Warcraft
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Trauma in World of Warcraft

This isn’t a defense of any character’s actions in WoW or the story of the Warcraft setting. Rather, it’s an examination of the haphazard way that traumatic experiences are shown to shape characters — some characters recover from experiences in a very short time while others never seem to, and still others are shown to recover from an experience that would likely shatter most people only to be shown in their very next appearance to be right back the way they were before.

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So long a life, so much misery

To a degree this plays around with the expanded life expectancy of some characters. Velen, for example, is insanely old. He’s been alive since the Draenei flight from Argus some 25,000 years before the current game, and in that time he’s had to absorb so many tragedies and traumatic experiences (some of which he even saw coming, as he has visions of the future) that it’s almost impossible for a human (which I assume most of us actually are) to imagine it. Similarly, characters like Illidan Stormrage and Tyrande Whisperwind have lived for over ten thousand years. In Illidan’s case, the man spent thousands of years locked alone in the dark with only someone who utterly hated him for company. That would destroy most people. It’s hard to even contemplate the effects of that. The fact that Illidan can still dress himself and speak somewhat coherently is an amazing thing.

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The dissonant lifespan

When the setting has characters who can live so long and experience so much and perfectly mortal humans in it, it becomes hard to quantify how much suffering is so much it would have a permanent effect on the mind. Take Sylvanas Windrunner. In the past few decades she’s seen most of her family murdered by Orcs, then lost her sister Alleria when she went on the Alliance Expedition, followed by her people being sold out to the Lich King leading to her death in defense of Quel’thalas. And her death wasn’t even the end, as she was forced into undeath just to punish her for trying to save her people. What would that do to the mind even without the effects of being undead?

Similarly, whether or not you agree with Jaina Proudmoore or the late Varian Wrynn’s actions, their lives would crush most people who experienced anything like them. Seeing your father murdered in his own home by a supposed friend who cut out his heart — just one such incident would be devastating. Having to then flee your destroyed home as a refugee, depending on the kindness of others for everything before reclaiming your home (which was so destroyed it would take years to rebuild) and then seeing the city you escaped to also destroyed and the man who took you in murdered by his own son? Jaina’s story is arguably worse, as she lost her mentor Antonidas to the Burning Legion, both her adopted and native homelands, then her father to the Horde she was attempting to broker peace with. And then that same Horde dropped a bomb on her third home, wiping it out. You don’t have to think she’s being rational about the Horde’s role in fighting the Burning Legion (I don’t) to think it’s perfectly reasonable that she wouldn’t be. Seeing them retreat at the Broken Shore, of course she’d suspect treachery. We’re blessed with the benefit of being able to go watch cutscenes and see Sylvanas’ decision (also perfectly reasonable from her perspective) but Jaina isn’t.

Become a Watcher

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Not rational, but understandable

This would all be easier if World of Warcraft and the setting’s tie-in books and other media were coordinated better, I think. Reading the end of War Crimes it certainly seems like Jaina is, if not over her trauma, coming to grips with what she’s experienced and how she needs to move forward. Then we get the Legion launch event on the Broken Shore and she’s right back where she was. Now, I’m okay with old grudges reasserting themselves, especially when it makes sense. Genn vs. Sylvanas? Absolutely he would hate her. She killed his son and bombed his homeland with plague, and it wasn’t even like he’d ever done anything to her. As for her, she probably didn’t care about him at all before, but she absolutely hates him now. Why wouldn’t she? He ruined her plan to enslave Eyir with the Soul Cage, he destroyed any chance she had of perpetuating the Forsaken, and let’s not be mistaken — the Forsaken are all she has left, the only people she can call her own.

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The hobgoblins of consistency

So yes, I feel like part of the problem for World of Warcraft when dealing with these topics is the scale of the tragedies some characters have had to endure. Another difficulty is in the portrayals shifting between books, so we have Varian (as an example) learning to overcome his inner rage several times in the hands of different writers. Even Thrall isn’t immune to this, as we see him in the novel Twilight of the Aspects dealing with his past and yet the Elemental Bonds quest acts as if that novel never happened. But finally, to a degree, there’s the problem of us as fans not knowing how to compare these things — when some characters seem to shrug off experiences that would destroy most minds. Imagine being Illidan, buried alone in the dark for 10,000 years, your only company a woman who utterly loathes you for almost killing her brother. How could he maintain any semblance of sanity? How do you compare that to the life experiences of someone who might only live a century? How does Illidan even manage simple tasks at this point, much less complicated schemes to destroy the Burning Legion?

Of course, this is all a fiction in service to a game.

That means that we can’t have the characters constantly collapsing and weeping, they’d never get anything done. But the unrealistic nature of how some characters process their grief or loss means that when we’re presented with a more reasonable and nuanced take on it (flawed though it might be) it seems incongruous. Why hasn’t Sylvanas gotten over it already? Well, because you wouldn’t, of course. But when contrasted with say Velen, who has managed to keep from curling up in a fetal ball for over 25,000 years despite losing everything over and over again, it can be hard to keep that in mind. In the end, we ultimately need to suspend our disbelief to a degree, but it would definitely be easier if tie-in media and in game events were more consistently in agreement.

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