just a talking knife.
Unfortunately, at the end of Legion, we had to give up our artifact weapons. While shadow priests could keep the weapon cosmetically, Xal’atath had nothing new to contribute.
Xal’atath’s back, baby
At BlizzCon, the developers showed a preview of 8.2, where Sylvanas is wielding Xal’atath. That’s pretty bad! She probably shouldn’t be doing that!
Thanks to data mining done by Wowhead, we learn that Xal’atath has been brought back to full power ... and then escapes the knife, taking a physical form. “The circle of stars made flesh,” an NPC calls her. Xal’atath may even be an Old God of her own, and one that we have freed. While every other Old God is imprisoned in some fashion, we may end up having one walking free and serving as a major threat.
So, Xal’atath is set to return, and she’s likely going to be a major plot element in the future, both in physical form and with the dagger that held her consciousness. What does this mean for the World of Warcraft? We don’t have the answers yet, but there’s an interesting lesson Blizzard can learn from her story.
We’ve seen characters get lots of screen time this expansion: Jaina Proudmoore, High Overlord Saurfang, Anduin Wrynn, Sylvanas Windrunner. Characters are talking more than ever and putting their plans into action. Battle for Azeroth serves as a scale reset in many ways, especially after jumping onto a spaceship and fighting the soul of a planet so that we can lock an evil god in prison. Now we find ourselves back on Azeroth, fighting over old locations, and going back to motives like “survival”, “revenge” and so on.
It’s remarkable that, in the middle of all of this, Xal’atath is currently one of the game’s most well-received characters. She’s had very little presence so far and lacks the history of characters like Jaina and Sylvanas, who date back to Warcraft 3, or World of Warcraft veterans Anduin and Saurfang.
Despite this, she’s covered a lot of ground in very little time. A large part of this is that Xal’atath is just a very well written character. Her motives are clear and understandable: she wants an Old Gods victory. She displays clear positive personality traits that make it understandable why people would want to ally with her. She’s a font of valuable information, charismatic, and very good at seducing dumb adventurers with promises of power. But she also has very obvious flaws: She’s evil.
This is all simple, but World of Warcraft works best with bold strokes and simple concepts. The more they try to grant nuance to characters like Sylvanas and Jaina throughout Battle for Azeroth, the tougher it becomes to figure out where they’re coming from. Jaina entered the expansion as a “Warbringer,” but spent her narrative arc learning the value of a mother’s love. Sylvanas expresses hidden motivations throughout the novella Elegy, hinting at some conflict that only she knows about. Even after reading a full novel, Before the Storm, before the expansion and playing all of the content since launch, I don’t know if the game actually expects me to see Sylvanas’ actions in an understandable light.
Xal’atath returning is sure to shake things up in the story of World of Warcraft, but I’m hoping she also serves as a reminder that when it comes to characterization, less is more. As long as characters have clear motives and understandable reasoning, I’ll follow them to the ends of the earth ... even if for Xal’atath, that’s quite literal.