World of Warcraft: Dragonflight has been out in the wild since the end of November 2022, and the expansion was well received by fans. It’s fun and wholesome to have a new dragon friend who carries you across the epic expanses of the mysterious and vibrant Dragon Isles. The changes to crafting professions and player hubs make everything feel more alive, the current antagonist is leagues ahead of Shadowlands’ surly, enigmatic Jailer, and fans are excited for the next updates.
There’s just one problem clinging to Dragonflight, and it’s World of Warcraft’s past. After nearly 20 years, the game’s picked up a fair amount of narrative baggage. Some of the game’s messy storylines have been resolved, and some of them have been gracefully retconned. But its predecessors still loom large over Dragonflight.
Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands, the two previous expansions, both had major problems. Sylvanas Windrunner, a longtime favorite character, ended up grabbing the plot and sprinting through a series of spectacularly bad decisions. She committed the horrific genocide of the Night Elves, made a deal with the clearly evil Queen Azshara, and joined the Mega Devil in Super Hell. It took a full book, Sylvanas by Christie Golden, to make her character arc coherent, let alone captivating.
Sylvanas’ plot took players on a merry chase through the realm of death, where we learned more about the cosmic forces that rule the multiverse. Once the Jailer was defeated and Sylvanas was captured, the NPC cast of heroes that help run the show around Azeroth decided that all was well and a new era of peace could begin. This laid groundwork for the events of Dragonflight, with its more laid-back storyline and emphasis on giving players a third space to hang out in. The problem is that the players of Azeroth haven’t come to the same decision, as the story doesn’t really come to a satisfying conclusion.
Some Alliance players still remember the horror of fruitlessly trying to evacuate Teldrassil, leaving innocent Night Elves behind to perish. Some Horde players have no regrets; in fact, they wish they could have gone and burned down a few more cities. This, by itself, isn’t a flaw; it makes sense that in a vast world (of Warcraft) people would have varying ideas and ethics. But there’s no real way to express a more nuanced range of reactions through the mechanics; Dragonflight’s narrative shoves these conflicts into the closet and gingerly closes the door. Pay no attention to the last few years of narrative, please, it’s fine. It’s fine. Everyone is fine.
But the cosmic world-building and big-picture metaphysical plots march forward. In Legion, fans tearfully said goodbye to the Aspect of the Green Dragonflight, Ysera the Dreamer. We eventually helped her reach the Shadowlands, where she was bound to Ardenweald, an afterlife for powerful nature spirits. In Dragonflight, players bring her back to Azeroth again, through a confusing metaphysical ritual that shunts Night Elf leader Malfurion Stormrage to Ardenweald in her place.
Part of enjoying a long-running narrative like World of Warcraft is trust. There needs to be a sense of trust in the writers, that Chekhov’s guns on the mantle will go off at the right time and longtime characters will continue to follow their core motivations. World of Warcraft is nearly two decades old; some characters have had plots brewing since Legion, or over half a decade. There’s a very real investment here. Ysera’s storyline, so far, is the first sign that something might be going wrong. She had a tragic send-off, a glorious rebirth, and now… she’s back, again! Why? For what purpose? It might pay off, but for now, it feels like it undoes what was otherwise a memorable character arc.
So far, Dragonflight is (mostly) very well written. Raszageth the Storm-Eater, the very first raid boss we fight in Dragonflight, already has clearer motivations and a stronger presence in the narrative than Shadowlands’ Jailer ever did. The family drama between the various dragons is fun, and hanging out with the Tuskarr and Centaur is delightful. But for now, I’m still concerned, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’ll take some time for World of Warcraft to win my trust back entirely. We’ll have to see how the rest of Dragonflight plays out, and the next adventures the narrative sets up.