Hearthstone is a spinoff of the Warcraft franchise, and for most of the game’s history, the stories told within always felt like a “second-tier” sort of canon. These campaigns felt like “What-Ifs”. Lore-wise, it was the Joey to the franchise’s Friends.
Occasionally, ideas from Hearthstone would cross over and show up in World of Warcraft, like the Tortollan race of ancient turtle people. The MMORPG has the task of figuring out how to tell a grand story backed by 15 years of canon, with player choice and elaborate cinematics.
In the background, Hearthstone has been trucking along. Over the last year, Blizzard has built up a fun, madcap storytelling style. The latest story campaign, Galakrond’s Awakening, is proof of Hearthstone’s progress. It’s an over-the-top fiasco, where a league of bombastic, villainous characters have stolen a flying magical city. They’re being pursued by a series of Indiana Jones-esque heroes, and along the way, a massive dragon returns from the dead and begins stirring up trouble.
It’s not Ibsen, but that’s OK — Hearthstone has found its feet as an actual vehicle for storytelling in the Warcraft universe. The silly, off-beat, and experimental tone is a stark contrast to World of Warcraft’s tale of an endless cycle of war and recovery — and it’s one of the best parts about Blizzard’s arsenal right now.
The latest and greatest
Hearthstone’s single-player campaigns in 2019 came with a healthy amount of experimentation. Rise of Shadows and Saviors of Uldum set up a roguelike-style run, where players would encounter a series of bosses and periodically upgrade their deck. Unlike the competitive side of Hearthstone, which is about quick rounds of back-and-forth card combat, with clever combos and a constantly changing metagame, the single-player side of the game was a puzzle combined with a power fantasy.
The year was experimental, throwing spaghetti at the wall and testing what would stick.
“It was pretty tough,” said Ryan Collins, Hearthstone game designer, in an interview with Polygon. “We were like, ‘oh, wow, we’ve pretty much perfected what we think dungeon runs are. Let’s change it all!”
While Hearthstone’s developers are telling a story, it may not be true. None of Hearthstone’s campaigns are inherently true. The idea is that everything is a story told in a tavern, and the narrator is as unreliable as it takes to keep the crowd going. That premise may sound silly, but compared to the increasing stakes arms race of the rest of the Warcraft franchise, it’s nice to be able to go all over the map, from the end of the world to dealing with one creepy forest and back again.
If World of Warcraft is a tirelessly explained and fleshed out fantasy epic, then Hearthstone is a madcap victory lap around the same setting. It’s storytelling that feels like the old RTS days, with characters going down maps and encountering isolated, tricky objectives.
Characters banter, kidnap each other, and pop up in the corners to lend their input. The powerful archmage Khadgar gets advice from his own disembodied head. It’s great, dumb fun.
The final chapter of the campaign returns to an earlier adventure format, where players are assigned a character and a deck for each boss. Whereas the previous two campaigns were based on building up increasingly powerful decks to mow down an array of tough bosses, Galakrond’s Awakening is all about making the use of a predetermined set of tools to overcome a specific encounter.
There’s pros and cons to each approach for telling a story. The roguelike-esque format, which Blizzard internally calls bagel (a loose portmanteau of Build As You Go), allows for a wider combo platter of characters and scenarios.
The Awakening style is more specific; it’s more of a guided walk down a nice path than traversing a maze. That style also let the team pull out the stops on setting up the board to tell a story. “We make sure we know who you’re playing, what their deck is, who you’re facing and what their deck is, and that allows us to write the dialogue and give more story moments and beats,” says Collins.
As for the end, it’s ambiguous. The story is a callback to the days of Warcraft and Warcraft 2; players have access to two very different campaigns, with different perspectives. They touch and agree on some things, but disagree on others. It feels very Warcraft.
Flexibility on the board
While there are visual effects that help tell the story (like a giant shadow descending on the board, plucking a minion card up in its talons, and taking it away), one of the biggest pros Hearthstone has going for it is the fact that it’s so open in terms of format. Anything can happen, and it doesn’t need to be equally shared between (or centered around) the Horde and Alliance.
Whereas the format of World of Warcraft necessitates funneling players into the Murder Room in order to fight a Raid Boss, a villain in Hearthstone can be more flexible. The board is limited in what it can portray, but that’s also a strength — it only needs to sketch out the details and convey the action, and that allows the game to tell a wider variety of stories.
In the end, Galakrond’s Awakening may not be “canon.” None of Hearthstone may be, if the tales are tall enough and our narrators are unreliable enough. But the campaigns have become one of the strongest parts of Blizzard’s current suite of offerings at the moment, which is no small task.